Until the talkies introduced us to the sound of his voice, cinema patrons thought Charlie Chaplin was no more than a clown. The Tramp, his iconic persona of the silent film era, was all about prancing around with a cane and a toothbrush moustache, pulling practical jokes, and getting in and out of trouble with a silly grin plastered on his face. Audiences lapped up his vaudevillian bathos and elevated him to commercial success. It was only after The Great Dictator, his first talking picture in which he lampooned his contemporary Adolf Hitler, that the world finally recognised his inimitable genius.
There was little in Chaplin’s off-screen life to laugh about. He spent a deplorable childhood in a broken home torn between a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father, and the remaining time shuffling in and out of destitute homes. He had a string of failed marriages and was hounded by the American government for his alleged Communist sympathies. His professional successes seemed to compensate for what he had missed as a child. With his gift for eloquence, he famously remarked, “I always like walking in the rain, so no one can see me crying.”
It could have been a joke. And it is possible that he said it with a straight face. But the irony was not lost on anyone who knew the backstory of Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin’s life. In the end, though, he overrode misery, poverty and controversy to settle his score with destiny.
Not every court jester in the limelight has been that lucky. Tony Hancock, Ray Combs, Charles Rocket, Robin Williams… the list of comedians who made the world laugh but took their own lives when depression laid them low is disturbingly long.
Not that all comedy is laughing matter, though. Television comedians, in particular, have a reputation for being punishingly cruel, not to mention outright nasty and insensitive. Making TRP hay of the sufferings of the unfortunate, they have been guilty of reinforcing and endorsing every societal disease from misogyny to racial discrimination.
John Oliver reminded us, in his Last Week Tonight episode on public shaming, of how the bandwagon of British and American comedians in the 1990s had piled on the unfortunate former White House intern Monica Lewinsky after the Kenneth Starr Report made public the scandalous details of President Clinton’s sexual inappropriateness involving her. Oliver added, in contriteness, that he too had capitalised on the joke of the day, riding what was then a hot trend that offered tons of grist. After tendering his apology and interviewing Lewinsky on his show, he came down heavily on Jay Leno, one of the few prime time talk-show hosts who has never apologised.
I can hear you sigh. Why so serious? Don’t take it personally, man. Give the funny guys a break. They’re just lightening the mood for all of us who are winding down after a hard day’s work.
I have two words for you. Bill Cosby.
A living example of the fact that you can’t separate art from the artist. Knowing full well what he’s serving jail time for, it’s hard to watch reruns of The Cosby Show. The joke isn’t funny when you remember that right through the time he was dreaming up those gags, he was being a disgusting sexual predator and scarring people for life.
Art for art’s sake, indeed.
Talking of which, one comedian recently put Pablo Picasso in his place. In her excruciatingly brilliant, luminously thought-provoking and sometimes gutting Netflix show Nanette, Tasmanian comic Hannah Gadsby outed the great master of Cubism for his exploitative relationship with a 17-year-old artist named Marie-Thérèse Walter. The painter, who was 45 at the time, had defended his misdemeanours claiming that the girl was “in her prime” and tried to cast himself as a tortured, perfection-seeking artist. All that Picasso suffered from, Gadsby seethes, was the “mental illness of misogyny.”
Nanette is heartbreakingly, tenderly, tearfully funny because Gadsby’s material dips liberally into her own bitter struggles as a queer person. Unhesitatingly, she takes fearless swipes at her own community — “my people,” she taunts them, smirking — for not standing up enough for lesbians as much as they do for gay men.
Through parts of Nanette, there’s a strained, tear-choked hush in the packed hall as Gadsby forces upon them the burden of the uncomfortable conversation. In crushing detail, she reveals the hatred and violent sexual abuse she endured just for being the person she is.
As a man, I cringed. I forgot momentarily that this was meant to be a comedy sketch. Although I did laugh gratefully through my tears at the end, heartened to know that Hannah Gadsby was a survivor. And glad to know that her message would travel to where it matters.
Now that’s something to smile about.