Comic genius dies

Comedian Jonathan Winters died.  When I was a kid and heard he was appearing on the Tonight Show, back in the Jack Parr and then Johnny Carson days, I would stay up late to watch him. The schtick was to hand him an object–a stick, a rope, a mop–whereupon he would improvise comic riffs that would leave me laughing so hard it would hurt.

 

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Andy Griffith, Moravian

Andy Griffith died at age 86.  It turns out, he was Moravian, a church with Reformation roots going back to John Hus, with a big influence of Lutheran Pietists.  From journalist Andrew Herrmann:

Griffith’s story was rooted in the Moravian Church, a Christian sect started in Eastern Europe that sent missionaries to the U.S. in the 1700s — one group founded Winston-Salem, N.C. As a teenager, Griffith was attracted to Grace Moravian Church in Mount Airy, N.C. because the minister gave music lessons. Grace had a brass band and Griffith wanted to play the trombone.

Griffith studied to become a Moravian clergyman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, after a semester or two, he asked his bishop if he could prepare for the ministry by majoring in music. The bishop said no.

Griffith dropped the idea of becoming a pastor, but he eventually took his brand of preaching to a different venue: “The Andy Griffith Show,” a weekly, half-hour morality play about life in a small town.

There were winks and nods to his faith: The local All Souls Church was led by the Rev. Hobart M. Tucker — he of the unforgettable sermon: “Dice Are Loaded Against the Evil Doer.” Another episode featured American and Russian diplomats meeting in the basement of Mayberry’s Moravian Church.

On Tuesday, hours after the news of Griffith’s death, Tony Haywarth, Grace Moravian Church’s current pastor, put out a statement thanking God “for the place Andy has in our hearts, for his wonderful Christian ministry, and for the joy he continues to bring into this world.”

via ‘Do the right thing’ — Andy Griffith left lessons for the greater good – Chicago Sun-Times.

I would argue that The Andy Griffith Show–with Sheriff Taylor, Barney Fife, Aunt Bee, Opie, Gomer, and even more brilliant comic characters–was NOT mere cornpone nostalgia, as it is often portrayed, but one of the greatest comedies in the history of television.

Bill Cosby & the Bible

Bill Cosby was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last night, a much-deserved tribute for a true humorist in the Mark Twain tradition. Notice that Cosby doesn’t tell funny jokes. He tells funny stories. How did he learn how to tell them so well? He tells The Washington Post:

Where does the gift come from? For Bill Cosby, it begins in a housing project in North Philadelphia. He's 6, maybe 7 years old. He's sitting at the knee of his father's father, hoping for a quarter. But first he has to listen.

Samuel Russell Cosby Sr. read the Bible, and told his grandson the stories. Young William didn't exactly listen — "To this day, I don't know the names he said" — but he sure enough heard. The details of the stories, of course, weren't as important as the way his grandfather told them — his tone, his pace, the look on his face. It was how you told it, not what.

All of it stuck with the kid. A couple of decades later, when he was honing his own brilliant stories on a nightclub stage, Cosby would hear it again in his own voice.

"You learned storytelling from a man like this," Cosby says. He's on the phone from Los Angeles, and he's in career-reminiscence mode. He'll be in Washington on Monday night to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. There's a big to-do in his honor, with celebrity presenters (Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Carl Reiner). It's basically a comedy Hall of Fame induction ceremony. So Cosby, 72, is reflecting.

"So [granddad] says, 'This is from the book of something, and then he'd start telling it. Telling it." Not preaching, just telling. "Somehow it pertained to my life, some wonderful lesson."

Little Cos absorbed it, but he was mostly focused on the quarter. Granddad kept his change in a sock, which he kept tucked into his belt. If the boy sat still and listened long enough, his grandfather would pull a coin from his sock-purse.

"He'd say, 'Take this quarter, put it in the bank. Save it. Don't go wasting it on ice cream!' "

So the boy diligently squirreled away Grandpa's quarters and then one day he . . .

"What?! Are you drunk?" Cosby sputters. "I went and got some ice cream! It was five cents a dip in those days. With a sugar cone."

Once again we see the influence of the Bible on a deep structure, cultural level. (Yes, I know it isn’t the purpose of the Bible to teach storytelling but to convey Law & Gospel! That’s not the point right now. Just as Luther’s translation of the Bible had the additional cultural effect of standardizing the German language, and just as the King James translation can be heard in the background of much of English and American literature, and just as the Bible’s portrayal of time as having a beginning, a turning point, and an end shaped our culture’s sense of time, its great stories and a grandpa’s impulse to tell them to his grandson shaped Bill Cosby’s comedy.)


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