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by Kyle Sanders
Laughter isn't always the best medicine--sometimes, it's the only medicine. There's a reason "it's funny cuz it's true" is the typical response to a solidly funny joke, because the raw punch of the line stems from the reality in which it was thrown. The relief one gets from laughing at the joke, is equal to the solace received from the jokester, aka the stand-up comic.
Every comic has their schtick, but ultimately all of their material is based in some degree of reality, and it often stems from their personal lives--a tap of endless material. Take for instance Jesus Trejo, a young stand-up comic from Long Beach, California. When Trejo isn't traveling hundreds of miles to perform at open mics, he's at home taking care of his aging parents. An only child, it is up to Trejo to care for his mother, a diabetic recovering from a brain tumor, and his father, recovering from cancer. It's a difficult balance, but through familial love and unbending tenacity, Trejo uses his experiences as a millennial caregiver as material for his comedic sets.
It is Trejo's story that convinced AARP Studios to film a documentary, Care to Laugh, and release it as their first full-length feature about the burgeoning role of the Millennial caregiver. "We basically just work to tell the best personal stories we can with priorities that are about helping people improve their life with a brighter outlook," says Jeffrey Eagle, Executive Producer at AARP Studios and one of the producers of the film. "We conducted a search for what caregivers want and we landed on two things: time and laughter. What would be better than a comedy show?"
The comedy show in question took place at the Hollywood Improv in Los Angeles. One of the featured comedians who performed was Jesus Trejo, whose set about taking care of his ailing parents really connected with the caregivers in audience. When the event became a huge success, AARP reached out to Trejo to perform at another function; however, he was unable to attend because both his parents were ill, and as their sole caregiver, could not leave them unattended. "That's when we realized we had a great story to tell," says Julie Getz, Director of Development at AARP Studios who also directed Care to Laugh. "As a filmmaker, this story subject was very interesting, and when we met him we felt he had an incredible story, but didn't know where it was going to go. We wanted to take this adventure with him."
And what an unexpected adventure it is. Care to Laugh, which opened the Chicago Comedy Film Festival last weekend, is ultimately two different stories woven into one film. The primary narrative is about the Millennial caregiver, where the parent/child roles have reversed and now Trejo finds himself responsible for his mother and father. Yet in between scenes of assistance with dressing, medication reminders, and transportation, lies a story about an aspiring comedian doing whatever it takes to become a success.
One of the biggest breaks that Trejo receives in the documentary is a booking on The Late Late Show with James Corden. At this point, the documentary takes you behind the scenes of the comedian's process for creating the right set for his first taste of national attention on network television. This is where Care to Laugh brilliantly captures the evolution of Trejo's stand-up routine, wanting to get the jokes just right. He spends weeks ahead of the show practicing in front of friends and fellow comedians, who give him advice and notes on how to land the perfect beat to receive the strongest laughs.
You rarely ever get the chance to see a comedian before or after a stand-up set, and that's where Care to Laugh excels: we see the raw nerves before the curtain goes up, and the frustrating regrets right as Trejo steps off the stage. You feel his anxiousness and you empathize with his disappointments, but by the time he debuts the set on James Corden, you get a sense how that hard work pays off and immediately see Trejo's confidence. "What you learn is his tenacity, his grit," says Getz. "We told a beautiful snapshot knowing his life will continue to go on."
And as we learn, life does indeed continue outside of stand-up comedy. The main story arc of Care to Laugh is of course is the caregiving aspect. In preparation to view this documentary, I was completely unaware that the numbers of Millennial caregivers are rapidly growing. Worse yet, they often go unpaid. Care to Laugh shows the amount of care and time that goes into Trejo's situation without monetary relief. His parents depend on him on a daily basis, and as his father says, the time that Trejo spends with traveling to stand-up gigs, their lives become uneventful and lonely, right up until he walks back through the door.
It's commendable and yet heartbreaking, to see a young man like Trejo doing all that he can for his parents without any assistance from others. "I don't have siblings to delegate certain responsibilities to, I'm [doing] everything," Trejo explained to me. "I was in high school when I started realizing that [this responsibility] was going to come quicker than most people my age."
Such a realization could hinder anyone's ambition to fulfill their dreams, but not Trejo. Care to Laugh displays how he finds the balance between caregiving and comedy, and how the stress of caregiving is eased through stand-up. There's a poignant scene involving Jesus and a few of his comedian friends--including Pauly Shore--sitting around and discussing their role in society, and how a lot of them use their personal pain and stress to create something much lighter and comical to share with an audience. "When you live life and you experience certain things, you think 'that's hilarious!'" Trejo says. "Somehow you have to convey that moment in time when it hits you--that's the job of the comic: to make [the audience] feel like [they] were there, or able to feel what [the comic] felt. My job is to make it funny, presentable, and digestible for someone in the audience."
From the audience reaction of the screening I attended at the Chicago Comedy Festival, that humor was well received. Care to Laugh is currently on the festival circuit, with the intention of being released sometime in 2019. According to Trejo, life after the documentary has been positive, and not just regarding his career. "I've met a lot of caregivers who have shared my experience, and it's been great. We've been able to exchange some stories and really connect...it's the same thing I hear over and over with 'I think I'm alone on this road, and after seeing your film I realize that I'm not alone and there are resources out there.'"
More than anything, AARP Studios wants to use this film and other forms of media as a resource for those who think their situation is all their own. "We are about providing information for folks to live their best life regardless of age," Eagle says. "We are committed to making the personal authentic and real and if people can see themselves in our stories the hope is that they'll rely on AARP to help move their lives forward."
With Jesus Trejo's experience, AARP Studios has chosen one story out of millions regarding the Millennial caregiver. To see Care to Laugh is to not only root for Trejo's quest at becoming a successful comedian, but also to relate to his endeavors of providing for his parents when the resources are limited. He miraculously manages, and to see that is to believe that anyone can manage when it's their turn to provide care. The film ends with a quote from AARP's CEO Jo Ann Jenkins: "No matter who you are, at some point in the future, you'll either be a caregiver or need one." Care to Laugh offers us a heartwarming example of caregiving at its finest, and that's no joke.
For more information about AARP, please visit: https://www.aarp.org/
To learn more about Jesus Trejo, please visit: http://www.jesustrejo.com/
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