A Lesson From Mel Brooks

“Those who are creating humor and parody claim specific common experiences with those who are laughing at the joke.”

(Jenkins, Ford, and Green)

Yes, Mel Brooks, a man that everyone should definitely know at some point in their lives. For me, I was introduced very early with Young Frankenstein, which made it to my top childhood comedy influences in film. Although I love Mel Brooks with all my heart and consider him to be a genius and one of the greatest writers and directors out there, some people don’t appreciate his work. Why is that?

A lot of people don’t like the sense of parody in film, the idea that a film is mocking one thing or another. However, if I could play devil’s advocate for a moment, I would like to go against those that say that. Are there bad parody movies? Oooooh yes, and I’m sure we all can name a handful of ones we’d like to lock away forever. In Brooks’ terms though, a parody is a work of art. Parodies allow us to let loose for a brief moment, get us laughing, while also reflecting on what the movie is parodying. Young Frankenstein? Mary Shelley’s classic novel. Spaceballs? Star Wars. Blazing Saddles? Westerns and the culture surrounding them.

Blazing Saddles is always the one to get the controversy. Even Mel Brooks claims it would never get released in today’s society. Yes, the language is crude and inappropriate at times, but I would argue that Brooks’ writing and directing help us reflect on how African Americans were treated and how they still are treated in the country, and this all happens as he makes us laugh hysterically. It’s genius. To use humor in order to have those reflect on themselves and the behavior of others. All from a parody. Mr. Brooks is and will always remain a hero of mine. His decades of making people laugh are ones that I can only dream of being able to have as well.

“Life literally abounds in comedy if you just look around.”

-Mel Brooks

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Learning From Don Rickles

How can we tell the difference between a joke and an insult? It seems like a simple separation, but in reality, the line can become very thin over time.

In the words of Jenkins, Ford and Green,

“..a joke expresses something a community is ready to hear; an insult expresses something it doesn’t want to consider”

Let’s take Don Rickles into consideration. Though he recently passed away on April 6, 2017 at the ripe ol’ age of 90, he will remain in the reign of comedy legends.

(and for the kids at home that don’t know this man by the picture below, maybe you’ll know him by his sarcastic, wise-cracking animated alter-ego, Mr. Potato Head from the Toy Story trilogy).

Known as the Equal Opportunity Offender, Rickles’ jokes were finger pointed at everyone.

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He didn’t leave anyone out, making his shows a laughing pit for everyone to enjoy. Instead of singling out one, he singled out everyone, an extremely intelligent move. It was because of this that no one found his jokes insulting to the point of controversy. Everyone could take his jokes because, well, they knew they were just jokes.

In his own words,

“I laugh at the blacks, the whites, the purples…”

I think plenty of comedians can take a note or two thousand from Mr. Rickles. Making fun of everyone brings joy to everyone. Making fun of one person or group causes controversy because of the idea of singling out that singular person or group. Don knew better than that and knew that everyone was equally available to be made fun of. It made him a legend, one that mustn’t be forgotten.

My Movie Comedy Influences As A Child

I didn’t simply wake up one morning and find a love for comedy, as I’m sure none of us did. It took VHS tape after VHS tape and countless viewings as a kid to form the love I have for it today. Now, I’m aware parents today would never let their children watch some of the movies I watched as a toddler, but my mom is cool….she also was studying to get her teaching degree and was in another room in the house. SO that being said, these are (in no particular order) the comedy movie influences I had as a child.

#1: Tommy Boy (1995)

Ok remember how I just said these are in no particular order? That was a lie because if anything influenced me as a kid, this was it. I was three years old and my aunt gave me and my brother a VHS copy of this movie and from that moment on, the movie was playing everyday. I had never followed a movie so thoroughly, for christ’s sake, I was three. This movie taught me a great deal of sarcasm, slapstick, as well as tug at my heartstrings at certain moments. It also taught me to keep my mouth shut sometimes, as I got in serious trouble for threatening a fellow preschooler with “wailing on him”. Oops.

This was the foundation for my love of Chris Farley and there’s no other movie that influenced my love of comedy quite as much as this one.

#2: Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

I know, I know, I’ve professed my love of Robin Williams plenty of times on this site before but….come ooooon! I can’t talk about childhood influences without him. As a kid who had divorced parents for the duration of my life, this movie held a special place in my heart for teaching me that it was ok. It taught kids that having separated parents didn’t mean you didn’t have a family. It showed the hardships of divorce and the nastiness of court hearings and custody battles, while also making audiences laugh away at a father’s determination to go as far as impersonating a British nanny in order to see his children.

To this day, I can’t watch it without crying.

#3: Young Frankenstein (1974)

I’m convinced this movie aged me by forty years after watching it so many times. Gene Wilder captivated me with his descent into madness, but it was Marty Feldman’s performance as Igor that had me acting out scenes to my mother. It gave me a sense of goofiness and a touch of insanity to my joke telling.

This is my favorite Mel Brooks movie and if the world worked my way, everybody would have seen this by the time they turn thirteen. There’s never been a parody movie like it since and in my opinion, none could top it.

#4: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Another movie that aged me by forty years and left the kids in my classroom scratching their heads as I quoted it religiously. This movie is set in stone ridiculous. It’s a movie that can be quoted relentlessly and for good reason. Watching it now, it’s understandable to see a child watching this and laughing uncontrollably.

The gore of the Black Knight, the killer rabbit, Patsy being the pack mule of the group, this movie is always a refreshing and laugh-filled watch. It will never go out of style.

#5: The Mask (1994)

I’m surprised I didn’t ruin this VHS tape with how often I rewatched it. This was the movie that introduced me to the whirlwind that is Jim Carrey, and I remember being enthralled with this man’s physicality on screen. He is a ball of energy for an hour and forty minutes and you better believe I learned from him. Not to mention that great Cuban Pete musical number.

Those were some of my childhood movie influences into the world of comedy, but what about yours? I feel like nostalgia has always been a major component in the way we view media today, so I’d love to hear from you all about what movies influenced you and brought you into the world of comedy.

Foreign Demons

Addiction is something that comedians aren’t strangers to. We all can think of one, two, fifty comedians that have struggled with addiction through out their lives. With those who fought and defeated their demons, others lost. John Belushi, Chris Farley, Mitch Hedberg, the list is nearly endless. While we see many comedians that lose their lives to personal vices, what about the ones that die not because of their vices, but because of someone else’s?

When I think about this topic, the two names that come to mind are Phil Hartman and Sam Kinison, two very notable names in the world of comedy.

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Phil Hartman, well known for his days on Saturday Night LivePee Wee’s Playhouse, News Radio, and The Simpsons, was no stranger to vices.

He himself struggled with drug addiction for some time, but he got clean with the support of his wife, Brynn. Brynn was also an addict and thought that the two of them could work together to get sober for their two children. While Phil followed the clean path, Brynn continued to use and her mental state only got worse. On the night of May 28, 1998, Brynn shot Phil in the head as he slept. After calling a friend and confessing what she had done, the same friend drove over and saw the body himself. As the police were notified, Brynn laid down next to her husband and turned the gun on herself. The police escorted the couple’s two children from the home and the couple were pronounced dead on arrival.

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Being that I was exactly four months old at the time of his murder, I went to a source that I know was affected greatly by his loss, my mother.

“I remember that I was absolutely devastated… I couldn’t move away from the tv and I was horrified that his wife would have killed him while the kids were in the house.. the emotional impact was great because I think you were just a baby and I was really upset for his kids… I loved Phil from News Radio… I think when comedians die, it’s always sad but for him to have been killed in that way it was even worse..”

My mother is the reason I grew up loving Phil Hartman and his encyclopedia of impressions. It’s a shame for him and it’s a shame for his children that had to grow up in the press because of a horrific event that should have never taken place.

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Sam Kinison was recognized for his screaming outbursts on stage and his outrageous material, including wishing his ex wife would die.

Sam was also known to merge the world of comedy with rock and roll, having reckless shows filled with loud bikers and blaring music. With this title came a surplus of drugs and alcohol. Though many predicted Sam’s early demise, they never expected it to happen the way it did. In fact, Sam was beginning to clean up his act and was sober at the time of his death. On April 10, 1992, Sam was driving to a show with his wife of just six days when a truck with two drunk teenagers, the driver being 17 year-old Troy Pierson, slammed head on into Sam’s car. His wife survived, but Sam stumbled out of the car and collapsed on the road. His brother who was driving behind him, ran out to tend to Sam. When he got to Sam’s body, Sam was speaking to someone that wasn’t there. His brother recalls, “…he suddenly said to no one in particular, ‘I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.’ LaBove later said, ‘it was as if he was having a conversation, talking to someone else, some unseen person.’ Then there was a pause as if Kinison was listening to the other person speak. Then he asked ‘But why?’ and after another pause LaBove heard him clearly say: ‘Okay, okay, okay.’ LaBove said, ‘The last ‘okay’ was so soft and at peace … Whatever voice was talking to him gave him the right answer and he just relaxed with it.'”

When such talent is taken away for no reason, it’s a disaster. The world is deprived of laughter because of another’s vices. Had it not been for Brynn Hartman and Troy Pierson, Phil Hartman and Sam Kinison could still be here making us laugh today. Robbed of their lives, it’s important to remember to cherish life. It’s one of the most cliche phrases in the book, but in reality, it’s a vital lesson. These men were taken far too quickly from their lives. Yes, life can bear a lot of demons, be it yours or someone else’s, but before you know it, the world can go black. In the end, life can be taken away with one pull of the trigger or one wrong turn on the road.

The Hidden Truth

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We all know what comedians do, right? They make us laugh. It’s been a universal gift to be able to get a crowd of people choking on their breath and gasping for air. With a world full of laughter, it brings the question: why are almost all comedians depressed? A path of destruction has awaited numerous comedians, including my favorites. From John Belushi’s fatal speedball to Richard Pryor’s infamous suicide attempt, comedians display a side to them that no one in a comedy club wishes to see.

The answer is plain and simple: comedy stems from tragedy. Why do people want to make others laugh? It gives them a sense of joy and pride. Have you ever had a joke nail at a party around a group of people? Remember the sense of happiness it brought you to see everyone around you laughing at what you said? It’s exactly like that. If you’ve experienced that, you also know that the high doesn’t last forever. That’s the sad truth.

Many comedians come from broken homes and grow up in harsh environments. They’ve experienced extreme measures of sadness, therefore, they want to numb any sadness that audiences are having through their jokes. Take for example, a comedy legend like Richard Pryor. I’m not going to go into the extreme details of his life because that’s for another time, but Pryor’s childhood was filled with events that would traumatize any kid forced to experience them. Therefore, he used jokes to block out the memories of his past. This is a character referred to as, The Sad Clown.

When I was young, I learned very quickly that humor gave me attention and happiness. Growing up with a shy personality, an older brother that got all of the attention in the family, and a later diagnosed case of depression, I knew I had to find something to stand out, and it turned out to be comedy. If I could get everyone at the dinner table to laugh, I knew I’d make a lasting impression. I watched countless hours of SNL and I began staying up late and watching Pryor specials and learning how to talk like a comedian, how to learn the language and onstage presence that mesmerized me. School was my area to test out on not just friends, but teachers as well. I found I was interested more in making the teachers laugh than my friends laugh. Teachers were out of my range, they were older, but I knew the culture that they knew, and I used it to my advantage. It gave me happiness, unlike anything had ever given me. The thing I noticed afterwards was exactly what I described earlier, the high was temporary. So much so that I would spend a day at school making my classmates laugh, then the rest of the night I’d be huddled in my room as soon as I got home.

While I know some readers may not be happy with me sharing my opinion, my say is my say. My opinion will never change, comedy stems from tragedy and you can look at any comic living or dead and find tragedy in their lives. Comedy has a hidden truth to it, and it’s one that I and many others can relate to. Laughter distracts from pain, and as long as we’re making others feel happiness, the truth remains hidden.

 

Picture Credit: http://www.theblackguywhotips.com/2018/01/07/1591-spanking-the-sad-clown/

Article: https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/01/health/sad-clown-standup-comedy-mental-health/index.html