Comedy's Split Personality
In illuminating the history of sad clowns, Andrew McConnell Stott wonders why suffering is so often the story of our comedians. "Is it a condition of comic genius to be perpetually wrestling with demons? From Canio, the iconic, stiletto-wielding clown of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera, Pagliacci, to modern greats like Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, and John Belushi, it would seem so. Even in Chaplin’s day, the depressed and often violent clown was a well-established trope, both offstage and on. Hollywood Pagliacci types included Frank Tinney, the blackface vaudevillian accused of brutally assaulting his mistress; Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose brilliant career was undone by the untimely death of Virginia Rappe, a bit-part actress who suffered a fatal trauma in his hotel room; and the suave French comedian Max Linder, brought in by Essanay Films to replace Chaplin after the tramp had departed the studio but who failed to replicate his predecessor’s success. Suffering from a severe depression that was deepened by service in the Great War, Linder claimed he could practically feel the ability to be funny seeping out from him. In February 1924, he and his young wife, Ninette, a wealthy heiress, made a suicide pact at a hotel in Vienna but failed to consume a sufficient dose of sleeping powders. The following autumn in Paris they were better prepared. Both drank large drafts of barbiturates before injecting morphine into their veins and slitting their wrists. Chaplin dedicated a film to his replacement, declaring himself Linder’s disciple.
That comedy is a mansion built on tragic foundations was a theory given credence by Sigmund Freud. “A jest betrays something serious,” he wrote inJokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which argued that humor was a means of circumnavigating taboo and repackaging unpalatable thoughts into digestible form. At the heart of Freud’s argument is a reluctance to accept comedy on its own terms as comedy, viewing it rather as a proxy for something kept hidden. For Freud, Chaplin was “a particularly simple and transparent case” of someone who used humor to explore the darker states of mind."
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