There’s a lot to unpack in photographer Matt Hoyle’s portfolio of comedians in “Comic Genius: Portraits of Funny People”, especially for something who thinks deeply at the drop of a hat like I do (go on, try me, but you bring the hat). Even if all you want to do is laugh at the pictures, you’re going to feel uneasy at times. You’ll sense that there’s something more going on, that there’s a backstory behind the making of these pictures that’s more reveals more about the men and women who make or made a living inspiring that primal emotion.
Or that, if they’re making fun of anyone, it’s you. This is one reason why dictators hate comedy. You never know who their target is.
These photos can be broken down into categories:
Comedians recreating their roles, straight-up: Andrew Dice Clay in his Diceman persona. Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders as their “Absolutely Fabulous” characters. Mort Sahl with his newspaper. Michael Palin (who along with John Cleese represented the Pythons) in his outfit from the Parrot Shop sketch.
Comedians in character making the funny: Paul Reubens in character as Pee-Wee Herman, dangling from red balloons over a city. Dame Edna Everage eating candy with chopsticks. Don Rickles standing in a flaming barbecue with a mic on a fork and a “Mr. Warmth” apron. Mel Brooks as Hitler, accompanied with the greatest line about comedy ever written: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Of the three black comedians, two chose this route. Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence both chose to be photographed close-up, eyebrow cocked, as if asking “What are you looking at?” This invites contemplation about their intentions, except that wondering if, because they are black, they didn’t want to be treated as a joke, reflects more on my beliefs about race and image than anything they’re doing. (It doesn’t help that opposite Murphy is Tracy Morgan in body paint holding his belly, his face inviting you to laugh at him. It must be an accident caused by the alphabet — the comedians are listed alphabetically — but the contrast between Morgan’s comedy and Murphy’s cocked eyebrow, placed side by side, asks you to consider the tensions between comedy and race that is nothing short of brilliant.
In addition, there’s Denis Leary flipped the bird at the viewer, his finger surrounded by a frame. A nose-to-skulltop photo of Adam Sandler, filling the frame like a rising Easter Island statue and about as knowable (a second shot of him shows the back of his head, looking at a picture of a kitten on his screen. What’s that about? as Jerry Seinfeld (who, BTW, isn’t in the book) would say. Jerry Stiller holding a portrait of his wife, Anne Meara, over his heart.
Jerry Stiller in a sweater and bra. Carol Burnett tugging her ear down to her shoulder. John Cleese with his bowler hat turned sideways. Conan O’Brien holding an unhappy infant dressed like him, Robin Williams as a gnome and a self-operating marionette.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Matt Hoyle writes that he approached each subject the same way. He’d work up a list of 10 concepts and they’d go from there. Who decided to do what is not revealed, except that Steve Martin agreed to pose next to Kermit the Frog, while Carol Burnett suggested the ear gag. One wishes we could learn more, because that would tell us more about how the comedians saw themselves (surely Hoyle wouldn’t have settled for the Lawrence / Murphy portraits unless he had no other choice). Martin agreed to sit with Kermit; that was a dull idea. But did he come up with the brilliant flower gag that appears on the cover? Credit should be given.
But unless Hoyle opens up, we’re left to speculate. To see Anne Meara’s picture and wonder if she is still around (yes, thank God!). To regret that Sid Caesar — brilliant and underappreciated — is too ill to be considered. To wonder why Tommy Smothers is standing by a cutout of his brother, Dickie (still alive; yes, I checked). To miss Jonathan Winters. To laugh at Andy Samberg’s clever portraits. To ogle Kathy Griffin. To see David Steinberg and feel glad that he’s still around (I quoted his Bible routines in junior high school). To watch Weird Al doing a Hendrix on his accordion and be reminded that there are reasons to be happy to be alive (along with Joan Rivers, Don Rickles and Bob Newhart!).
I could go on. I will go on. But this review is over. It was an excuse to show you a bunch of great portraits by Matt Hoyle, and to hope for a future edition. It’s not a funny punchline, but check out “Comic Genius.”
Amazon link to: “Comic Genius: Portraits of Funny People”