Thursday, April 8, 2010

"I Am Pagliacci"

Walking Through Syrup - Ned's Atomic Dustbin (mp3)
Fitz and Dizzyspells - Andrew Bird (mp3)

Most of us flock to careers to either escape or defeat our personal demons. For Batman, Spider-Man and a bevy of other superheroes, their careers are an attempt to avenge the deaths of loved ones. Fittingly, this little vignette comes from the most-acclaimed comic book series of all time:
A man goes to the doctor. Says he's depressed. He says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. The doctor says "The treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him, that should pick you up." The man bursts into tears. He says "But doctor... I am Pagliacci."  --  WATCHMEN

I first read this passage in 1986. I was 14. This little vignette branded my brain. It stuck in there as easily and permanently as Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. I wrote the word "Pagliacci" in my class notebooks when I was bored. Often I would doodle around the word with squiggles or sketches, but mostly I just drew little tear droplets. Sometimes just a single tear off the end of the crook of the "g".

How is it possible to be so haunted by a 69-word story? Why does Pagliacci seem so real?


I have a wacky career theory.

One of the reasons such a high proportion of gay men have found a home in the performing and fine arts is because, for the greater part of the 20th Century, the odds of accepting and being comfortable with their own identity in their formative years was difficult bordering on impossible. The closet doors stayed closed for many understandable reasons, especially until early adulthood if not later. Hell, homosexuality was still identified as a mental illness in 1977, so being openly gay was in many places no cooler than being openly psychopathic.

In such an environment, gay people -- I'd argue gay men in particular -- learned how to act from the first days they began to understand themselves, their desires. At that young age, they began to act. Act straight. Act like they thought society expected them to act. Whatever persona they projected, for most of them, it wasn't their true selves. It was some collection of little parts of themselves combined with behaviors and ticks from the world around them.

To use the vernacular of Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hours," those who lived in the closet had a massive jump on the rest of us. We acted in plays or skits; they acted all day, every day, sometimes from the minute they awoke to the moment their eyes shut for sleep.

I've always imagined Rock Hudson, sitting in his movie premiers, secretly laughing at everyone around him. If I have to live this fucking heterosexual lie, I'm gonna bleed you small-minded people for every penny I can. I don't mean to suggest Hudson was a mean or vengeful guy. But if he or any other closeted actor took twisted joy in their successes, how can anyone blame them? What's one more acting job -- the role of the boring straight Hollywood star -- in the bunch? Why not cash in on it?

While I've never exactly seen this theory written or expressed, I struggle to believe it's either original or all that controversial. Maybe it is, but since it doesn't seem particularly insulting to suggest that they're more naturally gifted at an art our culture values, I'd like to think it's not. (Great documentary on the subject: The Celluloid Closet.)

This theory doesn't have to limit itself to closeted gays. Anyone who grew up developing a carefully-crafted veneer, or multiple personas, or other ways of adapting to a troubled or challenging adolescence, would also be more easily suited to the world of acting. Which is why so many great actors and actresses, when they're not gay, need at least 10 different therapists.


In a similar vein, depressives flock to the role of comedian. Not all clowns are Pagliacci, but many are.

Artie Lange's story, while very sad, is so unoriginal as to be, well, kind of depressing (link is to a phone interview with a New York Post reporter). The short version: Artie Lange is a comedian and right-hand man of Howard Stern. They spend their time on the radio mocking strippers for growing up sexually abused and being burdened with a bunch of psycho-baggage while asking them to strip and do naughty things. All the while, these radio jokesters struggle with their own demons.

Some have died. Belushi, Farley, Ray Combs, Richard Jeni, Lenny Bruce. Some have fled from themselves, or struggled from here to get there. Many have found themselves embroiled in scandal with drugs or other embarrasments. Murphy, Chase, Kinison, Pryor. This isn't by any means a comprehensive list. Roseanne Barr is/was a walking checklist of disorders.

But if Hollywood is best made for people who grew up pretending not to be themselves, then the comedy circuit is best made for people whose humor is borne as a desperate and essential coping mechanism.

I leave you with Flunky the Clown, the funniest, least laughed-at skit ever to grace Dave's old show.


Bob said...

That Flunky is funny: "People are having trouble keepin' down the corn dogs."

troutking said...

I haven't listened to the songs you posted, but it is simply a fact that you should have chosen Tears of A Clown---it actually mentions Pagliacci.

troutking said...

Also, regarding the video: I still enjoy Old Dave, but I do miss Young Dave.

Bob said...

The Celluloid Closet is exceptional. One of the best documentaries I've seen.

John said...

I agree with Bob about The Celluloid Closet. When I showed clips a few years ago to a group of boys for a Diversity Day presentation, it was exceptionally well-received and really opened their eyes to the tough road that gays have had to navigate in our culture.