A Daring Balancing Act Over a Treacherous Past
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s a lot more real than reality TV.
By Chris Dickens
An hour into his show, comedian Rick Reynolds warned his audience that what they were seeing was a direct result of him quitting his stand-up career. His 1993 Showtime special, Only the Truth Is Funny, couldn’t really be called “stand-up comedy,” then. And to call it “theater” would be to forget another of his lines: “You paid a lot of money to see a big Broadway production. Forgive me. All you’re going to see tonight is a guy ranting at you.”
Rather than performance art — the show was too direct to be classified as such — it felt more like witnessing a therapy session. By his late 30s, Reynolds, a philosophy major from Portland, Oregon, “had grown so bored with stand-up comedy” — his own act in particular — that he decided to make a change. So in the late 1980s, he took everything out of his act that wasn’t true. The only problem? “There was nothing left,” he said onstage, explaining how he began to put together a new kind of act, one that made the word “act” a misnomer.
What makes it good is the very delicate emotional territory it traverses, hovering between comedy and tragedy in a rather brilliant and discomfiting way.
Not far into Truth, the tall, stooped, balding Reynolds — sporting an ill-fitting suit and sweating under the lights and pressure of a show he acknowledges may flop — promises that he “will not lie to you once tonight.… I will not come to the sad parts and pretend to be sad if I’m not.” Up to this point, the show has been a laundry list of basic biographical details, curated with self-deprecation and delivered in punch lines. He’s “unbelievably” 40 years old, has paid “thousands of dollars for hair transplants, for this wispy bit of crap up here.” He knows for a fact that God doesn’t exist and hopes God won’t hold it against him later. He tells us he’s vain, self-centered, obsessive, judgmental, self-righteous, anal and a sugar addict. His sense of humor is mean-spirited; as a child, he tormented his younger sister, Candy, by anthropomorphizing the vacuum cleaner in a way that creeped her out — the ongoing gag peaked when Candy found “Mr. Hoover” under her sheets.
But the laughter generated by a joke about Reynolds’ mother wearing the same terry cloth nightgown “her entire life” has barely faded when Reynolds gives the audience its first glimpses into his “Kafkaesque childhood.” Over a few short minutes, we learn that his mother watched, helpless, as his father drowned in a river, and, later, while she was six months pregnant with Candy, Reynolds’ drunken stepfather tackled her to the sidewalk and dragged her screaming into the house by her hair.
Reynolds, who did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment, wasn’t the first performer to bring the tragic parts of his life to the stage — think Richard Pryor and Paul Linke — and he’s far from the last, thanks to the efforts of Mike Birbiglia, Tig Notaro, Marc Maron and others who continue to fess up onstage. “It’s not unique per se,” says author David Shields, who likens Reynolds’ show to Spalding Gray’s monologues. “Its greatness lies in the way Reynolds tells a personal narrative and raises it to the level of art by suggesting its larger metaphorical value. It’s essentially ‘wisdom literature,’ for lack of a better term.”
The show is more than a bipolar pendulum swing between funny and sad. Like any good memoir, it’s the charting of a life as cartography of the human condition. In parts, the exploration is simple: Here’s a perfect summer afternoon in which Reynolds is lying in bed, a warm breeze and the sound of a distant lawn mower coming in through the open window. “Just … so … tranquil.… I did not have to make a decision. It’s the beauty of childhood.” No setup, no punch line. Just a relatable moment plucked from life.
But the show also tracks Reynolds’ childhood through a series of stepfathers, the last of whom was a kind man who made the family “incredibly happy” — until, that is, “[he] started robbing banks.” The show goes on to explain Reynolds’ evolution from the selfish stand-up comedian who calls children “little stupid people who don’t pay rent” into a doting father.
The narrative itself, and the jokes that accompany it, are worth the ride. But the best reason to watch Only the Truth Is Funny two decades later is to watch a man perform a daring balancing act over his own treacherous past. Perhaps, voyeuristically, it’s also to witness him fall into that pit now and then, and climb back out. “What makes it good is the very delicate emotional territory it traverses,” Shields says, “hovering between comedy and tragedy in a rather brilliant and discomfiting way.”
What ties it all together is the searching tone of the man onstage, bearing an injured soul before a live audience, inching his way toward healing.