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Why all-star tributes to comedians mean so much

It is truly wonderful to see comedians take apart each other's jokes and marvel at how precisely and hilariously they were put together

Jim Carrey and (right) Chris Rock laugh about the late Bob Saget in the Netflix special 'Dirty Daddy'
Jim Carrey and (right) Chris Rock laugh about the late Bob Saget in the Netflix special 'Dirty Daddy'

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“Nowadays, I’ve heard they go ‘a comedian is the modern-day philosopher’,” says Norm Macdonald in his latest Netflix special, Nothing Special. “It always makes me feel bad for the actual modern-day philosophers.” This is an unmistakably Macdonald bit, a take on the absurdity of current phraseology, and the way ideas get stretched into one-size-fits-all labels. The special typifies Norm and his digressive, exploratory comedic style but, filmed with a webcam and without an audience, it doesn’t capture the comedian at his sharpest and most precise. Another reason the jokes land oddly is that Macdonald delivers them from beyond the grave.

Macdonald died of cancer last September, and recorded Nothing Special from his home a year before, unwilling to “leave anything on the table.” The laughs come to us posthumously — somewhat like David Bowie’s magnificent final album, Blackstar, released days after his death — but even more than Macdonald’s words, it’s touching to see his colleagues David Letterman, Adam Sandler, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, David Spade and Dave Chappelle sit around to talk about the jokes and that miraculous joker.

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Similar — but more naked — catharsis can be found in Dirty Daddy (Netflix), a tribute to the comedian Bob Saget. This is a comedic wake, one that feels like a jazz version of a Comedy Central Roast, slowed down, improvised and riff-y, with laughs and sobs coming from unexpected corners. Saget lived a double life as the most wholesome television dad — he was the single-dad in Full House as well as the voice of the narrating father in How I Met Your Mother — but also a teller of truly filthy jokes, one with the bluest material, one who made comedians blush.

It is ridiculously touching to see Jim Carrey on a Comedy Store stage, wearing a giant fur coat, talking about the “cathedral of love” Saget built by being there for people and reaching out to them. Carrey is a highly original and influential comedic icon who has retreated from the spotlight — and certainly from stand-up — but he lounges about this stage like he never left. When Saget’s widow, Kelly, takes the stage to say a few words, Carrey gives her a loving embrace… and then asks her to “Keep it short.” Cue uproarious laughter.

Carrey brings the house down over and over, but he’s visibly moved by the occasion, and sincerity keeps breaking through. “Bob wasn’t something that was taken away from us,” he corrects. “He was something that was given to us.” The jokes through the evening are appropriately filthy, but the love is pure and startling, the outpouring as cathartic to the comedians as it is to us.

I caught myself wet-eyed when the musician John Mayer spoke about a Saget dream he had, one that taught him that Saget was still around. “There’s nothing different about the way we access the people we love, when they’re there than when they’re here.” After a couple of years where we have lost people unbearably close to us and not been able to mourn them loudly enough, not been able to assemble the large ‘cathedrals of love’ they left behind, it feels strangely comforting to be allowed into this weird wake.

The fantastic thing about comedians discussing comedy is the way they give a joke context. In our meme-heavy world it isn’t a surprise to see old Norm Macdonald routines find viral applause — do look up ‘The Moth Joke’ he performed on the Conan O’Brien show — and a good gag can surely be enjoyed on its own, but there’s more to it than meets the high. It is truly wonderful to see other comedians, fellow watchmakers, take these unique wristwatches apart to marvel at how precisely and hilariously they were put together.

In the 11th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Disney+ Hotstar), the great Albert Brooks throws himself a living-funeral, one where his loved ones dress mournfully while he sits in the bedroom upstairs loving and critiquing their eulogies. The real-life equivalent to this may be The Mark Twain Prize For American Humour — archives of which can be found on YouTube — where recipients like Tina Fey, Bill Murray and (this year’s recipient) Jon Stewart smile while everyone calls them a genius.

Stewart, in turn, delivers a lovely speech to induct the one and only George Carlin to a new comedic hall of fame. The Hall is on Netflix, which feels appropriate not only because of how heavily the streaming giant pays comedians but also how unflinchingly it stands behind their right to offend. The show includes an essential clip of Richard Pryor pretending his heart-attack is a gunman in an alley. Lethal.

I believe the reason it hurts so bad when a beloved comedian dies is that we are used to them inflicting a diametrically opposite emotion. They lift us, they distract us, they enchant us — they aren’t also supposed to make us cry. The best line in Dirty Daddy comes from Chris Rock. “I think it’s sad that [Bob Saget] had to die to get Jim Carrey back on stage,” laughs Rock. “If that’s what it takes, then I’m killing Eddie Murphy next week.”

By now we all know better than to take a Chris Rock gag literally, but I’m reminded that one day — hopefully a long way away — Eddie Murphy, the red-leather legend with the dynamite delivery, will bow out. We must brace ourselves to laugh, cry, and laugh again. In the Monty Python sketch “The Funniest Joke In The World”, a joke that slays anyone who reads it becomes the primary weapon (after being translated into German) to win World War II for Britain. It’s almost enough to forget that the writer who came up with the joke was the first one it killed. It would be a tragedy about a creator subsumed by his creation, but for one detail. He died laughing.

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