By J. Lee Carey
Between takes, the beloved comedian sat in his trailer, nursing a LaCroix and streaming the Indians and Royals on a late model MacBook.
He was slouching in the orange and brown plaid upholstered dining nook. Change comes slowly to set-trailer décor. There was a largely untouched food platter by the mini-sink glistening with unaccountably tasteless melon slices and strawberries.
“Shit,” he blurted, shaking his head, as The Tribe stranded two in scoring position.
He’d memorized his lines, such as they were. Mostly short conversational bursts. Now, past fifty, he was well into his second act, that of a serious actor.
He’d started out in improv, though “started out” hardly describes it. He’d helped define the genre, liberating it from small, cult venues into the forefront of mainstream entertainment.
Fans canonize his early work. Couples re-enact full sketches in the glow of a shared moment. His catchphrases flood the pop-culture lexicon. Zealots debate the relative merits of his recurring bits: The Lisping Drill Sergeant vs. Circus Boy. Zero Gravity Mating vs. Vito’s Pizzeria.
And while many an improv colleague was now carving out hefty laughs and paychecks on the big screen, the beloved comedian’s encore was different. He’s not, technically, funny.
There’s a knock on the trailer door. It’s the ingénue. She walks in. He shuts the laptop and gestures, “Have some cardboard melon. It cleanses the palate.”
She’d been dropping by, on the longer scene changes, for the past week. Sure, she was starstruck. But it was something else. He made her feel like she belonged. The first time she’d left their heart-to-hearts she said she’d never forget it. He demurred, “Yeah, well, give it 15 minutes.”
The line producer beckoned him back to set on the walky-talky. The scene was a Tiki bar in Honolulu, 1941. The beloved comedian was bartender to a group of off-duty swabbies blowing off steam. It was December 6. Cataclysm loomed over everything, adding shades of import to every word, gaze, and close-up swirl of a swizzle stick.
The ingénue worked the tables. Behind the bar, fish meandered in the large, luminous aquarium. Keen viewers would later note they were not actual tetras and angelfish, but animated in origami, typical of the off-kilter esthetic so prized by the director’s fans.
The sticks clapped. The scene began. On cue, the bartender said to Omaha, the lanky gunnery mate, “Maybe you should make that a double.”
“Great. Print it. Let’s move on.” the director yelled.
The beloved comedian resisted, suggesting, “You want something else? I could give it a little more gravitas. A pregnant pause before ’a double.’ Maybe toss down a shot myself in solidarity. That could work.”
“No, trust me, you nailed it.” shot back the director.
This was generally how things went. Everything the bartender, the day trader, the stepfather, the rodeo clown—every role the beloved comedian played—was imbued with backstory. You expected laughs. When you didn’t get them, you felt something deeper was afoot.
Consequently, as a rule, he “nailed it.” No need to nuance something already layered with dissonance. His work was, some might suggest, effortless.
Coming up, he had worked to be funny. Worked his ass off, in fact. And snorted as much cocaine as the long hours and cutthroat rivalries required. But this was different. He was willing to grind. All in, in fact. Just a bit fuzzy on what it was he was doing or why anyone would pay him a nickel to do it.
They wrapped early that day. There’s nothing like one-takes to streamline a production schedule.
At home that evening, he grabbed a cold Clos du Temple Rose and the German Schnauzer pistol the producer of “Night of the Long Horizon” had given him. He’d received Oscar buzz for a poignantly wordless cameo in that film.
He loaded the gun, slowly filling the clip, climbed to the roof deck of his Malibu home and settled into a cushioned recliner.
Lying back, he carefully raised the barrel, aimed intently, and fired into the sky. He furrowed his brow and took a long, deliberate swig from the elegantly contoured bottle.
His girlfriend, a Media Studies professor at Scripps, chuckled from a nearby hammock and returned her attention to an article in The New Republic.
To the other side, his father sat on an all-weather ottoman. He was a spry, slightly sun-burned, former Akron bus driver. Today, he wore paisley silk pajama bottoms, an Indians T-shirt, Sea World visor and a smudge of zinc oxide on his nose. He was intently filling balloons from a white, lightly rusted tank.
“Pull,” the beloved comedian barked. His dad released another inflatable. This time the marksman connected, exploding the wafting novelty a full thirty meters above the deck.
“Badabing!” the comic yelled in triumph.
“Badabang!” senior shot back in a helium-induced falsetto.
Turning to his father, the beloved comedian asked: “That route, here to there, it felt real, didn’t it?”
“Don’t overthink it, son,” he quietly replied. Then loosed another translucent bubble into a perfectly blue Pacific sky.
Copyright Carey 2023