Saturday, March 26, 2016

Here's to Those Who Make Us Laugh

On Thursday, March 24, I logged onto the computer in the afternoon and the first thing I saw was a headline stating that Garry Shandling had died at the age of 66.  I stared at it for several long seconds, then looked for any indication that it was satire, or some kind of marketing campaign, or something, anything but the truth.

No such luck.

The older I get and the more of my favorite funny people die, the more I understand just how much, and how deeply, I value them.  I’m sure it’s a little out of proportion.  When Johnny Carson died, I cried.  George Carlin’s death was like losing a friend.  When I learned that Joan Rivers had died, I wanted to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head.  The news that Robin Williams had committed suicide darkened my mood for days, and it took some time before I could watch his recorded performances, whether in movies or on stage, without tearing up.  On one level, I know it’s absurd.  I knew none of these people, I’d never even met them.  I really have no idea what kind of people they were in their personal lives.  For all I knew, they hated dogs and cats, beat their kids, or drugged women so they could have sex with them while they were unconscious.  But . . .

. . . every time I saw them, they made me happy.  No matter what was going on in my life at the time, no matter how down I might have been, they made me drop my problems and laugh.  The more life I live, the more I understand what an awesome, miraculous thing that is.

There is no way to control laughter.  When we laugh, we surrender ourselves to feeling good, no matter how bad we might feel at the time.  It’s an explosive thing, totally involuntary.  You can try to fake it, and you might fool others with your artificial laughter.  But you cannot fool yourself.  Real laughter is an uncontrollable response to something that — somehow, almost magically — reaches inside of us and tickles us in some mysterious place, pushes internal buttons that cannot be ignored.

We all have internal buttons, and when we refer to someone pushing our buttons, we usually mean it in a bad way.  Someone has made us angry or hurt us by pushing a button that elicits a negative response.  I would guess that we all have more of those buttons than the ones that make us laugh.  The laughter buttons are buried deep in our viscera.  They’re much harder to find, especially as we get older.  But when someone does find one (or more) and pushes it, we are rendered helpless and we surrender to that involuntary, explosive response, like a sneeze.  Maybe sneezing is a bad analogy because it’s unlikely that someone can make us sneeze, but a genuine laugh is just as spontaneous and uncontrollable.

As far as I’m concerned, the people who can make me laugh are akin to wizards and witches, people with supernatural powers.  They don’t know me, we’ve never met, and yet they are able to find that button buried deep inside me that makes me open my mouth and throw back my head and let loose.  Think about it for a while.  We take it for granted, but it is a truly amazing and mysterious thing.

I am in awe of anyone who can make me laugh, especially if it is a deliberate act performed by someone who has never met me, knows nothing about me or my life, and yet is capable of reaching inside me and finding and pushing that deeply hidden button.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a young boy.  I started writing as soon as I was capable of it, and most of what I wrote was horror, very dark and violent.  I’ve written a great deal about what a salvation horror movies and fiction were to me when I was growing up because my childhood in a perpetually frightening apocalyptic religious cult, with the added threat of a physically and emotionally abusive father, kept me in a continuous state of terror.  Scary movies and stories were not a genuine threat, I knew they weren’t real, but they could scare the hell out of me in a way that was fun and enjoyable and safe, and it was a release from the more real terrors I faced.  I wrote horror as a natural response to that, as a cathartic release.  It was a way of stabbing my middle finger in the air to all the fears that I lived with back then.

At the same time, I sought out comedy, anything that would make me laugh, whether it was Mad magazine or TV sitcoms.  The funny people who brightened my childhood were Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Totie Fields, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett — don’t get me started, I could go on like this for hours because, my god, the list is endless.  Even though I was an almost obsessive fan of horror and spent so much time watching and reading it and, in my own primitive and childish way, writing it, my secret desire was to be Rob Petrie when I grew up.  For those not familiar with the name, that was the character played by Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  He was the head comedy writer on The Alan Brady Show and wrote comedy in an office — with a piano, no less! — with Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers (incidentally, Dawn and I have cats named Buddy and Sally), writing monologues and sketches for the show, with occasional visits from Mel Cooley, Alan’s son-in-law.  That was my dream job.  Hell, it still is, even though I’ve since learned that a room full of working TV writers bears no resemblance to that today.  And it probably didn’t then.  I mean, it’s TV, so everything is softened, watered down.  Alan Brady never held Buddy Sorrell out of a window in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, high over Michigan Avenue, as Sid Caesar once did to Mel Brooks.

It was The Dick Van Dyke Show that made me start noticing the names in the credits — written by, created by.  Carl Reiner, the show’s creator, writer of 54 of the 158 episodes, and the man who played Alan Brady, was an early writing idol of mine, as were Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, who co-created and sometimes wrote Get Smart, along with Neil Simon, who wrote The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite and The Star-Spangled Girl and The Out of Towners and other things that made me laugh, along with so many other practitioners of what was, to me, an amazing and mysterious art.  I wanted to be them, too, when I grew up.  Or maybe I just wanted to be Jewish, I don’t know.  As a child, I was mystified by how they managed to get such an uncontrollable response from me as laughter.  Like I said, they were wizards.

How did they do it?  What kind of secret knowledge did they possess?  What they did seemed so impossibly far above me that I would never be able to reach it, like writing music or having a baby.  I knew what was scary and had some confidence that I could work within that, but the ability to create laughter out of thin air — that seemed like magic.  Like sawing a woman in half or making doves appear out of nowhere.  Of course, I soon learned that those things were merely manufactured illusion.  But generating laughter?  That is some real, genuine, unfakeable magic.

The pros make it look effortless.  A comedian walks onto the stage, goes to the microphone, and starts talking to us in a way that makes us laugh and makes us believe that those words are spontaneous, those movements and gestures and that body language are natural and unrehearsed.  A stand-up comedian is an actor, and as with all actors, the really talented ones convince you that they’re not acting, they’re just standing there, talking to you, and being funny.  But first, a stand-up comedian is a writer.  The entire performance on the stage is first written.  That’s a damned juggling act, and I am in awe of those who do it well.

When I write, I do it alone in my office, and when I’m done with the story or book, I deliver it to its destination, and move on to the next, which I also write alone in my office.  The worst thing that can happen to me as a writer is having to write a synopsis of a book, whether it’s one I haven’t written yet or one I have, it doesn’t matter.  I complain about this bitterly at every opportunity.  A stand-up comedian, on the other hand, then has to test the written material on stage in front of a group of strangers at various levels of inebriation.  What a terrifying thought!  The response is immediate — laughter or silence, possibly heckling.  (If you’re a novelist, now that I’ve made you consider that for a moment and imagine yourself having to do that with your work, you’re probably going to have nightmares about it.)

What I’m trying to say is that we tend to take comedians for granted and enjoy their work without ever giving any thought to precisely what it is they do while standing at that microphone.  It’s astonishing how much they have to master to convince us that they’re just telling us some funny stories and observations in a conversational way that happens to bend us over laughing.

When they leave us, people who have that talent and go to all that work to make us laugh always leave behind a painful silence once filled with laughter.  In the last five years, we have lost some spectacular talent in comedy.  People like Patrice O’Neal, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, David Brenner, John Pinette, Rick Mayall, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Jan Hooks, Taylor Negron, Mike Nichols, Reynaldo Rey, Rick Ducommun, Stan Freberg, Anne Meara, Jack Carter.  Garry Shandling is the latest, and unfortunately he will not be the last.  But like all of those other people, Shandling made us laugh in his own unique way.  Other comedians do impressions of his distinctive voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms, as they do of other legendary comedians from Jack Benny on, and they will be doing Shandling impressions for a long, long time to come, but they are only impressions.  They cannot not push our buttons in the way that only Garry Shandling could because they are not Garry Shandling.  No one is Garry Shandling.  Now, not even Garry Shandling is Garry Shandling.  He’s been cancelled.

But we still have the reruns.

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