Tuesday, February 6, 2007

You Missed the Funny Part, Leo

Anyone who spends more than ten seconds reflecting on life can usually recall dozens, if not hundreds of people who have had positive effects on their thoughts, opinions and outlook. Among the hundreds of people I've learned from over the years, two came to mind recently as I was watching A Thousand Clowns for the four hundred and eightieth time. Herb Gardner, the playwright, and Barbara Sproul, Chairman of the Religion Department at Hunter College.

I never met Herb Gardner. Like everyone else, I knew him through his work. But during my years at NBC I met people who had known him, as well as the director of A Thousand Clowns, Fred Coe. Through their recollections I felt as if I had known him personally. I was lucky enough to know and admire Barbara Sproul when I was a student at Hunter College.

Gardner created a richly-textured and moving collection of work that included the aforementioned Jason Robards classic, as well as I'm Not Rappaport, Thieves, Conversations with my Father and a cartoon series called The Nebbishes, which was The Simpsons of its era. His plays like his characters were unique and timeless. In a world of shallowness he saw complexity. In a show biz milieu dominated by tired and predictable old gags, his humor worked so beautifully because you could never see the punchlines until they were long gone.

Most importantly, Herb Gardner saw humanity everywhere.

There were no good guys, no bad guys, no easy targets.

In contrast with what passes for satire today, there was no anger in his humor. Every Gardner creation reveals insights from a wide variety of perspectives.

Just when you think that Albert is an irredeemable bad guy or that Arnie has sold his soul for success, they come back with soliloquies that reveal extraordinary depth of character.

And while I'm still trying to think of a redeeming quality in Leo the Chipper Munk, I even felt a twinge of sorrow for him. He was a professional comic with no sense of humor. And he knew it.

When Murray and Nick do their impression of Jefferson and Hamilton, Leo screams:

"You can't do an impression of Jefferson and Hamilton. Nobody knows what they sound like."

"That's what's funny" says Nick.

"You missed the funny part, Leo" adds Murray.

At Hunter College I was a bit of a curiosity. I was older. Already married and already with a fairly good job; the kind of job that most of my colleagues in the Theater Department craved. As a theater major with a minor in philosophy I loved every course. Unlike my early academic career, which I merely endured, this was great stuff and I enjoyed it thoroughly. My instructors were successful playwrights, directors, designers... authors and activists, philosophers and theologians... and Barbara Sproul.

She was an extraordinary teacher and a persuasive writer. She was also a serious, clear-minded thinker who was able to communicate complex ideas in ways that young minds full of mush could readily apprehend.

And she was a tireless activist, traveling the world on behalf of Amnesty International and as an outspoken opponent of capital punishment.

We had lively discussions. I was, of course, absolutely certain about everything and she was more patient with me than I deserved. In a very gentle and intelligent manner she steered my thinking, allowing me to arrive at conclusions on my own.

It's a rare gift.

What I learned from Herb Gardner and Barbara Sproul is that we should never let our current pattern of thinking get in the way of discovering what's new and beautiful in the world. And we should never let temporary setbacks color our disposition.

Unlike Leo, we should not miss the funny parts.

Herb Gardner died a few years ago. As I read through the accounts of his life in the New York Times obituary I could hear Murray Burns hollering at me: "Everybody on stage for the Hawaiian number!" and "I want to see a better class of garbage out there!" And then, at the very end, I read the closing line: "Mr. Gardner is survived by his wife, Barbara Sproul, Chairman of the Religion Department at Hunter College, and their two sons."

Merciful heavens. Can you imagine the dinnertime conversations in that home?