Sadness is the most mistreated, most shameful emotion—it's seen as weak, vaguely feminine, something that needs to be concealed or ignored or simply wiped out. It doesn't have the nobility attached to rage or grief or love, and hardly anyone ever goes to bat for it as being essential to our humanity. Other than funerals or Nicholas Sparks films, there aren't many spaces that welcome sadness. It's not OK to share your tender, sad feelings on a date. Don't you dare start crying at work. No one wants to deal with your weepiness at a party.
Unless, of course, you're at a party with Mike O'Connell, a Los Angeles–based comedian and musician who recently threw his first annual "crying party." The event description got pretty deep: "As humans, we long to bask in laughter and happiness when this is, in fact, only part of human experience. We ignore the part that makes the happy possible—the sad. And so, on Saturday, we shall embrace the sadness and stare it directly in its tearful face."
From the event invite alone, I wasn't totally sure how earnest this was all supposed to be. A comedian was putting it together, after all. Was this a big joke? Then again, comedians are some of the saddest people in existence. Perhaps O'Connell was aiming to be one of those rare comedians who can display genuine vulnerability.
The event took place at an art space in Hollywood called Schkapf, which I avoided trying to pronounce out loud all night. There were three different rooms, each set up as a separate exhibit. I walked into the first one and was greeted by free pizza, which did not at all make me want to cry. Already this party was a failure! In the center of the room was the "Lawrence Welk Museum of Dolls in Sad Situations." White cards said that some dolls supposedly had horrific drug problems and others had lost their loved ones in tragic ways—which was, all told, pretty funny.
A sign on the wall informed visitors of the museum rules: "No stealing. No touching. No joy. Only Sadness." Again, this was funny. Knowing there were still more rooms to visit, I concluded that this room was perhaps just an introductory room. Sadness foreplay, if you will. This doll museum was meant to ease me into the sadder next room, which will then ease me to the even sadder one after that. By the time I get to the last room, I would reach my emotional climax and sob into the arms of a stranger. For some reason, this reminded me of a lot of first dates I'd been on.
Next was the "Room of Regret." Random chests, desks, writing tools, and books inhabited this space; the floor was covered in fake snow, because art. One wall had large pieces of paper taped to it for visitors to write down their regrets. Some took this wall seriously and wrote down things like, "I regret being paralyzed by fear," and "I regret taking 20 years to begin following my heart and dreams."
Most, however, were decidedly humorous: "I regret not banging that girl when I had the chance." I thought about writing down one of my own sincere regrets, but felt uncomfortable doing so in front of everyone—it's hard to be heartfelt in a roomful of strangers, and much easier to make a joke.
The final room was the "Crying Booth." It was here that people could sit alone in a chair and be recorded as they cried. I sat in this room and tried to remember the last time I had really cried. I'm not talking about those empathetic few tears I get from ASPCA commercials, or watching Stepmom alone in my room at 2 AM. I'm talking about one of those heart-rending, snot-inducing sobs. The kind that shortens your breath and turns your face warm and red. I think the last time that happened to me was when my apartment got robbed more than five years ago. It's strange how, as we get older, those cries are reserved for especially traumatic or dismal events. Toddlers cry like that when they can't have a toy they want; babies do it simply because they're hungry, or bored. The ability to turn on the sob switch in mere seconds fades away as age, which we typically view as a good thing. It means that we've matured and know how to make a sandwich for ourselves. This booth, however, was asking grown adults to revert back to their less publicly aware selves and turn the sob switch on again. An onion was placed next to the chair for those who needed help.
Two women walked in. The first didn't need the onion to bring on her tears, but she did need a few minutes, naturally. When she got up to leave I asked her what she thought about to finally make herself do so. "Some sad stuff in my life. Also, the movie Up." The other woman sat down after her. She was not able to cry real tears (I'm guessing she has yet to see Up). Instead, she peeled it until fake—or at least emotion-free—tears started rolling down her face.
At this point, it was time for the "saddest variety show in the history of the world." The theater was small but full. We were greeted by a host, who asked the audience if they were sad. Everyone cheered. He tried to make us sadder by reminding us that puppies die, and so did Robin Williams. Laughter ensued. He then went on to lament how fat he is. More laughter.
After this, he brought on the first act: clowns. Like the host, these clowns were trying very hard to be funny. One paraded around the room making joyful, humorous faces while the other clown glared at him for not taking this seriously. Then they put on a puppet show. It definitely wasn't their intention, but at this point I was feeling all kinds of sad.
After the clowns, a poet took to the stage. She started off by saying, "I'm super fucking sad, you guys. For real." After that, she read a few poems, none of which were hers. The first poem was, as she put it, "written by a sad white man." It was about his harrowing journey to get better at oral sex. She read some more poems after that, the only truly sad one being about a dead goat. Later, Mike O'Connell himself took to the stage to read a love letter written by a Cabbage Patch Doll named Darnell. The letter was addressed to his former lover, Raggedy Anne. Obviously, this was mostly a joke, but even so it had some touching moments about the pain of love. Then there were those goddamn clowns again.
The grand finale of the show was O'Connell and a piano player singing original songs. It seemed as though O'Connell wanted this performance to be serious about its sorrow, but his piano player was too seriously drunk to play the songs correctly. O'Connell resorted to making jokes about this. This was indeed the saddest variety show in the history of the world, but for all the wrong reasons.
After the variety show, the party was pretty much over. People stood around, drank some free liquor, and talked about whatever people talk about. I was unsure whether this sadness party was a success or not. Aside from the clowns, I didn't have a horrible time. I didn't feel any real sadness either, but I'm pretty sure that I wasn't supposed to. O'Connell must have known better than I did that celebrating sadness is close to impossible. In fact, this party felt more like it was bullying sadness, and ridiculing how absurd it is to be upset.
During my drive home, I thought about how dumb of me it was to think that I might actually cry during the party. I felt foolish for previously theorizing that this event was going to reveal something exceptionally deep about the importance of sadness. It was a party, put on by a comedian. Whether it was O'Connell's intention or not, I did end up taking away one lesson: Sadness, as necessary as it is, shouldn't be planned.
Follow Alison Stevenson on Twitter.