Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Feasts of Saints Emmett and Sam

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week saw the festivals of two Comedist saints. The first is Emmett Kelly, the man who more than anyone else, is responsible for the American clown. Kelley began as a visual artist and took his talents to the Knickerbocker Circus where he started as a chalk artist who would entertain people by telling stories that he simultaneously illustrated. From there he became a trapeze artist and eventually put on white face. In 1931, he first came out as Weary Willy, a sad hobo clown who would clean up after acts and amuse crowds with his sympathetic acts. His became the face of clowning, elevating it beyond the silly, routine slapstick, humanizing the act. He would join Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey and continue the act into the 1950's.

The second is Sam Kinison, one of the figures who shaped stand-up comedy in the late 1980s. Like his father, Kinison had been a fire and brimstone pentecostal preacher. Then a divorce and disillusionment with the church led him in a new direction and he became a comedian unlike any other. He and Howard Stern -- with whom he had a much publicized feud -- were to the Reagan 80s what Lenny Bruce was to the Eisenhower 50s, crude, raunchy (often deeply misogynistic), and envelope pushing. Kinison was well-known to hang out with the big hair bands of the times and if Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy were the ones moving comedy into rock concert sized venues, Kinison was the one who turned the amps up to eleven. He was killed in a car accident when his car was struck by a drunk driver at the height of his fame.

The contrast between these two at this point is interesting. Kelly, like Charlie Chaplin, was truly a product of the Depression. The ability to create bittersweet resonated with the era. There was a tenderness that audiences could identify with. Kinison, on the other hand, came out of the Gordon Gecko self-indulgent 80s with the odd contradictions of the Reagan years which elevated greed to a virtue, but canceled the Beach Boys' annual 4th of July concert on the Mall in Washington because that rock and roll was the devil's music. Hair was big, white people were angry, and his act reflected the times. The 60s were over, the social conservatives were on the rise and he took aim at all of it.

What is interesting is that we are now on the verge of a social alignment. We are coming out of an era of rage and the comedy has shown it. The rage-filled rant comedy of Chris Rock and Lewis Black follow from Kinison, albeit both coming from socially and politically very different places. It will be interesting to see if this new era, post-meltdown will bring with it a new comic sensibility, a return to something in the vein of Emmett Kelly.

Let's leave with classic Kinison:

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve