Tag Archives | comedy

Steppenwolf, the Comedian

I’m rereading Steppenwolf, written by Hermann Hesse in 1929. It’s one of those pivotal books my generation devoured during our feverish 20s and 30s. I’m trying to understand what they meant to me then and what they mean to me now.

I started this project with The Magus by John Fowles (1966). Then, I’m sure, we were enamored of the tricky plot and the satanic details. Rereading it in 2012, I still find it valuable because it explains why the men of my generation were such emotionally unavailable dicks.

I’m only a third of the way into Steppenwolf, but it’s already clear that I used the book to examine what the hell was wrong with me then, and wrong with my friends. The copy I’m reading is the very copy I read back then, and it’s underlined and the margins are scribbled with “Sartre,” “Nietzsche” “Brian,” “Peter” — and the names of all my boyfriends if you have to know. We identified with Steppenwolf the tortured loner, too weird to excel in society and too wounded to escape the bourgeoisie. Now it’s clear the Steppenwolf and the rest of us just needed the right medication. But in 1929, Hesse suggested that Steppenwolves take refuge in humor.

I had to stop and write about this because in between old books I am also thinking about comedians and what they are like. Think Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Louis CK, Larry David, Dennis Leary, Sarah Silverman, Darrell Hammond, Lewis Black and anybody you know who is chronically, savagely funny. They are like the Steppenwolf. I’m going to quote a long passage from the book, so here goes:


From Steppenwolf:

“The lives of these infinitely numerous persons make no claim to the tragic; but they live under an evil star in a quite considerable affliction; and in this hell their talents ripen and bear fruit. The few who break free seek their reward in the unconditioned and go down in splendor. They wear the thorn crown and their number is small.

“The others, however, who remain in the fold and from whose talents the bourgeoisie reaps much gain, have a third kingdom left open to them, an imaginary and yet a sovereign world, humor. The lone wolves who know no peace, these victims of unceasing pain to whom the urge for tragedy has been denied and who can never break through the starry space, who feel themselves summoned thither and yet cannot survive in its atmosphere — for them is reserved, provided suffering has made their spirits tough and elastic enough, a way of reconcilement and an escape into humor.

“Humor has always something bourgeois in it, although the true bourgeois is incapable of understanding it. In its imaginary realm the intricate and many-faceted ideal of all Steppenwolves finds its realization. Here it is possible not only to extol the saint and the profligate in one breath and to make the poles meet, but to include the bourgeois, too, in the same affirmation. Now it is possible to be possessed by God and to affirm the sinner, and vice versa, but it is not possible for either saint or sinner (nor for any of the other unconditioned) to affirm as well that lukewarm mean, the bourgeois.

“Humor alone, that magnificent discovery of those who are cut short in their calling to highest endeavor, those who falling short of the tragedy are yet as rich in gifts as in affliction, humor alone (perhaps the most inborn and brilliant achievement of the spirit) attains to the impossible and brings every aspect of human existence within the rays of its prism. To live in the world as though it were not the world, to respect the law and yet to stand above it, to have possessions as though “one possessed nothing,” to renounce as though it were no renunciation, all these favorite and often formulated propositions of an exalted worldly wisdom, it is in the power of humor alone to make efficacious.”


That’s why I’m so thankful for comedy. It stands on the edge of the void, looks down into its horror, and comes back with the jokes.


Linda Frye Burnham, 2012


What Comedy Did for Me as a Mother

I miss George Carlin. He died recently and his fellow comedians held a memorial for him, citing his border crossings and daring innovations. Louis CK honored him as a mentor who opened his eyes to the power of comedy to uncover uncomfortable truths about our lives and make us laugh at them.

I was lucky to present George Carlin at Highways Performance Space in the early ’90s. Carlin did a routine that punctured the political correctness of our extremely hip audience and brought them to an astonished silence. (I wish I could remember its context!) In the green room, my daughter Jill and I were able to thank George and tell him what he meant to our family.

In 1973 my marriage ended and that split our family into two homes, one in L.A. and one in Laguna Beach. My kids and I spent a lot of time in the car, listening to comedy albums: “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him” by Firesign Theatre (1968), “Let’s Get Small” (1977) and “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978) by Steve Martin, anything by Tom Lehrer, and, most memorable of all, “Class Clown” (1974) and “A Place for My Stuff” (1984) by George Carlin. We listened to them over and over again. In those days, we four desperate drifters needed all the laughs we could get.

We listened to Carlin’s stuff obsessively till we could do whole routines verbatim. Thirty years later all of us can still do all of the Seven Dirty Words you can never say on television: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. (Raise your hand if you can do this with your mother.) Parts of these great works are still in our everyday family vocabulary. In group conversation, our timing is impeccable. Because of this training, Jill can call you up after an episode of “30 Rock” and do an entire Jack Donaghy monologue at full speed.

One of the greatest benefits of this interpersonal experience has been the readiness of my children to accept and share my twisted career. In 1976 I moved into a furniture loft in downtown L.A. with a performance artist and two years later I started a performance art magazine, High Performance. The third issue featured a cover shot of a performance by Hermann Nitsch in which a blindfolded man drinks blood. I was joined in 1982 by another sarcastic visionary, Steven Durland, and among our many border crossings was the publication of the first art magazine issue about AIDS.

In 1989, with gay performance artist Tim Miller, I founded Highways, a performance art space in Santa Monica that became a stage for artists confronting racism, sexism and other oppressions. It also became a mecca for gay activists and the locus for gay protest rallies, raves and performances by the likes of the fabulous Annie Sprinkle. My kids did not shrink from supporting these ventures and in fact Jill moved in and became my second in command.

Yes, there was some comedy involved in all this, but mostly it was serious intellectual and aesthetic business. I believe the bravery of artists like George Carlin prepared all of us to be ready for anything, to be able to face up to that which shocked and challenged us and to draw on empathy when confronted with despair and hopelessness. We had a kind of sensitive armor that many others didn’t have. And we still do. And we’re still laughing. When we are together it’s inevitable that we will sit down for an Eddie Izzard marathon or a couple episodes of “Louie.”

We’re good together. So it was double great when George Carlin showed up for our extended family at Highways. He let us give him a lot of hugs.












Linda Frye Burnham, 2012





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