T.S. Eliot, in perhaps one of the greatest poems the English language has ever produced (The Waste Land), declared that “April is the cruelest month”. But I beg to differ. Another favorite poet, Charles Bukowski would no doubt proclaim that every month is cruel. As for myself, for a number of years now, December manifests itself as the cruelest. And this past December was an unusually cold and dreary Texas winter. That and the uneasy assessment of the preceding eleven months, the Shopapocolypse which is increasingly becoming all things Amazon, and the damn Happy Holidays crowd (just be politically incorrect and say Merry Christmas) left me in dire need of a good laugh.
So where do I turn for a good laugh in the midst of the winter doldrums? Increasingly I turn to YouTube. You see YouTube as I’m finding out knows everything about me, just like Amazon. It knows my likes/dislikes, my viewing habits, my interactions, my bowel movements, and what I eat for breakfast. I have noticed a lot of oatmeal ads that pop up. The omnipresent YouTube knows all of this about me based on an algorithm. Algorithm used to be a term that only students of mathematics cared about. Now algorithms run our lives. Think of it as a process to solve a problem. The problem being in this case eliciting a laugh based on what YouTube knows about me. Eliot had his Madame Sisostis and her tarot cards and I’ve got my YouTube. And lately based on my viewing habits, recommended viewing has centered around celebrity interviews by prominent talk show hosts
like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglass, William F. Buckley, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and the recently disgraced Charlie Rose. The reason for this is simply me doing research for a play, short story, novel, whatever… So on this particular day, the videos for recommended viewing started out with an old Tonight Show appearance by Jackie Gleason. The Great One – a moniker bestowed upon him by legendary director Orson Welles.
I had forgotten how funny Gleason could be and he was in fine form as well as the affable Johnny Carson. As it turns out, Gleason didn’t grant many interviews and did not make many personal appearances. And in this instance, he was promoting a book and a film he was doing with a young Tom Hanks. But it took very little time for the mission to be accomplished. Laughter ensued almost immediately. Some of the humor revolved around Gleason’s penchant for liquor. He said that he didn’t advocate drinking, “but look what its done for me”. He also made mention of Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon who himself was a champion drinker. In his autobiography, Burt Reynolds relays a story about Gleason on the set of Smokey and the Bandit. While sitting in a directors chair between scenes with a cocktail fully in hand, Gleason tumbled over, got back up
and marveled at not spilling a drop. And no, alcoholism is really nothing to joke about, but it wasn’t alcohol that got Gleason in the end, it was a five pack a day cigarette habit. But it wasn’t all jokes, Gleason mentioned he only wanted to do The Honeymooners for one season because after 39 episodes, it would be hard to replicate the greatness that Art Carney and Audrey Meadows helped him create.
After watching that appearance, I moved on to a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. Gleason was to be the man of honor if one could call such events honorable. These television events were created to say crude and nasty things about the feted celebrity under the guise of humor. Yes, some of it was really, funny politically incorrect as it was, but much of it not so. And speaking of championship drinkers, Dean Martin and gang had no equals. The only sober one on the dais was reformed alcoholic Foster Brooks whose whole act was based on being sloshed. But in the end, Gleason gave as good as he got. An evening with Jackie Gleason. He’s still making people laugh all these years later. As he would say in his own inimitable way, “How sweet it is.”
But beyond the laughter, there is still a haunting question that Charlie Rose once asked Dick Cavett: Who are the modern day counterparts of these great comedians, the actors, the literary and sports figures of yesteryear? The silence was deafening.