Recently I came far too close to dying doing something I love. What I love doing is enjoying humour whether in movies, books, or stand-up routines.
That’s why I watched Jay Leno’s final Tonight Show. To wind up his 22 years in style, he brought back Billy Crystal, his very first guest. Crystal reminisced about how they both began as stand-up comics. Leno lived then in an apartment in his home city of Boston where he generously bunked startup comedians who couldn’t yet afford lodgings of their own. Crystal was one.
Over Leno’s bed hung a publicity poster of Leno’s idol, Robert Klein, a standup comic ten years Leno’s senior. A man I had never heard of until Crystal named him.
While I dallied over my breakfast coffee several days later I googled Robert Klein and on Youtube found two of his comic routines – one about visiting a dentist and the typical things dentists do. They aren’t funny until a comedian bends them out of shape and adds sound effects, evoking memories of Tim Conway as a dentist in a Carol Burnett skit where Conway injected himself with anesthesia, paralyzing first one hand, then one leg. His patient, Harvey Korman, laughed so uncontrollably he wet his trousers.
Klein’s second Youtube routine mocked the way we treat our pets as though they were humans.
Like Leno, Klein used no obscene language in his jokes. At the time of his Youtube routines in the 1970s TV was closely censored. George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” were rigidly enforced. Leno has always abided by those language restrictions and still draws large audiences because of it.
Too many comics today expect viewers to approve of cuss words thrown in “like an excuse for potty-mouth behaviour with expletives as the main attraction,” in the words of New York Times critique Kathryn Shattuck.
If a comedian, actor or writer wants me as his audience, he’d best put more effort into creative turns of phrase and plot twists. The best, funniest, longest remembered comedians have the cleanest routines. Remember Bob Hope, Mark Twain, George Burns?
Klein was well into his animals-as-people Youtube routine when one of his observations struck me sideways. Caught mid-sip, I choked. I didn’t spew coffee all over my desk or down my shirt; I wheezed like a 90-year-old diehard smoker with COPD. Though my lungs struggled valiantly, they exchanged less breath than would a snoozing kitten.
Fearful thoughts darted about in my brain. There I was, by myself, too short of breath to dial 911, and if I could, I’d be suffocated before a dispatcher could answer. My next thought was, “Laughing while drinking or eating is another hazard to lengthen a senior’s list of risks.”
Not enough seniors must be on guard at all times to prevent falls and other mishaps by keeping a tidy home, immediately cleaning up any spills especially in the kitchen, maintaining a clear pathway from room to room, installing grab bars in the bathtub and shower, providing good lighting on stairs, now I must avoid comedians while eating.
No more “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “The Big Bang Theory” at snack time; I’ll stay safe watching CPAC or “How It’s Made”.
Dying while doing something you love seems to me to be highly overrated, certainly not an ending devoutly to be wished.
In 2006 Klein published a memoir titled, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back.” His 384 page book is available for $20 through Misty River Books.
You can watch Robert Klein’s dentist routine at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CAql1nrsGg.