the pain of comedy — 5/1/14

Today’s encore selection — from Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin. The lives of superstar comedians George Carlin and Richard Pryor bear witness to the pain beneath so much of our humor:

George Carlin

“[George Carlin’s] father, an ad salesman, was a drinker prone to violent outbursts, and when George was only two, his mother grabbed him and his older brother, fled down the fire escape, and left for good. Mary Carlin and her boys spent two years shuttling among friends and relatives, before finally getting an apartment of their own — with George’s father stalking them all the way. ‘He hounded her,’ says Carlin. ‘And he frightened her. When we lived on One Hundred Fortieth Street, we would come back from downtown, get off the subway, and the procedure was, my mother would go to the call box, get the local precinct, and say, ‘Hi, it’s Mary and the kids. I’m at One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street. Come and get us.’ And they would drive us home and see us into the house. Sometimes, he’d be across the street, just looking.’ Even when they finally moved into an apartment that his father didn’t know the whereabouts of, his mother was still on edge. If they got an unexpected knock, she’d tell George to peek under the door. If he saw a lady’s shoes, he could open it. A man’s shoes, and they would stay quiet until the visitor went away. This family drama ended only when his father died. George was eight. …

Richard Pryor

“He was born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor, on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois. His mother, who appears to have been a prostitute, and his father married when Richard was three and split up when he was ten. He then went to live with his grandmother, who ran a chain of whorehouses in town. In his autobiography, Pryor Convictions, Pryor describes learning about sex by peeking through keyholes to watch the prostitutes at work, and soaking up neighborhood lore at a bar called the Famous Door, where ‘people came in to exchange news, blow steam or have their say.’ He was kicked out of Catholic school when they found out about the family business, and he moved into an integrated elementary school. There he got an early taste of racism, when he gave a scratch pad as a gift to a little white girl he had a crush on. The next day, as Pryor tells it, the girl’s angry father came to school and berated him in front of the class: ‘Nigger, don’t you ever give my daughter anything.’ “

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