Friday, September 10, 2010

On Death and Comedy

It is classic Hollywood folklore. On his deathbed, afflicted with pneumonia after suffering a stroke, the actor Edmund Gwenn overheard a friend comment that it was hard to die. His reputed response: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

The accuracy of Gwenn’s alleged final words is often disputed. Similar phrases have been attributed to Edmund Kean, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Still, the fact that the statement has been repeated over centuries and across oceans indicates that there is truth behind the sentiment.

Comedy is indeed difficult, perhaps because there is such a fine line between humor and pathos. Our best comics are not jokesters, but storytellers who inject laughter into autobiographical tales of struggle and pain, leaving the audience with the uneasy sense that they are laughing when they should not, like the child afflicted with uncontrollable giggles at church.

Richard Pryor was perhaps the best example of someone who drew humor from hardship. His standup routine delved into his formative years, growing up in his grandmother’s brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute. He spoke openly of his drug abuse and health issues, including a heart attack suffered in his thirties (likely the result of cocaine use), a freebasing incident that led to burns on more than half his body, and the multiple sclerosis that would eventually kill him at the age of sixty five. He has been described by many as the finest comic of the twentieth century.

Robert Schimmel, who died Friday at the age of sixty of injuries suffered last month in a car crash, was not as universally recognized or praised as Pryor. Yet similarities can be drawn between the two. Like Pryor, Schimmel focused his stories on painful life events, like the death of his three-year-old son and his battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I became aware of Schimmel when I heard part of his routine dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of his disease. He was unabashed and self-deprecating in recanting what was clearly a painful experience, inserting crude and often perverse humor to accentuate points or relieve tension.

Like Pryor, Schimmel was profane, appearing frequently on The Howard Stern Show, but receiving infrequent invitations from programs on network television. Also like Pryor, Schimmel battled personal demons. He was arrested in 2009 after an alleged confrontation with his second wife, who filed for divorce soon after.

Schimmel’s act has been described as raunchy and sexually explicit, and indeed it was. His stories were not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Yet, above all else, Schimmel’s stories were exceedingly honest, which is largely what made him one of the top American comics of the past twenty years.

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