Certain comedians can make you cry. This observation was passed on to me once by the late actor Keenan Wynn. He was talking specifically about his father, Ed Wynn, "The Perfect Fool." But it was the way that he divided comedians into two lots. "Bob Hope, you know, is pretty funny," Keenan said, "but he'll never make you cry."
Today the great teen-age audience may be baffled by such a concept. There's a great crop of comedians out there--sharp, fast, jagged, ready to offer you a modern education. Who among them would want to make an audience cry? A very few, such as Richard Pryor, have any access to genuine pathos.
And yet, pathos was once an elemental part of many an entertainer's bag of tricks, as fundamental as the double-take or the slow burn. Somewhere toward the end of the act you have to slow it all down and bring out the sentimental showstopper. Even Bob Hope closes the curtain with the schmaltzy "Thanks for the Memories."
Perhaps Shecky Greene's audience, for an example, would buy that today. Give some outre sentimentality to the wised-up young, and they would see it just as hilarious kitsch. They'd be banging on the seats in mirth, begging you to stop.
More than a few people felt a real sense of loss Tuesday when they heard that Danny Kaye died. He was a Beloved Entertainer from the old school. He offered all kinds of seemingly anarchic tomfoolery, but it was all carefully staged, and he could get very solemn and serious and he could turn on plenty of schmaltz.
I remember him best singing in the rain.
Somewhere sharp in my memory of childhood is the night my folks took my brother Tim and me to the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washington, D.C., to see Kaye. Intermittent showers broke loose and emptied the stage, and the audience rushed back to the cover of the refreshment stands. The rain would stop, the show would begin again, then another deluge would fall.
Kaye, of course, knew how to get laughs out of the situation. During one long break, when the rain settled into a light and steady drizzle, he came out on stage alone. Since his coat was soaked, he left it behind. His shirttail was out, and he had a towel around his neck. No shoes. He sat on the edge of a table and told stories for all the audience that remained.
In a while he began sneezing and every sneeze elicited applause. The guy was risking pneumonia, but the show would go on. He had a dozen ways of involving the audience in the situation. Most memorably, he got everyone to sing along on that children's rhyme, "Inchworm."
The song, by Frank Loesser, came from Kaye's movie about the Danish storyteller, "Hans Christian Andersen." Tim and I had worn out our copy of the sound-track record. Later, when Tim became a father, he bought a new copy for his daughters.
I stood under a dripping cabana in back and listened. Maybe I was 12. An elderly couple standing next to me was singing right along. The woman had her eyes closed and was putting a lot of deep passion into her voice. I thought, "Who's she trying to kid?"
Before childhood was over, my folks took me to see a few other Beloved Entertainers. We saw Harry Belafonte torch down the stage. We saw Red Skelton's comedy revue, with the big, teary, heart-tugging finale: His pantomime of the old man watching a parade. We even saw Sammy Davis Jr. in his Broadway musical, "Golden Boy." After all the tumultuous curtain calls, he'd come out alone and sit on the edge of the stage and have a cigarette and sing songs and tell stories.
All had a piece of a show-business tradition that is fast disappearing from the national scene. There are fewer and fewer stages now on which to practice such warmhearted guff. People still go for it, of course; that is the reason Garrison Keillor's radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," has received such a wide embrace. Keillor, who decided to end broadcasting June 13, found out what Kaye, Belafonte, Skelton and Sammy Davis already knew. People like to be moved. Each of these entertainers had his own way of saying, "Now I'm going to do something that you will remember. Forever."
Danny Kaye did something memorable one summer night. He sat on the edge of a table in the rain and gathered the crowd's voice into one for a children's lullaby. He made sure we would remember.