The Social Beast of Comedy by William Klein

Last weekend, I attended the Lucille Ball Museum and National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, with some friends and family. Jamestown is the hometown and final resting place of comedy legend Lucille Ball. Ball’s last wishes were for the city to honor the art of comedy itself, hence, the unique placement of one of the greatest museums I’ve ever visited.

Lucy’s museum offers insights into how she and her husband Desi Arnaz formed one of the pioneering studios of television in tv’s golden era of Hollywood.

The National Comedy Center and Museum, a separate building, takes the visitor through the process of what makes something funny and pays tribute to those who are willing to risk all they have to make it happen. From creating a joke, building a character and mugging, to constructing, scripting, pacing, rhythm and punchlines, the center has it all. It’s easy to see the formulas created by comedians, it’s another thing to live it and practice it. The greats make it look easy.

The museum recognizes the roots of American comedy with the likes of Mark Twain and “Innocents Abroad” and early radio comedy from greats like Jack Benny and Burns and Allen. 

I personally thought about how scripture even documents the comedic persona of Jesus. Jesus refers to James and John as “sons of thunder,” which more than likely was a reference to their Jewish mother who wanted her boys to be seated at the right hand of the Father and made it known. Mud on the eye of a blind man was a funny bit, too. “Here’s to mud in your eye.”

As I was walking through the museum, I thought about the comedic greats and the bits that made me laugh. The Comedia del Arte’ stylings of Chaplin, Keaton, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy; the caustic and risqué political and social commentary of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Dave Chapelle; the Dean Martin roasts where no one was safe with the likes Don Rickles razzing a self-important celebrity; the situational genius of Tina Fey, Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, to the absurdist genius of the likes of Ernie Kovacs and Steve Martin. Not to mention the variety shows “SNL,” “Monty Python,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and others that shine a light on truth through farce and the folly of humanity.

Comedy can’t be taught. It has to be lived. Every person who’s ever breathed a breath of oxygen has done something funny whether he likes it or not. Mostly these funny bits have come from lapses of reason or a temporary disruption of the senses and the folly of situations that follow or unintentional events that inspire absurdity.

I had the honor of spending an evening with the comedic great Robin Williams a year before he died. He was kind and reflective that evening and quiet as he offered praise to his fellow comics for their work. He was generous with his time as we talked about life, his fame and some of the bits I remembered from his long career and the bits of other comedians.

When I posed the question to him about what makes a comedian great, the answer was simple. He grabbed my heart and shook it to make his point and said, “Whatever you do in life, in your art, be honest with yourself.” In other words, the truth will resonate with people if you pursue that truth with intentionality in whatever you do. That advice has stayed with me in life. Williams had just completed filming an improv and was sitting by the pool with his friend Mike Pritchard and myself.

Mike, a comedian himself, was instrumental in Williams’ life in helping him come back after a stint in rehab and Williams never forgot his friend’s generous spirit. Williams was known to improv when friends were hospitalized. Williams was also known for doing comedy wherever he went. My friend told me, “If there wasn’t a stage somewhere, Robin would make one out of the necessity to entertain.” He spent many years on street corners performing. 

There is something inherent in the act of laughter that is a necessity to survival. Pritchard, a comedic missionary character in his own right and a comedic troubadour who volunteers his time in the pursuit of lightening the load for others, goes to nursing homes to entertain people.

The great philosopher Henri Bergson wrote “On Laughter.” He summarized the importance of comedy because it was all about the disruption of complexity and the subversive nature of comedy to take us to another place by pointing to that which is true. It is a subtle inclination of exaggeration and the satire of everyday that resonates in personal ways and truth as we perceive it.

What stayed with me from the weekend was the genuine pleasure of being in the company of others looking to disrupt the natural order of the day. It was a meta-experience of comedy being reflected in the folly of being. Our common context for events in life and ability to quickly quip with unspoken contexts resonated. But some of the funniest moments were when we laughed at ourselves trying to be funny. “Ain’t that a kick in the pants?”

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