Monday, January 31, 2005

My Hero

The world became a profoundly sadder place this past week.

I remember watching an early 1980's special where Johnny Carson went back to his boyhood home in Nebraska. The show showed us what we already knew- that despite his millionaire Hollywood status Johnny was still one of us.

And even though he wasn't a major league baseball player or a rock star, Johnny Carson was my first hero. My Mom used to let me stay up late to watch Johnny's monologue and the comedy bit that followed the first set of commercials. This is where I learned my stock tangible defense of the power of a one liner, a quip to defuse any and all situations.

My freshman year at Macalester was a long lost year and towards the end of the spring I was eating dinner with the group I had somehow hung around with even though I never truly felt a part of. Shawnee Khosbin, the pre-law body builder sat the entire meal giving me a look. This was months after we had done our duet, Shawnee on guitar, me on keyboard, of Paul Simon's "American Tune." Something was on Shawnee's mind this evening and it wasn't the regular Wednesday night fare of catfish that somebody donated to the college. Nope, Shawnee was not shy and never one to let whatever was on his mind become the focus of our group's conversation.

"Why do you always have to make a joke out of everything?" Shawnee said looking me dead in the eye. "Can't you ever be serious?

With all eyes on me I did what I always do when I'm not certain to do. I gave him the old skunk eye and shrugged. When I got back to my dorm I actually contemplated what Shawnee had asked. Why did I always find the need to come up with a joke?

Blame it on Johnny Carson.

As I was recently sitting through Martin Scorsese's masterful film, The Aviator, I was reminded of my favorite Scorsese movie, The King of Comedy. There are certain similarities between the very different movies- recurring themes that run through much of Scorsese's work.

His newest film a bright biography about the neurotic Howard Hughes asks cinematic questions about what separates genius from insanity. What separates the normal from that which we admire and hold up for fame and stardom? The King of Comedy which starred Robert DeNiro as a wannabe comic named Rupert Pupkin, was about a man so lonely and alienated that his life revolved around getting his act on the late night talk show of the biggest talk show host played by Jerry Lewis who was obviously modeled on some level after Johnny Carson.

Pupkin eventually ends up kidnapping the Lewis character and the ransom demand is to get to perform his act on Lewis' show.

So there I was as a teenager watching The King of Comedy painfully relating to a very painful movie practicing my own five minute stand up act making sure I did what I saw Johnny do so masterfully- turning the jokes that didn't work, that didn't draw a laugh back on himself often times by a facial expression, by a gesture, by a body movement. That was Johnny's act and it soon became part of mine as well. It still exists today as part of my ever predictable but reliable repertoire, my bag of tricks.

For years I got my news from Johnny's monologue. If he felt something was worth a mention, worth making fun of, it probably was. Even when I discovered the hipper humor of David Letterman and Saturday Nite Live I found myself tuning in to Johnny. It was the comfortable routine thing to do, and it was comforting to watch an old friend do his thing. To this day every time I tell a joke, lame as it often is, it can be traced back to all I learned from Johnny.

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