Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
This quip, or some variation thereof, has been attributed to just about every great comedian who has ever died. Few doubt that it’s true—particularly the second part—although even fewer understand how very true it is.
Of course, the only people who can fully appreciate the singular challenges of stand-up comedy are those who have actually done it. We who haven’t can only use our imaginations.
In light of the recent suicide of Robin Williams, our culture has come to conflate humor with sadness and dysfunction. As a rule, America’s funniest citizens are also its most insecure, owing either to a traumatic childhood (and/or adulthood) or some mental illness that cannot quite be accounted for.
“While I don’t know what percentage of funny people suffer from depression, from a rough survey of the ones I know and work with, I’d say it’s approximately all of them,” wrote David Wong of Cracked.com. “Comedy, of any sort, is usually a byproduct of a tumor that grows on the human soul.”
Reading such things, both before and after Williams took his own life, I could not help but think, “Thank God I’m not funny.” The gift of comedy might allow one to bring joy to millions, but if it also requires—and is a direct consequence of—incalculable misery within oneself, I would just as well do without. I understand the notion of “suffering for one’s art,” but personally, I’d prefer not to suffer and not be called an artist. Seems like a reasonable trade-off to me.
However, many folks are unwilling or unable to settle for a life of comfort and risk-aversion—they’re just too damned funny—and last week we lost another such specimen in the person of Joan Rivers.
Watching Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the 2010 documentary that follows its subject for a year and also serves as a career retrospective, we find a natural-born comedienne afflicted with all sorts of personal and familial quirks, but depression was not necessarily among them.
Rather, what the documentary portrays above all is a woman who achieved great fame and success as a comedic performer through good old-fashioned hard work. In so doing, it shows stand-up comedy itself to be not just a calling—something either you have or you don’t—but as a job like any other, requiring perseverance and resolve, raw talent and the understanding that you could be rejected a thousand times in spite of it, as Rivers most assuredly was.
There is one moment in particular in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work that brings the preeminence of a strong work ethic into sharp relief. It comes when Rivers directs us to an old filing cabinet in her Upper East Side penthouse—a set of drawers much like those one used to find in a library—and we are informed that it contains every joke that Rivers has ever written, organized alphabetically by subject matter.
In other words, Rivers didn’t become a comedy legend because she was depressed. She became a comedy legend because she harnessed every iota of comedic potential in her politically incorrect brain, wrote it down, worked it out, and never took a day off.
Certainly, one can do those things and also be depressed. One can also be a brilliant improvisational star, as Robin Williams was, without doing any particular prep work. No two comics work in exactly the same way.
What Rivers demonstrated, in any case, is that sometimes the secret to comedy is not as dark as we are often led to believe. Sometimes a clever mind, a strong constitution and a little bit of luck is all it takes.
The scene with Rivers’ filing cabinet put me in mind of an equally hard-working contemporary of hers, George Carlin. Known above all as a zany anarchist on stage, Carlin could easily give the impression of improvising on the spot. In fact, Carlin, who died in 2008, was a meticulous craftsman and wordsmith who spent months composing, revising and fine-tuning his act on paper before trying it out in front of an audience. He was as much a writer as a performer. It’s a testament to his skill at both that you would never know it from watching him.
Carlin was one other thing, too: happy. Raised by a single mother, he had a fairly typical childhood in an agreeable middle-class neighborhood in northern Manhattan. While he regularly went after the Catholic Church in his routines (along with every other religion), he insisted that his actual Catholic school experience was utterly benign and sometimes outright enjoyable. He was married to the same woman for 36 years (until her death), and then to another woman for 10 years (until his death). While he more than dabbled in every illicit substance he could get his hands on, his drug use never seemed to have a deleterious effect on his life or his career.
Perhaps Carlin is simply an anomaly in this respect, as he is in most other respects. Or perhaps he had demons like everyone else and was just really good at concealing them. We’ll never know for sure.
But so far as we can reasonably surmise, he was a normal, healthy guy who conquered the world of stand-up comedy through sheer determination and uncommon intellect, and without the supposedly necessary baggage of depression and perpetual discontent.
Much like Joan Rivers.