Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Comedians laugh because they do not want to cry

Posted on August 17, 2014 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 17, 2014 – 12:00am

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I love comedians. I love watching comedy. Good comedians, in my view, are some of the most awesome people in the world. They can fill a dreary moment with laughter and lightness, and gift us with the feeling that all is right with the world. It’s almost as if they control the reset button that can change our disposition from sad to happy.

Robin Williams was one such comedian. It is no wonder that the world reacted with deep sadness and loss when he died a few days ago. It’s as if a very bright light in the world suddenly dimmed.

I felt the loss personally. I have been an ardent follower of his comedy from his earliest days. I watched in awe as he shared his genius on TV and in the cinema. He was witty, compassionate and inspiring. He was my idol.

I admired his genius and his audacity to be completely himself. He trusted his talent and allowed it to go beyond places where others dared not tread. Robin could comment on anything and his takes were always brilliantly funny, like precious gems spilling out of his mouth. He could talk about religion, politics, social behavior, personalities — anything — and often came up with absolutely hilarious and outrageous insights. Robin was always spot-on.

Many were surprised that his sudden demise was brought about by severe depression. It was a suicide. While I, too, was shocked by that, I could somehow understand it on some level.

Having been in showbiz for a long time, I have managed to meet and hang around with all types of people, comedians among them. Let me just say that there is so much more to comedians than you will ever see on stage.
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They come in different shapes and styles. There are purveyors of slapstick, the cerebral funny men, the self-deprecating, etc. There are also impersonators and those who get their laughs by picking on other people. And there are those who do not need to do anything since they have earned the reputation of simply being funny, so anything they do elicits laughs from their audience.

For those who do it for a living, comedy is a mode of thinking, and of being. Comedians turn it “on” when they are performing or are around people. When they are good, they are quick and sharp as knives, fabulous, lovable, hilarious, and completely charming. They have great timing and can thoroughly destroy any defense you may put up against having a good time. They can conquer you effortlessly like a magician who pulls large chunks of surprise and delight out of a hat.

But there is a side to comedians that the public hardly sees. You have to be in close physical or emotional proximity to them to experience it. I am talking about the pain that many comics harbor deep inside. Many comedians are wounded human beings; I would even use the word neurotic to describe some of them. And doing comedy may be the fastest and surest pathway for them to deal with the pain.

An Italian writer who once mused why people do comedy answered his own question with, “We laugh because we do not want to cry.”

I have seen many comedians, big and small, old and young, newbies and established, on various occasions. They are a study of contrasts. During their “off” days, when they are not “performing” for anyone, they can be very quiet, pensive, somewhat withdrawn, and are often not eager for conversation, especially when they are expected to be funny.

Some of them could engage in serious conversation without going anywhere near anything funny. I have seen some comedians get drunk, and believe me, they are anything but charming. On such occasions, it’s as if they are wrestling with their demons. Sometimes, I feel that their funny moments onstage are their respite from pain.

Comedy is performance. It involves creating material, timing, confidence, delivery and showmanship. I know how great it feels to pull off a critically successful show. It is a high like no other.

But offstage, it is something different. One may want to be in “off” mode. One can be caught off-guard and not be funny in any way. I know a comedian who seems very friendly but who can actually be bitingly mean-spirited and cynical. To the audience that only sees a comic’s smiling face, it can be shocking to see one in a foul mood. Social critic and philosopher Mokokoma Mokhonoana observed: “Ninety eight percent of all comedians feel obliged to be funny when interviewed. Less than two percent succeed.”

It has been said that comedy is tragedy, plus time. Given a few years, everything, even tragedy, can become comedy material. But the comic pays a high price when he makes a joke out of tragedy that has not been totally “processed” by the audience. Up to now, few comics in the US dare make jokes about 9/11.

Sometimes, just the fact of being a comedian can cost a person. While others can deal with pain and suffering in the usual way, the comic must process his own pain and somehow make it palatably funny. Or he may deny his own pain and use the pain of others for his or her comic material.

As the comedian Jim Jeffries pointed out, “Some comedians have to invent crazy stuff for themselves. I’m lucky. Crazy situations just seek me out, and I’ve learned to exploit the bad stuff for laughs.”

Whatever kind of comedian one may be, the comic’s job is to deal with whatever is playing in his or her life, and squeeze some humor out of it.

0 to “Comedians laugh because they do not want to cry”

  1. Erika says:

    I usually have a hard time reading longer articles but your writing is the first really unpretentious reading I’ve encountered regarding our loss of Robin Williams.

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