By Lucie M. Winborne,
What makes a great comedian? One who can not only make people laugh, but also keep them laughing across generations? Knowledge of one’s audience, certainly. Good timing and relevance. But probably all truly funny people would say the most important thing is simply hard work, honing their humor until it’s no longer work, but second nature.
Funny people like Buster Keaton, a comic Everyman in costume by age 2, salaried at 4, and headliner of The Three Keatons with his parents at 5.
“The more seriously I took everything, the better laughs I got,” Keaton recalled of his trademark “stone face” reaction to both stage and screen disasters, which one modern writer described as representing “a sense of optimism and everlasting inquisitiveness.” His skill as a gag writer and high-risk stunts (which he insisted on performing himself) made him one of silent film’s most successful performers, but bouts of alcoholism nearly ended his career before age 40. Keaton made a comeback decades later, appearing opposite Charlie Chaplin in 1952’s Limelight and guest-starring on several TV shows, and in 1960 received a special Oscar for his work in comedy.
Or funny people like Phyllis Diller, a secretary who made her nightclub debut at age 38. In an era of fictional perfect housewives, Diller poked cackling fun at her looks, in-laws, neighbors, kids and husband “Fang” in signature getups of wildly patterned dresses and fright wigs. Praised by Joan Rivers as the first female comedian who “just stood up” — meaning she didn’t sing or dance but simply “went out and competed with the men on their turf” — Diller published a well-received autobiography in her 80s and died at 95 with, appropriately, “a smile on her face.”
Some of the most relatable comedians milk everyday frustrations for laughs. When Lily Tomlin introduced snorting, snooty Ernestine the telephone operator on Laugh-In, “People hated the phone company,” she told an interviewer. But though Ernestine didn’t know the meaning of customer service, she proved such a hit that AT&T later wanted her to star in its commercial. The first woman to appear solo in a Broadway show, Tomlin’s creativity and remarkable versatility in both comedic and dramatic roles has earned her numerous awards, and at 76, she shows no sign of slowing down.
“He was a trailblazer, and the way he showed social commentary in his humor opened up a universe for other comics to follow in his footsteps.” So noted director Spike Lee of Richard Pryor, whose situational, character-driven (and highly profane) humor drew fans from all backgrounds. Though known as a comic, Pryor also played the occasional serious role in films such as 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. After becoming the first person to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center, Pryor said, “I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred.”
That’s an achievement any comic could treasure as much as the well-earned laughter.
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