Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis passed away this weekend. Their deaths were no laughing matter to their many fans. Their lives were no laughing matter to their many critics.
Dick Gregory revolutionized comedy. He ushered in the era of the unfunny comedian who draws laughs out of ideological solidarity rather than from saying or doing something humorous. Janeane Garofalo, Kathy Griffin, Rosie O’Donnell, Trevor Noah, and so many other practitioners of this uncomedic brand of comedy owe Dick Gregory so much.
Some comedians cheaply win an audience through dirty words. Pure politics just as cheaply awards laughs to other comedians. If you didn’t laugh at Gregory’s act, he might have, one sensed, sternly lectured you on your political or moral shortcomings. An invisible commissar held a gun to the audience’s head at every performance.
In time, Gregory became the punchline. In 1968, in something out of a Monty Python sketch (think: the Peoples Front of Judea vs. the Popular Peoples Front of Judea), Gregory split from the Peace and Freedom Party to run for president on the Freedom and Peace Party’s ticket. In the 1970s, in an announcement more befitting of Comstock than a comedian, Gregory boycotted comedy clubs and other establishments that served evil alcohol. Government dynamite, not Muslim hijackers, felled the Twin Towers, shadowy figures aided James Earl Ray in murdering Martin Luther King, NASA faked the moon landing, Magic Johnson never contracted HIV, and other naïve skepticism increasingly marked him as a caricature of a kook.
People laughed at the people laughing at Jerry Lewis. If you found Jerry Lewis funny, we can easily find out things about you: your age (under eight or over eighty) or your nationality (French) or the number of friends you have (few). Lewis lovers always fall into one of the above, and occasionally all three, categories. The social awkwardness of the characters he played mirrored the social awkwardness of the appreciative audience.
While hipsters flocked to Gregory and squares to Lewis, both men shared the strange fact that they became known primarily for something (activism in the former’s case, charity in the latter’s) beyond their initial chosen profession.
Jerry Lewis raised billions for good causes. His performance in The King of Comedy left viewers wondering if straight acting rather than clowining were his true calling. His political views, which he revealed only in his last years, seem as laudable as Gregory’s were horrible. Dick Gregory remained married to the same woman for almost six decades. Whatever one thinks of his beliefs, he literally starved for them. And neither, importantly, regarded roofies as one of the essential four food groups for the opposite sex.
Alas, the sad fate of comedians generally involves encountering a stoic, silent audience. It says more about the changing fashion of funny than about the inherent funniness of the funnyman. More so than music or movies or mustaches, one man’s laugh becomes his son’s WTF look. “Whatcha talkin bout Willis,” “Well, excuse me,” “I get no respect,” “Nanoo Nanoo,” “You might be a redneck…,” “Hello, Newman,” and “One of these days, Pow! Right in the kisser” don’t do to us what they did to them. Our sense of humor evolves, for better and worse, unlike our static senses of taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. Perhaps looking at Gregory and Lewis as an anthropologist examining the folkways of midcentury Americans works as a more enlightened strategy than snarkily laughing at what our parents and grandparents laughed at—lest our children and grandchildren similarly laugh at us (e.g., “Get a load of these people fifty years ago laughing at this clown Carrot Top?”). What we find amusing perhaps our progeny finds bemusing too. And who’s to say the people who laughed at Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis somewhere, someplace don’t laugh at us for what we laugh at?
Comedy ages far worse than Jerry Lewis (91) and Dick Gregory (84) did. Jokes come with a shelf life. People once laughed at Fibber McGee and Molly and Fatty Arbuckle and much else we scratch our heads over. The humor that ages like wine instead of milk—Gulliver’s Travels, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I Love Lucy—appears as the exception that proves the rule.
One recalls Joe Sobran’s line that Robin Williams would be a comic genius if only he were funny. Few laughed at Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory for a long time. But in comedy clubs and movie theaters and late-night television, they once did (One should remember that even the stalest of bread came out of the oven fresh). And with laughs as essential to life as water and air and food and shelter, humanity owes them a debt even if the greater part of humanity no longer gets the joke. Comedy at least equals charitable fundraising and political activism in importance if not esteem. That both men made people laugh credits them as much as anything else they did.
But by 2017, blinded by a generation gap or two, quizzical looks replaced the table-thumping, sidesplitting, bellyaching laughter. I guess you had to be there.