Comedy Legends on the Power of Laughter

To accompany this week's interview with master impressionist Jay Pharoah, we've delved into the philosophy of five comedy greats.

Words by John Pearson

Actor, stand-up comic, and impressionist Jay Pharoah got us laughing — and thinking — as the subject of this week’s ‘Who The F*** Are You?’ profile.

Like many entertainers, he turned to comedy to find confidence and belonging amid challenges in his life. “I was very awkward at school,” he told us. “I was fat and didn’t have a lot of friends. I used humor to make people forget about the exterior.”

And amid the edgy jokes about strippers, sex, and drugs, he also spoke about his faith in God, and desire to leave a substantive legacy, revealing insight into his motivation and purpose. “Everybody has their center point, and God is mine. That’s where I find solace, where I can always go,” he said.

It takes a remarkable character to stand on stage and entertain a crowd, with nothing but the power of wit, and behind these performers is often a deep and complicated mind and soul. So we delved into what makes five of the top funnymen in history tick, to discover what wisdom they can offer us all.

Richard Pryor (1940 — 2005)

“You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be beautiful. All you have to do is to be yourself.” Wise words from the late Richard Pryor, one of the most influential talents in comedy history, who channeled his personal challenges into groundbreaking stand-ups shows, concert movies, and recordings. His trenchant observations and storytelling style was a torch of inspiration for those that followed, with Jerry Seinfeld calling him “the Picasso of our profession.” He amassed an unrivaled collection of accolades and awards, including the first ever Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, while both Comedy Central and Rolling Stone have named him the greatest stand-up of all-time. His life which informed his art, however, was far from smooth sailing. Born in Illinois in 1940, he grew up in a brothel run by his grandmother where his alcoholic mother was a prostitute and his father a former boxer, hustler, and pimp. He also suffered addiction issues throughout his life. And perhaps because of these struggles he was able to leave us great wisdom concerning the game of life. “I believe the ability to think is blessed,” he said. “If you can think about a situation, you can deal with it. The big struggle is to keep your head clear enough to think.” And reflecting on his own challenges, he once said: “If I thought about it, I could be bitter, but I don’t feel like being bitter. Being bitter makes you immobile, and there’s too much that I still want to do.” But he perhaps best summed up his own legacy, and the power of comedy, with these words, “Two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred.”

Jim Carrey (Born 1962)

A deeply spiritual man and a longtime practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, Jim once wrote himself a cheque for $10 million for ‘acting services rendered’ which he kept it in his wallet as a way of manifesting his dream, which would then come to fruition in his starring role in the 1995 comedy smash ‘Dumb and Dumber’. Jim is very clear about his thoughts on comedy, “There’s no ego in comedy for me, so you can do all the nuance you want but if you don’t make them laugh, you don’t make them laugh. I want them to pee their pants.” And he’s equally candid about his thoughts on life, death, and depression. “The difference between depression and sadness is sadness is just from happenstance, whatever happened or didn’t happen for you, or grief, or whatever it is. Depression is your body saying, ‘F*** you. I don’t want to be this character anymore, I don’t wanna hold up this avatar that you’ve created in the world, it’s too much for me.'” As a child, Jim began exercising his comedic talent as a means of cheering up his poorly mother, and was inspired by his beloved father’s talent for entertaining. He gleaned wisdom from his families financial struggles, including this, “People need motivation to do anything. I don’t think human beings learn anything without desperation. Desperation is a necessary ingredient to learning anything, or creating anything. If you ain’t desperate at some point, you ain’t interesting.” And delivering the Maharishi International University commencement address in 2014 , now with over 16 million views on YouTube, he guided the class with this astute advice, “I am making a conscious choice to perceive challenges as something beneficial so that I can deal with them in the most productive way.”

Robin Williams (1951 — 2014)

One of the greatest all-round actor, comedian, and stand-ups of all-time, the term genius isn’t erroneous when describing Robin Williams’ talent. His career covered the the full gamut of the entertainment spectrum as he dazzled, delighted, provoked, and made us cry with laughter. He engaged our empathy for decades in a variety of characters, always courageously pushing himself to reveal the truth of who he was, thus making it okay for us to shine a light on the very same characteristics, oftentimes shadowy, that are part of who we are too. He was an improvisatory virtuoso, very much-loved and had much to say on the art of living. From his break out roll in ‘Mork and Mindy’, he espoused scripted lines that hit the philosophical sweet spot. “I don’t know how much value I have in this Universe,” his beloved character said. “But I do know that I’ve made a few people happier than they would have been without me — as long as I know that, I’m as rich as I ever need to be.” And in real life, as he struggled a variety of debilitating symptoms of what doctors diagnosed as Lewy body dementia, and also battled addiction, he stepped up with sincerity. “Just keep going,” he once said. “Find that thing you love because it’s tough work. I think that if you can find that thing that really gives you joy — that’ll be it.” And before his death by suicide in 2014, he also poignantly offered up these words, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it feels like to feel absolutely worthless, and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.” But let’s remember Robin by considering this quote, “Sometimes you can have a whole lifetime in a day, and never notice that this is as beautiful as it gets.” In my experience, that really hits the spot.

George Carlin (1937 — 2008)

A natural born disruptor possessing a fierce anti-establishment saber wit, George was a trailblazer of stand up from the 1960s until his passing in 2008. Dubbed “the dean of counterculture comedians” his stand-up specials are timeless. George’s skill at pin-pointing the epicenter of cultural, corporate, and political hypocrisy are legendary and he was fearless and unrelenting in his pursuit of exposing such. He was an individual thinker, forever challenging us, mocking us into questioning our own patterns. “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in a large group,” he once said. And one of his more poignant quotes on life was, “We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living but not a life. We’ve added years to life, not life to years.” Like George, some of our other greatest minds have used comedy and satire as a vehicle to expose the truth of the journey of life that we often sheepishly buy into by not making the effort, or taking the time, to examine ourselves. “Don’t just teach your children to read, teach them to question what they read, teach them to question everything,” he once said.

Eddie Murphy (Born 1961)

At aged 15, Murphy began skipping school to learn the ropes of stand-up at local clubs before bursting onto the scene in 1980 with a four-year stint on ‘Saturday Night Live’, making him the iconic show’s youngest ever cast member. Murphy had been inspired by his heroes Richard Pryor and Peter Sellers, razor-sharp, ambitious, fearless, and brimming with talent. “I’ve always had confidence,” he said. “It came because I have lots of initiative. I wanted to make something of myself.” Murphy went on to appear in a vast array of  hIt movies including ‘Trading Places’ and the ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ trilogy, and was crowned the new King of Comedy for his generation. Live shows, including filmed specials like ‘Delirious’ and ‘Raw’, would become the benchmark for those following to aspire to, including Jay Pharoah, our featured guest this week. Murphy has experienced ups and downs in his private and public life which he has channeled into his work. “If you’re an artist for a really, really long time, it stops being a performance. I’m not performing anymore. I reveal myself to the audience. I show you some of me. It’s not a show no more.” And giving his thoughts on being a man, he once said, “All men are sculptors, constantly chipping away the unwanted parts of their lives, trying to create their idea of their masterpiece.”

John is a world-renowned male model who has been the face of countless leading fashion houses. During his 36-year modeling career he has also moonlighted as an actor, writer, restauranteur, editor, and producer. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to provide a safe space for candid discussion and sharing ideas.

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