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Comedy = Tragedy Plus Time

Two new biographies of comedic legends search for the connection between their personal failings and their genius with humor

If 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.




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