12 Aug Remembering Mork
I didn’t know him. I always wish I did. I never met him, although in my head, I’m absolutely sure I would have liked him if I did. My interaction and understanding of him has always been as a fan. I was his audience and so much of what he did, I loved, was amazed and inspired by. Some of it, like the work of so many artists, I rolled my eyes and said “really? isn’t that just a bit much?” For every Hamlet, there’s a Coriolanus. The key being, not the inspiration of the greatness, but the striving hope of the missed marks. And he let loose so many arrows with such rapidity that most of us couldn’t keep track of them all.
He was the first, and as far as I know, the only comic to ever play the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City’s Lincoln Center. As a former Julliard student, it must have felt a bit like the homecoming game to him. Captured in the late summer of 1986, it is still one of the funniest single performances I’ve ever enjoyed by a comic. Only Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill made me laugh more.
I saw him perform live only once, just a few short weeks after that seminal performance in that massive venue. Villanova University hired him to perform for Parents Weekend my freshman year. My parents and my sister came to the show and we were all bowled over. He pulled no punches being at a Catholic university event and his show was received with as much joy and laughter as any show I’ve ever seen. He took the huge stage in the DuPont Pavillion in a bigger storm than the Wildcats starting five ever did. He used much of the same material from the Met show as a launchpad, but the energy he carried throughout was infectious. The words all the critics have used over time – manic, stream of consciousness, smart, unrelenting, &c. all applied. It was overwhelming, exhausting and glorious.
Then he came out for his encore, and all bets were off. As he was oft quoted, “when in doubt, go with the dick joke.” He did what seemed like 15 minutes on “Mr. Happy” and the place was cheering slightly uncomfortable in amongst the Augustinian habits spread around the room. Even my mom, a product of a Catholic education, loved the show. Clearly, she thought some of the experimental material in the encore was a bit much, but she was laughing the whole night nevertheless.
And then, the fallout started. The local papers at the time were full of stories with unhappy parents – read: donors – up in arms about the “offensive material” he presented during a “family event” at a “Catholic school.” The response was swift and permanent. The headline act the next year was Chubby Checker and a musical tribute to the 50s. I think there are still tickets available for that show if you’re interested. I didn’t go. Nobody I know did.
And the comic went on to create a tremendous catalog of performances captured on film beginning a few months later with Good Morning Vietnam. One of the most indelible moments in his career for me was the heartbreaking look he had on his bearded face looking up at a supermarket aisle full of coffee cans in Moscow on the Hudson. Some of his best performances, are only captured in live memories like mine. And he became beloved for so much of what he did not as a performer, just as a human – with public events like Comic Relief, performing for troops in combat zones around the world and more private efforts he made for friends and fans.
I wonder what the parents weekend critics are thinking today. I wonder if they’ve changed their minds.
Personally, after his death this week, I realized how often I remember the laughter he brought with him that day. And I’m more grateful than I can say.