Tragicomedia with comic John DeBellis on grandfather loss
“I was with my grandfather on his death bed. Right before he died, he smothered my face with kisses and said, “John: I’m contagious!”

comic John DeBellis End of life for Al, an ex-mobster versus John, who in his 80’s believed he was first baseman for the New York Yankees; this and more as memory artist Nancy Gershman talks with comic John DeBellis about his grandfathers. A New Jersey-based writer, director and stand-up comedian, John is best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, Politically Incorrect, and the Tonight Show. Writer and director of the film, “The Last Request,” starring Danny Aiello and T.R. Knight, John is also author of Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs. Visit John on www.920spot.com and The Huffington Post.

Missing a marble or two lets you tap into your funny bone
Exercise your right to joke with the “bad news on bad news” set-up
Indulge your elder’s alter ego if it boosts their dignity  
For God-fearing mobsters, regrets can work their way out through dreams
If your posture is fetal after a funeral, see a shrink
There is no such thing as “if I had to do it all over again”
Movie night after chemo should include zombies and serial killers  
The only positive thing about death is you won’t have to wake up to pee again
Comedy protects comics from one of their worst fears: dying 
Your To Do List
 
 

Missing a marble or two lets you tap into your funny bone

“Comics always feel there is something lost (or missing) inside of them; some part of them that they can never find. It’s like you know there is a part missing – at least I do. If I could find it, I could become better at being Me, which is sort of a comic’s oxymoron.  So as comics, we identify with loss all the time. When something tragic happens, a comic’s response is to laugh at it. Not out of insensitivity but because it helps us feel the situation in a different way—a way we can process it. This happens especially in comic-to-comic conversation. When my mother died, I called up my friend, the comic Larry Amoros, and he rattled off all these horrible jokes about my mother, which made me laugh hysterically. When I told Larry David, the first thing he says is, “I’m sorry, do I have to buy flowers … I need to get a pencil … write down the address?” I loved Larry’s honesty.”

Exercise your right to joke with the “bad news on bad news” set-up

“Comics will deal with a tragedy in their jokes by creating a “set up” which presents the tragedy as logical and normal. This enhances the punch line so that people aren’t expecting the comic to then pull that rug right out from under them!  It’s even easier to make the audience laugh when tragedy itself is the set up. An example is this joke from W. C. Fields. He once described the difference between comedians and ‘regular’ people this way. Regular people will laugh at someone pretending to be an old lady falling down a manhole. Comedians will only laugh if it’s a real old lady.”

Indulge your elder’s alter ego if it boosts their dignity

“My grandfather John (my mother’s father) died the way I want to die. (Or maybe I should say lived up until his death the way I want to live.) He had dementia, and thought at the age of 80 that he was first baseman for the New York Yankees. He’d say to us, “They want me to play first base today, but my knee hurts too much.” That was my first real experience with death at age 13. Grandpa John had a great time and couldn’t have died happier. (I probably wouldn’t mind a similar fate). I remember being 3 or 4 sitting on Grandpa John’s lap. I knew I was his favorite grandchild. He shaved the moustache he had for 40 years because I was afraid of it! My love of baseball came from him. He’d give me wine and cheese and we’d watch the Yankees together.  Sure, sometimes I’d get drunk … but only if they lost.”

For God-fearing mobsters, regrets can work their way out through dreams

“The biggest loss was when my grandfather Al died; an ex-mobster who hid Al Capone for two weeks when the New York mob was after him. He was a very romantic figure. And funny. We’d watch the “Untouchables” together when I was 6 or 7. And we rooted for the mobsters because he knew them all. One of my uncles told me about a time when a gangster friend of my grandfather had to do a hit, and he couldn’t go through with it, so Al did it for him. It took a while to come to terms with that: I mean, Grandfather being a killer. I rationalized it away by thinking that to mobsters, it was the risk of doing business.  Going in you all signed off on it. I heard another story about my grandfather being ambushed in a warehouse, and my grandfather knew they would kill him.  So he excused himself to go to the bathroom, where he tore a pipe out of the wall and then went back in and beat those guys to death. When my grandfather was in the hospital dying, he told me he dreamt he was on the electric chair, pulling out all the medical wires and tubes. When the priest wanted to give him the last rites, he refused, saying, “After all the stuff I did, it won’t help.” When I die, what I really want people to say is “God did John DeBellis live a really long, long, long life.” Maybe I feel that way because I don’t believe in God.  I’m an atheist.  And if my belief is true, my biggest regret will be that those that kill in the name of God will never realize they killed in vain.”

If your posture is fetal after a funeral, see a shrink

“And yet Grandpa Al and my other grandfather John were the only people I felt loved by unconditionally – until therapy.  Before therapy I was totally blocked off emotionally because of my childhood. Grandpa Al moved in with us and my Grandpa John when he got out of prison for counterfeiting.  My mother was one of 14, so I grew up around only adults for the first 8 years of my life.  It was a very extended household with aunts and uncles everywhere.  I couldn’t do anything because I was constantly watched. Uncles would come in and out all day long asking stuff like, “Who’s your favorite uncle?” They’d find a way to put me on the spot all the time so I just cut off my feelings early on to protect myself.  They thought it was funny, I guess. Before therapy I was an emotional mess.  I was driving home one day with my friend, Richard Lewis, and he told me I was driving in the fetal position. “You’ve got to go to this therapist I’m seeing.” First Richard, then Larry David, then me. We all ended up going to the same therapist, and a thousand comics after us.  It wasn’t until therapy that I finally began to feel again. Larry David and I were the last people to see Grandpa Al alive. It was Thanksgiving and as usual I was having a bunch of comics over at my parent’s house.  Larry and I left last, but on our way home, we went to see my grandfather at the hospital.  Anyway, he died right after we left. So I’m convinced that Larry was responsible for his death. When Grandpa Al died I was in my late twenties and had been in therapy for years.  I never felt more alive in my life because it brought me so close to my emotions; life felt real. All the hurt and the pain, raw, from my childhood just increased my feelings of closeness to him. I felt really connected to life and death.”

There is no such thing as “if I had to do it all over again”

“At most of my relatives’ funerals, instead of crying in public, my uncles would stand around making jokes and laughing. I remember thinking to myself, They do that well. What I don’t think adults did well in our family was deal with the dying in an honest way. When my mother was dying of cancer, I was in my 40s. At the hospital I saw vividly how she had withered away. She looked me straight in the eye, and asked me, “John, tell me!  Am I dying?” I remember saying yes without saying yes.  I said, “Ma, your treatments aren’t working any more.” I knew I had to ask my father permission to tell her she was dying. So I went out into the hallway and asked my father and uncles. And I remember fighting with them about telling her the truth.  But I think she already knew. I wish I could have told my mom the truth without just insinuating what was going on.  But I did my best. I’m a believer that there is no such thing as if I had to do it all over again. I just don’t believe that. You are that person at that decisive moment in your life. The choice you make is the only choice you could have made because of who you were at the time.  However — if I had to do it all over again, the only thing I’d change would be that before I die, I wouldn’t pick up my dry cleaning. If you’re an Italian mobster, you tell So-and-So that they’re going to die because they didn’t do whatever they were supposed to do.  It was business and they understood the rules and thus the reason for their death. But I don’t know how that old school mob stuff translates to normal conversations about dying.”

Movie night after chemo should include zombies and serial killers

“My father Joe died in 2009, but prior to that I was dating my girlfriend for about 6 years. In the last 3 years she had cancer, and she was dying. And my father was dying, at the same time!  At one point I was trying to take care of both of them so I said to my girlfriend, “You can move in with us.” That’s when we wound up splitting up. She moved in with her sister, and spent the last 4 months being cared for by her identical twin which I think worked out for the best. I remember the afternoon my girlfriend came back from chemo, she said “John, go out and get some movies we can watch.” And what did I bring back? The movies I like, dark noir stuff.  I returned with a bunch of movies with the word “dead” in it like “The Dead Girl,” “The Dead Pool,” and so on; just lots of movies where somebody ends up dead.  She cracked up about it. The truth is, the one thing that I’m absolutely sure about in my life is that I don’t want to die. The thought of it creeps me out! Maybe being so afraid of death is the reason why I like dark detective stuff, murderers, zombies, serial killers: anything that has a dark side to it. Most of the time I root for the killer not to get caught only because I don’t want the movie to end.   I think when the movie’s mood is so dark it makes my everyday depression seem light-hearted.”

The only positive thing about death is you won’t have to wake up to pee again

“The death theme runs through my act.  I do a whole “death run.” I start off saying I had a bad week. I tell the audience “My Uncle Allen died. He was an animal trainer for the circus.  For the finale he lit himself on fire and then he was stomped out by his elephant … My uncle Bob died. He wanted to kill his wife so he put a bomb in her car.  But he was stupid. To make sure she drove it, he asked for a lift to work.” I’ll go on and on with bits on other dead relatives, ending my act with,  “This week I was with my grandfather on his death bed. Right before he died, he looked deep in my eyes, smothered my face with kisses and said, “John, I’m contagious!” In my movie, The Last Request, a dying Danny Aiello screams out, “Death is not the end of everything! It’s the beginning of nothing!” I guess that’s one positive way to look at it. Our lives are punctuated by Life and Death. Everything in between is just a waiting room. We’re all basically heading towards the same goal, some more slowly than others. As I get older, I think about it more. Even though my hearing is going, the sound of my life ticking away is getting much louder. The only positive thing I can say about death is – at least I won’t have to wake up to pee again.” 

Comedy protects comics from one of their worst fears: dying

“Wow, I died last night,” we’ll say when we have a bad set. “I killed last night.”  “I crushed.”” I blew the audience away,” we’ll say after we have a great set. Comics use a lot of angry, violent terminology to describe their performance. Could it be that we really fear dying in life so we project it onto our audience? In my book, Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs, my therapist Al Lefkowitz says that comics are counter-phobic. The thing we are most afraid of in life is being laughed at, so we go on stage as a way of combating that fear. “You’re going to laugh at me? Well, I’m going to control when you laugh.” Comedians try to disarm and control what they’re most afraid of. By doing jokes about our own powerlessness, to some degree that takes the power of our fear away.”

To fool Death, smile for the camera and print it in black and white

“I love the old black and white photographs. When I see my relatives when they’re young having a good time and enjoying life – those pictures really get to me. I like seeing my family laughing. But then I think: they’re not laughing now because they’re dead.  Right at that moment , that’s when I like to imagine them exactly like they were in those pictures: young and laughing for eternity. I wish there was a meaning in life. I don’t think there is any meaning. I don’t think you go anywhere afterwards. I hope that I’m absolutely wrong about that, and that all those people to whom I said there is no afterlife, that they rub it in my face one day. On the other hand, I believe we have a limited time on this planet – we’re probably going to have to move to another planet or we’ll die out.  I hope that doesn’t happen in my lifetime; I hate packing. We’re too insignificant of creatures to really understand what the meaning of anything is, anyway. So we owe it to ourselves and our species to be laughing till the end.”

Your To Do List

Like John DeBellis, ever get the feeling that your relatives in black and white photographs are having more fun? That they come from a more “innocent time”? Could it be that people in black and white photographs better understand what it means to experience joie de vivre than the friends and family you shoot all the time with your digital camera? Is the pressure of proving all the time that we’re enjoying ourselves like there’s no tomorrow (especially with all that instant sharing on social media) – beginning to show our true colors? That we’re faking it until we’re making it. If your answer is an elongated “maybe” with a question mark at the end, try this experiment. Smile for the camera and then transform that color photo into black and white – or desaturate the photo from color to grayscale – by using an app on your smart phone like Snapseed or Instagram.   Do you get a different reading from the full color photograph vs. the one in black and white (or grayscale)?  Do you think your smile in the black and white photograph feels more radiant than the one in living color? My hunch as a memory artist is that our sensory memory of how we were when our photograph was snapped influences our impressions of the event. If we knew we were stretching our smile till bursting, we would remember that. If we remember how a joke from the photographer made our bellies hurt and our cheeks flush, we’d remember that too. Write back: readers of Tragicomedia will want to know.

0 Responses to "Tragicomedia with comic John DeBellis on grandfather loss"

  1. Michael says:

    I feel bad for this guy. he truly seems completely unbalanced but considering watching all these folks who he cares about, all die slow deaths. is it really surprising he is?

  2. I hate to disappoint you but I’m not unbalanced. My act might be, but I’m not. Sure, I’ve experienced death, but with death comes many life lessons. I really appreciate that I’m alive. I am a comic and we tend to look at things differently and you can’t take everything we say so seriously. But thanks for making a comment, it means you took time out to read the piece. That alone makes me happy.

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