Sunday, May 31, 2009

Radio Memories: Laughter Through Tears

I’ve often wondered at the discomfiting relationship between comedy and tragedy. It used to be that the funniest comedians were those with the saddest life stories; I wonder if it’s still so.

It's an interest that's led me over the years to reading many biographies about the classic comedians whose work has me laugh the most. I’ve been startled to find a pattern repeated with such alarming frequency that I have come to understand it as the price for being funny... and a heavy cost it seems indeed.

Losing fathers to drink, losing mothers to madness, losing childhood friends to disease, losing all friends by constantly being on the move, the despairing childhoods alone would have brought their share of tears, but more suffering would follow many comedians into adulthood. Just off the top of my head: silent comedy giant Charlie Chaplin’s first child died three days after birth; Lou Costello lost his son Lou Jr just a few days short of his baby’s first birthday, on the day of a big radio broadcast no less; and a memory closer to our own time, Red Skelton’s son died of leukemia at the height of that comedian’s television career.

Is it some rite of passage for comedians that they must suffer, so that they can more clearly understand how desperately the world would benefit from their ability to cheer us on through our own personal heart-aches and tragedies? What happens if they don't suffer; is that what accounts for the cynical style we seem accursed with in our comedians today... is it because they've been spared the kind of pain that a large segment of humanity must contend with, day following depressing day... the cost of being human? And so instead of raising us all up, they seem so intent on bringing us all down?

Red Skelton’s father died shortly before he was born, and as a young boy he staggered under the loaded burden that life had dealt him, as he tried to do his share in supporting the rest of his family through their hard, hard times. One day that little boy simply sat on the front steps and cried the kind of tears that we would wish only on our worst enemies. (or so I remember the anecdote from Arthur Marx's bio of Red that I found back in the early 80s)

My wife tells me that Red’s old TV comedy series was a childhood favorite for her and many of her friends, but such reruns were unknown to me in Eastern Canada; I first came to know Red through re-broadcasts of the radio work he did before television. One rainy summer night after the last of his friends had moved away, a child who was terribly upset at the passing of his grandfather sat alone on his bed, tuned in to a far-away Philadelphia radio station, and by luck the static parted long enough for him to chance upon a new voice: Red Skelton, and a new philosophy for facing life: laughing at yourself. By the time the program was over, the youngster was sad no longer, his self-pity stilled by the self-deprecating comedy style that I’ve enjoyed, and embraced, ever since. To this day when life gets particularly rough, and I start again to feel sorry for myself, I turn to Red Skelton so as to teach myself how to laugh at myself, or at least how to look at my silly life and smile.

Every Sunday we pause in blogging about the ups and downs of life to take a moment to listen to some Radio Memories, echoes of days gone by, and the lessons we may learn from them through the magic of the theater of the imagination, radio drama. This week’s Radio Memories post is fondly dedicated to one of my favorite clowns: Red Skelton, who carried such burdensome memories of sad times, and yet still persevered to bring a special kind of joy into the world.

Red’s radio stardom may seem strange when we consider how renowned he later became for his pantomime skills; what a perfect clown he would be for the visual medium of television. He had to rely on different muscles to lift himself through his earlier successes in radio, even though the bare bones of his comedy style would remain in place at every stage of his career: a keen eye for the absurdities that are such a large part of human experience, and a healthy enough sense of humor that allowed him to keep channeling them, come what may.

He was going to need strength of yet another sort in the late 1950s when he learned of his only son’s fatal leukemia, and a decade later when his sick wife took her own life on the same date, ten years to the day of the death of their son. “The reason I chose this day, is so that you won’t feel bad twice in one year”, she explained in a note left behind in the wake of her suicide.

He was still going strong in the early 1990s when I used to see him performing in Toronto at the O'Keefe Center; delightfully, his visits would coincide with my birthday, a wonderful present I treasured at the time, for the renewal of memories that his visits would bring, and renewed inspiration that would accompany them.

I wish I had known at the time about this hour-long television interview, taped in advance of his 1992 concert appearance in Toronto. After being so fortunate to see him live a few times, it comes as no surprise that a guy so devoted to giving appreciative fans like me our money's worth would create a daily ritual that saw him start each day writing a love letter to his last wife.

How to pick just one radio show from Red's several years on the air, that can persuade a modern audience to fall in love with his self-kidding approach to comedy, as readily as I did those many years ago? His shows probably added years to my life, he's cheered me up so regularly over the decades, so it's a task I approached in the spirit I think Red would have approved:
I picked at random.

This episode was originally broadcast on June 6th, 1946, marking the end of Red's first season on the air after getting out of the army; his draft in 1944 had put his radio work on hold "for the duration", and there's a typical moment of humility at the end of this broadcast as Red shows his appreciation for the many listeners that welcomed his show back in their homes. But who could resist inviting a guest so ready to poke fun at himself, on the wings of theme music promising "It's Gonna Be A Great Day", making it just a little easier to laugh through our tears:

Sara: You’re a moron!
Red: And it’s getting so it’s nothing to be proud of… there’s so many of us now, y’know.

Previous Radio Memories posts:

Frontier Gentleman: Gambling Lady
Information Please: Guests Walter Duranty and John Gunther
The Aldrich Family: Cleaning The Furnace
Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates VE Day broadcasts from May 8 1945
You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock

1 comment:

Dag said...

I get it. When I poke fun at myself it's supposed to be funny. I forgot that part. Thanks yet again for a life lesson that will do me good for the duration.

I always love this feature, Charles.