One of my favorite things to do is to examine the life and body of work of an artist (very often in the performing arts). To choose someone whose work I am vaguely familiar with and get to know them more in depth. Though I had certainly been exposed to his songs on old records and a couple of his films as a child, I wanted to know more about the late, great Danny Kaye, who was nothing short of a genius. He was a singer, actor, dancer, conductor, Chinese chef, pilot, UNICEF goodwill ambassador–the list goes on. What struck me about him was his gift for language and wordplay, and how he manifested it physically. And I have never been the greatest fan of stand-up comedy (with a few exceptions), which can feel artificial and forced and ultimately not very funny.
This got me thinking about comedians whose work I have always loved: performers who are very auditory and kinesthetic, who’s comedy is based on sound, funny noises, how something is said, and how this verbal modality is expressed in the body. In other words, body-based comedians, whose very physical entity is their vehicle, rather than words spoken into a microphone. We can look at a lineage starting with Kaye that includes other performers of the same ilk.
Danny Kaye had a tremendous ear for languages and could fake them very credibly. He could take each line of dialogue and know how to extend certain words with exaggerated gestures for comic effect. His timing, sense of rhythm and musicality, and his versatility made him like no other, though he often played the ever-vulnerable clown. One need only see his last performance, in a guest turn as the dentist Dr. Burns on “The Cosby Show,” to see all his best qualities: the physical clowning, the very accurate German accent, his natural affinity for children, and his acting prowess.
One could include Kaye’s contemporary Victor Borge same vein, though he is technically a musician who happened to perform rather than an actor. Borge (born Børge Rosenbaum) was a Danish Jewish pianist who was a serious prodigy and accomplished classical musician. He went on to develop a career as musical comedian, interspersing jokes and routines with piano performance. Those of us of a certain generation will certainly remember his famous punctuation routine from “The Electric Company!” He turned classical music performance into something very accessible, or we could say, he brought intelligence and sophistication to comedy.
The disgraced monster/comic legend Bill Cosby also incorporated sound and physical comedy, as we could see frequently on “The Cosby Show.” He had beginnings in stand-up comedy and expanded into acting. Who could forget his routine about the lemon that daughter Denise wanted to buy for her first car? Cosby was a master of onomatopoeia, a device that I would assert is one of the best combinations of sound and physicality. Watching him do a funny walk or dance was hugely entertaining, and though his personal life is beyond horrifying, he left behind a remarkable body of work.
The lineage continues with the late, brilliant Robin Williams, whose loss we still feel dearly. Gifted not only as a comedian but also as a dramatic actor, Williams’s off-the-wall antics were like jazz: spontaneous, improvisatory, yet hitting all the right marks. We think of all kinds of funny voices when we think of Robin Williams, from Mork from Ork to the DJ in “Good Morning Vietnam” to Mrs. Doubtfire and beyond. Williams’s speed was astonishing, the way he could change gears between characters and thoughts and voices and gestures. He was like a barometer of human follies who left no stone unturned. Even dance–his brief, brilliant routine of styles of choreographers in “The Birdcage” is pure comic genius. Roberto Benigni could be considered the Italian equivalent of Robin Williams. His brief turn in the film “Night on Earth” demonstrates a Williams-like goofiness and spontaneity, and he is beloved in Italy and even here (as is evidenced by his Oscar for “Life is Beautiful.”) There was also the late Phil Hartman who was accomplished both as a writer and as a comic actor, someone who was tragically murdered when he had so much potential left.
The rightful heir to Robin Williams is Jim Carrey (who seems largely to be on hiatus from acting these days).”Rubber-faced” is frequently used to describe Carrey, who is capable of doing absolutely anything and everything with his face and body. We watch Jim Carrey to see him go off the rails: there is nothing funnier than watching his character go unhinged! He is a master of accents and mimicry, be it Clint Eastwood or the inimitable impression of Wile E. Coyote, complete with harmonica sounds. He is laughing and he wants us to laugh along with him, because he will push the limits of normal human life for humor. And just like Williams, Carrey also has an incredible depth as a dramatic actor, which makes sense because tragedy is the counterpart to comedy.
It pains me that I cannot think of a female actress/comedian who is quite in the same category as these men. I am a huge fan of Carol Burnett (who is only second to Lucille Ball, in my opinion), and while Burnett indeed is an expert in pushing limits for humor and very physically gifted, I would argue that she is more of an actor and an accomplished singer whose comedy focused on characters in her sketch/variety show. She is no less talented than these men, but her style is not exactly the same. This leads me to ask why there aren’t more auditory-kinesthetic comediennes. Is it because we do not encourage women to go as wild, and socialize women to be more polite? Are women expected to have a slightly more team form of comedy? Or are there certain biological gender differences behind this? Comedy has been very male-dominated art form in America, though we have gifted women who have risen and continue to rise to the top (think Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and the wonderful Melissa McCarthy)?
In any case, we need to continue to encourage women in comedy while appreciating the great heritage of “sound clowns.” It will be exciting to see who is next in this lineage!