Comedians and their pathetic childhood

It is an urban myth that successful comedians have a pathetic childhood. What makes this connection between comedy and wretchedness is not known. If we go through history of Cinema from around the world, we see it first caught on to the audience from circus and magic. Some of the famous early filmmakers, like Meliès, or Dadasaheb Phalke, were magicians. And one major attraction in magic and circus is the clown.

If on the other hand, we consider folk theatre, the other grand daddy of cinema, we can easily notice the role played by the vidūṣak on the Indian stage. (vidūṣak, in Sanskrit, has two different but close meanings; a Court Jester, a fool) The Roman comedian shared some of his vital traits too. If we forget about the comic relief they offered during moments of peak tension in plays, we see something very understandable. They were the commentators, just like the audience sitting outside the stage. The comedians were always involved and uninvolved in the act, at the same time. They were the eye of the conscience. Only they seemed to know what was going on in the make-believe world on stage.

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Our modern day comedians are an amalgamation of these two – the Clown and the vidūṣak. But why were they needed in the first place? This leads us to an obvious question with an even more obvious answer – why do we go to movies?

We go because we are crushed under pressure of the mundane world. We want to get back to the freedom of childhood, when dream and reality were the same. And isn’t cinema an extension of dreams?

A lot of psychoanalytical studies have been carried out about the relation between comedy, childhood and identity, including Freud’s early investigations on this phenomena. It may not be totally true that some adults, who had a wretched childhood, want to go back to the dreamland of fairy tales more than others, because they never had it in reality. And they find an accomplice on the silver screen, the comedian, for that journey. However, this may not be totally false either.

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Comedians on the screen are essentially flawed characters. Some gross imperfections in them lead us to laugh at their activities. Consider the tramp played by Chaplin from his early shorts to the later blockbusters, like The Circus and Modern Times. He is gross, unsuccessful and an insignificant character who is trampled and humiliated by the society. That itself is a flaw. However, the bigger flaw that makes him a laughing stock is his knack of getting involved in situations that always go out of his hands. In The Kid, he gets a child by accident and has to bring him up. We break into laughter when we see how a marginal figure in the society, who could not create a place of his own, teaches a kid how to succeed and gain respect.

However, when the same character solves pinning problems in his weird way, we cannot but empathetically identify with him. The same tramp actually takes us back to our roots when he takes up the role of a comedian in one of his films, Limelight. There too he tries to conquer humiliation, poverty and death by escaping into laughter.

Talking about Indian comedians, like Johnny Walker, Mehmood and Johnny Lever, we see these common traits running in their character’s blood. Johnny Walker, specially in the films made by Guru Dutt, helped alleviate the hero’s pain. He was not merely a comic relief, but a very active agent in the plot to solve the hero’s dilemma. He’s the one to bring the hero out of the mental hospital in the film Pyasaa.

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As a matter of fact, the comedian is an active comment on all forms of abusive power and guardianship, such as the school, the police and the mental hospital. So, it is enlightening when the tramp takes up the role of a Dictator Hinkel. At the end of The Great Dictator he talks about parity and peace from a platform which we all want to reach.

Considering the fact Chaplin credited humiliation in his childhood to be a major inspiration for laughter in his movies, there should be a deep connection between a disturbed childhood and the later adult days of comedy.

However, if we consider many other comedians, like Buster Keaton or Rowan Atkinson, we see it isn’t necessary for a comedian to have a bad childhood. There are different types of comedies, ranging from burlesque and slapstick to social satires. Can we divide the comedians into two sharp lines, with or without a disturbed childhood, so they can fit one genre or the other as a rule? However, that’s another story in itself.

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