I don’t remember the first time I made someone laugh, but I must have liked it. As a boy growing up in suburban Chicago, I watched David Letterman nightly with a devotion bordering on obsession. Sleep, school and grades were all sacrificed at the altar of Stupid Pet Tricks and Top Ten lists. The world of late night television seemed to be so contrary to the grim, hyper-organized world of school, which dominated my life with its obligations, tasks and duties. Late night was a world of irreverent pranks, loud music and fun conversation. This was a world I wanted to be a part of. Little did I know.
Before becoming a Jesuit, I spent the better part of my 20s as a struggling comedian, and I can tell you right now that a life of religious asceticism and chastity is a walk in the park compared to trying to succeed in the world of comedy. Making a living at humor is not for the faint of heart. Apparently my heart is quite faint, whatever that means.
The recent shake-ups in late night television provide further evidence that the world of the comedian is an ever-shifting, always tenuous means of existence — entirely dependent upon the whims of an ever-fickle public.
Jay Leno retired … again … finally? Leno was replaced by Jimmy Fallon who had been the host of Late Night, which immediately followed The Tonight Show. Not too long after Leno departed NBC, his long-time arch-rival David Letterman decided to call it a day as well. When CBS announced that Stephen Colbert would take Letterman’s seat next year, Craig Ferguson announced his impending departure from that network’s following show, The Late Late Show. Got all that?
The media has been tracking the trials and tribulations of late night TV since the early 90s, when late night legend Johnny Carson announced his departure from the Tonight Show roost and NBC made the controversial decision to replace him with Leno instead of the then Late Night host, and seeming heir apparent, Letterman. The feud between the two became the stuff of legend, which spawned a book and an HBO movie.
Suddenly, we realized that the world of humor is a very serious one, indeed. Humor by its very nature is never static, reliant as it is on an ever-changing cultural milieu. What was funny yesterday is not necessarily funny today, and for a comedian, the old saying that you are only as funny as your last joke has proven to be painfully true. A comedian is only a comedian by virtue of making people laugh, and so, the pressure to be funny, to deliver, to kill — whatever you want to call it — never ends … until you die. Because really, a comedian never really retires, just ask Bob Newhart and Don Rickles.
So why bother? Why subject yourself to a lifetime of potential rejection and continual frustration, in order to devote yourself to an existence in which your role is reliant upon the reaction and response of total strangers? Because once you tear away everything else: the money, the home, the car, the etc., and get to what really matters, which is our relationship with God and one another, there are few things in the world that can be regarded as more significant than making someone laugh.
To be able to give joy, comfort and catharsis to another human being is, when you get down to it, one of the most profound things one person can do for another. It is, dare I say, the most fulfilling, necessary and sacred thing we can do for each other.
Am I trying to baptize late night television? Am I trying to canonize Stephen Colbert (much as he might have the résumé for it, him being a catechism teacher and all) or Seth Meyers? Not exactly. But with all the shifting and jockeying for position, the high stakes, huge money and enormous egos, it’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy to forget that once upon a time, Jimmy, Stephen, Seth, Dave, and Jay (and yes, they all are men, but that’s another column for another time) were little boys who made another person laugh, saw that it was good, and thought, “Yes, this is something I would like to do.”