Sometimes I think that Laughter is as good a measure of quality of life as anything else. Love, money, family, career achievement, philanthropy (in all senses), cool stories to tell are all ways to measure your life, but I sometimes think the number, frequency, and quality of the laughs you get are as important a gauge as anything else.
"He who dies with the most laughs wins." Something like that.
There was some recent research that said the average adult laughs 17 times during the day, while the average four-year-old laughs between 300 and 400 times a day. Those figures seem off to me. I think I laugh a lot more than 17 times a day. (Of course, that depends on how you categorize "laughing inwardly." Do Inward Laughs count? If so, my Laughter Count would definitely be in the hundreds. Living life today is all about seeing – and seeing through -- its absurdity.) Humor is an important weapon – both offensive and defensive – to be used in one's daily struggle with this crazy world.
As Mark Twain once said, "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand."
Here are five who have shaped my sense of humor and world view, in addition to enriching my life with laughter:
When the Big Book of Comedy is finally written, Woody Allen will merit an entire chapter. Woody has made me laugh ever since he came on the scene in the early 60s. I would try to catch his every TV appearance, whether he was on Jack Paar or Steve Allen or Dick Cavett or Merv Griffin or Ed Sullivan. I listened to his comedy records over and over again, until I had them virtually memorized. His humor was so smart and strange, real yet absurd, precise yet fanciful, that my young teenage brain virtually assimilated his way of looking at things. I absorbed his sense of humor, making it mine.
He's made some great movies (ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS) and a lot of bad ones. There are enormous laughs in the early comedies like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and BANANAS. He's made 50 movies, and that is way too many. He seems to be content to spit out a movie a year without much attention to craft anymore. His movies seem to hit or miss at random now. He should slow down and make better movies. But he has an expensive life style and has to keep cranking them out.
The Tiny Goddess worked with him on a couple of movies, and he was nice enough to her. But he's no model citizen, for sure. I believe that he thinks of himself and his work before he thinks of other people. But I think when you possess that kind of Genius, the genius kind of possesses you, and you have to do everything you can in order to protect It. Or I like him so I'm willing to find excuses.
Here is his famous "I shot a moose" routine from British TV
Woody Allen – first appearance on Jack Paar – from 1962
Woody on Dick Cavett – discussing particle physics
And here are some of my favorite of his one-liners. It's this abstract stuff that I love the most:
I have bad reflexes. I was once run over by a car being pushed by two guys.
Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage.
Man consists of two parts, his mind and his body, only the body has more fun.
It is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light, and certainly not desirable, as one's hat keeps blowing off.
When I was kidnapped, my parents snapped into action. They rented out my room.
The government is unresponsive to the needs of the little man. Under 5'7", it is impossible to get your congressman on the phone.
What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely paid too much for my carpeting.
Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Sunday.
I can't listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.
I'm very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch.
My luck is getting worse and worse. Last night, for instance, I was mugged by a Quaker.
Some guy hit my fender, and I told him, 'Be fruitful and multiply,' but not in those words.
When we played softball, I'd steal second base, feel guilty and go back.
Basically my wife was immature. I'd be at home in my bath and she'd come right in and sink my boats.
My father was a very insignificant man: he was a caddie at a miniature golf course.
In the event of war, I'm a hostage.
I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.
When I wasn't listening to Woody Allen records, I'd listen to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's TWO THOUSAND YEAR OLD MAN records. Over and over again. And to later find out that those routines were all improvised(!) made me – and a million other people – realize that we were listening to an extraordinary comic mind at work. (Two, in fact: give credit to Carl Reiner, an amazing straight man.)
And then came THE PRODUCERS and TWELVE CHAIRS and finally BLAZING SADDLES whose success trapped Mel in a long, semi-successful future doing gag-laden movie parodies. Nothing was as great as the early records and first two-thirds of "The Producers" (before Dick Shawn as LSD comes in and ruins the whole thing), but whenever Mel appeared anywhere, he was always the fastest man with the funniest joke.
But I am not alone in valuing Mel's comic genius. As he himself says, he is not only an EGOT (for winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony): he is an EGOTAK (that's for winning the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony, AFI Life Achievement Award, and Kennedy Center Honors.)
If there were a Nobel Prize for Comedy, he'd probably win that, too.
"THE PRODUCERS " – Original Trailer
MEL BROOKS & CARL REINER – THE 2000 YEAR-OLD MAN
THE MARX BROTHERS
I've loved the Marx Brothers ever since I can remember. They must have showed some of their movies -- DUCK SOUP, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, A DAY AT THE RACES – on local New York TV a million times when I was a child because they are in my comic bones.
The Marx Brothers still give me big laughs. Groucho's approach to the world at large – anything for a laugh, puncture and ridicule pomposity and humbug, love women, pursue your dream with a savage joy, nothing is sacred – is maybe 3% of my world view. But it is an essential part of my nature, even if it's hidden deep inside.
Here are some immortal scenes:
The Stateroom Scene from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
"The Sanity Clause" scene from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
DUCK SOUP – "The Mirror Scene" (the one Lucy replicated with Harpo on her TV show)
Here are some classic Groucho-isms:
I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.
Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.
I remember the first time I had sex - I kept the receipt.
Go, and never darken my towels again.
I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it.
When I was a kid, the Marx Brothers just seems to be silly and fun. As I got older, I began to see the anarchic subversive nature of their humor. They were seriously funny, all along. That's why they were cultural heroes to the Dadaists and Surrealists.
I can't count the number of times I've watched the first Richard Pryor concert film, and it makes me laugh hard every time. For me, it almost defines comedy. Pauline Kael (and does she need identification now?) said that Pryor deserved the Best Actor Oscar for this film. His magnificent heart-attack scene with himself, his heart, and an Angel in heaven is priceless.
Pryor is more than just funny: he is a Truth-Teller. I think that's why he's left such a strong imprint on the world of comedy. Pryor wasn't afraid to dig deep, to explore uncomfortable feelings, in order to find comic gold. I think Lenny Bruce was the first comic to do this, but Lenny wasn't all that funny. Pryor is.
Pryor tested cultural limits and drove himself and his audience into some uncomfortable places. Lots of drugs, lots of marriages, but lots of amazing comedy.
"RICHARD PRYOR: Live in Concert" – the complete film (as good as it gets)
Richard Pryor – stand-up routine on "The Midnight Special"
Richard Pryor – more stand-up
MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS
I'm not sure if I've watched all forty-seven episodes of "Monty Python's Flying Circus", but I've seen most of them. I used to record them on VHS when they were broadcast on Channel 13 in New York on Sunday nights, many years ago. Now I have the complete set on DVD, one of my big Christmas presents a few years ago.
What I love about the Pythons is their unique combination of high and low humor. They found a way to fuse high intellectual, academic comedy with low slapstick, creating a new comic substance that required a new word: "Pythonesque."
Whenever I go on a plane, I take a disc of Pythons with me. And if I watch it, I laugh out loud and embarrass the TG. But I can't help it: they are laugh-out-loud funny. These guys – all together (John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam) – constitute a Super-Brain of Comedy. It's some of the cleverest stuff ever and forever fresh.
Here are a few Python gems, guaranteed to please:
"The Argument Clinic"
"The Ministry of Silly Walks"
"The Dead Parrot" sketch
"The Upper Class Twit of the Year Show"
"The Cheese Shop"
from SPAMALOT – "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life"
from SPAMALOT – "I'm Not Dead Yet"
One thing about all of these five: they are all super-smart. Their intelligence is liberated -- and liberating. Comedy is central to the way I look at life. My mother didn't take my Big Brother and me to a house of worship: she took us to see Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
As Groucho wisely once said, "Humor is reason gone mad."