For a Good Cry, Log In and Bawl

Posted May 16, 2018 7:23 p.m. EDT

I cry. I am a crier. Crying releases the anger and frustration. Crying gets the sad out, and it humbles me in a good way. In the aftermath of crying, I experience clarity of thought and a burst of productivity.

When I was much younger and needed a cry, I turned to books. “Beaches,” by Iris Rainer Dart, was a reliable go-to, as was “Where the Red Fern Grows.” There are plenty of people who rely on books for this kind of emotional release, and Goodreads is filled with recommendations in its “Listopia” section. “Causes of Ugly Crying” supplies more than 1,200 book suggestions, like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Wonder” and “Little Women,” which I really should reread because chopping onions in an airless room cannot compete with the tear-duct trigger of (spoiler alert) Beth’s death.

But now when I need to cry, I grab my phone.

For the quickest, surest cry, I open my Twitter app and search for “military homecoming videos.” These are homemade smartphone clips, sometimes elaborately staged, that capture a raw moment of surprise experienced by an American who does not know that a family member who is in the military and stationed away from home is returning for a visit. If so-called promposals are merely touching, military homecomings pack a wallop.

“They’re the old Hallmark commercials of today,” said Mary Connelly, an executive producer of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” in its 15th year an old hand at the crying game. “There is nothing better than those; they’re money in the bank.”

My current favorite homecoming was posted last Christmas Eve. It shows a mother opening a wrapped Christmas gift, held up by one family member while others instruct her to pull the paper off from top to bottom. The gift is revealed to be a full-length mirror, but the real gift is that standing behind the couch, unbeknown to the mother, is a young servicewoman dressed in military fatigues. You can see from the mother’s uncertain face that she doesn’t know why her family is making such a production out of giving her a standard back-of-the-door mirror. Then she catches herself and, in classic mom mode, changes her expression to one of, “Well, isn’t this an interesting mirror?” Only then does she gaze into it at just the right angle and glimpse the true surprise.

Screams of joy follow. Stunned, the mother runs out of the room for a second and then runs back to embrace her daughter, wrapping her arms around her.

“Surprised my mom for Christmas, she looked in the mirror and saw her present (HEART)(HEART),️” the daughter wrote on Twitter.

The video became a viral sensation and has generated north of 15 million views. (Only half of them by me.) Among the many outlets that reshared it was a feed called @MilitaryHC, which has more than 375,000 followers and is run by Christoph Meixelsperger, 21, with his brother Vincent, 23 — for the sheer joy of it, Christoph said.

“There is so much negativity on the web,” the younger Meixelsperger said. “I think these homecoming videos bring people back to reality about sacrifice and what is important.”

Adventures in Tear-Jerking

One of the deepest crying rabbit holes I find myself tumbling down comes from searching for GoFundMe campaigns on Facebook.

An online platform through which people can solicit financial donations for those in need (including themselves), GoFundMe is a source of some of the saddest and most heartbreaking content online. Its campaigns almost always make me cry, and very often, they also compel me to make donations to total strangers.

Founded in 2010, the company has helped users raise more than $5 billion, often to help cover funeral and medical expenses and other costs arising from emergencies. Until recently, the company took a 5 percent cut of all donations and a slice of the credit card processing fees.

Last fall, it changed its policy and now offers use of the platform for free for personal campaigns in the United States, Canada and some countries in Europe, with U.S. donors charged a credit card processing fee of 2.9 percent, a portion of which goes to GoFundMe. (Certified charities are still charged 5 percent, and voluntary “tips” are solicited from those creating personal campaigns.)

GoFundMe pages tend to look like basic blog posts, but the company has created a new division, GoFundMe Studios, that sends production teams to locations around the world to film heart-tugging documentary-style videos about various causes.

The point is to convey to as broad an audience as possible that the site is about more than paying for funerals. “There is a hunger for these life-affirming stories,” said Raquel Rozas, the company’s chief marketing officer, and they can inspire additional campaigns.

This spring, a team led by Wil Tidman, the head of GoFundMe Studios, traveled to Louisa County, Virginia (population: approximately 35,000), to film a video at the local high school.

There, Kate Fletcher, an English teacher, was planning to run 400 times around the school’s track, 100 miles — in 24 hours. It was a fundraiser for graduating students facing college expenses, and for the local food bank. “We have a lot of seniors who have worked incredibly hard to overcome different challenges in their life,” she said the day before the event.

Students in the newspaper and leadership classes had gone to local businesses, soliciting sponsorships for Fletcher’s 100-mile run. They came up with nearly $10,000, almost double the amount donated last year when Fletcher ran for an entire school day.

She was assisted in this endeavor by Carrie Hicks, who teaches the school’s newspaper and leadership classes. After the women posted their project on GoFundMe, they heard from the company that it wanted to make a video.

Tidman and his team put together storyboards to map out some of the shots they wanted to help convey the drama, leading toward an emotional climax. They gathered footage the day before: of dilapidated houses lining the roads that connect Fletcher’s home to the school, as well as of Fletcher jogging the sidewalks of the economically struggling commercial center of Louisa. “There is so much content coming at us from social-media feeds, and a lot of it is creating a numbness,” said Tidman, formerly the vice president for original productions for GoPro, the action-camera company. “I want us to help people turn that numbness into something else, something that has feeling and emotion.”

Several inches of snow fell on the April day of Fletcher’s run, enhancing the drama; temperatures hovered in the 30s. The production team had worked with Hicks to plan surprises that would boost Fletcher’s spirits and add emotion.

Former students of Fletcher who credit her with helping them get to college showed up throughout the day and night to run with her. Fletcher’s daughter arrived for a few laps. They had planned for the school’s marching band to descend a hill toward the track just as she was finishing her 400th lap, but her pace slowed after she had run about 80 miles. So that wasn’t quite the climax Tidman and his team had hoped for.

Still, a flood of students rushed down the hill from school to the track, encircling Fletcher as she hit the 400-lap mark.

In the finished film, former students read letters of thanks to Fletcher as the camera shows her running in the mist. The effect, as the kids would say: #AllTheFeels. As of early this week, it had generated more than $22,000 more in donations than last year’s campaign, which was sans video.

TV Tissue Alert

Legacy media has plenty to cry about, but sad shows are a bright spot in the television business. There is no bigger tear-jerker than NBC’s “This Is Us,” a multigenerational family drama told in present tense and flashbacks. The second season ended in March.

So known for the emotional response it elicits, the program has sprouted a fan website called “This Is Us Crying.” “It’s a support group for ‘This Is Us’ fans,” said Josh Hill, senior editor for FanSided, the digital network that runs the site.

That the show makes people cry is a big part of NBC’s promotional strategy. On social media, the program’s feeds regularly share viewers’ sobbing reactions.

“I have an ugly cry headache. Anyone else love this show like I do?” said one fan on Twitter.

The show reposted this and added the comment, “There are a few that might,” with a winking emoji. In another tweet, a new viewer who works from home wondered how many tissues she would need.

The show reposted this with another wink and replied, “Well, let’s just say, we hope you weren’t planning on getting work done.”

The ‘Queer Eye’ Is Not Dry

Another recent addition to the crying canon is the Netflix reboot of “Queer Eye,” a reality show in which five gay men — experts in fashion, food, décor, culture and grooming — sweep into the life and home of a sloppy, unkempt man in Georgia and whip him into fabulousness.

As with most makeover shows, leading viewers to a catharsis is built into the formula. “The nice thing about our show is we are there to help, and when you help someone, there will be emotion,” said David Collins, its creator.

The juxtaposition of cosmopolitan gay men with men living, in some cases, in quiet towns in the Deep South is a setup for a lot of funny situations, but poignant ones too. In several episodes, members of the so-called Fab Five confront individuals who have not interacted much with gay people.

In an episode focused on a makeover of a conservative Christian named Bobby Camp, Bobby Berk, the interior-decorating expert, is reminded of his religious upbringing and childhood feelings of shame about his sexuality. Sobfest!

Karamo Brown, who is black and the team’s resident adviser on cultural matters, finds common ground in another episode with Cory, a white police officer and supporter of President Donald Trump.

If that episode doesn’t make you cry, it at least gives you hope. “We are showing the conversation that more Americans should be having,” said Rob Eric, an executive producer of the show.

Queen of Bawl Media

At the top of the industrial complex of tears stands “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” the daytime talk show that provides the web with some of its most viral tear-jerking content. There are military reunions; there are surprised holiday shopping sprees and college scholarships; there are celebrity duets with children of cancer patients. Catharsis reigns.

When DeGeneres was conceiving the format and tone of her show in 2003, she insisted that compassion and empathy would guild her humor, Connelly said.

“There was a time when I was the person people were making fun of,” Connelly remembers the host saying. “After I came out, I would turn on late-night TV and people would be making fun of me and it hurt my feelings.” In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, which is DeGeneres’ hometown. She told her producers she wanted to create segments that helped the community and also focused on the good work taking place in the storm’s aftermath. This created a genre of segments that viewers of the show have come to expect — as they once did from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — along with comedy bits and celebrity interviews.

A recent episode of “Ellen” was particularly stirring. She hosted James Shaw Jr., the “Waffle House Hero” who charged the gunman in a mass shooting in Antioch, Tennessee, likely preventing further carnage. Shaw then raised more than $215,000 on GoFundMe to help underwrite the costs of the victims’ funerals.

After he described the ordeal in a calm and humble manner, DeGeneres asked him whom he considered a hero. Shaw cited Dwyane Wade, the star shooting guard with the Miami Heat.

“I like the way he carries himself off the court,” Shaw said.

“Let’s see how he carries himself out here,” DeGeneres said.

Wade walked onto the stage. He and Shaw hugged. I wept.