It Was Always Something: Salute to Gilda

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So 25 years ago today, Gilda Radner flew into the great Saturday Night in the Sky.

It strikes me as kind of poignant that she left this world the same year I entered it. To your face I’d say she’s my favorite comedienne, but really, she was my best friend. My first love. In my childhood TV cabinet, there nested a meticulously organized hive of SNL videotapes, the most well-worn being the 1975-1980 years. There were many reasons that I favored the early years, but Gilda was the reason, the one, my north star. What unbelievable sweetness and light. What gangly alien strangeness. What vulnerability. What big hair.

Gilda fascinated in a way no female performer has ever done. She had these huge eyes and a Cheshirey grin, sort of a manic ’70s Judy Garland thing going on, and a very odd presence that stood out during a time when funny women always had to find a workaround. Her counterparts on SNL, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman, were respectively ice-cold and coked-out, both dripping with defensive cynicism. Not saying they weren’t special in their own right, but Gilda was…blinding. Innocent, immensely affectionate, kind of scary with her flaily-armed happiness. Like a baby giraffe.

Said Candice Bergen: “A lot of people had a real edge that comedians usually need to have in order to score with people. And she never did that. I mean, obviously, she was such a talented comedienne, but her kindness was so startling.” And from the first moment she opened her mouth, in any of a dozen different but equally shrill voices, you loved her, wildly, and protectively.

Gilda was a complicated person with gaping emotional chasms she struggled to fill, as I guess all entertainers are. Her husband Gene Wilder has always publicly remembered her with painful honesty, discussing her mood swings and ambiguity towards fame, and her self-doubt as an actor and a human being. I don’t think she would have been as funny without the pain. Sometimes, in-character as bumbling schoolgirl Lisa Loopner, Gilda would slam into walls so hard it looked like she was trying to shake something loose inside. I watched her and I knew what that felt like, to bruise yourself for the holy grail of a laugh. Didn’t Mel Brooks say something like, “It’s always funny till someone gets hurt, and then it’s hilarious?” Sadness is hilarious. Wanting, and never quite having, is hilarious. The laugh is the release of the pain valve. That was really the key to Gilda’s comedy – her loneliness. I loved her because she wanted everyone to laugh, she wanted me and you to laugh, she just wanted us all to be inside the laugh together. For just a sweet second.

Watch her here, delivering the opening number of her one-woman show Gilda Live in 1980. Her heart’s filled to bursting when she realizes they’re happy to see her. Then she starts to prance and say some really adorable, filthy shit.

It really sucks that Gilda passed away so young, only 42. At least she had Gene, the love of her life, to humor her and comfort her through the mess of ovarian cancer. She was the kind of celebrity for which people genuinely wished happiness, I think. From what I’ve read, she was a rare diamond of her time, beloved by fans and her peers, especially the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

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I love this story Bill Murray told about the last time he ever saw her. It’s a beautiful tribute to Gilda, today and really anytime I wish to remember her like the treasured friend she was to me, through a screen, through the years.

Gilda got married and went away. None of us saw her anymore. There was one good thing: Laraine had a party one night, a great party at her house. And I ended up being the disk jockey. She just had forty-fives, and not that many, so you really had to work the music end of it. There was a collection of like the funniest people in the world at this party. Somehow Sam Kinison sticks in my brain. The whole Monty Python group was there, most of us from the show, a lot of other funny people, and Gilda. Gilda showed up and she’d already had cancer and gone into remission and then had it again, I guess. Anyway she was slim. We hadn’t seen her in a long time. And she started doing, “I’ve got to go,” and she was just going to leave, and I was like, “Going to leave?” It felt like she was going to really leave forever.

So we started carrying her around, in a way that we could only do with her. We carried her up and down the stairs, around the house, repeatedly, for a long time, until I was exhausted. Then Danny did it for a while. Then I did it again. We just kept carrying her; we did it in teams. We kept carrying her around, but like upside down, every which way—over your shoulder and under your arm, carrying her like luggage. And that went on for more than an hour—maybe an hour and a half—just carrying her around and saying, “She’s leaving! This could be it! Now come on, this could be the last time we see her. Gilda’s leaving, and remember that she was very sick—hello?”

We worked all aspects of it, but it started with just, “She’s leaving, I don’t know if you’ve said good-bye to her.” And we said good-bye to the same people ten, twenty times, you know.

And because these people were really funny, every person we’d drag her up to would just do like five minutes on her, with Gilda upside down in this sort of tortured position, which she absolutely loved. She was laughing so hard we could have lost her right then and there.

It was just one of the best parties I’ve ever been to in my life. I’ll always remember it. It was the last time I saw her.

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Gilda Radner
1946 – 1989

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