If dead artists had lived
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A question in two parts: What deceased pop-culture figure makes you most curious about how his/her career would have evolved, and what is your best guess about that career trajectory? For example, would Kurt Cobain have ended up an American Idol judge? Would Chris Farley have ended up winning an Oscar? —Bill DeGenaro
There’s no one in the cultural sphere whose death I regret more than Jim Henson’s. Part of that is because he was one of the good guys—from all accounts, one of the most authentically decent, positive, artistry-driven guys in showbiz. But part of it was the simple, selfish reason that I just want to see what he would have done with all the new technologies and materials and distribution methods out there. When he died in 1990, he was just starting to play with video compositing effects in projects like The Storyteller; while I doubt he ever would have given up on physical puppets, I bet he would have enjoyed the rise of CGI, both because of the effects he could create, and because its polish makes his handmade creations look all the more whimsical and weird and solid by comparison. I suspect he would have played around with all the new effects and done neat things with them, but stuck with what he was great at: creating strange, intricate, unique, and ever-larger fantasy worlds in film and TV. (Surely he would have loved the increasing cheapness, ubiquity, and proliferation of animation of all kinds, too. I’m betting we would have seen another animated show along the lines of Muppet Babies—something equally long-running and thematically driven by the power of imagination, but more visually sophisticated.) And I doubt he would have sold the Muppets off to Disney in 2004.
It’s appropriate you mentioned Kurt Cobain, Bill, because I’ve had him on the brain. We just wrapped some Nirvana-related shooting for Pop Pilgrims, and I’m reading Charles Cross’ excellent Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven. I keep wondering what he’d be up to in 2011; he died at a transitory time in music, a transition his death helped foment. I’ve been trying to imagine the late ’90s and ’00s with Nirvana; the band’s closest analogue among its peers is Pearl Jam, and I could see Nirvana taking a similar, relatively low-key path as an elder statesman. At the time of his death, Cobain said he wanted to stop shouting, that he wanted to pursue something quieter and more melodic—which has led some to speculate Nirvana would’ve followed the path set by Unplugged. But who knows? Maybe Cobain would have given up on music, bought a farm, and painted. Or released his own version of a solo ukulele record. Better to burn out than fade away, huh? I bet a fading 41-year-old Kurt Cobain would still be pretty damn interesting.
When Minutemen singer-guitarist D. Boon was killed in a van accident in 1985, the band had just released its weakest album, 3-Way Tie For Last, with songs written by Boon dominating the first side, and songs written by bassist Mike Watt taking up most of the second side. So it’s possible that the Boon-Watt partnership had peaked, and that their 1984 masterpiece Double Nickels On The Dime was the best work either man would ever do. But I don’t care. I never got to see the Minutemen live, but I went to every show I could by Watt’s next band, fIREHOSE, and though fIREHOSE’s albums never matched the Minutemen, their concerts were some of the best I saw in my show-going youth. How much better would they have been with the massive, charismatic, pogoing Boon still out front, instead of tiny, thin-voiced guitarist Ed Crawford? How good would Watt’s quirky, abstract songs have sounded placed side-by-side with Boon’s more straightforward, politicized anthems? If Boon had lived and the Minutemen had kept on, would they have crossed over to the mainstream in the heyday of alt-rock, like so many of their peers? Maybe not. But as someone who lived through those times, I can tell you that music could’ve used more frontmen with the wit and power of D. Boon.
Of all of the great American directors of the ’70s, Hal Ashby may be my favorite. (He runs neck and neck with Robert Altman.) Though born near the beginning of the Great Depression, Ashby found common cause with the baby boomers and the hippie movement, and he parlayed an Oscar win for editing In The Heat Of The Night into a series of films that bounced from genre to genre, but shared a wry sense of humor and an affection for those outside the cultural mainstream. (His films have been an influence on the films of Wes Anderson, one of my favorite contemporary directors.) Beginning with his debut, The Landlord, and continuing through 1979’s Being There, Ashby made seven films, and nearly every one is a cult classic, with many having since crossed over into the mainstream. From the odd comedy of Harold And Maude to the intimate biopic Bound For Glory, Ashby came up with images of an America that might have been outside many film audiences’ normal wheelhouse, but still seemed essentially humane and worth observing. The copious amounts of drugs swirling around ’70s Hollywood eventually took their toll on Ashby, driving him out of the industry for several years. When he tried to come back in the ’80s, his films were still interesting, but not as creatively successful (especially since the mood at the time had turned from experimentation), and he was forced to turn to directing television pilots to make ends meet. Ashby died in 1988 after a bout with pancreatic cancer and a lost decade, when he could rarely find the monetary support or trust needed to make his films. Had he lived on into the ’90s, I like to imagine he would have, like Altman, been rediscovered by the Hollywood community and allowed to crank out a new series of classics. Instead, he’s one of Hollywood’s most intriguing might-have-beens.
If the mystique of an actor who passed too soon is shaped by the limited filmography they left behind, James Dean is the Kurt Cobain of Hollywood lore, having left an indelible mark on East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, and the phenomenal Giant (standing out alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, no less) all within a two-year span between 1955-56. Rebel Without A Cause is one of the few movies in which the reality of a mythologized lead performance transcends its reputation by just how internalized it actually is. And Dean remains the ultimate and original example of a celebrity who “the women want, and the guys want to be.” He had looks that, today, would be the stuff of Hollywood power-couple legend, but that never outshone his talent and humility. If he’d come of age in the 1920s, there’s no doubt he could have been a tremendous silent-film star. But had he lived past the 1955 car crash that claimed his life at age 24, Dean could have gone on to be a fascinating player in the Renaissance of American movie-making that was just around the corner. Imagine him as sensitive mob outcast Fredo Corleone in The Godfather, introspective yuppie George Hanson in Easy Rider, or shell-shocked POW Michael in The Deer Hunter, let alone the characters Coppola et al could have written just for him. Had he survived, Dean would be the actor Robert DeNiro and Jack Nicholson talk about today as their mentor and influence, and he might have even pushed their craft even further as well.
“Some people think you have a certain number of songs before you dry up or whatever,” says Jimmy Lee Lindsey, a.k.a. Jay Reatard, in the trailer of the new documentary Better Than Something: Jay Reatard. “I tend to think it’s, like, amount of time. So I’m racing against time constantly.” Those words proved to be prophetic: Lindsey, who would have turned 30 on May 1 of this year, died in 2010 of an overdose of cocaine and alcohol. To many, he was a fresh face on the music scene, with his recent releases on Matador thrusting his demented garage-pop into a brighter light. But to longtime fans, his solo output was just the latest iteration of a project-heavy career that had been exploding with chaotic abandon since his 1998 debut with The Reatards. Lindsey’s snotty, abrasively catchy music wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, granted. Toward the end of his life, though, even his most self-sabotaging tendencies couldn’t fully disguise the leaps and bounds his songwriting was taking. Was he on track to become the next Jack White? Probably not. But it’s as much of a stretch to imagine Lindsey eventually settling into a respectable groove as a dependable cult singer-songwriter—perhaps one day mentioned in the same breath as, say, Peter Case, Chris Knox, or Jad Fair. (Or even, if I may be so bold, Jonathan Richman.) We’ll never know, of course. But if Lindsey was just destined to die young, it’s a shame he didn’t get more of a chance to plumb his troubled depths and show the world a few more facets of himself before he left it.
Keith Haring is the source of my only tattoo: His radiant baby, outlined in black and filled in red, is on my left shoulder. More than any of his ’80s art-world peers—more than Basquiat, more than Schnabel—Haring became a major pop figure, leaping from the galleries to global fame in just over a decade before dying of AIDS. What makes him interesting to try to figure out is that Haring knew full well he was being cut down in his prime—he never stopped working even in full health, but his last two years were his busiest, and his illness is that period’s persistent theme. So let’s pretend that the work still existed as it was—only as a consequence of Haring watching others die of AIDS, rather than being sick himself. I imagine that aspect of his work would stay around, cresting and relaxing about the same way a lot of late-Reagan-era activism does. He always worked with kids, and that would likely have become more of his focus. (One such pretend scenario: an anti-war Times Square billboard mural, painted publicly in broad daylight with a sixth-grade class from a Quaker school upstate, the day after the first strike in the Gulf War.) But given the cartoony quality of Haring’s line, and his longstanding interest in animation, I like to think the Simpsons-led ’90s animation boom would have sucked Haring in. Radiant Baby Productions might have been a stepping-stone between Aeon Flux (only softer-looking and sharper-minded) and Adult Swim—full of color and movement, increasingly confident stabs at narrative, and plenty of Haring’s own politics. That, and the inevitable series of Bart Simpson—and Black Bart—paintings, T-shirts of which would be sold at the Pop Shop; needless to say, they are also widely bootlegged. And three of the originals would hang on Matt Groening’s walls.
Otis Redding was just 26 when his plane crashed in Madison, Wisconsin, but he’d already recorded an astounding body of work that helped define the sound of Stax, and consequently, the sound of Southern soul in the 1960s. He was also, based on footage of him at Monterey and elsewhere, one of the most electrifying live performers of his time. And yet, for all the Redding music we got, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had he lived to make more. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” a posthumous hit, found him trying on new sounds while maintaining his distinctive identity. Would he have continued to branch out? Could he have kept Stax from fracturing had he, and the members of the Bar-Kays who died with him, survived? Like the best artists, Redding had the potential to shape the future of music, but we’ll never know what that future would have looked like.
I can’t go so far as to say that I’ve lost sleep over wondering what would have happened had Sid Vicious not OD’ed on heroin, but I have often considered the musical ramifications of Nancy Spungen making it out of the Chelsea Hotel alive. Given Sid’s track record, it’s fair to theorize that he still would’ve fucked up somewhere along the way and ended up in an early grave, but having absorbed every bit of his mostly mediocre solo output when I was an all too easily influenced teenager, it would’ve been interesting to see where things might have gone for him had he somehow managed to cheer up and straighten up his act. For all the claims that Sid was utterly incapable of playing the bass, Keith Levene (Public Image Ltd.) and Viv Albertine (the Slits) have said otherwise, both having told a tale of Sid educating himself on the ins and outs of the instrument in a single evening by listening to the first Ramones album over and over until he had the hang of it. It makes for a great story, certainly, but while my instinct is that it’s just that—there’s precious little proof of this purported mastery either on studio releases or bootlegs—it’s enough for the eternal optimist in me to imagine a clean-veined Vicious deciding that he didn’t want to be a joke anymore. Mind you, given the Herculean nature of such a task, it’s likely that it would’ve been the new-wave era by the time he was in a position to get back to recording, but I for one would love to have heard an album called Sid Synths… and don’t think we wouldn’t have gotten one, because there’s no reason to believe that Vicious would’ve have felt obliged to stick with punk. (Hell, it’s but for the grace of God that Malcolm McLaren never managed to bring to fruition his plan for Vicious to record an entire album of standards, including “Mack The Knife” and “White Christmas.”) Sid’s ongoing existence raises other questions as well. Had he tightened up his chops, would John Lydon have invited him into the ranks of Public Image Ltd.? Would Sex Pistols have reunited at some point? And if so, how bitter would Glen Matlock have been? At the very least, I think we can presume that, had Sid somehow managed to stick it out ’til 2011, he’d either be a star of reality television or enjoying a residency in a Las Vegas casino. Possibly both.
I’m curious about how the rest of John Lennon’s life would have played out, not necessarily for what kind of art he’d produce, but because I’d love to know what kind of person he’d be by now. When you think about when he and the other Beatles were born, and the way the world and pop culture evolved since Hitler’s bombs fell on England, Paul and Ringo aren’t just rock gods, they’re witnesses to history. How an extra 30 years would have affected John Lennon, who seemed to be just entering a stage of relative settled contentment, is interesting to speculate. What would he be like today, assuming he’d have amassed even more wealth and witnessed, amongst other things, September 11? Would he be making himself relevant to youthful pop culture the way Elton John does, kicking around like the Stones, a kajillionaire multitasker like McCartney, or living in total retirement? Would he still be political? Would he still be kind of a jerk? I like to think John would have mellowed further by this point, affected by but more bemused by the world around him. I could see him being too tired to be Bono-like in his political involvement, but still having something to say every now and then. I could also envision him being something of a provocateur too, though, using the gossip cycle to his advantage by dropping “bigger than Jesus”-like bombs when he felt like it. I see him being much less musically prolific, perhaps because he was enjoying retirement, but also to avoid producing work that would be compared unfavorably to his earlier stuff. I also don’t think he would still be with Yoko.
Even though he’s only been gone for about a half a year, Greg Giraldo was on the precipice of something bigger, given not only his kick-ass work on the Comedy Central Roasts, but also because he was starting to escape the atmosphere of the stand-up world and be known to people who weren’t exactly comedy nerds. Either he’d be touring arenas now, or he would have followed Jim Norton into the ignominy of being a correspondent for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. Just not sure which.
But the guy I really wish was still around was John Ritter. When he suddenly passed away in 2003 from what turned out to be an undiagnosed heart defect, he was in the second season of his by-the-comedy-numbers sitcom 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter. But anyone who was a fan of Ritter’s knew that while he made his name with physical comedy and slapstick on Three’s Company, he was equally adept at subtle, character-driven comedy. (Anyone remember Hooperman?) We saw such evidence in his last movie role, when he played the hilariously meek, slow-burning mall manager Bob Chipeska in Bad Santa. He held his own in the scenes with the scene-chewing Billy Bob Thornton, and the scenes he had with the (also lamentably late) Bernie Mac showed that the two of them had the potential to be a comedy team in the future. As he moved from his 50s to his 60s, it would have been fun to see him become a Bill Murray-style character actor, picking his projects with care and trying his hand at subtle indie comedies as well as comedic dramas like Lost In Translation. Wes Anderson would have loved him.
It’s humbling to think about how much our favorite martyrs accomplished when they died young and beautiful, and how woefully inadequate our accomplishments invariably must seem by comparison. When Gram Parsons died in 1973 at age 26, he had already inspired The Byrds to go country on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, perfected country-rock with The Fabulous Burrito Brothers, discovered Emmylou Harris, and recorded a pair of solo masterpieces featuring Elvis Presley’s TCB backing band. Parsons evolved so quickly over the course of his brief, eventful career that it’s exhilarating to imagine where the years might have taken him if he hadn’t died. Would he have finally consummated his intense musical relationship with Keith Richards by collaborating with The Rolling Stones instead of always just hanging around in the background looking cool? Would he have evolved into an elder statesman like Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson, or burned out like Gary Stewart? It’s tempting to imagine what a Van Lear Rose-like comeback album for Gram Parsons might sound like, especially since Parsons in some ways was the Jack White of his time: the beautiful cool rock-kid scenester with country/blues credibility. It’s unclear what Parsons’ career might have looked like if he’d lived, but the world would undoubtedly be a finer, more soulful place with him in it.
I never really paid much attention to Phil Hartman while he was still alive, and was part of his charm; you didn’t need to pay attention to appreciate how great he was. You just had to watch him on NewsRadio and Saturday Night Live, and enjoy his reliable, unshowy excellence, the way he held together terrible sketches without breaking character or acknowledging they were bad, the way he made the most out of good material. NewsRadio in particular was a big part of my teenage years, and Hartman was terrific in it, but I never really acknowledged that excellence (or adequacy) until after he was gone. I’d like to think, if Hartman were alive today, he’d still be doing largely the same work, only we would’ve all gotten around to rewarding him somehow. Like, I’m sure he would’ve blown us away with a dramatic performance, like Will Ferrell keeps trying to do, only better, and he’d probably have his own sitcom, after a movie career full of supporting roles in big-budget pictures, and a few leads in indies that were well-regarded but little seen. I’m sure he’d have an action figure by now. NewsRadio would’ve had a better final season (I appreciate the attempt, but Jon Lovitz never filled the void), and maybe it would’ve been renewed, even. The role of Zapp Brannigan on Futurama was written specifically for Hartman, and while Billy West does a fine job, man, I would love to hear Hartman’s take. But he’s dead, and all I can do now is watch the old shows and his minor movie roles, and think “Man, he really was the best.” Mostly, I really wish he was still alive so I could keep on taking him for granted, because, come on, guys like Phil Hartman are always supposed to be around; that’s just what they do.
Had he not died of tuberculosis in 1934 at age 29, might we now be talking about Jean Vigo as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—filmmaker to ever live? I think so. As it stands, Vigo’s filmography consists of one feature, 1934’s L’Atalante, and two shorts, 1929’s “Á Propos De Nice” and 1933’s “Zero For Conduct,” totally only about two and a half hours of footage. But that 150-odd minutes makes one hell of a convincing case, with Vigo investing a still-developing medium with an avant-garde playfulness and poeticism that’s remarkably forward-thinking. He was capable of magical sequences like the famed slow-motion feather-pillow fight in “Zero For Conduct” (a film that was banned for its anarchic sensibility) or the shimmering underwater fantasy sequence in L’Atalante. And yet he also revealed real insight into human nature: L’Atalante, with its story of newlyweds traveling on a river barge, captures the anxieties that go along with the new adventures a marriage promises. Perhaps Vigo’s vision wouldn’t have survived too deeply into the sound era, but it seems more likely that he’d have remained a step or two ahead of his contemporaries and only gotten better with age.
I understand the desire to speculate about artists cut down in their prime: How would Jimi Hendrix have responded to hip-hop, and how many more perfect pop songs did Big Star’s Chris Bell have left in him? But as long as we’re bringing people back from the dead, I’m drawn to artists for whom “too soon” was any time at all. The Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan didn’t die young, but his sudden passing was nonetheless tragic: A lifelong bachelor, he’d finally gotten engaged at the age of 48, and was preparing to celebrate with his fiancée when he began to feel ill, lay down, and never woke up. McLennan was the McCartney to the Lennon of his songwriting partner Robert Forster, the pop tunesmith who wrote most of the band’s hit songs, but still tended to be overlooked by the hardcore fans. (He was also, although he could be short-tempered, one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to interview.) His songs could seem almost effortless, but they were never as breezy as they sounded. (I wonder how many casual listeners overlooked the melancholy observation in McLennan’s “Streets Of Your Town”: “This town is full of battered wives.”) McLennan and Forster were well into the Go-Betweens’ second act, having just compiled a retrospective, titled Intermission, of the solo careers they launched after the band initially dissolved. But the curtain fell too soon, leaving a wealth of perfect songs that could have grown richer for years.
When I was a kid and just starting to immerse myself in the wonders of ’70s cinema, I kept noticing the same actor playing frail, weak-willed, but intensely human characters in Al Pacino and Robert De Niro movies. Eventually, I learned his name: John Cazale. Cazale is best known for playing Fredo in the Godfather movies—the Coreleone brother nobody wants to be like, because his insecurity and cowardice in the face of familial obligation is all too relatable. With his oversized forehead; wide, sad eyes; and perpetually downturned mouth, Cazale was born to play small men just smart enough to realize what worms they were. Watching Cazale tearfully curse out Pacino for being handed all the opportunities he was denied in The Godfather Part II—”That’s not the way I wanted it!”—I thought I had discovered another great American actor with a bountiful filmography. I didn’t know that Cazale appeared in only five movies during his lifetime, which ended in 1978 when he died of terminal bone cancer at the age of 42. All Cazale’s films are classics: The Godfather Parts I and II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. I can’t think of another actor with that kind of winning percentage, and yet I’d have loved to also see Cazale make bad movies better as he aged into a long career.
In his terrific Andy Kaufman biography, Lost In The Funhouse: The Life And Mind Of Andy Kaufman, journalist Bill Zehme paints the comedian (and late-in-life wrestler) not only as a brilliantly quirky goofball who lived his life as one extended, private joke, but also as a deeply troubled man falling apart at the seams. Had he not died at age 35, it’s hard to imagine Kaufman could have kept up the act for much longer. That’s probably just as well, as the line-blurring performance art he so expertly refined and practiced seems quaint and obvious today. (Witness the public’s apathy for the Joaquin Phoenix put-on I’m Still Here.) But beyond those shenanigans, Kaufman was a gifted performer—look no further than his Elvis routine—and his wide-eyed naïveté and cult-hero status would have made him an ideal muse for someone like Wes Anderson. (There’s a thought: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, starring Andy Kaufman.) Of course, there’s still the matter of whether Kaufman is actually dead; judging from the frustratingly middling Man On The Moon, however, it’s safe to say that the artist has long since left the building.
Had Nick Drake killed himself directly after recording Pink Moon—by far the most unnervingly bleak and chillingly beautiful album I’ve ever experienced—it would have been hard to imagine any future career for him. Pink Moon is the perfect period to a life of alienation and loneliness, a naked statement of despair, whispered to the world before fading away; what would have come after that seems entirely moot. But Pink Moon wasn’t Drake’s intended send-off. He had shown signs of recovery from his depression, recorded some more songs, and contacted his label about another record. His mood had improved to the point where some family members strongly believe his fatal overdose on antidepressants was accidental. Something about Drake’s music makes him feel inevitably doomed, but I tend to think of him as just tragically stuck in the wrong era. In a growing folk scene that used big choruses to promote communalism and togetherness, there was never any chance that his songs of isolation would catch on. His absolute unwillingness to perform live or self-promote ensures that he never would have achieved success in his time. But it isn’t shocking that his music finally gained a following in the 1990s; after the wild excesses of the ’70s and ’80s, people craved something intimate and personal. (Somehow, Volkswagen captured all this in a one-minute commercial.) Mental disease is now much more accepted, and the Internet has decreased the need for live performance to get recognition. I like to think that Drake would have become a much quieter parallel to another troubled genius, Daniel Johnston: He likely would have spent a lot of time in and out of mental institutions, not recording often… but, when the time is right, he would have finally been greeted with open arms by the music industry, and society.
While it feels cliché to call Buddy Holly a “trailblazer” of rock ’n’ roll, that’s exactly what he was, and why it was so tragic that he died at age 22 in a plane crash that also took the lives of fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. “The Big Bopper”). It’s impossible to understate Holly’s influence on the genre, inspiring no less than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, as well as countless other bands through the present day. Influenced by early Elvis, Hank Williams, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, Holly helped innovate rock’s sound, fusing rockabilly’s shuffle with R&B’s chugging swing, and using both a lead and rhythm guitar to enhance a song’s sound, experimenting with the sounds of instruments and vocals alike. Along with his backing band The Crickets, Holly also became one of the first artists to reach popularity on the backs of songs they wrote themselves, songs like “That’ll Be The Day” and “Oh Boy!” And Holly’s influence is felt throughout other aspects of pop-culture history, from inspiring Don McLean’s “American Pie” to prompting fashion trends via his iconic thick, black glasses, emulated by Elvis Costello and Rivers Cuomo, to name a few. Holly, who made a lasting impact in a short amount of time and output, would be 74 now, and his career might resemble that of Johnny Cash or even Bob Dylan (who still performs Holly songs in concert): a musician and songwriter who, in spite of ups and downs encountered through his life, continued to push boundaries, shift genres, and create vital music that continued to influence others.
Ian Curtis took his own life at age 23, just after the release of Joy Division’s classic Closer, and just before the band was set to launch its first-ever U.S. tour. His remaining band members picked up the pieces, reshuffled them, added a new member, and became New Order, an excellent and important band in its own right that could never fully match the kind of bleak grandeur that Joy Division mastered. As great as New Order tracks like “Blue Monday” and “Age Of Consent” are, and as much as I love them, they pale beside tracks like “Isolation” (from Closer) or “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” I’ve always wondered what Joy Division would have gone onto had Curtis not succumbed to his demons. How would the U.S. have received them had we gotten that tour? How would continuing to have Curtis as a songwriting partner affected Bernard Sumner, a pretty fine songsmith in his own right? Surely, Curtis’ songwriting, already incredible, would have continued to develop. At the very least, I’d like to believe we would have gotten another album or two of icily perfect anthems for the alienated, and my teenage years would have had a slightly more varied, if no less dark, soundtrack. Better yet, what if he’d followed in the footsteps of David Bowie and Brian Eno, two huge influences on his work, and reinvented himself multiple times? Maybe, like his fellow-traveler-in-doom-and-gloom Robert Smith, he would have cheered up and dabbled in pure pop. Something tells me he would have made a hell of a techno producer/DJ. And how about a late-career renaissance that saw him putting that incredible baritone to use as a singer-songwriter, à la Leonard Cohen?
Mitch Hedberg was the first comedian I remember liking not because somebody told me to like him or because he was popular, but because I simply connected with his sense of humor. He was influential to an entire generation of comics working today, having been considered the preeminent joke writer of his time. There’s so much to say about him, but that’s because it’s practically universal consensus that he was taken from the world of comedy—then in the midst of flourishing into the rich, auteur-filled art form it is today—far too soon. He was a genius, and I could quote a zillion examples of how he skillfully distilled everyday life into humor (“No matter how good at tennis I’ll get, I’ll never be as good as a wall”), but luckily, there are a ton of YouTube links to his material, and his website, under the guidance of his widow Lynn, lives on posthumously. I saw Hedberg twice, in the impossibly small Washington University venue called The Gargoyle: Once he was coherent, and as he might say, “all-together”; the other, he repeated himself dozens of times, left the show to pee in the middle, and didn’t seem to realize how his own jokes were constructed. I’d like to think that if Mitch had been around longer, he’d have cleaned up, continued to hone his voice, and enjoyed the kind of career someone like Louis CK is enjoying at the moment. I can’t see Mitch going a Marriage Ref-esque “Eh, what else am I gonna do that’ll make me bajillions of dollars?” route the way Seinfeld did. Mitch could have written a darkly funny sitcom. He could have experimented with video and the Internet. But mostly, he was prolific, and didn’t feel pressure to change much about his stand-up other than to write more of it. I just want more jokes, and if Do You Believe In Gosh? (released after his death, using outtakes and old audio) is any indication, there was much more to come.
Like a lot of Saturday Night Live cast members, Gilda Radner didn’t have the most auspicious run after leaving the sketch-comedy institution. By the time she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986, her film career was sputtering—but she emerged from her initial bout with the illness to pen a bestselling memoir, It’s Always Something, and make a refreshingly frank, typically fearless appearance on the meta-sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Before taping that episode, Radner reportedly told longtime collaborator and Shandling’s Show writer Alan Zweibel “My comedy is the only weapon I have against this fucker.” I imagine that sentiment would color Radner’s theoretical post-remission years. Cancer thoroughly beaten like a prop door in a Judy Miller Show sketch, she’d transition into lower-profile roles onstage and on the small screen, the venues where her bright, enthusiastic style thrived. This material would add to the already-brimming coffer of comedic influence shaping the likes of Tina Fey and Molly Shannon—Fey would almost certainly cast Radner in the role of her television mother on 30 Rock. (Apologies to Anita Gillette.) There’d likely be a push for her to return to film, but Radner would shun those cameras as she did Tom Schiller’s in the wistful conclusion to the Schiller’s Reel short “La Dolce Gilda.” She could never play on film, and to paraphrase “La Dolce Gilda,” every time she played, we won. And oh, how we would win.