The Anxiety of Laughing

In this playwright’s debut feature film, the human need for humor transcends the adversities of disability

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Andrew Justvig was born with cerebral palsy (CP). A lifelong brain condition, it currently affects around 764,000 people in the United States. Long neglected and shunned by normative narratives, stories of those living with CP have been ignored by the film industry for decades. As cinematic representations prove scarce, portrayals of these lived experiences become increasingly crucial.

Acknowledging this lack of inclusion, Fujifilm recently teamed up with Justvig and the Disability Media Network to produce a film adaptation of The Anxiety of Laughing – a play Andrew penned while studying for his MFA at University of California, Riverside. The movie explores how humor and harmony inform the domestic lives of stand-up comedian Joey and his fiancé Leah, as they struggle to navigate the obstacles of a tumultuous marriage.

We sat down with Andrew to hash out the themes of his first filmic foray, and how living with cerebral palsy has shaped both his creative process and his world view.

“All the scripts I write deal with cerebral palsy in some way,” Andrew begins. “For my MFA thesis project, my professor Robin U. Russin (who would later go on to direct the film) encouraged me to explore my stand-up material in more detail. So I took his advice.” An established comedian in his own right, Justvig drew upon his experiences to construct an autobiographical tale – but ultimately felt there was a piece missing from his vision. “I plunged through a year of drafts, but for some reason, I just couldn’t get it right,” he recalls. “Then I had something of an epiphany. My church screened this video of an elderly couple using silliness to deal with their respective disabilities while on a date. The bell rang in my head, and I blended these two concepts together: the human need to laugh, and the drama inherent in a marriage that deals with disability. That combination was where the idea originally stemmed from.”

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

An experienced practitioner of the stage, Andrew was accustomed to curtain calls and dress rehearsals, so recording a staged reading of his play seemed like a natural solution, at first. “When I initially pitched the idea, I thought we could film it like Hamilton and record a staged reading of the script itself. It was only when I spoke with a close friend that I realized its filmic potential. She encouraged me to film it at an Airbnb, or a one-size-fits-all set. At that point, I had another eureka moment, and decided to go for it.” Venturing into an entirely new sphere, Andrew enlisted the help of Michael Bulbenko, FUJIFILM Professional Markets Training Manager and expert cinematographer, for assistance in creating the visuals, and Robin U. Russin, his ex-professor, for direction.

“Michael was fantastic. Though the play remained largely untouched, we made sure to adopt a varied style, to make sure it was cinematic, fresh and diverse. He was instrumental in achieving that aim. As for Robin, he’s still my teacher at heart! He always picks up on the mistakes I make, but at the same time, he retains that sense of support and reinforcement. I was invited into the fold, and always felt completely involved. I never had to override anybody’s vision, because we always had lively debates about the material. To their credit, they always listened to my point of view, and we compromised accordingly. We were a team from day one.”

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Speaking to the challenges faced by disabled creatives, Andrew is fluent and passionate when conveying support for his peers. “For me, if you have a character with a disability that can be played by an actor with the same condition, that should be the standard. It’s a no-brainer,” he notes. As well as recognizing the ostracism of his contemporaries, he’s also quick to point out nuances involved in the debate. “Obviously, there are disabilities like autism where it would be impractical, so there’s definitely a gray area that exists. It’s not like race where you can draw a clear line in the sand, so I think it’s important we consider every issue on a case-by-case basis.”

Jennifer Arnette, president and founder of Disability Media Network, also offered her perspective when considering how disabled voices can be better integrated into the cinematic landscape. “It was certainly an impetus behind setting up the organization, “she explains. “I had a lot of conversations about the lack of authentic representation for disabled people within media. There was a noticeable void that needed to be addressed. For whatever reason, there are so many disabled creatives that aren’t getting a look in, so I want to ensure a space exists for them to create and express themselves.”

Justvig’s film is perhaps most interesting when it explores the distinctions between disabilities caused by intrinsic factors, and conditions caused by extrinsic forces later in life. It’s this dynamic that encapsulates the piece – and is something Andrew was keen to discuss.

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

“As we age, everyone must adjust to change. I suppose that’s what makes this film universal in its thematic focus. There’s actually a moment where my character discusses the notion of forgetting his disability. It becomes normalized when you live with it for long enough,” he remarks. “As for somebody who acquires a disability, I think they experience a mourning process, because they lose the ability to do things they could before. In essence, a certain part of their identity dies, and there’s a shift in mindset. You become humbler, and more willing to ask for help, as and when you need it.”

Addressing this need for unconditional love and support in times of hardship, The Anxiety of Laughing is a film that foregrounds the importance of wit – and stupidity – when faced with unimaginable strain and strife. “As I was writing the script, I tried to imagine how I’d react in this situation. My wife even said that certain scenes evoked conversations and arguments we’d had. I wanted to show that laughing is a coping mechanism when it comes to dealing with these issues. I think it’s become even more pertinent as the world traverses the coronavirus pandemic. If you can’t laugh at your misfortunes, they become so much harder to process and deal with in the long run. Last year, I got to sit in on a Zoom meeting with Ron Howard. I asked him if he thought it was appropriate to be writing comedies in the current climate, and he was emphatic: he said we needed them now more than ever.”

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Forgoing sentimentality, the poignancy of Andrew’s outlook is modelled after four key influences in his life, which he discusses with warmth and affection. “I owe everything to my mother. She raised five of us as a single parent, and she’s been a flight attendant for 40 years. She’s the jolliest person you’ll ever meet. I never once saw her play the victim, even when she had justification to. At an early age, Walt Disney also had a profound effect on me. As a kid, I couldn’t walk, so I’d spend a lot of time watching Disney movies. It was a huge stimulus, which led to writing plays, and then eventually screenplays. I never set out to make a movie, but here I am! My grandfather has also played a very important part in my life. We call him Papa John. He was a football coach for 50 years and, to this day, is constantly reminding me to keep my head up. He was instrumental in helping me to act, walk and function. And of course, my wife. I don’t know where I’d be without her love and support.”

Mulling over the importance of escapism, Andrew considers how it pertains to cinema. “It’s transcendent,” he observes. “I’m a man of deep faith. I believe there’s a reason why this project fell into place so smoothly. There are moments in life when you’re compelled to do something worthwhile for those who share your experiences. This film was one of those.”

To watch The Anxiety of Laughing, visit the website here.