Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A writer plays hurt

I once watched a supposedly truth-based movie about the Three Stooges. I know what you're thinking. I really wanted to watch "The Brothers Karamazov," but that channel was scrambled. Really, it was.

The Stooges film was sad at times, particularly when Curly Howard had a terrible stroke in 1946. In the true spirit of show business, the act went on. It must have been hard. Moe Howard was more than just Curly's comedy partner. They were brothers. For the first time, while watching that movie, it occurred to me that the hardest thing a professional funnyman must do is to remain funny amid tragedy.

I don't consider myself a comedian, but I try to keep my baseball stories light and entertaining. That has not been easy the past few years. My father died a difficult death in 2008. Soon after that my only sister developed breast cancer, and soon after that my wife's mother died. Darkness has enveloped me in other ways that are best kept private. Those of you who guessed "arrested for public indecency," shaddup. Drugs and alcohol are not involved. As for that rumor involving live animals, a catapult and two members of The Tijuana Brass, well, no comment.

All of this is natural stuff that happens to people in the world every day, but I must confess it's hard sometimes to be creative when your mind is in a tragedy-induced fog. It makes me wonder how comics comics can remain funny when they are fighting their own demons. It's not like they can call in sad. Richard Jeni, one of the funniest men I ever heard, lost his fight. He blew his brains out in a Hollywood apartment. I never would have known from his public persona how depression ate him.

Playing hurt is another matter altogether, and last week I learned how tough but rewarding that can be.

I had the road trip from hell to Miami and New York, ordinarily two of my favorite cities. For one thing, I was sick the entire week. For another, I got mugged in New York -- by a sidewalk. I was walking the two blocks from the subway to my hotel, bags in tow, when I tripped on a chunk of sidewalk that was not level and fell forward. Despite the insistence of one Giants coach that my face must have hit the sidewalk because, well, just look at it, I actually landed on my left hand and right ribcage, bruising both. I really thought for two days my left hand was broken, but I was afraid to go to a New York emergency room and seeing all those mobsters in the waiting room with assorted bullet wounds.

I was not in good shape Saturday and Sunday, but I made my way to the ballpark and did my job anyway. Fortunately, I had no pain in my hand when I curled it to hold a pen or typed on my laptop. Other things I could not accomplish with that hand. I'll leave those to your imagination, you filthy, filthy people.

I'm proud of myself for what I accomplished in New York with bruises over my body and a throat that felt like I tried to be one of those circus fire-swallowers and hiccuped at the worst possible time. Though professional athletes can be shallow at times, they send a strong message by playing hurt, and it resonates with me. None of the stories will win a Wurlitzer Prize, but at least you didn't get Associated Press dispatches in your Chronicles.

Athletes also impress me when they play through their own tragedies -- deaths and illnesses and such. I doubt I'll ever have to perform at as high a level in my job as they do in theirs, unless President-elect Newsom asks me to write his first inaugural address in 2020. But I'd like to think I have the mental fortitude to do the job no matter how bad things are outside the office.

After all, if Moe can poke Larry in the eye and drop an anvil on his foot while his brother is fighting for his life in a hospital, a sportswriter should be able to make his readers laugh a little even if he loses his bout with a sidewalk.


  1. Glad to hear it wasn't more serious Hank. I'm sure that hand will be back to its normal activities in no time....Personally, I don't think the great comics are great in spite of their demons. I think they are great because of their demons. Remember, the next time you get a ticket in Miami, you can (and should) tell yourself, 'at least I didn't get mugged by a sidewalk in NYC.'

  2. That story hits home for me. A few years ago, I was working for an entertainment company, and my job description required me to be in front of people, moving the show along. One day, only an hour before I arrived at the building, I got a call that one of my best friends was killed in an automobile accident in Utah. I was grief striken, but the show had to go on, I had a job to do, and I did it. Afterwards, I mourned, but for that night, I found comfort in performing.

  3. In the grand tradition of Papa Hemingway, Hank played hurt; bully for you and I'm glad we reaped the benefits.