Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Kevin Meaney

Imagine if you will a New Yorker-style one-panel cartoon. It’s the ever-popular Pearly Gates, and Kevin is standing there looking a bit distressed. He is addressing an angel who resembles an unhurried and contemptuous MTA agent, locked safely inside a steel-and-glass booth.

“Is there somebody I can speak to?” he asks. “There’s been a terrible mistake!”

No matter what your thoughts are concerning the afterlife or its non-existence, you will have to agree it was too soon if you knew Kevin Meaney. I knew him much less well than many, more than some. Since his death on Friday, I have found that everyone who knew him, even or a few minutes, had nothing but good things to say about him. Me too!

That was his magical power. He cheered you the hell up. He could sing and act, and he did a little TV, a few films, some stage work, one recording, but he started off as a comic. He was booked to do a gig the day he died.

He was successful early in the Comedy Boom, and we loved opening for him at the Comedy Works in Denver. He was nice offstage, unpretentious, fun. I knew the whole backstory of the “I Don’t Care” song he loved so much to sing, being a nerd about the corny old songs of the early 20th century. We started talking about that, and triggered nights of singing “Just around the corner/There’s a rainbow in the sky . . .” and “I’m discontented/With homes that are rented/So I have invented my own . . .” and “Life is just a bowl of cherries/Don’t be so serious/IT’s too mysterious” and “ . . . would you rather be a pig?”

That was about 30 years ago. He kept performing, I started writing. I got sober, he figured out he was gay. Along the way, he and his former wife Mary Ann raised a great daughter, Kate. We circled back around after our kids were born, at about the same time. It was fun to see them grow up (digitally) at the same time. Like anybody else, he had tough times and things to work through, and he did.

I am so happy he got to be on Broadway for seven years! That is the stage his wattage warranted. And it’s that classic show-biz dream . . . The Great White Way, 42nd Street. Who deserved it better?

On social media recently, comedian, writer, and producer Matt Berry identified Kevin’s appeal as being that of an innocent who “was fearless in his pursuit of joy” -- someone who did not have an act per se but just lived at a higher level onstage and lifted up the rest of us.

Unlike the rest of us, who turned out lumps of anecdote and-gag-reciting time on various topics, loosely connected, until our time was up, Kevin just went out and seemingly winged it, going in seven directions at once, bowling us over with ridiculous, silly behavior, the rampant energy of Danny Kaye. (It was hard work – in a British TV appearance in the ‘80s, video shows he really doesn’t go over. You can see the flop sweat break out, but he – keeps – going. He will not accept rejection.)

He courted disaster, and his best bits have an edge of hysteria to them. Who else would make things harder by creating an unwieldy bit where he strung video cables out of the club onto the street, where send an image to the club of him stopping traffic and ask people if they cared? He was an entertainer, shameless and silly, like we were a roomful of drunken 8-year-olds he was hired to watch. His style was a huge reminder that comedy is essentially performative. Sure, comedy is verbal and edgy and dark, but there’s nothing wrong with a little sunshine, either. Kevin dispensed sunshine. A silly song can be just as defiant as any other form of protest. An insistence at laughing at life is a revolutionary assertion.

He could write bits easily. His family stuff is great – we shared a lot of common dysfunctions growing up – because it is so very scorchingly true. His trademark loud distress call, a parody of his mom’s voice warning that misbehavior will cause the loss of their house, if not worse, is the embodiment of that one parent valiantly, hopelessly trying to impose some kind of order on the chaos of family life, the unheard superego. Life is tremendously sketchy and uncertain in a household like that, and it usually leads to a life of crime and/or comedy.

As children, he and I had both vanished into that warm glow of nostalgia, safe there in books and music, in the world of late-night early Hollywood movies, the glamour of ages past, unabashedly na├»ve and enthusiastic, leapfrogging back in time, singing along and emulating the gestures of the heroes of our grandparents’ generation.

So why not sing, “I Don’t Care,” the 1905 hit by Eva Tanguay, the gawky and suggestive “Queen of Vaudeville”? It’s a prehistoric callback, an insider’s insider reference. It’s catchy.

They say I’m crazy, got no sense,
But I don’t care,
They may or may not mean offense,
But I don’t care,
You see I’m sort of independent,
Of a clever race descendent,
My star is on the ascendant,
That’s why I don’t care.

CHORUS:
I don’t care, I don’t care,
What they may think of me,
I’m happy go lucky,
Men say I am plucky,
So jolly and care free,
I don’t care, I don’t care,
If I do get the mean and stony stare,
If I’m never successful,
It won’t be distressful,
‘Cos I don’t care.

And he just kept on, telling us about some crazy old couple coming after him in the airport, or his mistaken impulse to open up his house to Airbnbers. Putting on his big pants and wiping that look off his puss.

Selfishly, I wonder who is now left out there who knows the differences between J. Carroll Naish and Nehemiah Persoff, Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez? Who can write a compare-and-contrast essay on Ginger Rogers in “Kitty Foyle” versus Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas”? Who else will remember the Saturday morning delights of “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor, and the Banana Splits Adventure Hour? Damn few.

He taught me much about how to COMMIT on stage. (If you are going to go up there and make an ass of yourself, do it fully and with joy. The time passes much more quickly.) He would have made a great USO person in a vintage WWII movie. “Give ‘em some sinkers and some hot Joe! And, hey, Hot Joe, turn on your headlights! C’mon, everybody, SING!” It was like we were all the soldiers, and he was there to by-golly chuck us on the chin and give us the gumption to keep going.

I am glad I got to thank him, years ago, and bitterly unhappy that he will not just be there, always, flapping his fingers, shooting up the place, singing and laughing at himself. I will miss him terribly.