Comedy = Tragedy Plus
biographies of comedic legends search for the connection between their
personal failings and their genius with humor
one sought proof that tragedies can fuel the best comedy, one need not
look further than the lives of Richard Pryor and National Lampoon prime
mover Doug Kenney, chronicled in two separate new biographies, “Jokes My
Father Never Taught Me” by daughter Rain Pryor (to purchase), and “A Futile and
Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy
Forever,” by journalist Josh Karp (to purchase).
Pryor suffered a long slow decline from multiple sclerosis that wasn’t
helped by his many years of extreme excessive partying and a succession
of disastrous affairs, which in turn most surmise was fueled by his
growing up in a whorehouse where his grandmom was the madam. Kenney’s
end was more abrupt, a possibly suicidal fall off a cliff in Hawaii. But
all the same, Kenney carried his own brand of angst that fed into his
comedy, in his case from growing up in a Midwestern family who had set
conventional goals and aspirations for him that he never felt he fit.
Kenney’s best work was as a comedic writer and editor for the Harvard
Lampoon and then as a founder of the National Lampoon in the early
1970s, which actually brought him a great deal of wealth, along with a
small role in the group’s first movie, the now-classic “Animal House.”
Rain Pryor’s memoir, part autobiography, unblinkingly lays out her
father’s demons and fault, most painfully the way he abandoned her
mother and her for several years -- she wasn’t introduced to him until
she was four years old. Her father’s brothel youth is the reason for his
womanizing -- no surprise there really, but it is a shock to learn that
his infamous freebasing accident was clearly a suicide attempt.
The title of Rain Pryor’s book is a bit melodramatic, and she may by
necessity be exaggerating the strength of her own one-woman show (it’s
hard to know without it being available on video), but it is a
worthwhile and interesting glimpse into a legend’s life. It isn’t quite
a critical or historical look at Pryor’s work, though.
Karp’s book on the other hand, (not sure) suffers the reverse problem --
too much history and critique, and not enough insight into what made his
subject tick -- for example why Kenney had such aloof and problematic
relationships with women -- a brief one-year marriage when he was 24
found him without a clue of how to even be in a marriage.
Readers do get liberal doses of great Lampoon magazine bits, like “Nancy
Reagan’s Dating Dos and Don’ts,” and complete parodies of Playboy, Life
and Cosmopolitan magazines, as well as his later influence on the first
cast of Saturday Night Live. Karp suggests how Kenney’s background of
conflict with societal norms fed his work, but only vaguely. The
biography is an interesting chronicle but doesn’t quite take off. Rain
Pryor’s story just by its personal connection gets the reader closer to
its subject’s motivations and the darkness that fueled the humor.