Make us laugh

Posted: Dec 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Considering the war, the almost daily killing of our troops, terrorism, Middle East suicide bombers, orange alerts, killer floods, fires and mudslides, and an earthquake of biblical proportions, it is probably fair to say that 2003 has not been a great year for comedy.

Also, Queen Elizabeth is in justified mourning over the death of her most beloved Corgi dog after it was mauled to death in the palace by her insufferable daughter's incorrigible pet bull terrier. While obviously not equivalent to human death, the loss of Good Queen Bess's favorite dog (a far more reliable and beloved royal than most of her impossible human relations) certainly detracted further from 2003's limited gaiety. (This story touched me not just because I am an ex-Brit, but because in our own family this year we lost a beloved cat, dog and pony -- McDougal, Winston and Casey -- to old age, and two pet sheep and two pet goats to a dog pack at night.)

This year was rendered an even less comic year by the deaths of Bob Hope, Art Carney, Buddy Hackett and Buddy Ebsen. Below the superstar level of comedy, we lost some other solid laugh-makers. "Three's Company's" breezy John Ritter died while making a comedy comeback with his new sitcom. Nell Carter (star of TV sitcom "Gimme A Break," "the short, fat, Jewish black woman," as she called herself) provided a slightly demented laugh even in her published obituary: "her hefty size caused her a lot of problems, as did alcoholism, diabetes and a brain aneurysm."

Also lost to us this year were Larry Hovis ("Hogan's Heroes'" Sgt. Carter), Gordon Jump ("WKRP in Cincinnati's" station manger) and Rod Amateau (the comic mind behind sitcoms such as "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," "The Phil Silvers Show," "Mister Ed," "My Mother the Car," "The Bob Cummings Show," "The Burns and Allen Show," "The Patty Duke Show," and others.

Taking a considerable step down from the humor pantheon, we lost Sheb Wooley (novelty song composer of such gems as "The Purple People Eater"). Also gone is Tom Glazer (another song writer of such classics like "On Top of Spaghetti." "On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese, I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed.")

And, in a category all his own, we also lost William Steig, the dark, enigmatic New Yorker cartoonist who didn't merchandise all his cartoons on coffee mugs, calendars and best-of books. An example of his work was a picture of an armless man with a knife in his back and a spear through his chest, with the caption: "If you are good-natured, people step all over you." Somehow, I think his brand of humor is just right for today's headlines. Willie boy, why d'ge leave us so soon?

I suppose, somewhere in today's schoolrooms, saloons, stand up clubs and insane asylums are tomorrow's Hopes, Carneys, Hacketts and Ebsens. But I doubt it. As Art Carney's co-star, Jackie Gleason, used to say: "When they made me, they broke the mold." Of course the Sheb Wooleys and Tom Glazers will always be with us. But that's better than nothing.

Because we can use all the comics we can find. Whether dark or bright, slapstick or intellectual, a comic's efforts are like water in the desert right at the moment -- and I guess they always have been. We should be thankful for the laughter and puncturing self-revelations they provide us. Admit it. Even Tom Glazer's stupid parody lyrics, above, gave you at least a brief moment of lightness (though probably not sustained laughter) -- which is more than you got from today's paper or last night's evening news.

End-of-the-year columns are supposed to shrewdly assess the year gone by or divine the one coming up. I have read several such columns in the last few days. And, with all respect to the authors, this year was too big and twisted to fit into a meaningful column. And next year has not yet been revealed to those columnists -- nor to me. So I thought I would just pause to remember in gratitude those whose lifework gave us laughter rather than tears. There are never enough of the laugh makers and always so many of the others.