“Dying is easy; comedy is hard,” according to the early 19th-century actor Edmund Kean. I would append to that statement: “Not feeling very well is easy; reviewing comedy is hard.”
The primary problem with penetrating the comic mind is that comedy is used as a shield, a defence mechanism, really, against all foes. Comedy comes from a dark place rather than the light place it seems to occupy. Another wise man, Mark Twain, once observed that “the secret source of humour is not joy but sorrow; there is no humour in heaven.” Heaven is for the civilized, the well behaved, the well dressed. It is a place where soft music is playing. Hell is for bad behaviour, childish antics, rage and criticism, not approval. Practitioners and creators of comedy, famously or infamously, are more often morose than cheerful.
It is difficult to see this at first. We bounce off the comic shield. The trouble (and the joy for us) is that when we laugh we are distracted, less inclined to make sense of a joke or a funny character or a funny scene. Yet most of the jokes are about our frailties, our inadequacies, about discomfort rather than comfort, about shortcomings rather than strengths, failures rather than successes. Aristotle’s understanding of tragic characters was that they are better than we are—we look up to them—while comic characters are inferior—we look down on them. We see the banana peel in front of them before they do. We pity comic characters. We admire tragic ones.
Moreover, the comedian or the comic writer is trying for funny, so the sorrow flowing from the dark heart beneath the humour remains pure and true, less tampered with, less edited, once funny is achieved.
One such funny writer is Mark Leiren-Young, a journalist, playwright and filmmaker, and winner of the 2009 Leacock Medal for Humour for his first memoir, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen. It is a story about a young reporter who comes to Williams Lake, British Columbia, only to stumble upon crime and mayhem and palpable danger.
His new memoir, Free Magic Secrets Revealed, is about an even younger Mark Leiren-Young. This story roams over the classic terrain of comedy. It is about a young man trying to make his mark (no pun intended or it is a bad one if it is), trying to find his identity, trying to find love among the unforgiving precincts of high school and trying to impress by putting on a spectacle, a show featuring a sci-fi script Mark has written that includes magic and heavy metal music, starring girls Mark would like to date and boys Mark would like to be.
The teenager begins his theatrical journey as a magician, but of course he is no Doug Henning. “I doubt there are a lot of magicians building their careers around an illusion that requires their mom’s bedsheet.”
Next, he has a brief career as a party performer who dresses in animal costumes. One customer wants a Playboy bunny but gets Mark instead, dressed as a bunny. As a gorilla, Mark is directed to sing “Happy Birthday” but is not allowed to talk. It breaks the spell. “Gorillas don’t talk,” his boss tells him.
“I see,” I said.
“Then you sing Happy Birthday.”
“But I don’t talk?”
Mark’s greatest extravaganza, meant finally to confer upon him fame, admiration, love and envy, is the show he writes, directs and produces himself, the show that ends up being called, significantly, The Initiation, a rock fantasy. But the magic ends up being left out, the acting is so-so, the music laughable, the story undeveloped without its promised sequel and the production values low: “In Spinal Tap there’s a famous scene where Nigel Tufnel creates the greatest amp of all time,” Leiren-Young recalls.
Instead of going up to ten, this one stops at eleven. Our sound technician—the one we hadn’t rehearsed with—had dialled our reverb to thirteen. So when Kyle taunted Satan again, trying to determine the limits of his demonic powers Satan replied gravely, “Blapblapblap blap blapblapblapblap blapblap blap.”
There was nothing Kyle could do. Nowhere he could run. “Dark Lord,” he asked. “Do you enjoy haunting me with recollections of my single failure?”
It is not the kind of impression Mark was hoping to make. The first review that appears in the papers hits hard: “this is just a high school production that somehow wandered downtown. I’d say it’s worth seeing for a laugh, but that would be cruel.” The girl Mark has been hoping to impress most, Sarah Saperstein, instead comes over to make sure Mark is not going to take his own life, and for the first time Mark gets to make love with the girl of his dreams.
But the next review of The Initiation, appearing in the bigger Vancouver paper, the Sun, provides a deeper interpretation. The writer has understood the blap-blappings of Satan to suggest he could not speak human, should never have been able to communicate with any kind of sense.
And so, finally, because things work out in comedy, all the failures somehow end up adding up to some vestige of success. The show comes together: the acting is more inspired; magic is added; the sound equipment is adjusted. Mark and his pals do manage to impress the right people, and Mark’s life comes together too, just as he has hoped:
My mother never mentioned law school again.
I was a playwright.
Randy was a magician.
Kyle and Annie and Ivy and Lisa were stars.
The Initiation toured the world.
And Mark tries to turn his friend Randy into the real Houdini by chaining him up, putting handcuffs on him and then dumping him into the deep end. It takes Randy over a half-minute to break free. He comes up gasping. “‘I can’t hold my breath for thirty-two seconds,’” he tells Mark. His friend says, “‘Then you’d better get out of the handcuffs faster.’”
So all’s well that ends well—all inadequacies erased (or diminished), love blooming in the air, the laughter sounding in all the right places.
Of course, while you are reading Mark Leiren-Young’s Free Magic Secrets Revealed, you do not have to consider why you are laughing. Just laugh and enjoy.