Carrie Fisher Was In On The Joke

Dec 27, 2016
Originally published on December 27, 2016 6:48 pm

Some people possess a quality — a highly specific fuel mixture of intelligence and humor — that makes them seem like they've always got a secret they want to share with you, and only you.

It's not obvious. That's the whole point of it: It lives on the sly, this quality, around the edges of what they say and do. It sidles up to you and draws you in, it whispers to you that you are important and special, and that's why this person chose you. You share something, the two of you.

And what it wants to say to you is: I get it. I see what you see. I'm taking none of this seriously; I'm in on the joke.

Knowingness is as good a way to describe this quality as any. It's a coy wink, a subtle signal. It cocks an eyebrow at the world and says, with a smile, "Do you even believe this?"

Onscreen, Carrie Fisher committed to the bit, always. She strangled the giant space slug, she grabbed a flamethrower and threw flame, she dutifully best-friended Meg Ryan and mentored Tina Fey and mothered Rob Delaney. She did her job.

Offscreen, however, she came alive in the public imagination, a creature of sardonic, clear-eyed, witheringly self-recriminatory good humor.

She wrote with a kind of blistering eloquence about her struggles with addiction and mental illness. She talked with rueful glee about wearing those silly hair-buns and that damned gold bikini and delivering that hammy space-opera dialogue with that deeply random accent, ("The mowuh you tighten youwuh grip, Tahkin, the mowuh stah systems will slip through youwuh finguhs!")

She was, always, inveterately, knowing. She personified it.

We got our first glimpse of how deeply and thoroughly Fisher was in on the joke in her 1977 appearance on Saturday Night Live. In the skit, "Beach Blanket Bimbo from Outer Space," Fisher appeared as Princess Leia, an intergalactic exchange student who showed up in an Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon beach movie, replete with hair buns. She sang a Leslie Gore-esque tune, and she frugged a little. As you do.

That was only the beginning. For decades after, in interviews, and in her one-woman show Wishful Drinking, we got a sense of Fisher the woman, daughter of Hollywood royalty at its most tumultuously Tudor-esque.

But it was in her writing that her sense of knowingness expressed itself in its purest form, distilled to its essence. Her prose style is all cocked eyebrow, all come-sit-here-by-me murmured asides. Reading her work, fiction and non-, makes you ache to huddle with her at a cocktail party, even — especially — if you hate cocktail parties.

This quality of knowingness she possessed — it's something queer folk prize highly, for a variety of reasons. Some of us prize it over ... most everything in life. But when we do, it tends to derail into mere archness. And as a way of encountering the world, it's brittle, empty.

The knowingness Fisher exuded, on the other hand, was warmer, more open, more determined to embrace the absurd than simply to smirk at it.

That's why the grief I'm feeling today has a selfish tinge to it. Just by being in the world the way she was, she served as a role model, a persistent reminder. She represented a way of living that was funny and fearless — self-mocking, but not self-conscious.

I knew I'd never get that chance to sit with her at a cocktail party — and if I did, I'd bore the living snot out of her — but with her in the world, there was always a distant chance. A tiny but measurable probability that vacillated slightly, day in and day out.

With her sudden, unexpected, maddening illness and death, that probability drops to 0.00 percent today. And I'm feeling the need to grieve for it separately, and for each of the days ahead in which that figure will remain unchanged.

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