The Sound Clown: A Tribute to Kinesthetic Comedians

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!

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!

Black Artists Matter

In a sense, it seems foolish to single out black artists, solely for the reason that a great artist is a great artist, no matter what her/his/their race is. However, given the recent tragic, violent events (that are still continuing), it is fitting to pay tribute to them. I think everyone in the arts has to have a personal canon, an individual pantheon of greats, follow a particular “lineage” (that will be the subject of a post in the future). Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists/works of art that made an impression on me, by artists who just happen to be black.

The characters on “Sesame Street.” Who didn’t have feel-good vibes from Gordon and Susan? (And then, as a corollary, Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on “The Electric Company?”) This is so crucial, as from a young age, if we expose children to diversity, it becomes something very ordinary. Children don’t discriminate in the way adults do. A child will look with loving eyes at a black character simply because they feel love for that character, because that character puts them at ease. Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it featured a diverse cast, yet it was not something we children were conscious of. Gordon was Gordon, Mr. Hooper was Mr. Hooper, Maria was Maria. Decades later, it was an incredible thrill to see “Maria” on the street or on the bus when I lived in New York City!

“The Cosby Show.” Before we knew what a disgusting, perverse, frightening monster Bill Cosby was, there was his fabulous, entertaining, family-friendly show that we adored as kids and teens. My generation grew up with Bill Cosby, seeing him on commercials, hearing his voice on “Fat Albert,” watching him with the goofily-named marker Ichabod Mortimer on “Picture Pages” on the children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” movies, TV shows, and then his own eponymous show. His gift for comic timing, clean humor, onomatopoeic gags, and physical comedy were nothing short of genius. The revelation that he was a drugging rapist feels, to many of us, like we were personally violated and betrayed. We grew up with The Cos, he was our dad, America’s Dad.

Reading Lena Horne’s autobiography in the seventh grade left quite an impression on me. It was quite long, and I was fascinated by her challenges and how she overcame them. She was also incredibly beautiful and talented.

Richard Wright’s Native Son. The sheer power of the novel, when I read it in the 10th grade, was beyond belief. It is a disturbing novel, and not without controversy (James Baldwin famously disliked it). As a writer, I strive for emotional complexity and like writing about emotional dilemmas. This book is rife with them, for there is no clear-cut good or bad. James Baldwin I only came to very late, but he is a stunning prose stylist and one of America’s top intellectuals.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for my AP English class was mind-blowing. It was not merely a book; it was literature. It was the first time I understood what literature was, something beyond two covers, something that was complex, full of symbols, unique prose, and transcendent.

John Coltrane. Hearing “Giant Steps” for the first time my sophomore year in college in a jazz theory class was nothing short of a revelation. We had been given the score, but the pace at which the saxophone line moved was like lightning and nearly impossible to follow. How did anyone have the genius to do that? How could anyone create those rapid chord changes and put a melody on top of it that still made sense, musically? When ‘Trane plays the sax, it sings. That is the ultimate compliment to give any instrumental musician. Coltrane also went on a spiritual journey through his life, one that was continued by his widow, Alice, a gifted musician in her own right. We lost him too soon. Thankfully, generations can enjoy his genius on recordings. As a lifelong jazz fan, there are too many favorites for me to name, but let it suffice to say that jazz is America’s contribution to the world, thanks to all the brilliant black musicians who have created an art form that has been inclusive and inspiring to non-black musicians of all genres.

Oprah. What can we say that hasn’t been said already? Oprah doesn’t do junk. Anything she puts in front of us is uplifting, of good quality. Consider her own journey–from unwed teenage mother to news reporter to talk show host, media mogul, America’s Mother Confessor to whom even the most difficult people will open up, and spiritual seeker who encourages everyone to look deep within, examine their issues, and operate from a place of healthiness and joy. There is no one in the world like her. And of course, we have to give a shout out to her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, who must be the most emotionally secure male on the planet!

The great opera singers. Highest admiration for my last voice teacher, legendary tenor George Shirley, who won the National Medal of the Arts from Obama a few years ago. Truly a great artist, and (literally everyone will affirm) a great human being. And of course, the other legends like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, and even current stars like Lawrence Brownlee and Nicole Cabell (who is part black, white, and Korean and a truly beautiful person inside and out.) Black singers have made a huge contribution to the world of opera, no one can deny that.

Aretha Franklin. That voice from the pit of her soul–anytime I listen to “Respect,” I get goosebumps. I was fortunate to see Aretha perform in Detroit a few years before she died. She could’ve made a living as a piano player just as well. A voice like that was nothing short of a divine gift.

James Brown. I was also fortunate to see him perform shortly before he died, and as I watched him dance, I realized he had been given a gift of rhythm. This is not to discount his fierce work ethic (something that often frustrated his band), but even with all the hard work in the world, an artist of that caliber was clearly gifted with something.

Arthur Ashe. Not quite an artist, but an icon in the world of tennis. Tennis is one of the few sports I have followed since I was very little, and though I was probably too young to really understand much of what was going on, I remember Ashe being quite the star and a calm, well-spoken man who had to overcome many barriers. He died much too young from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. Watch any interview with him and it will move you to tears–it is heartbreaking to think of his early loss.

These are my canon of my favorite artists who are black; who are yours?