Grieving the loss of her husband, comedienne and playwright Karmo Sanders is rediscovering her sense of humor—and she’s ready to get back out there.
A month or so after her husband died, Karmo Sanders—known to many Mainers as the goofball “Marden’s Lady” from her longtime role as Birdie Googins in the retailer’s ads—tried going back to work.
A stand-up comedy gig had been scheduled for months, and she wanted to honor the commitment and earn some money. It was for a convention of dentists in Rockland. “I just bombed. I mean bombed, so much that I couldn’t even make a joke about it,” she says. “I walked off that stage and really, hardly anyone noticed. It was that bad!”
Funny is what the Maine actress, playwright, singer and comedienne is known for. So what happens when life interrupts the funny and you don’t have enough in you to make yourself laugh, let alone others? For someone like Karmo Sanders, it means you’re out of work—at least the work you love—for starters.
It’s been almost five years since her husband Jerry Sanders’ death, and it’s been a slow slog back to good humor and the ability to perform, Sanders admits.
“With those dentists, it hadn’t been long enough, and it was too painful, really. I then also bombed at a Halloween party. It, too, was crash and burn. Grief is a weird animal.” So she stopped performing and plugged along, seeing friends and family, getting joy from her two daughters and four grandchildren, who live nearby, and intentionally trying to find the humor in life, as we all do.
A rich source, just up the road in Scarborough, has always been Sanders’ mother, who is now 96 and still lives on her own.
“I went there the other day and she was sitting there with a cup of tea, eating a doughnut that she’d cut into wedges. She was eating it with a knife! I said, ‘All right, Mom, here we are. You could put that through the roof of your mouth. You could put your eye out. Put the knife down or I’m leaving.’ And she just went off on this whole bit, laughing and laughing, about what would happen if she actually were found that way. So yeah, all I have to do is talk to her.”
Only in the past year or so has Sanders, 67, felt a familiar yearning to get “back out there” on stage. She says the absurdity of all that’s happening since President Trump was elected has given her plenty of fodder for stand-up and improv—her forte.
“I’m overwhelmed by the insanity we’re living in, and we can be angry. And you can laugh. And when you’re laughing about it, you’re thinking, and you’re OK.”
“I just bombed. I mean bombed, so much that I couldn’t even make a joke about it…
Grief is a weird animal.”
The state of the world also prompted her to announce her intentions to run for governor of Maine—sort of. “I have the common sense and ability to do the job, seriously. Or maybe I’ll pursue a career in fashion,” she says, laughing. “What I’ve said is that I’ll be like Oprah. If the people demand it, I’ll run.”
While waiting for that to happen, she continues working the 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift two nights a week at Kaler-Vaill, a retirement home for women in Scarborough. And she started teaching in the University of Southern Maine’s theater department last fall, enjoying her playwriting course enough last semester to take on an Acting for Non-Theater Majors class this winter.
That has been rewarding and restoring, she says. “I’m grateful to be pulled into that department. I’m loving it and having a really good time teaching these students. They’re awesome.”
The feeling is apparently mutual. After one recent class, during which freshman Henry Field performed a monologue about his experience as a combat medic, he talked about Sanders’ influence.
“It’s a great balance between patience and pushiness, and I mean that in a good way,” says Field, a 24-year-old nursing student, who explained that he’s taking the class to get better and more comfortable talking with patients, especially about difficult subjects.
“I had a really hard time getting up and doing that monologue. It wasn’t so much for people to enjoy—it was cathartic for me, and I think it’s important to tell those stories about combat. But I was so nervous, and I didn’t want to do it. But she has a way of making people feel comfortable, and that allowed me to do it. It’s been the most fantastic class. There’s another student in here who told us he was worried because he has a stutter, but honestly, none of us have heard him stutter because we feel comfortable here.”
Jordan Buckley, a first-year communications and media major from Presque Isle, echoed Field’s sentiments. “I walked in feeling uptight about what people would think. College students can be pretty judgmental. But she’s made us all feel so comfortable that I don’t have to worry about what anyone thinks,” says Buckley, 21. “And I learn better by doing, and that’s how she’s teaching us.”
Sanders can teach at the college level because she has a master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University. Getting the degree was quite an accomplishment, given that she and Jerry dropped out of college after her first semester when they fell in love and decided to hitchhike around the country instead of going to school in Oklahoma.
Boston University rejected her application, and Karmo lamented this with her then-employer, the late Dodge Morgan, who gained fame as the first American to sail solo nonstop around the world.
“He said, ‘They deserve you. You’re going to take no for an answer? Write a letter!’ ”
So she did, detailing her extensive experience in theater and life. And BU accepted her. “He was a really good friend for doing that,” says Sanders. “It was empowering. It made me step up to the plate.”
She’s stepping up to the plate again, getting her nerve back, feeling her funny returning without her husband, who was her best friend and artistic collaborator, by her side. She’s working to have their full-length musical “Gold Rush Girls”—which took 12 years to write and represents their life’s work together—staged again.
It opened to rave reviews and sellout crowds every night for six weeks in summer 2012 in Anchorage, Alaska, but was never performed again because Jerry fell ill when they returned to Maine. She’s gotten some positive bites and is actively pitching it.
“Listen to this if you have a chance,” Sanders said handing over a CD of the show’s music. “I’m not just a pretty face.”
Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).