Humor to the Rescue: Carrie Fisher

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Happy days are here again

The skies above are clear again

So lets sing a song of cheer again

Happy days are here again!

A recording of Carrie Fisher singing the song, “Happy Days Are Here Again” plays through the theater to open her 2010 one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, based on her best-selling book of the same name.

Fisher’s alto is clean and strong, which might be surprising considering that most people associate Fisher with her iconic role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. However, she began flirting with the performing arts as a singer when she was 14, belting out an astonishing rendition of one of the year’s most popular radio hits, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” in front of the entire school at the spring assembly. Thirteen years later Carrie Fisher would marry the man behind the music and find herself the (sometimes unflattering) subject of more than one of his hit songs.

I’m watching Wishful Drinking on a summer night in 2020. We are cloistered inside these days. If and when we do go out, we peer over the horizons of our masks and face coverings at one another warily. Each person transformed into a video game avatar, a question mark hovering above their heads: contagious or safe? Our cities are chaotic chess boards, their economies strangled, their histories rewritten in real time. Our Black citizens cannot breathe. Our government shrugs, shirks its responsibilities (bad optics, this America is definitely not ready for prime time, go to commercial), yanks the country from the burning zeppelin only to hurl us into the quicksand, which, TWIST is also crawling with fire ants. I hear David Attenborough narrating: But happy days were not here again, nowhere to be found in fact. And I’m struck with the notion that there doesn’t seem to be a more appropriate messenger for this moment than the arch, sardonic, darkly funny Carrie Fisher, beamed into my living room ten years in the future, four years after her own untimely death, urging me not to look away at the smoking Hindenburg of our reality, but to laugh right in its face.

I was too young to fully appreciate Carrie Fisher when she arrived on our movie screens from a galaxy far, far away. I knew I liked the hard edge of her voice, all clipped sarcasm. This was not your typical damsel in distress. And to that end, I really liked the way she bossed Luke and Han around, effectively giving them the rundown of how this “rescue” mission was going to go. Don’t let the white dress or the giant pastries doubling for hair fool you: Princess Leia was all motherfucking girl power OG. It wasn’t until I saw Fisher in When Harry Met Sally that my adoration for her felt complete. Fisher plays Sally’s stalwart, romance-weary friend, Marie who takes the best lines for herself like a poker player raking in her chips: “Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” It hardly feels like Fisher had to act at all. What is When Harry Met Sally but waiting for Marie to reappear with the perfectly placed rejoinder or the raise of an eyebrow lifted to punctuate the scene with irony, in between long scenes about two friends trying to not fall in love with each other.

Fisher began sharpening that skill on the whet stone of her surreal life at an early age. Born into a house of Hollywood royalty—the daughter of teen heart throb, crooner Eddie Fisher and America’s sweetheart, film ingénue Debbie Reynolds—Fisher grew up in a rarefied environment. Economic privilege: a sprawling house with three swimming pools and 8 pink mini-fridges in various rooms, “In case Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs happened to drop by,” Fisher quips on stage. Elevated social status. Her parents’ friends made up the elite and powerful circles of popular entertainment, drifting through her young life as easily as if they were cousins or aunts or uncles. And trauma. Reynolds’ public, humiliating, and ultimately shattering split from Fisher over his infidelity with one of their best friends, the not-at-all-hideous Elizabeth Taylor, has been copiously documented and discussed in numerous writings and interviews, including ones by both Reynolds and Fisher (the scandal also makes its appearance as one of the first “beats” of Wishful Drinking). The emotional, psychological, social, and economic blast zone of the Reynolds/Fisher explosion sealed itself around Carrie, putting her in an envelope of pain that she would spend the rest of her life using humor (and substance abuse) to ameliorate.   

Wishful Drinking is a master class in how to pilot over life’s treacherous current to higher ground, which is not necessarily safer, it just provides the right perspective to survey where you’ve come from, what you’ve been through, and to process what it means before you’re plunged back into choppy waters. It doesn’t get better in the sense of waking up one day to find you’re in a Pixar movie where the flowers are singing and talking cars cheerfully greet each other on the street, Fisher tells us via the freefall of her own life, it just goes on. I nod. I laugh, though it’s not the kind of thoughtless, easy laughter that comes when everything gets happily buttoned up at the end of a sitcom. I realize it’s the laughter of relief: maybe nothing will be okay, maybe instead of letting that truth calcify around us we use it to propel us forward.

Near the end of her show Fisher recounts a conversation she had with her daughter, Billie Lourde, who told her mother she wanted to be either a singer or a comic:

Fisher: “If you want to be a comic, you’ve got to be a writer. And you have tons of material. Your mother is a manic depressive drug addict, your father is gay, your grandmother tap dances, and your grandfather eats hearing aids. My daughter laughs and laughs and laughs. And I said, ‘Baby, the fact that you know that’s funny is going to save your whole life.” The audience laughs and applauds. As Fisher starts to give her final thoughts for the evening, an ambulance siren wails in approach. “Oh,” she says with a small smile, “there’s my ride.” More laughter and applause. But she’s not entirely joking. After taking her bows to a standing ovation, attendants move through the theatre trailing a hospital stretcher. They load Fisher onto it, wheeling her out through the lobby waving and saying hello to people as she passes through. They load her into a waiting ambulance. It’s classic Fisher gallows’ humor, a wink to her numerous hospitalizations, to the revolving door of medicalization and treatment that has been her journey as an addict and person with bipolar disorder. It’s also her credo writ large: humor saves, giving us a fighting chance for those happy days, once again.

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