Comedy

Laughing Candy

I like my funny in everyday situations. Martians doing a Henny Youngman routine or dogs with a cockney accent just don’t foot the bill. I want my funny to occur in interactions between people, or mishaps with the weather. The persuasion lacks imagination or the ability to think outside the constructs of society, but with everyone on equal footing, an actor or comedian who can make the everyday entertaining proves creative and intuitive.

John Candy made the everyday funny. He wasn’t the Level Five Hurricane of Chris Farley who seemed to leave a broken table and an exhausted audience in his path. Nor was he the sound-effect facial-tic machine of Mel Brooks. Candy was notable for his size and stature, but he never made his size the story. Instead, he tap-danced his way through situations presented to him.

In the three movies (“Uncle Buck,” “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” and “The Great Outdoors”) that actualize my interpretation of him, Candy never made his weight the joke. Sure Steve Martin mistakenly wipes his face with Candy’s oversized underwear in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” but it was Candy’s disarming demeanor in situations that made him so appealing. He reminds me of the relative (An easy correlation to make since he starred in “Uncle Buck.”) who always knew a guy, had a guy, someone he played cards with on Thursday’s or who he golfed with twice who could get him out of a jam or procure a last-minute hotel room in the middle of Wichita, Kansas. In the make-believe world of movies Candy made you believe he had an actual bond with the individual, that he would know a guy like Gus, or Wally and established a sincere relationship.

The “every-man” label stitched to his persona carries him through any situation. You knew he would be the type to lug around an oversized trunk through New York City, or wear the small vermin atop his head in “Uncle Buck.” It was due in part to the fact that John Hughes wrote John Candy so well and John Candy acted the roles with such precision that anyone would feel comfortable eating a gigantic pancake he prepared. We fully expected him to lead a bus full of strangers in the theme song from “The Flintstones” or kick off his shoes on a flight to deal with his barking dogs.

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John Candy acted as the total person, not some buffoon or overblown caricature. His characters were always the first to make a joke to diffuse any awkwardness, but don’t cross any of the people he cared about. (Part of the criticism of “Uncle Buck” came from Candy’s portrayal of Buck Russell as too dark, too thorny. And while kidnapping the two-timing boyfriend of his niece and dropping Pooter-the Clown with a jab appears unseemly, his affection for his family and others he cares about comes through in every role.) The pure elation that comes as a result of his flicking a quarter at his other niece’s assistant principal and advising her to have a rat gnaw that mole off her face is the type of rise-from-your-seat excitement that rarely comes across on the screen.

John Candy made the mundane funny, he made the everyday amusing and worked to create a character you felt you knew. Maybe one uncle bowled with him, or he sold snow tires to your next door neighbor. No gimmick, no shtick, no stupid catchphrase. Just funny.

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Comedy

Warmth Check

When I pay for entertainment, I pay for who the person is, not who they were. You can have the blind loyalists who genuflected for the Wizards’ version of Michael Jeffrey or Griffey Jr.’s second round with the Mariners. Middling results and flashes of what once-was do not qualify as reasons enough to get me to pop for a ticket.

Same goes for singers. No amount of geriatric duck-walking and forgotten lyrics could get me to a Chuck Berry Concert. No amount of whispers dressed up as singing could get me to see Bob Dylan. However, such tributary absence fails to apply to Don Rickles.

In the sense of physical well-being, a few miles per hour have been shaved off Rickles’ fastball. He slouches, shuffles instead of walks, and has a slight tremor in one of his hands. He recently cancelled three shows in the Midwest due to a leg infection, but he’s 87. While any slight illness or disorder for people over 80 forces those around them to lose sight of reality and wish to encase the afflicted octogenarian in bubble wrap and scale-back their sodium intake, Rickles hasn’t lost his edge, evidenced by his appearance on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” For Chrissakes he’s 87. After years on stage in a Vegas Lounge it’s amazing he hasn’t developed cirrhosis of the liver by-proxy or that his body hasn’t needed to be fumigated to remove the stench and stain of second-hand smoke. Plus, it’s not that people go to a Rickles’ show to watch him pirouette or Crip Walk, though both would provide some form of entertainment.

But to be honest, the cancellations sounded an alarm. I panicked. Somehow, someway, by hook or by crook, through rounds of prayer and cash donations to Miss Cleo, I need to find a way to will several more years of existence out of Rickles. His mortality means the end of an era, where among the din of ice dropped into glasses and a venue smoggy enough to rival bars in Milwaukee prior to the no-smoking ban, tuxedo-clad celebrities filled an entire dais and roasted one another. He’s the last of the group that hits the trifecta of alive, coherent, and relevant if you don’t count Bob Newhart and Tony Bennett. I don’t. They seemed more comfortable on the periphery of the action, outside of the ruckus and craziness that were the seats closest to center-stage.

Not Rickles. Idle chit-chat and banal conversation came to a halt when he approached the microphone. His unflinching honesty pairs with the heat-seeking intensity he inhibits when he cow-tips the most sacred of deities, luminaries and big names (including Orson Welles, who Rickles once quipped should have Goodyear written on his face so he could be ridden over the beach). It’s the venom with a smile that makes him appealing. If I really wanted to pay tribute to him, I’d buy three copies of “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” and hunt around for seasons of “CPO Sharkey,” instead of hoping for another round of appearances in the Midwest.

Sure, he’s performed in front of four presidents, told Sinatra to make himself at home and hit somebody, broke Carson’s cigarette box, and asked Billy Graham to fix a tingling sensation in his hand at Ronald Regan’s inaugural ball, but a chance to see Rickles is one-part historically significant and two-parts entertaining. He still maintains a stage presence that’s earned him nicknames like “Mr. Warmth” and “The Merchant of Venom.” Who gives a shit if he moves a little slow? He’s always been old to me. I can’t picture him with a full head of hair. Actually I don’t think anyone besides those wearing short-pants during World War 2 would remember that.

The show is in the now. The accolades are in the past.

See Rickles for what he’s going to say next, not for what he once said. For that, he should continue to perform. For that, I’ll plan on his recovery.

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