At times there isn’t a huge chasm between laughter and tears

I was watching an episode from a PBS series on great comedians last evening and I laughed a lot.

 I also felt a bit like crying.

I felt a bit like crying because while the premise of comedy and the role of the comedian are to evoke mirth, it also evokes (in some cases) a vicious backlash. That’s because those who anally adhere to certain institutions don’t like to be mocked. The job of the comic, like the jester of old – whence comedians came – is to mock. It is to put that giant banana peel under the foot of the pompous and self-righteous asses we are supposed to (but rarely do) revere.

This particular episode (it’s a multi-parter) revolved around the revolutionary and ‘finger-to-da-man’ comics of the 1950s and ‘60s. In truth, ‘comedian’ doesn’t describe such people as much as ‘satirist’ does.

So, we saw snippets from the ‘new wave’ of the day like Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Nichols and May, the beleaguered Smothers Brothers (victims of corporate censorship) and right through to the beloved and still sadly missed George Carlin who wondered why we could say ‘boobs’ on TV but were forbidden to say ‘tits’.

But the two that struck me with poignancy and emotion were Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

Pryor for both a childhood that was so wretched it would be beyond comprehension for most of us. He had problems later in life with substance and so forth? Of course he did. Raised (in a manner of speaking) in a whorehouse and brutally abused as a child, his brilliant mind allowed him to surmount and become the man who, to many others, and me became one of the most brilliant social-satirists and performers of any era. He was a man who could evoke pants-peeing laughter from presenting such brutal episodes in his life as a premature heart-attack, and lighting himself on fire. He was to comedy what Hogarth was to socially motivated art.

Bruce, on the other hand, never did capture the mainstream and was almost literally hounded to death by those who couldn’t bear his mockery and mischief around the establishment pillars of government, church, and sexual mores. Yes he was crude and frank in a manner previously unheard.  He was, quite frankly, not as lovable as Pryor. But, he was also incredibly funny.

Coming into his own at the tail-end of the ghastly red-baiting McCarthy era it’s understandable why he was reviled by those stalwart maintainers of the status quo in America. He tells a tale of Christ coming back to Earth and appearing at the door of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC and how Cardinal Cushing and an archbishop conspire to keep him out of the church because he looks like a bum, what with the sandals, beard and long hair and all. What would the good uptown parishioners think?

And so it went. Bruce was often his worst enemy because he refused to waver from his path. Also hugely addicted to drugs he ultimately dies of an overdose at an early age.

One of the saddest pieces was an interview with him near the end of his life in which he, obviously stoned, explains himself thusly: “We were just trying to have fun.”




10 responses to “At times there isn’t a huge chasm between laughter and tears

  1. Nice post.

    What I really like about comedians is what they reflect of the times. I wonder what today’s comedians will look like 20 years from now?


  2. Yep… we were just trying to have fun….

  3. I really love most of those guys, but always thought Lenny Bruce was over rated. I saw saw Newhart a few years ago and didn’t realize he was so uhm, “blue.” He was hilarious. And how did “blue” come to be a description for R-rated comedy anyway?

    • I tend to agree about Bruce, whom I see as more of a social satirist than a comic per se. And yes, seeing a comic in a club is quite a different trip. I love Newhart, by the way. And I’m not sure where ‘blue’ comes from, but I know that censorship laws are known as ‘blue laws’

  4. I work in the comedy/entertainment business and know many comics who struggle with every aspect of life whereas when you see them being the “jester” – you’d think that their life was just spotless. Most, are depressed on ready to walk out on the ledge. It’s a hard business. The ego determines your overall importance. When the career is at its lull, the person/jester/comic is at their worst. We all have our crosses to bear…

    • I think, Deb, it would be a brutal business. All your raw edges are at the forefront and, lets face it, they couldn’t have the insights they do without a hell of a lot of sensitivity. And, as you say, the go determines all. Thanks for your thoughts on this, based on your own experience.

  5. Bruce astounded me after only knowing the British equivalents…deeply funny.
    And these people suffer because power definitely does not like having truth presented to it…

    • I’ve found the stress of being a moderately successful and sometimes satirical and periodically funny columnist to be highly stressful, so I cannot imagine what it must be like to be up and laying your soul bare before an audience that may or may not like you.

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