Friday, October 8, 2021
Monday, October 4, 2021
Sunday, October 3, 2021
It was a long time ago, but the pope got shot back in the 1980s. I'm pretty sure that it was the 1980s. It was that Polish pope that everybody but me liked. I woke up to NPR on the clock radio, as usual, “Morning Edition,” and they were talking about it. The pope remained, infuriatingly, alive, but it was exciting to think that the world could continue to generate such wonderful news while your city was blissfully asleep. Discovering who had died overnight became my first article of business every morning. The practice is usually disappointing.
Most often, no one newsworthy has died at all. There is always the chance that the recently deceased will be someone that you liked, loved, or at least respected. Then you must begin to feel bad within minutes of waking up. The rewards, however, can be great. Perhaps someone like Justice Scalia has died! Your coffee is suddenly more delicious; there is an extra spring in your step. You can wear your red socks to work and plan on pizza for dinner, because it has just become a holiday!
Or, thanks to our social-media addiction, it may be a friend of yours. We live in a web of instant human interaction that is vast and efficient. Wherever in the world you happen to be hanging your hat, you will be notified within hours of the death of someone that is close to your heart.
This happened to me the other day. Social media isn't my first stop in the morning. I'm past my second cup of coffee by the time I look at Facebook. I'm old fashioned. I read the news first. The New York Times comes first, although I do try to keep my exposure to the political news to a minimum. I'd rather read the stories about how that bully-ghetto girl Dasani did up at the private school, or that new batch of homo denisiva bones discovered in a cave in Mongolia or something. What kind of house can you buy for $350,000 these days? What awful painter has become the new big thing in the art world? Then I go over to Facebook.
It's usually just more of the same, but a couple of days ago there was a big surprise. My friend Sandy was dead. I hadn't heard anything about any particular disease, so I think that it was one of those “sudden collapse” kind of things. A stroke; a heart attack. Whatever, Sandy was gone. He was five or six years older than me, so you can't say it was a shock.
(Sandy in the middle; number three on the right.)
Sandy, Santo, was one of the very tough boys in my town. I don't remember him from the old days at all, due to the age difference, but I don't think he was a bully about it. Many boys in my town just loved to fight, and the decent ones kept the muss to other fighters. He grew up fine. He was in construction, and he became a general contractor with his own crew. He used to show pix of his jobs on FB, but I haven't seen any for a while. Maybe he had retired. He did big restorations, inside, outside, hardscaping, all around the house. He and his crew did beautiful work. Interestingly, coming from my very racist town, his crew was all black. From the looks on their faces, it seemed like he was a decent boss.
I was happy and flattered to know him. We got along fine, even though there was a vast chasm separating our politics. You know how it is: you just try to avoid the subject.
Sandy was the oldest of four boys in his family. They were a mixed bag. Number three was my age, and he never bothered anybody that I heard about. He was one of the band guys, played guitar and sang. I liked him, although I never got to know him.
(Number two in Vietnam. Look at the size of those hands!)
Number two was the terror of the town, and the family too, if they want to admit it. He was big, mean, fast, and as tough as nails. He also had an impulse control problem. Sandy and number two had a physical trait than ran in the family. Their father, and their uncle Santo (namesake!), both had enormous, powerful hands. The father, and the uncle, and Sandy, and number two, made fists and it looked like they were holding bowling balls. They knew how to use them, too. They were good "from both sides, from the left or the right.” Unlike Sandy, number two was a bully, and he had a group of friends that most of us tried our best to avoid. Especially if it was after seven o'clock or so, because by then they would have been drinking.
Number four had a chip on his shoulder, plus he knew that no one would mess with him because of number two. I also tried to avoid him.
I knew Sandy on line for ten years or so. Not just exchanging comments. We did chat occasionally. He even left some messages on my blog. I liked the guy a lot. He was a good friend to a huge number of guys and girls that he remembered from grade school on up, and from adulthood as well. Everybody loved him. He was actually “larger then life.” He even made a small corner in his life for a nothing little wise-ass like me, politics notwithstanding.
About an hour after I had read the news, I was doing the dishes and this came into my head:
The great and the small
All answer death's call,
On the day when the sun never sets.
If you've had your time,
Children, women, and wine,
Just shut up, that's as good as it gets.
I'm sure that Sandy wouldn't be complaining, if he were here to let us know how he feels about the whole thing.
God speed, Santo. You had a good run. You helped a lot of people, and you were a good friend to many. A life well lived never really fades, as long as somebody remembers.
Saturday, October 2, 2021
Friday, October 1, 2021
There are many kinds of comedians. There are joke tellers; story tellers; physical comedians; comedians who do impersonations; comedy dancers; expression comedians; comedy magicians; comedy jugglers. There's a lot of variety here. People like to laugh, and from an early age there are many other people who live to make them laugh.
The ranks of the dead are full of geniuses in every category of comedy greatness. The lists in every category grow daily, as a result of the unforgiving nature of the human condition. We lost our greatest living joke teller last week. That would be Norm MacDonald.
First, a bit of clarification. There are two major categories of joke tellers: short form and long form. Short form joke tellers include Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, and Soupy Sales. “Take my wife . . . please!” They don't come much shorter than that. Berle had a memory that would make every elephant on earth blush, then bow to him and say, “master, thou hast bested us by a long shot.” Berle remembered every joke that he had ever heard, I mean stole, I mean heard. He had a million jokes at the tip of his tongue. Berle was on the Howard Stern show in the 1990s, and Houch was obviously a fan. “I bet you have jokes on every imaginable subject. Can we try it? I'll throw a topic at you and you tell the joke.” Berle was game. Howard says, “motherhood.” Within a millisecond, Berle says, “young woman is walking down the street. A cop comes over and says, 'lady, do you know that one of your breasts is hanging out of your blouse?' Woman looks down and says, “damn! I left the baby on the bus!”
Maybe that's Catskill humor. Maybe that was an anti-Semitic remark. When the maybes start stacking up, it's best to quit while you're ahead.
Norm MacDonald was a long form joke teller. Five minutes was a typical length for one joke. All the while, Norm would be building tension with cute bits, funny bits, awkward bits, dialog sections, sly side-eyes, and by the end, even the people in the joke are often crying out for the punchline. Then he'd drop it, and it killed. Norm was a genius.
He's not the only one. Comedy heaven is full of them. We have been fully capable homo sapiens for a long time now, and I'm certain that there were comedians among us long before even the appearance of language. Old Og, pretending to drop a rock on his foot, jumping around holding the foot in his hands and making faces. Or Og, pretending to hit his head on a branch while walking in the forest. I'd bet on it. You could get laughs with those visual jokes today. Those people had our brains, so of course they could laugh. They also had tough lives, which traditionally has caused humans to seek relief in comedy.
One of the classical theories of comedy is as simple as, “something happening to someone else, instead of happening to you.” Like someone slipping on a banana peel. The Greek philosophers knew that over two thousand years ago. We laugh with relief. The odds are that someone was noticing that laughter at other people's misfortune two-hundred thousand years ago. And some ancient Jerry Seinfeld noticed the laughter and figured out that he could harness that power.
Sometimes it's hard to tell if the comedian is telling a joke or a story. The punchline, if there is one, may not be enough to clear up the confusion. I guess that if there is sufficient laughter, it was a joke.
Lenny Bruce was like that. I have lost access to my records, but my collection included a couple of Lenny Bruce LPs. There's a bit on one that goes on for a good ten minutes. Lenny delivers it in his usual hipster-junkie mumble. You're listening, and there are real laughs in it, but you're not sure what the subject of the piece is. At whose expense is this bit going to be funny? Whose ox will be gored? Will it be rich people? Drunks? Barflies? Dog owners? Where is this guy going with this bit? You never find out. The bit resolves in a pseudo-punchline, which is definitely a gag line, but what the fuck was that all about? One person and one dog die in the final set up line.
The punchline? “Wow, he is tough,” delivered laconically by the owner of the dead dog.
Norm wasn't afraid to kill people in his jokes either. I have put up Norm's “Dirty Johnny” joke a few times, but they always take it down. It's probably back now, and you should look it up. Try “norm macdonald dirty johnny.” Add, “uncle terry.” Maybe try, “the hatchery.” It's up there somewhere, disguised by now due to the intense interest of the license holders, our new gods. Norm had a separate genre of “Andy Richter” jokes, and those are also very funny.
No one could tell a joke like Norm. Some of our great comedians, however, have been all over the place. Hard to pin down. Like Richard Pryor.
Richard Pryor mixed jokes, impersonations, physical humor, characters, social commentary, and story telling in his act. He did it all at the speed of light. He could make a joke about the interaction of a drunken black man and some white police funny. And he was allowed to do the one I'm thinking of on the Ed Sullivan show.
Ed always looked like a stiff, but he was actually pretty hip.
The drunk is on the corner, addressing people at random. Richard is in character. A police car drives up.
“Hey, you! Have you seen Johnny Wilson?”
Richard's drunk answers, “I ain't seen nobody since 1992. I thought I was blind till I seen you two drive up.”
That was Richard, cleaned up for TV.
Robin Williams mixed things up in a similar way, always moving as though he had just been hit by lightening. Jack Benny could get gales of laughter from a radio audience with fifteen seconds of dead air! (They had all seen him in movies, and they knew he was striking his typical pose, with arms folded and one hand on his cheek while looking off into the distance.) The Marx Brothers took whatever situation they were in to the bleeding edge of chaos, with Groucho occasionally pausing to address the audience directly through the camera. They kept themselves surrounded by an army of straight-men (and women) whose exasperation grew by the minute. Contrast the Marx Brothers with Buster Keaton, who remained silent even as the movies began speaking, so stone faced that he did not appear even to be breathing. W.C. Fields had a long and very remunerative run as a world famous juggler in Vaudeville. As age and heavy drinking took the edge off of his skills, he invented the concept of comedy juggling. He was the first to juggle cigar boxes and hats, often using canes. As the number of film studios in New York multiplied, Fields answered the call for famous names. He invented a durable character and moved from Vaudeville to films, where he could concentrate more on his drinking. (Making the drinking a part of the act was a stroke of genius.)
There are too many to name. They're dead, so they won't mind if I neglect to mention them. Now Norm is also dead.
I don't believe in a real heaven, and if heaven there was, the chances of its being rather dull are very high. I've read the Bible, and one thing you can say for sure about Yahweh, that God had no sense of humor. Unless you think Yahweh telling Abraham to kill his favorite son was funny. “Aw, come on, Abe! I was just fucking with you!” I don't care for jokes like that, myself.
Those guys and girls that I mentioned earlier, the comedians, are just gone, baby, gone. Gone like Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu. Gone under 17,000 feet of water, and that, my dear, is really gone. (Moment of silence for the sailors who went down with them.)
And a silent prayer of thanks to all of those comedians over the years who made our lives a bit easier. Who gave us hours of relief as we watched our own lives drain away and the entire world go to hell around us. How about a sincere “thank you” to all of the living, working comedians, and the writers who feed them such wonderful lines. Can you imagine the world without them? I can't.