What comedy can do for a family

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What comedy can do for a family

Posted on: March 15th, 2014 by tommyj

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Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live in 1979.

Growing up, I hardly ever went to concerts with my parents. The closest I came to seeing a show with my mom was watching the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club film — starring Aerosmith and Peter Frampton (also Donald Pleasence, Steve Martin, Frankie Howerd, Earth, Wind & Fire and Alice Cooper) — at the Imperial Six cinemas on Yonge Street. Steven Tyler wore scarves and rings and sang what, I thought, was a superior version of Come Together, mostly because it was newer and with louder drums. I have a friend, the musician Ford Pier, who also saw the movie with his mom. When the film ended, he asked her, “Can we see it again?” And so they sat in their chairs as the cleanup staff tidied around them, waiting a few minutes before the film screened a second time.

We went to a few shows while on holiday in Las Vegas — Roy Clark and Paul Anka at Caesars — and, sometime in the late 1970s, my dad got tickets to see Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture at Massey Hall. We were fans of his TV show, Fernwood Tonight, the ancestral cousin of Larry Sanders, 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm and every other showbiz lampoon that followed. I may have asked my dad for tickets, but, more likely, he surprised me: fourth row, no less, a concert downtown, at night, in the pulsing heart of the city. Mull performed his one-man show — basically a stripped down version of the program — and played some songs on his cool guitar: a white, hollow-body Birdland, the same as Neil Young. It was a great, hilarious show — I’d never been that close to an actual celebrity or musician before — and an amazing night out. We laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed. The next time I’d go to a concert with my dad was to see CSNY at the Air Canada Centre, but that’s another column.

After becoming a parent in the same way that my dad was a parent, one of the things I’ve learned is how families, then and now, are unified by the power of comedy, both on radio and television, and, occasionally, live on stage. As a kid, I remember moments gathered around the set watching Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family (“Would you like milk or sugar in your eye?”); Colonel Blake’s helicopter going down on M*A*S*H; the lascivious adults of Laugh In; the sad Christmas episode where the Fonz is shown as a lonely figure lost in his apartment over the holidays (the Cunnighams are downstairs having a Christmas feast); Flip Wilson, so completely out-of-his-mind funny; Taxi and the episode where Andy Kaufman’s character falls in love with Carole Kane’s; the Doobie Brothers’ talking sense into the What’s Happenin’ kids for scalping concert tickets; and how Larry King’s marriage suffers after his wandering Kensington eye. There was also Barney Miller, a show that took place in a cop shop. All of the characters on the show had weird faces and strange names (“Fish” and “Wojo” and “Luger”) and most of them seemed depressed. They were always pushing each other’s buttons, if in a way that was weary and self-hating, although they mostly just seemed angry. Each show, the cops interacted with types of people I never knew existed: men who showed their wangs to ladies on subways, bombers who blew up buildings, prostitutes, neighbourhood vigilantes, pimps, social workers, group home kids, people who jumped off bridges, conspiracy theorists, juvenile pickpockets, men who liked to wear lingerie, kleptomaniacs, number runners, sperm bank clerks, pornographers, religious cultists and drug addicts. It was after one new episode called “You Dirty Rats” that I learned that “dope” was another word for “drugs.” 

The skits were totally ridiculous and we ate chips in bed as we watched them play out. We laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed

Barney Miller was the head of the police crew. He was always shaking his head and wiping his brow and hiding his face in his hands because the people he arrested caused great trouble for him. Life in the cop shop — it was called a “precinct” — was a freak show compared to what I knew living in the suburbs. There were hostage takings, shootings, ODs (what happened when you got too strung out), accidental births and, sometimes, assault and killing. Because Barney Miller was broadcast in prime-time, my family and I would watch it and then I’d go to bed. Sometimes I’d lie there thinking about what had happened and whether people actually showed their business to other people in public. One episode was called “The Child Stealers,” where, according to TV Guide, “Barney has his hands full with a self-proclaimed time traveller and a divorced father who tries to kidnap his son.” I stayed up late thinking about the episode; how heartbroken the boy was because his parents fought all the time, even though they were divorced. At end of the episode, even the hard-boiled cops learned the lesson that, no matter how much grief they got from their wives or girlfriends — they groused about this all the time — love in any form was OK, and at least they weren’t running around kidnapping their own children. At the time, it was a lot for me to process, but, looking back, I learned another lesson: comedy sometimes did things that other kinds of art did not. I loved Grand Funk Railroad, but they sure didn’t teach me much about life.

That my folks and I were able to take this all in together was pretty important. When my own kids came along, my wife and I sourced the same kind of communal fun, and, as my son grew up — he’s turning 12 this week — we eventually found Weird Al and the Goon Show and Sean Cullen CDs coming from his deck. Every Thursday, we watched (and continue to watch) episodes of Community, and, on occasion, when time — or rather, bedtime — has eluded our grasp, we watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. This last happened a few months ago, and when Stephen Colbert started his first bit, my son pointed to the TV and said, “I love this guy.” Politics, satire, faux (but sometimes real) anger, absurd and cutting humour: There is lots that’s wrong with the world, but progressive TV comedy is not one of them.

A few years ago, I remember being at the Kingston Writers’ Festival and lying with my kids in the hotel bed watching the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, which, in its early days, I would have also watched with my parents. That’s another thing: TV comedy spanning the ages. Not only that, but the episode we watched together — hosted by Alec Baldwin (musical guest, Radiohead) — was wholly, preteen appropriate (12 may be the new 14, but still). The skits were totally ridiculous and we ate chips in bed as we watched them play out. We laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.

When they were younger, I took my kids to Second City Christmas matinee shows, and, once, I brought my son — he was four at the time — to watch The Imponderables perform at the Rivoli. It already had been a late night (we’d gone to see the Jays at Rogers Centre), but it seemed like the right thing to do. The comedy was mature, but because he was young enough to not get much of it, the only thing that stayed with him was a puppet used by the group in a hilarious sketch where a policeman stages a theft for a group of preteens. Still, for about a week afterwards, he walked around saying the word “Futker” over and over again.

When it came time to celebrate his birthday this past week, we were lucky that it dovetailed with the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, the brainchild of Paul and Julianne Snepts. There were a lot of shows I wanted to see, but the only age-appropriate event was CBC’s live taping of The Irrelevant Show at the former Bathurst Street Theatre (the site of Rheostatics’ most triumphant and important gigs in the ’90s, but again: another column). It was a no-brainer for us, because, since the show appeared on CBC radio’s Saturday morning schedule a few years ago, it’s provided a linchpin to our weekends. My son gets out of karate class just in time for the last few sketches of the show, which we listen to together in the car on our drive home. That time — those laughs, when they come — pull me from whatever fatigue I may be suffering, and jolt me alive through the rest of the weekend. We’re big fans and so a chance to see them live seemed like the perfect thing to do.

The day started with a terrible blizzard that became ever more terrible as the day lengthened. Still, we ate birthday dinner, had our birthday cake, and rushed out to the car to head to the theatre. The wind was howling, the ice slashing across the sky. We pushed through the weather and parked near venue, but not so near that we didn’t have to fight our way there, huddling together — the prototypical Canadian family out on an excursion — as we skidded down the street. Once inside the old building, the warmth tried to find us. We sat there shivering in our seats as the room, finally, heated up. The lights on stage dimmed. The show’s director and producer — Peter Brown — came out and said something funny, and I looked across to see the kids’ faces and eyes: open and bright and captured in the total hilarity of the moment. It went like that for the next two hours: A family soundlessly lost in the thrall of comedy, together, without any of the heavy stuff and important life lessons that will, inevitably, come. We laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.

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