The Paradox of Cranky Comedians

I adore Christopher Guest—or should I say his work. I’ve watched his movies (Spinal Tap, Best in Show, etc.) over and over, and they’re among favorites to have on in the background while working.

I’ve read that Guest can be irascible in real life, and this trait is revealed a bit on Unwigged and Unplugged, a live concert tape released last year where he and his partners Michael McKean and Harry Shearer perform various songs (beautifully) from their movies. Guest doesn’t say much, doesn’t smile, and seems almost annoyed to be there, and though it doesn’t show in his performance, it does in his attitude.

His coolness has been noted by both interviewers and fans. He is aloof during promotional appearances, and was once described by reviewer Warren Etheredge as “rude, condescending and intolerable,” which is exactly contrary to what we expect from  comedians.  Guest has said, “People want me to be funny all the time. They think I’m being funny no matter what I say or do and that’s not the case. I rarely joke unless I’m in front of a camera. It’s not what I am in real life. It’s what I do for a living.”

Wow. Who knew it was just a job? I have to say this knocks him down a couple of rungs on my ladder of respect. Nobody’s asking him to be funny all the time, but there’s no need to make everybody recoil in humiliation.

A small bit of research led me to discover that this is in no way a unique phenomenon among comedians. Actor Mark Wahlberg said in a recent interview…“comedic actors are often the polar opposite of how they appear on screen. They’re dark and moody…”

Which is why I hate talk shows, it smashes the myth–and I don’t want to know how bland or difficult the people who make me laugh are in real life because they’re too precious. Maybe a bit of misanthropy goes with the territory—the darker and funnier the comedian, the more withdrawn in real life. Maybe they are so absorbed in composing their perverse reflections on life that they don’t need people to like them personally, because all that really matters is the performance. Instead of challenging them, perhaps we should just think up a different job title for them, acrimonians or ornerians or negativians or soreheads. We’ll still watch their shows and buy their DVDs, but maybe they’re better admired impersonally, from afar.

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8 responses to “The Paradox of Cranky Comedians

  1. Co-incidentally, I was at the launch of a short film by local Namibian director Cecil Moller, just last night. He is known for his great sense of comedy in his films. When asked about comedy in film he had this to say: “To know comedy, one first has to experience the worst that the world has to offer.” Perhaps this is the case with regard to the comedians you referred to?

  2. That’s a good quote, I believe you have a point there. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they experienced the ravages of life personally, but if they are sensitive, it has to affect them profoundly in some way. Good, dark, raw humor that’s intense and emotional isn’t born of ignorance.

  3. A good friend of mine, now passed away, was a well known stand-up comic. We used to do lots of mountaineering together and so spent many days together in the great wilderness. One night at the camp, while we were talking about our respective lives, i asked him why he looked so tired and haggard after a show where people stood up applauding his mastery. He looked at me for a few moments and asked me how i would feel describing myself as a moron and a total idiot and have thousands of people loudly agreeing with me and enjoying it. The subject never came back between us. Years later, after his passing, i watched the tapes of his shows and i understood his suffering and the full meaning of what he said that night.

  4. Making an audience laugh through self-debasement is a gift that surely does not come without personal expense. And when comedians mock others, they sometimes have to face disapproval in ways that would reduce regular mortals to blubbering fools. I guess they have to be sensitive enough to know what nerves to hit, and resilient enough to endure the consequences. I imagine that’s a tough balance to maintain.

    Thanks for this insight.

  5. Sad that it’s just a job, not who he is. Does he even enjoy it?
    I am a writer, and that fact penetrates every part of me. There are some things (fiction) I prefer to write over others (web copy), but it is still writing, and it is still who I am.
    Too many people spend 40+ hours a week not being themselves. What kind of a life is that?

  6. I’m having the same trouble wrapping my mind around this, because art isn’t a “job.” Waiting on tables and cleaning houses and repairing trucks are jobs. Yet even people doing these jobs can’t let them go at the end of the day because most people bring their own creativity and diligence to the most mundane employment.

    I want to understand and forgive the people who make me laugh for their moodiness. Same as we don’t care if a rock star is an asshole. But maybe even more, I just don’t want to know.

  7. Neither do I like talk shows. Let me have the illusion. Also, Debra, I don’t like the little previews they give on TV shows, Masterpiece Theater, etc. I don’t want to know what’s coming. Just let it come.

  8. Famous people are often a disappointment in interviews or real life. I find talk shows very boring. Yes, let’s keep the illusion.

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