Overnight, I read with astonishment and sadness that the popular comic, Richard Jeni, had died in a Los Angeles hospital, apparently from a suicide, by gunshot. According to reports, Jeni was found mortally wounded by police who had been summoned Saturday morning to a West Hollywood home. It is in the same vicinity of the untimely self-inflicted demises of two giants of comedy: Lenny Bruce and John Belushi. A coincidence? I think not. It is not so much that they died in places of close proximity, but what they all died of: comedy itself.
Comedy entertains millions and makes millions of dollars for gifted practitioners. But, I am convinced, comedy can also kill - not the audience - the comic, literally. Joking, trying to make light of life's unavoidable sadness and overwhelming unfairness, as well as ones' own personal demons, the most popular and commercial form of humor today if not always, can exacerbate the damage already present in performer's life. Sure, I know, laughter heals, like the platitude goes, but not everything.
Sometimes, a comedian, like anybody else, needs the real love or social justice that has previously escaped him or her, or treatment for that chemical imbalance or addiction, not to be laughed at by others. But emotionally injured people are encouraged by agents and promoters and audiences to neglect their own mental or physical health and turn to the comedy club stage or arena or movie screen to profit from the comic's ability to jocularize serious, unresolved and even dangerous dysfunctions of their personal lives or those of society. And there is a cost. Sometimes, too great.
I used to be a standup comic, but wised up and ran for my life. As Alec Baldwin's character says to Jack Lemmon's character and others in the ubermovie "Glengarry Glen Ross" regarding sales, another job from Hell, comedy is "a tough racket." Too tough for me and, apparently, a lot of other people who persisted, but had no more a way than I did to shield their humanity from the degenerative fallout from pretending night after night to paying audiences that pain and sorrow and abuse and obesity and poverty and hate and the like are funny. The toll for a practicing comedian is too high for a frail or sensitive soul, to traffic in the false minimalization of life's sorrows through humor, no matter how popular.
We are well versed in the struggles and pain in the lives of funny people like Richard Pryor, Chris Farley, Mitch Hedburg, Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Dave Chappelle - the list is too long to continue. The burden of comedy in a truly unfunny world might just be too onerous for some people to bear.
It is well known that rage fuels many comedians' and humorists' art, not a love for all humankind that makes them want to make people laugh, to bring joy to the masses. Mere levity is beside their point. Comedy provides these comics with a potent kind of weapon against the senselessness or savagery of life or their own particular tormentors, real or imagined, current or past. And the comedy industry provides these angry people with a public forum, an outlet to finally, miraculously, be heard. But the comic is rarely taken seriously by the masses, which is what these kinds of performers really want. So their victory turns out to be only temporary, and the demons of whatever nature or cause overtake him or her after all.
The nature of most popular comedy today - ruthlessly turning tragedy and injustice on its head for laughs - and the drunken and drug-addicted lifestyles of self-destruction the comedy industry promotes, could destroy anybody. And many times, they do just that.
It has been said that comedy is misfortune with a punchline. But without a punchline, comedy is just misfortune, as has now happened to Richard Jeni. What a funny, funny man he was! But whenever we laugh at a comic's punchline, we should ask, will the pain that might have inspired that wit also kill the clown?
so now, in turn, sadly, we must say, "Goodbye, Richard Jeni." But I also say, "No more." In America, people should be encouraged and supported to get the help they need to save their lives. And comics are people, too.
WORLD - AN EDGE IN MY VOICE
Copyright © 2010 Cecelia Hendryx
Comedy as Tragedy : This Time It's Richard Jeni
Copyright © 2010 Cecelia Hendryx
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