A history of childhood dysfunctionality runs deep in the lives of American stand-up comedians. I have often seen their painful and burdensome pasts serving audiences desire to laugh instead of their own need to heal, and yet I'm starting to understand that it's this emotional exposure that allows them to cope.
One of the fathers of American stand-up George Burns was forced to begin working at age 7 when his father died and left 12 hungry children behind; Fred Allen's father was so overcome with grief when Allen's mother died that he turned to alcohol and sent him to live with his aunt and paralyzed uncle; Richard Pryor was raised in poverty by a brothel owning grandmother; George Carlin constantly ran away from home to get away from his controlling mother who left his father when he was 2 months old; after his parents divorced when he was 5, Lenny Bruce moved from relative to relative until he joined the navy where he was dishonorably charged for homosexual urges; Steve Martin, who had a father that was physically present but barely spoke a word to him claimed, "I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts...I am qualified to be a comedian;" Bob Hope, who was teased relentlessly as a child for being an immigrant and nicknamed "Hopeless" said, "I have seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful;" Bill Cosby, whose father was an alcoholic and caused him to parent his siblings (one of which died at age 8) said, "Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it." These people made audiences laugh in order to lighten the heaviness of their own life, but also gave those audience members and fans (possibly dealing with many of their same issues) a reason to laugh.
I went to the Ha Ha Cafe last week to watch my friend Ben perform stand-up for his very first time. His bits centered around the extreme hardships he endured as a child and is still struggling with as an adult. As his friend, I cringed at first. I felt protective, and didn't want him making light of some of these heartbreaking situations he had been forced to deal with. It wasn't until I really listened to the laughter that I realized how this could be a healing experience. Being a good comedian requires complete vulnerability and honesty. Ben was presenting the absurd in his reality. He stood on stage with the weapon of humor proving he had survived. I understood the freedom a comedian could feel. It is so often said that comedians "hide behind the laughter," but maybe they're not the ones hiding. Perhaps it's the ones only willing to reveal their pain in the most comfortable of situations that are hiding. As Ben embarks upon the road to hopeful comic stardom, I sincerely look forward to supporting, laughing, and being fascinated by his willingness to welcome a room full of strangers into his painful past.
*Ben's next show is at The Comedy Store on Sunset Blvd. Aug.31.8pm.
George Burns, 1950's
Lenny Bruce, 1960's
Richard Pryor, 1970's
Steve Martin, 1970's
Bill Cosby 1980's
Ben Strength performing stand-up for the very first time!
Vintage 1970's floral top from Jetrags (cost me $1); vintage gold leaf belt; high-waisted navy blue pants from H&M; brown heels with gold embellishment from Nine West; vintage 1980's bright blue long strapped purse with bow decoration; gold Twiggy style earrings.
Close-up on 1970's floral top.
Close-up on vintage gold leaf belt.
Close-up on 1980's vintage bright blue purse.
Close-up on brown heels with gold embellishment.