Ian Lara on Comedy Supporting Him Through His Mom’s Loss

Ian Lara is a Dominican American stand-up comedian from Queens, NY, who found internet success after his appearance on “Comedy Central Stand-Up Featuring,” which has garnered over 10 million views. Lara was a regular on “This Week at the Comedy Cellar” on Comedy Central and was featured in “Bring the Funny” on NBC. He made his late-night television debut on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in 2019, and in 2020, Lara performed his first 30-minute special for HBO Latino’s “Entre Nos: LA Meets NY.” In 2022, Lara’s half-hour special on Comedy Central, “Growing Shame,” aired in February, and his HBO special, “Ian Lara: Romantic Comedy,” was released in November on HBO Max.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked Latine comedians and creators we admire how comedy has supported them in overcoming trauma and confronting life’s most significant challenges. Read the pieces here.

“El que anda corriendo llega cansado.”

That’s a famous Dominican saying my mother always used to say, which translates to, “He who runs arrives tired.” These six simple words have guided my life and career as a stand-up comedian in many ways. This phrase alone taught me the importance of discipline, dedication, and doing things right — however long and hard the road is.

It’s not lost on me how much of an influence my mom had on my career. For starters, she was probably one of the funniest individuals I knew. I had a relatively happy and healthy upbringing. I grew up in South Ozone Park, Queens, as the youngest of five, and I don’t recall a day that wasn’t filled with jokes and laughter. From my parents to my older siblings, someone always said something witty that had us all rolling. But often, it was my mom that provoked the big belly laughs. In many ways, my mom was the one who helped me appreciate the importance of comedic relief and how it can help us cope with some of the grim realities of life.

I didn’t know it then, but growing up in a funny Dominican family prepared me for the life ahead of me. When you’re growing up, you just assume that’s the norm for everyone — until you go out into the world and see that it’s different for different people. But in my family, humor was everything. Everyone was funny. My uncles were funny. My aunts were funny, and my mom was always very funny.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started pursuing a career in comedy that I realized there was this narrative within mainstream American comedy that women comics “weren’t funny.” I never heard anything like that growing up. I didn’t even know that was a thing because in my culture and in my family, everyone was funny — especially the women.

Being the youngest, I didn’t even realize I was funny until I was in junior high school, and my friends and peers would point it out to me. As I got older, I became a fan of stand-up and realized maybe it was a thing I wanted to do. At first, I thought I would just do this as a hobby and pursue a career as a lawyer. But one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was booking spots at comedy clubs throughout the week. There was something about providing comedic relief for individuals regardless of what they might be going through in their daily lives that really appealed to me. As cliché as it may sound, laughter really is the best medicine, and what I’d soon learn is that it’s not just medicine for those receiving it but also for the individual — in my case, as the comedian — making the jokes.

Everything I grew up learning from my mom, from the importance of not taking shortcuts in life to the balance levity can bring, all prepared me for one of the hardest and darkest moments I would experience — losing her to cancer. My mom’s battle with cancer felt in many ways like an emotional rollercoaster of sorts. I first learned of her breast cancer diagnosis in May 2021, literally the day after Mother’s Day.

I remember when she called me two weeks prior to tell me she had gone to the doctor, and they ran some tests. She did a mammogram, and the doctor saw something in her breasts, so he sent it out to the lab to see if it was cancer. On Mother’s Day, my mom was in Pennsylvania with my sister, and I drove out there to spend the day with her. The following day, she called to tell me that the doctor said the breast tissue came back cancerous. But initially, I wasn’t worried. My mom used to get mammograms pretty frequently. In fact, the only year she missed was 2020, when we were all on lockdown because of COVID. So, I was pretty sure that the cancer was likely in the early stages and still treatable.

Anytime you hear about a cancer diagnosis, it’s never a good thing, but I did my research, and she was still only in stage one. Plus, I had an aunt who had previously been diagnosed with breast cancer, and they caught it and treated it during stage three. So, I stayed hopeful.

Things took a turn for the worse when we learned in July that my mom also had stage four colon cancer that was spreading to her liver. When you learn that your mom is now struggling with a stage four cancer diagnosis that can result in death, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. But I’m a very even-keeled and practical person. I’m not quick to panic, even under hard circumstances. I quickly looked for solutions by diving into research. I read, watched videos, and asked doctors questions. I soon learned that even with stage four colon cancer, there is a window where it can be one of the few cancers at that stage that can still be curable. Once again, I remained hopeful.

At this point, I had already been working as a professional stand-up comedian for about 10 years and had been offered to film a Comedy Central half-hour special in July 2021 while my mom was battling cancer. I was also preparing to film my HBO comedy special, “Romantic Comedy,” which was initially scheduled to be filmed in November 2021 but got pushed back to July 2022, eventually releasing on HBO in November 2022. My schedule during the daytime was just consumed with caring for my mom at the hospital, whose health was deteriorating week by week. It was just getting worse and worse, and the possibility of losing her to this disease was becoming more of a reality for me.

My mom and I had a very playful relationship where we always joked together. She was one of the first individuals in my life to make me laugh, so I found a lot of joy in making her laugh, but as the cancer started to take over, she slowly started to lose her essence and, with it, her sense of humor. I held tight to the lessons she taught me over the years and allowed my stand-up and my ability to make others laugh serve as my medicine throughout those dark times.

I’m very fortunate that what I do for a living provides me with so much happiness and satisfaction. Sometimes I’ll speak with friends or people I meet for the first time, and they’ll ask me what I do for fun, and I’m like, my career is my fun. I don’t go to the nightclubs. I don’t go out drinking. I don’t really go out on dates. I just really enjoy writing jokes and performing them for people. It gives me an extreme high that can probably only be compared to a drug high, with so many endorphins released.

Watching someone you love so much get sick and ultimately pass away is literally the hardest thing I’ve ever had to experience in my life. The only thing that got me going and helped me get up from bed every morning during those dark days was my comedy. I relied on my stand-up at nighttime and preparing for those specials to bring me back up from those extreme lows. Even at the hospital, while my mom was sleeping, I would work on writing jokes and material.

It’s impossible to laugh and make others laugh and still be sad. You just can’t feel both of those things simultaneously — they don’t go together. I believe that you can be in a pang of deep sadness or depression, and at least those few seconds or minutes that you’re laughing, you’re not sad for that time. I’ve always held comedy as the safest drug you can take. No one is ever going to tell you that you’re laughing too much.

Before my mom got sick, my life seemed relatively easy. Growing up, I had a great childhood and a great family dynamic. So much so, I was reserved about the idea that maybe my life would always be great. Reality came knocking hard on my door when my mom got sick. It helped me realize that no one is immune to the trials and tribulations that come with life. Hardships are unavoidable. Comedy got me through that and carried me after her passing in October 2021. Even at her funeral, I experienced comedic relief. There were plenty of tears but also a lot of laughter. Humor just has a way of creeping in. You can’t keep it out. You can try as hard as you can — but sometimes, fighting off the laughs is impossible.

Everyone has their shit that’s coming. That’s just part of being human. Nothing is as bad as you think it is — time heals everything. And nothing is as good as you think, either. Even now, having an HBO special, constantly on the road doing shows, and currently working on my new hour show, I still have my down days where I don’t feel particularly proud of where I’m at as a stand-up comedian. Maybe it’s just part of what comes with being an artist.

But the second I hit the stage and hear the audience’s laughter, I’m automatically rejuvenated. Comedy keeps me grounded and pushes me forward in this life, regardless of the curve balls thrown my way. I don’t know how I’d be doing if I didn’t have this comedic outlet.

— As told to Johanna Ferreira

Johanna Ferreira is the content director for POPSUGAR Juntos. With more than 10 years of experience, Johanna focuses on how intersectional identities are a central part of Latine culture. Previously, she spent close to three years as the deputy editor at HipLatina, and she has freelanced for numerous outlets including Refinery29, O Magazine, Allure, InStyle, and Well+Good. She has also moderated and spoken on numerous panels on Latine identity.

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