Category Archives: comedians

Sometimes Humor Isn’t Funny

He isn’t the funniest late night comedian.  But he is, in my opinion, one of the top three.  I rarely watch him anywhere but on YouTube, well after the fact.  But his monologue about the birth of his son had me riveted.  Is it possible to dry yourself out completely and turn yourself to powder just by crying?  That’s what it felt like.

If you haven’t already seen it, you should.  But having a heart means you will need something to mop up the tears.  The people whose job it is to make you laugh sometimes make a more important point by making you cry.  True, I may be more affected by his story about spending time in an ER in agony over what happens next to your child because I have been there with my own children.  I have lived it.  And the story he tells brings it all back like the storm has started raining sledge hammers instead of rain.  But anyone with at least a little bit of empathy will get the point he is trying to make.

Humor is like that.  It makes you laugh to soften the pain.  But it also makes you cry because that is how it changes you for the better.

In Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,  I find a lot of things to laugh it.  The schemes of the King and Duke are ridiculous and they get what’s coming to them by the end.  Yet, I cried at the part where Huck finds the dead body of his young friend Buck Grangerford shot to death in the creek by the feuding Shepherdsons.  It was a totally brutal and senseless death.  And we learn more about the hypocrisy of slavery and its injustice and cruelty by the sadder, more painful things that happen to Jim along the journey.  Humor is meant to be weapon against the things that harm us.  And sometimes the people who harm us.

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It is relatively easy to laugh at the mutant racist orangutan we accidentally elected to lead us.  But the laughing part is not the part we need right now.

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The damage he is doing may be permanent and irreparable.  He is trying to profit off of health care reform and destroying it in ways that may kill many of us.  He may have already done permanent harm to the environment by removing regulations with executive orders.  There is reason not only to be moved to tears, but to be horrified to the point that we need to take immediate action.

Jimmy Kimmel has been through a hard thing and deserves our empathy.  But even more that that, if you heard the appeal at the end of his monologue, the tears he made us cry are reason to take action, and thank him for his courage in using his tragic moment to lead the way.

 

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May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose!

I was planning to write a piece about insult humor for a while, and then Don Rickles had to up and die… that danged old hockey puck!’Don-Rickles-tribute

So the master of insults is gone, and it will be even harder to explain why calling someone a proud and prissy poo-poo head is not a bad thing to do.  Because, really… strong language is not really strength and it takes intelligence to be a mean little picky-wit. (No pun intended… because no pun was used,  Duh!  How slow are you compared to molasses around Christmas time?)

You may have heard me say that I don’t like hurtful humor.  I don’t believe bad words are required to make something funny. I don’t think humor should be weaponized.  Jokes that make you die laughing are too much like murder, and people who have no sense of humor can’t be hurt by them anyway.

It is true that some people can’t be touched with insult humor.  Republicans and conservatives generally never get the joke.  Unfortunately for them you have to be at least a little bit smart to even know when you are being made fun of.

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I have heard that Kim Jong Un and President Orangutan in a Bad Wig recently attempted to assassinate each other.  Trump had a specially trained batch of a dozen Easter chicks sent to Kim Jong Un.  They were trained as mini-ninja assassins specializing in the death-peck attack.  Kim had a dozen plump Korean beauties dressed up in bikinis and poisoned lipstick sent to Trump with orders to make him fall in love.  Shortly thereafter Kim sent a thank you note to Trump for the delicious chickens.  He had kept one as a pet and you can still see it sitting on top of his head if you look carefully enough.  (It hasn’t killed him because it mistaked his head for an egg, adopted it, and is trying desperately to hatch it.)  Trump, in turn, re-gifted the bikini babes to Mike Pence, and it is likely they will die of cold and exposure while waiting in his outer office.

Stupid people are immune to insults, karma, and consequences.

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So you don’t insult people as a form of humor  to hurt anyone physically… or even psychologically.  You only do it metaphorically to pay them the compliment of thinking them worthy enough to bestow the gems of your wit upon.

And if you believe any of that bull-puckie, I may know of a Bridge in Brooklyn I’d be willing to part with cheaply.

So, there you have it.  Cheap laughs at the expense of doody-heads.  And calling into question the self-importance and the ridiculous-but-strongly-held political beliefs of others… especially the dumb ones can be a public service… of sorts.

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A Pair of Pertwees

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When I was a teenager in high school, PBS began running episodes of the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who.  And back then, the show had already gone through two doctors before I ever saw it.  So the first Dr. Who Doctor for me was Jon Pertwee.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the whole idea of Doctor Who, a time-travelling fixer of plot holes in history who goes about appropriating young women as companions and travelling through time and space and other dimensions by using a T.A.R.D.I.S. that manipulates “timey-wimey stuff”, I am afraid there is no hope for you here.  I am a Whovian and am not inclined to be a chief explainer  of all things Whovian to basically non-Whovians, and especially not never-will-be-Whovians.

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I was in college already by the time Jon Pertwee was no longer Dr. Who.  And though I also loved Tom Baker as the Doctor, I was forever caught by the heart with the first Doctor I watched and will forever hold in my heart the notion that Pertwee is the real Doctor.

And he was a gifted comedic actor that had a long career stretching back to Vaudeville and would also come to be identified with British comedies like Worzel Gummidge.

He had a prehensile face, capable of many comic contortions, and an ability with voices and characterizations that made you think “multiple personality disorder”.

Jon left us in 1996, but he has had a new life for me through his son, Sean Pertwee.  His little boy is practically a clone, though as far as I can tell, a very serious clone.  The comic DNA was apparently forgotten on the laboratory shelf.

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Sean Pertwee is now playing the ninja butler in the pre-Batman show on Fox called Gotham.  He has stepped into the role of Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler, and it’s like having my first Doctor back again.

Now, I admit that this post is mostly just fan-gush about people and characters that are mostly forgotten now.  But Jon Pertwee lives on in me.  I saw him play the Doctor back when some things in life could still be absolutely perfect just as they were.

 

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Shakespeare Knows Fools

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The fact that Shakespeare was a master of the art of creating and mocking fools does not really help decide the question of who Shakespeare really was.  A stage actor who owned a theater in Elizabethan times and apparently focused on being the bit player, the butler, the second man on the castle wall in the great plays, would certainly know enough of flim-flam, being a con man, or artfully throwing turds at kings and queens in ways that get rewarded rather than beheaded.  But a nobleman who has unpopular and unwelcome-but-probably-wise insights into the back-stabbing-goings-on of the royal court of England would equally be capable of putting the most memorable of critiques of humanity into the mouth of the fool or the clown in the great stage-play of life.  Even the most depressing and violent of the Shakespearean tragedies is enhanced and made pointed by the presence of the fool and the comic relief.  In some ways everything that Shakespeare wrote was a comedy.

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Whoever Shakespeare was, he shared Mark Twain’s overall assessment of “That damned human race” and often declared all men fools in the eyes of the playwright.  Puck’s observation on humanity is delivered about not only Bottom and the other poor players who carry on their vain attempts at performing Pyramus and Thisbe while Bottom magically wears the head of an ass, but also the easily fooled lovers who mistake their true loves for one another, and even the clueless mortal King Theseus of Athens.

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In the play within a play, Nick Bottom wants to be not only his own role, Pyramus the romantic lead, but argues that he should be Thisbe, the lion, and Pyramus all at once, making a satire of human nature and its overreaching ways that we could only pray Donald Trump will one day watch and magically understand.  In fact, Shakespeare’s entire body of work is an extended investigation of foolishness versus wisdom, and with Shakespeare, the verdict always goes to the fool.

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The plays of William Shakespeare are filled with fools doing foolish things… and fools being accidentally wise. (Think Jacques in As You Like It giving his famous “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy in which he elucidates the seven ages of man.)  There are fools too who prove to be wise.  (Think of the ironic advice given by the jester Touchstone in As You Like It, or the pithy commentary of King Lear’s fool).  The fools in Shakespeare’s work are not merely the comedy relief, but the main point that Shakespeare makes about humanity.

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Whoever the man was who wrote the plays of Shakespeare, he was someone who had a deep understanding of the basic irony underlying all of human life.  And someone with that vital sense of the bittersweet, a philosophy of life that encompasses the highest heights and lowest depths that a soul can reach, is someone who has suffered as well as known great joy, someone who has experienced loss as often as profit, and has known real love as well as real hatred.  It is the fool that Shakespeare shakes us by the neck with to make us recognize the fool in all of us which makes the plays resonate so deeply within us.  It is watching the path of the fool unfolding that makes us shake our head and say to ourselves, “Yes, that is what life is really like.”

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Happy Belated Birthday, Lucille Ball

Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri speaks to journalists as he arrives at the Imam Khomini Airport in Tehran

On Lucy’s birthday the “Scary Lucy” statue of her in her hometown of Celeron, New York was finally replaced with one that actually looks like her.

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In this Wednesday, July 20, 2016 photo, artist Carolyn Palmer prepares to apply a cold patina to her bronze statue of Lucille Ball in Saddle River, N.J. The sculptor was chosen to create a replacement statue for one dubbed “Scary Lucy,” in the late actress Ball’s hometown. The much-maligned statue of Ball will be replaced after it drew worldwide attention as “Scary Lucy,” according to the mayor of the western New York village where the 1950s sitcom actress and comedian grew up and her life-size bronze has stood since 2009. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

On Saturday, August 6th, Lucille Ball turned 105.  While it is true that she has also been dead since 1989, we never-the-less must acknowledge the fact that this comedienne and her singular body of work have been influencing life on Earth for over a century.  Perhaps we could even use more like her.

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She has been subtly guiding my own life since the days of black-and-white television and the genre-establishing sitcom, “I Love Lucy”, where she has been advocating for a woman’s right to work and have a career of her own by making us laugh at the situation over and over until it becomes a mirth-filled, easy-to-swallow fact-of-life.  She was the first female film producer to run her own production company, Desilu Productions.  She is the producer behind such television milestones as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.  Being a child of the 60’s, raised by television almost as much as by my parents, she is a big part of who I am as a person.  To this day she still influences how I feel about things.  She is one of the primary reasons I can laugh at life’s troubles and, by laughing, overcome them.

So, I want to wish Lucy a happy 105th birthday.  And I find it amusing and ironic that “Scary Lucy”, the bronze golem of Celeron, New York, has finally been replaced on her birthday with a statue that pictures her more accurately.  We all need to see Lucy more accurately.  We all need to laugh more and love more and live better lives.  It was the “Golden Age” of television not because of the technology and the craft, but because of the essential goodness we can still get from it, that has stood the test of time for a century.

And I don’t think that I am merely looking at the whole thing through the colored lenses of my own affection for things in the past.  I think more modern and definitely younger people than I can benefit from getting to know Lucy too.  Lasting  105 years is a pretty big thing, even if you are dead when you do it.

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Mr. Bean

Rowan Atkinson is a genius comedian, and the character of Mr. Bean is the greatest work he has done, the best proof of his genius.  As someone who works at humor and tries to get it right, I have to analyze and carefully study the work of the master.  How does he do it?  What does it all mean?  And what can I learn from it?

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Atkinson not only created the character, he co-wrote the entire television series and controls every aspect of the performance as the central character.  Mr. Bean is the bumbling every-man, going through horrific troubles because of the cascade effect of simple little errors.  We laugh at him because we have all been there.  Tasting the hot sauce leads to a meltdown that causes chaos and disaster for the entire store.  Overcoming fear of heights makes him the center of attention for the entire pool-house when can’t overcome the urge to use the diving board, and yet, can’t make himself jump off.  We have all lived the nightmare of being trapped naked in the hotel hallway, locked out of our room, just when the hallway becomes crowded.

There is a certain charm to Mr. Bean.  He is a childlike character, blissfully unaware of how much he doesn’t know about the complex society around him.  He has a teddy bear that sleeps with him and comforts him.  He lays out his supplies for the big exam, and he’s thought of practically everything he will possibly need, but basic physics fails him and makes the pencils keep rolling out of place.

 

Rowan Atkinson is a master of the art form because he has such tremendous control of his rubberized goofy face and manic body.  He can drive his goofy little yellow car from a sofa mounted on top.  He can change clothes while driving.  Just watching him shave with an electric razor is a total hoot.

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It is mostly physical comedy, almost slapstick, and yet it is not the broad unfeeling poke-in-the-eye you get with the Three Stooges.  Most of the real damage is done to himself, though pompous and deserving people are often near enough to get a helping of it smack in the face.  A lot of it is practically pantomime, with hardly any real dialogue.  Much of it, like the sword fight with the bumblebee using a butter knife, is simply silly.

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The movie, Mr. Bean’s Holiday, extends the character by making him actually interact with other characters, though in his own inimitable Mr. Bean way.  The limited dialogue thing is amplified by the fact that he is traveling in France and does not speak French.  Still, he interacts with the boy he accidentally kidnaps, the girl who wants to be a movie star whom he helps in her quest by an accident at the Cannes Film Festival, and the movie director whom he almost kills but ends up saving his career with a hit home movie.

Mr. Bean makes the ridiculous an art form by helping us to laugh at ourselves as we are beset by all the little troubles of life that Bean magically floats through.

So, now I have told you why I love Rowan Atkinson as a comedian.  He is a comedic genius.  Of course, you knew that already, right?

 

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Danny Kaye

Archive photo from the Los Angeles Times

Archive photo from the Los Angeles Times

My childhood was shaped by television events like the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz and classic movies on Friday nights when I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch the whole thing.  I have told you before how much I loved the comedy of Red Skelton.  Another comedian who shaped who I am through his wondrously manic movie performances was Danny Kaye.

One of those Friday movie classics that really struck home was the wonderful, kid-friendly movie Hans Christian Andersen.

1952 movie poster from Wikipedia

1952 movie poster from Wikipedia

The movie was about a storyteller from a previous century and embroidered his biographical story with his famous children’s stories in the form of songs.  And Danny Kaye could trip through multi-syllabic, fast-paced musical numbers like no other rubber-faced clown I have ever seen.   I wanted to be such a story-teller from a very early age.  I even wanted to write the kind of stories that could be made into songs.  Let me show you a few of the bits that amazed me and killed me with laughter.

This song from the Inspector General was doubly engaging because the corrupt businessmen were trying to poison the character Danny played with the wine he was supposed to drink during the drinking song.

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The movies Danny Kaye was in were mostly about the musical comedy.  But sometimes they were just about the music.  He appeared in musicals like White Christmas with Bing Crosby and stage musicals like Lady in the Dark which won him awards on Broadway.  He made movies about music like The Five Pennies and A Song is Born.  He always said he couldn’t read music, but he demonstrated perfect pitch and scored a number one hit with The Woody Woodpecker Song recorded for the animated cartoons of Walter Lantz.  How cool is that?

And you already know that The Wizard of Oz is my favorite movie of all time.  In 1964 Danny became the host for CBS’s annual showing of the film.  He was able to do funny songs that made you snort your hot cocoa through your nose from laughing, and he could also do beautiful ballads like these.

I will always take the opportunity to watch a Danny Kaye movie one more time, whether it comes on YouTube or a Netflix oldie or a $5 DVD from the bin at the front of the Walmart Superstore.  And I will always think of him in his role as Hans Christian Anderson.

Oh, and he was a very funny comedian too when he wasn’t singing, as in The Court Jester and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

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