In my very early years, I had trouble with the concept of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” You’re supposed to answer that question with the name of a profession, like “Veterinarian!” or “Singer!” or “Firefighter!” As a wee child, I tended to identify not with jobs, but with personalities. So I would respond to the question of “what” I wanted to be with a vague, “A teacher, or an actress, I guess,” but what I really wanted was to be Lucille Ball. I’m not sure I grasped fully that Lucy Ricardo and Ball were not the same person (largely because she worked hard to prevent me from grasping it), but the reason I wanted to be her, to do what she did, was not because she was glamorous or beautiful. I wanted to be Lucy because Lucy was funny. Lucy made people laugh, and that’s why they loved her.
Many years of reality checks and social humiliations later, I still want to make people laugh, but have only rarely attempted to do so on stage. My appreciation for the art of comedy, however, has only grown. True to my early attraction to personality over content, I have found myself passionately drawn to stand-up comics. Now, a qualification: I am not a stand-up groupie. I’m not that woman that haunts comedy clubs and open mics–first of all, because live shows are criminally expensive and/or inconveniently scheduled, and second, because a good number of comics are just plain crap. Like musical theater, when comedy’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad it’s horrid. So I consider myself not a comedy fanatic, but a comedy connoisseur.
My favorites run the gamut in terms of popularity–Richard Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Dave Attell, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Maria Bamford, Louis C.K., and Marc Maron, just for starters–but what they all have in common is obvious intelligence, deep respect for their fans, and an undercurrent of serious damage. Yeah, I know it’s an old saw that funny people are all crying on the inside, but in some cases it’s more obvious than others, whether it’s in the material or just in the tone of their voice. And in some terrible cases, it’s obvious because the person ends up dead. Greg Giraldo became one of those cases earlier this week, suffering an (allegedly) accidental overdose of prescription meds Saturday night and passing away four days later.
You know Greg–always on the dais at a Comedy Central celebrity roast, or pitching in on some other group project, like Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn or Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil. He brought his signature verbose, sarcastic, exasperated style to a failed ABC series (based on his pre-comedy law career), some TV ads for the cable company (in English and Spanish!), and two stand-up specials. I was in attendance at the taping of Midlife Vices, the most recent and, sadly, the last. These are the best gigs a comic ever gets: an hour of uninterrupted time, a house full of people who are rooting for you (even more so because they didn’t have to pay $30 to get in), people who came to see you and only you, not the guy after you. An aura of resignation bordering on despair was palpable in his set–he was recently divorced from the mother of his three kids–but he owned up to it and used it to color the performance as a whole. He blasted target after target with his righteous indignation, from John McCain to a gang of party girls from Jersey to an audience member who seemed to be in a weed-induced stupor. Sure, these sound like the usual stand-up suspects, but it’s all in the execution, and Giraldo was a master of the rant, of blending eloquence with profanity, and of coming at a topic from a unique, multifaceted perspective: there weren’t a lot of alcoholic, Ivy-educated Latino lawyers doing comedy. Now, tragically, there are probably none.
So what do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be Greg Giraldo. No, I don’t want to struggle with addiction, or die young, or leave a family behind in what must be terrible grief. But, like Greg, I want to be able to switch course in life, throw off any preconceived notions about myself and work my ass off doing what I know I’m good at, no matter which way the winds of fame and fortune may be blowing. I want to win the respect and affection of my peers, to make myself indispensable when a task needs doing and has to be done right. And I want to make people laugh, of course.