From the moment she took the stage at Effingham Health System’s third annual Lunch, Laugh and Learn program Thursday, comedienne Leslie Norris Townsend showed she doesn’t take life too seriously.
With a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness adorning her curly hair, Townsend serenaded the audience at the Effingham College and Career Academy with “Laughing in Your Seat,” to the tune of the classic “Dancing in the Street.”
She continued that theme throughout her speech, encouraging the crowd of ladies (and a few men) to laugh no matter what challenges life throws at them.
“You can always look at the bright side,” Townsend said. “Because you know what? If you can look at tragedy, or a loss of a job, or the disrespect of a teenager, if you can look at that and just laugh at it, you can do anything you want.”
Townsend encouraged the audience to treat life’s challenges and setbacks as “adventures.” She joked about the stress she felt recently when her 16-year-old son got his driver’s license.
“I lost 10 pounds because I was such a nervous wreck in the car when I was with him,” she said. “I thought, at least the benefit is I lost weight!”
On a more serious note, Townsend has a personal connection to the Lunch, Laugh and Learn objective to honor those who have been touched by breast cancer. The annual event promotes early detection of breast and other cancers as the best protection.
When Townsend was a teenager, she lost her mother to breast cancer. However, Townsend recalled that, even as her mother was sick and weak before the disease took her life at just 40 years old, “she laughed all the time. She would just have that outlook.”
Townsend was dealt another blow when her father died during her freshman year at Berry College in Rome.
“So I had nothing. I had no money, and I had to overcome tons of obstacles,” she said. “I just looked at it and said, well, it’s my ship. The ship will sink or the ship will sail, and I chose to sail it.”
Townsend earned a theater scholarship to help pay for college. She also started using her musical talent — and borrowed gowns — to win beauty pageants and earn prize money.
Those experiences helped steer her to a career in show business that has continued for more than 20 years. Townsend has appeared on television shows such as “The Tonight Show,” “An Evening at the Improv,” “Comic Strip Live” and “Girls Night Out,” and she performs regularly at comedy venues across the country.
“You have to take your energy and move it to the right place,” Townsend said. “You’re never at the bottom, really. You can shrink and go that route, but why?”
Early in her career, Townsend earned a spot in the television talent show “Star Search” and advanced all the way to the finals. She recalled that, at that time in her life, she “thought that everything was riding on it.”
The winner of “Star Search” would receive a $100,000 prize. For the Lunch, Laugh and Learn audience, Townsend reenacted the moment that she and the other finalist were on stage awaiting host Ed McMahon’s announcement of the winner.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be me. He’s going to say ‘Leslie,’” she recalled. “And in that moment, I saw his little lips go ‘Felicia.’ Well, it was like a knife stuck in my gut. I hunched over and it was like a slow-motion movie.”
Townsend said that disappointing moment stayed with her for years. But finally, this past April, she was reminded that disappointment can turn to joy — even if it takes 20 years.
She received a phone call from an administrator at the Ohio State University, where her elder son plans to study to become a veterinarian. The man on the phone said the university was offering her son a scholarship for tuition, room and board and books — totaling $25,000 per year for four years.
“So you see? $100,000!” Townsend exclaimed. “I kept it with me for years that I lost that $100,000, and then I get the call that I got the $100,000 back. So you just never know. You can’t say it’s over. You can’t throw in any towel.”
That was the final story Townsend shared at the luncheon, which attracted a full house again this year. Effingham Health System CEO Norma Jean Morgan said Lunch, Laugh and Learn provides an informal, fun environment where women and men can speak freely about the seriousness of cancer and encourage each other to take cancer-prevention steps.
“I shared an example of a lady who didn’t have cancer herself, but she encouraged her friend to get a mammogram and consequently she learned she did have cancer,” Morgan said. “So I think awareness is the No. 1 thing.”