book excerpt

Death, Grief, and Comedy With Adam Cayton-Holland

Adam Cayton-Holland performs during The Late Late Show With James Corden in March 2018. Photo: Terence Patrick/CBS

Adam Cayton-Holland has done stand-up on all the talk shows and appeared on numerous “Comics to Watch” lists, and he’s also got his own television comedy series about incompetent teachers: Those Who Can’t, which was truTV’s first scripted series. He created and stars in it with the rest of his Colorado-based comedy troupe, the Grawlix.

Cayton-Holland’s development of his comic voice, the rise of his career, and his childhood adventures with his sisters are some of the topics covered in Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-comic Memoir. But it’s mostly a work about human connection, mental illness, and grief. As kids, Cayton-Holland formed a special bond with his sister, Lydia (or Lee), over their shared comedic tastes. As he grew into his career as a professional comedian and creator, she helped him hone his material. But ten days before he sold Those Who Can’t, Lydia, suffering from depression, took her own life.

While Tragedy Plus Time (which hits bookstores tomorrow) is certainly heartbreaking, it’s at times hilarious and poignant, because Cayton-Holland writes so beautifully about the way comedy stays in our hearts forever and helps us cope with unspeakable awfulness. Here’s an excerpt, a chapter called “The Grief Peddler.”

Ten days after Lydia died I went to Los Angeles for my as-previously-scheduled post-Montreal victory lap. Like everything was somehow normal. Like that’s just what you do. Go kick some ass in Montreal, come home to bear witness to your little sister’s suicide, head off to Hollywood to try to maintain that heat! All part of the game.

I didn’t want to go. I was having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. I kept having nightmares: me walking into Lydia’s house, then up the stairs, through the doorway, until … the end. I drank myself to sleep every night, tried to knock myself out cold so I wouldn’t dream at all. But then I could barely get out of bed the next morning. My dog had to howl to rouse me. And then of course there were the flashbacks that seemingly came at random: driving, jogging around the park, in line for a burrito. There was nothing I could do about those. Hardly the time to go to Hollywood and chase the dream. But my family insisted I make the trip. Lydia would have wanted that, they said. She was my biggest cheerleader. She would be devastated if her death derailed all the progress I had made.

Like I gave a fuck. I was still too mad at Lydia to care what she would have wanted. But I could sense that my family needed it, and I suppose I did too. We needed a distraction, a break from the relentless misery that was consuming us. And if I could provide that in even some small way, I felt like I probably should. Every minute I was discussing Hollywood douchebaggery was another minute we weren’t all talking about death.

I told my manager to not set me up with any meaningless meetings. I was hanging on by a frayed thread; my threshold for bullshit was nil. He assured me that he would do his best. And if I felt overwhelmed or like I couldn’t maintain, he told me to just get up and walk out. I had nothing to prove to anyone.

So I shuttled from meeting to meeting, from general to general, from the Sony lot to CBS Radford, from Warner Bros. to Comedy Central, hundreds of meaningless miles racked up in a rental car as the strip malls of Los Angeles blurred together through the tears streaming down my face.

Some of the people I met with were the same people I had rubbed shoulders with in Montreal two weeks before, thousands of miles away, a lifetime ago.

“Adam!” they’d exclaim when I walked into the room, my black-and-white headshot sitting on the desk in front of them. “How’s it going, man! What have you been up to since Montreal?!”

Finding my little sister’s body, writing her eulogy, holding my mother while she weeps.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh, that’s great! Listen, we are going to keep you in mind for anything that comes up. We’ve got our eye on you!”

At night I drank alone until I felt numb. Then I’d head out on foot. I never had a destination in mind, it just felt good to move. To remember that I was alive. That my limbs were working and could carry me in whatever direction I chose. I’d make turns down streets I didn’t recognize. I’d deliberately try to get lost. And when the neighborhood would inevitably turn seedy or dangerous, I embraced it. Like a lunatic. I would start talking to God through gritted teeth, quietly, beneath my breath. I would goad him, dare him to do his worst.

Go ahead, fuck with me. Do it. I want you too. Bring the darkness down upon me. I fucking dare you.

I was so full of hurt and rage that if anyone or anything tried to harass me I would have exploded. I felt like I could destroy anything I came up against. And I wanted to. I wanted to destroy it all. And should I come up against some force that I couldn’t take out, well then let it take me. Let this all come to an end. At least then Lydia and I would be together again, like pieces of popcorn on a movie theater floor.

But nothing ever came for me. God, the darkness, whatever forces pulse all around us, they lay dormant, satiated, belly full. They’d gotten all they needed from me, from my family. Cowards.

I kept going to meetings. Including one with Amazon. They liked our script enough to give us money to make a pilot. In Denver. Just like I always wanted. So there was that. I called home and let my family know. They were thrilled. And proud. I had sold a TV show. This was a worthy distraction. The trip could be called a success.

I was elated. And I didn’t care at all.

Photo: Touchstone

Before I went back home, a girl I went to high school with messaged me out of the blue. She was living in Los Angeles and had heard the news about Lydia. She said she was heading out to a friend’s beach house in Malibu for the day and wondered if I wanted to join. It was such a kind, unexpected offer I couldn’t even think of a reason to say no. I just accepted. When I showed up my friend hadn’t arrived yet. Some guy I had never met answered the door of a massive house, right on the water.

“You must be Adam,” he said with a smile.

I wondered what all he knew, what my friend had told him. Did he know me as Adam the comic, a funny friend from Denver visiting LA? Or was I Adam the guy whose little sister just killed herself? Adam the broken? Was there even a difference anymore?

He toured me around his house and then neither one of us really knew what to say. We just stood there in silence, both wishing our mutual friend would show up.

“You can go swimming if you want,” he offered. “I just got out, but if you feel like hopping in the ocean, by all means.”

I headed down to the private beach, a little swath of Malibu all to myself. The water was freezing so I made my way in cautiously, as if slowly absorbing the cold would somehow mitigate it. But it never does. Best to take it all on at once. I gave up and dove under the brackish waves, swimming as fast as I could to warm my body. Soon my feet no longer touched the bottom and I stopped swimming and just floated there, a tiny head bobbing on the surface of the water.

I took it all in: the surfers to my left seated on their boards waiting for the perfect waves, the rows of houses behind me, all glass and sleek, modern lines. I watched two brothers on the shore try to throw a regulation football that their little hands were far too tiny to grip. Overhead, column after column of pelicans approached, then disappeared down the beach. I tried to appreciate it all in the way my dad had taught me when I was a kid, to marvel at the beauty of the world and the miraculous turn of events that allowed me to ever be here in the first place. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t see any beauty. I couldn’t feel any wonder. Everything felt hollow. I didn’t belong there, or anywhere. I tried to sink. Tucked my knees into my chest and dropped to the ocean floor. I closed my eyes and tried to feel the water take me in whatever direction it thought I should go. I wondered if it would suck me out to sea, the way it did Wade and Lincoln all those years ago, back when the darkness first crept into our sunny little lives. But it didn’t. It wanted nothing to do with me. It just kept pushing me up to the surface. I was drowning. And I was so very much alive.

Copyright © 2018 by Adam Cayton-Holland. From the forthcoming book Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir by Adam Cayton-Holland to be published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

Death, Grief, and Comedy With Adam Cayton-Holland