It’s probably the universal opinion by most people that comedy doesn’t get much respect, I suppose it was never set up like that. Comedies are usually built on a foundation that consists of going for the laugh, they’re entertainments meant to please the audience. A comedy or a comedian in general can live or die on their jokes, it’s a high wire act that doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, and the laughter comes in all its boisterous glory, it can be something that could reach a certain transcendence.
In the history of movies, no scene captures this type of transcendence better than the most famous moment in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels”. In it John L. Sullivan, a famous movie director is on a quest to experience human suffering as research for a “serious” film he wants to make rather than the light silly comedies and musicals he’s known for. In the film’s climax, Sullivan is mugged, left unconscious, loses his identity, proclaimed dead in the newspapers, and is sentenced to a chain gang for seven years. While in the chain gang, he is smacked in the face, whipped by the warden, and sent to the hot box for talking out of turn. But pretty soon he gets a reprieve in the form of a picture show the chain gang gets to see at a local church. The film turns out to be a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and we see the audience of church goers, convicted felons, and their captors come together in a communal fit of hysterical laughter. Sullivan, the last one to start laughing in the group is even astonished at what he’s doing, a man who, in a bit of irony has everything taken away from him to learn what real suffering is all about, finds a moment of grace by getting the chance to laugh.
I first saw “Sullivan’s Travel’s” many years ago in my high school days when video stores were still a thing. I remember coming to the scene I described above, and feeling a certain kinship with its message and how Sturges, one of the great comedy writers and directors conveys it simply and directly. I couldn’t help but identify with the character of Sullivan, an artist who wants to be taken seriously, who wants to make great and important work, but feels pigeonholed in his comedy wheel house. Yet this scene is an awakening for him, it shows that what he does has merit, and being in the world of comedy gives him an artistic purpose, he accepts who he is and what he does, and instead of making the great social commentary film he set out to do, he decides to make a comedy.
There is so much to take from “Sullivan’s Travel’s” which is truly one of the great, and special films ever to be made, but I wanted to spend some time on this particular scene because for me it was a moment that I could honestly say changed my whole trajectory on life. I grew up wanting to be an actor and a writer, there wasn’t really much else I wanted to do. I was a shy kid in school, and I found out very early in life, acting was a way I could express myself. Writing would also come into the fold, and I found an even greater love for that. I’ve always admired comedians, and comic writers maybe above anyone else, and in school my teachers would let me do some comedy skits to entertain the class that I would write and perform myself. It was really my only way to gain acceptance with my school mates who for the most part didn’t give me much notice because of my quiet way. Later as I went to school for my acting, I could be cast in dramas every now and then, but I never felt one hundred percent convincing in them, because I guess maybe deep down in my gut there was this inner clown in me wanting to emerge.
A few years ago I fell into a group of actors and improvisers, and to this day we put on monthly, even weekly comedy and improv shows at our local theatre, and even though its hard work, and the laughs don’t always come, I can honestly say it’s the most fulfilling experience I have ever had as an artist. When I do comedy, I usually go to “Sullivan’s Travels” as a bit of a mantra, a lot of our audience members who come to our shows are usually just looking for a laugh, or maybe some sort of relief, and I have to say I feel overjoyed when we are able to provide that for them.
I suppose comedy doesn’t come with that sense of importance as the great social dramas of our time do. These are the films that win all those accolades and awards, and can sometimes be seen as super self-serious in their tone. What “Sullivan’s Travels” is able to do in such a sweet and direct way without becoming too serious is show how comedy is important, how it can raise our spirits and forget our troubles even if for a short time. In our worst days, we can only hope for a laugh, and sometimes it doesn’t come, but if it does how grateful are we to get it?