“There’s a reason ‘Eleanor Rigby’ features strings”

Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer on how she finally learned to love the violin. 

“There’s a reason ‘Eleanor Rigby’ features strings”

Sometimes people ask how I became a comedian. I have no idea. I will, however, tell you that I grew up in a relatively tough neighborhood, where I was best known for playing the violin and wearing an eye-patch, so you do the math.

I wore the patch in the prescribed hope that it would strengthen an eye that was eventually deemed legally blind. And I played the violin for years, fairly well, and miserably. My childhood was passed alone, with a music stand and the saddest instrument on Earth. It is an indisputable fact that a violin can take the most gleeful tune and—from the first shudder of the bow across its anxious strings—transform it into a piteous lament. Sad, sweet, sincere, longing, lonely. There’s a reason “Eleanor Rigby” features strings.

In order to play the violin as fairly well as I did, I practiced all the time. I missed Saturday cartoons in lieu of orchestra rehearsal. I missed birthday parties, taco nights, epic neighborhood kick-the-can fests, the joyful screeches of the normal, not-practicing kids filtering through the window I gazed out of, sadly fiddling, one forlorn tear dribbling down my face onto my chin rest.

I went to fancy violin camp one year, and loved the camp so much that for two months, I almost loved the violin. I came back with renewed vigor, inspired by the harmonious connection I’d had to all the other sad violinists. But it was fleeting. The lure of the un-miserable was becoming too great to resist.

I was cast in The Miracle Worker, a play about Helen Keller’s human triumph over her physical challenges. I played Helen. Compared to the violin, this was a genuine hootenanny. My very own legally blind eye was blissfully opened to the thing I would forever love in an indisputably happy, primal way.

A few years ago, while I was working on a television show in Los Angeles, Hurricane Sandy unleashed her wrath upon my Brooklyn neighborhood. Across the country from my children, I helplessly watched CNN footage of the storm surging down my street on repeat. My kids were safe, but our building did not fare well. Flooded runways and flight cancellation chaos made returning to my home impossible for eight days. It was a unique kind of futility—worrying from afar, of no practical use to one’s family and community, trapped in a sunny netherworld that was seemingly oblivious to a natural disaster far, far away.

Exhausted by hours of fruitless fretting, I rented a violin. And I played. I played six hours straight. Then I walked to Trader Joe’s and bought a bottle of chardonnay, which I drank while I played for another three hours. I did this every day for a solid week. And for that week, I felt … joy. You may argue that it was just the chard. But it was more. It was the music. Like some kind of coming-of-age alchemy, the violin took all of my worry and turned it into this beautiful, bittersweet tangible joy. I felt grateful, peaceful, humble, ridiculous. Joyful. I donned an eye-patch and headed home.

Ana Gasteyer stars in Netflix’s Lady Dynamite and TBS’ People of Earth.