The Hardest Show I Ever Did
I remember the first line of Johnny Carson’s first introduction of me the night I did my initial Tonight Show.
“Comedy is the hardest commodity to find,” he informed the audience.
Having had some good fortune and success in my over 30 years doing stand-up comedy, I’ve always known that what he said was true. Yet with all the ups and downs of the business of being funny, it had always come fairly easy to me.
Many people have said to me, “You’re doing the hardest thing I could imagine doing, getting up on a stage and trying to make people laugh.” One time in the 1970’s Dustin Hoffman saw me perform in a club in New York, and afterwards he could not stop remarking how he admired that I could do something this difficult, saying he couldn’t even contemplate doing it.
But as easy as it was for me, there were two nights when I found myself on a stage and about to do the hardest thing in my llife: make people laugh right after a national tragedy.
The first was on 9/11. I was scheduled to open an engagement at Harrah’s Hotel in Lake Tahoe, and that morning I woke up to the news of the attack, as did everyone else in the country. I assumed all shows would be cancelled; I mean, how could anyone laugh at a moment such as this? But I was informed by the hotel that the show would go on that night, as the hotel guests were stranded and unnerved and didn’t know what to do with themselves.
I knew I had to address the issue when I took the stage. It was too devastating to try to ignore it. And I wondered how people would be able to laugh. I felt tremendous guilt on having to do my job.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I somberly opened, “for years everyone has always said I was doing the hardest job imaginable, but I’ve always told them it was in fact pretty easy for me. But tonight folks, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
The audience broke into applause, and I went on with the show, and to my surprise they laughed like they desperately needed to, in order to assuage the pain of that day.
And then the other hardest event came on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, when I again I had to perform my comedy show after the horrific shootings in Connecticut. This time the emcee held a moment of silence, so I decided to just do my show as always without alluding to it. The crowd voraciously absorbed my medicine which they so obviously needed this day. Again I could not help but feel twinges of guilt as I went through my 55 minutes of material; the paradox of tragedy and humor was one that my heart and soul could not ignore, even as the funny words poured out of my mouth.
After the show many people thanked me for giving them some respite from the sorrow that they all were feeling. I am glad I was given this gift to help ease people’s pain even in a small way. I pray that I do not have to do funny shows on any more tragic days in the future.