I have never encountered a woman writer who devoted more than a few sentences to expressing respect and admiration for the amount of alcohol a man could consume without making a fool of himself. But men who write, whether they themselves drink or not, seem to be impressed by an excess, which in reality clearly has the most tragic effects.
The habitual use of liquor is annually responsible for suffering many times greater than that occasioned by AIDS. Thousands of innocents are killed yearly in accidents caused by driving while drunk, countless crimes committed, barroom brawls and sexual offenses, not to mention the gradual destruction of living tissue that at any given moment is sending millions to their deaths.
Why, in the light of this unremitting wave of destruction and foolishness, anyone should express any emotion beyond sympathy for an alcoholic friend has, since childhood, been something that I could not understand.
There is nothing of the holier-than-thou in this judgment. My own mother was a partial alcoholic, as were some of her brothers and sisters. Although alcohol was not the only cause of destruction of the fabric of my mother's family, the Donahues, it was high on the list of contributing factors.
When I was young, I used to take an occasional drink and have, in rare instances, become as intoxicated as anybody else in my social circle. But in every instance, I behaved like a boob and later wished I had not done so. Again, I am no saint and have no wish to legislate others' morality. If people wish to drink themselves into an ongoing series of bouts of asininity, not to mention eventually the grave, that is their problem and there are wonderful organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous that stand at the ready to help them.
My argument, then, is not a matter of looking down on the unfortunate drinkers of the world--they have my sympathy. What I object to is the romanticizing, the mindless glamorizing, the endless stories as to who can "carry his liquor." The answer to that one, gentlemen, is nobody at all. Just because a man might be able to walk more or less steadily across a room or not slur too many words in a conversation after several drinks is not to argue that alcohol has no negative effect whatever on him.
As an authority on comedy I am aware that one of the easiest ways in the world to make people laugh is either to pretend to be drunk or to tell stories involving the exaggeration of someone's state of intoxication. This is dependably amusing because, as I've mentioned in other contexts, comedy is about tragedy.
I am never favorably impressed when I hear how much Jackie Gleason, Errol Flynn or some other semi-addicted individual could ingest without falling asleep or throwing up. I loved Jackie's comedy but I wish he hadn't drunk nearly so much. He'd probably still be amusing us today if he hadn't spent so much time as a barfly.
As for Errol Flynn, there was an impressive, handsome and intelligent gentleman. I had the pleasure of booking him as a guest on my comedy program twice late in his life, and now that he is gone I can comment for the public record on what a pathetic spectacle he presented at the time.
Some of this reality has been revealed, in a comic way, in the motion picture "My Favorite Year," based partly on Flynn's adventures on the Sid Caesar show and on my own one year when he came to New York to earn a little quick television money to help with his financial problems, problems partly caused, in fact, by his long history of irresponsible drinking.
A drunken driver once almost killed my wife, our 8-year-old son Bill and myself by careening wildly onto the busy California coast highway directly into heavy traffic coming from right and left. Bill and I were on my motorcycle driving behind Jayne in her station wagon, from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, when I suddenly saw a parked car lurch forward, cutting across traffic.
Jayne, thank God, slammed on the brakes and swerved. As soon as I saw the smoke coming from her braking maneuver, I pulled my motorcycle off the road, came to a quick stop, told Bill to remain where he was and ran forward at top speed to apprehend the driver, who had, in the instant, been hit by a Volkswagen driven by an unfortunate young woman who was badly battered in the crash.
As I raced up to his car and pulled his door open, demanding to know what the hell he thought he was doing, he looked up in bleary-eyed panic, stepped on the gas again, and this time hit another car. Parenthetically, I later learned the man was not prosecuted for the peculiar reason that he was an off-duty police officer.