Last month, I had a birthday -- an event which, in Hollywood, is about as welcome as an earthquake, a wildfire or a venereal disease. But while one stands a decent statistical chance of dodging those other natural disasters, every May I find myself unavoidably at the epicenter of another yearquake, magnitude 1.0.
I'm not one to obsess over aging, as I'm usually much too busy obsessing over other things which I can't do anything about. But in an industry as youth-obsessed as showbiz, it's unnerving when your age begins to race past your "good cholesterol" number. And as someone who attempts to write amusing stuff for a living, you become more fearful as each year passes that you will become a victim of the affliction which has cursed so many cut-ups before you.
I'm talking about comedy menopause.
We've all witnessed it: the osteoporosis of the funny bone which sets in the longer a humorist plies his trade. It's as if each amusing person is born with a certain finite amount of funny in them -- I believe the ancients called it "comedium" -- and its strength degrades over time like a radioactive element. No one knows the half-life of their particular isotope of comedium. Some burn brightly and quickly, then decay at meteoric speed. The more fortunate see their potency fade more gradually and gracefully. But it's clearly not a renewable resource. With the possible exception of George Burns, no one discovers rich, untapped deposits of comedium in their system as they get older.
It doesn't seem fair. Why is it still reasonably cool for Mick Jagger to be strutting around bleating "Satisfaction" at the age of 108, while seeing Rich Little doing Nixon impersonations in 2007 makes you want to take him to the vet to be put down?
Sure, it's fun to admire the craft as Bob Newhart recreates one of his famous phone call bits, and it would delight the dialogue-memorizing 13-year-old inside each of us to watch the Pythons perform "The Parrot Sketch" just one more time. But comedy is inherently about surprise, about getting people to see the world with fresh eyes, so it's distressing to watch as our own comic idols lose that sense of discovery, that voice which speaks to what's happening here and now - even if that voice originally emerged in as silly a form as a raincoat-clad man whacking a Norwegian blue against the counter of a shady pet shop.
Some of our heroes find lucrative ways to trade upon their ancient glories, taking the beloved works they created when their comedium index was at its highest and, say, turning them into Broadway musicals. But of those who attempt to stay engaged and connected to the culture, continuing to churn out new material, it's discouraging to realize how few succeed in remaining the least bit relevant, even to their most fervent devotees. Oh, they'll still find an outlet for their work somewhere, no matter how innocuous or dated their material has become. Old funnymen never die; they just move to Laughlin.
Even more frightening is when you notice this same process happening to your contemporaries, as they slide into the career quicksand of bland, joke-deprived pap which their younger, more idealistic selves would have found ripe for ridicule and parody, or shift their focus to "serious" projects where they get just as few laughs as in their comedies...but now it's okay! (How much easier life must be for the dramatist. Did Arthur Miller ever stand at the back of the house on opening night, fretting "They're not 'not laughing' as much as they used to. Am I not 'not funny' any more?")
How can anyone observe this inevitable deterioration as it strikes people far more talented than you will ever be and not worry when you too will pass your comedic "sell by" date -- or, worse, that you've already gone stale and no one has told you yet?
Then again, maybe we're not meant to be funny forever. Perhaps jokes are merely a survival mechanism, and the need to make smartass remarks and witty observations diminishes as one becomes more successful, content and -- the real buzzkiller -- happy.
Personally, I hope to hang onto my sense of humor as long as possible - or at least until they develop a safe form of comedium implant. I'll simply try to stay as involved in life and as fascinated by the world as I can. And I vow never to start a sentence with the words, "In my day..."
So I enter another year, cautiously optimistic that I've got enough comedium reserves to propel me humorously to my next birthday and many beyond.
But, man, just imagine how much funnier this column would have been if I'd written it ten years ago.