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G-Sync: Rourke & Radner

Gilda Radner and her brother Michael.

Constance Rourke

Gilda Radner, middle, with her mother Henrietta and brother Michael.

Constance Rourke

Dr. Carleton Gholz, left, and Jo Ellyn Clarey, right.

The Radner family.

March is Women's History Month and over the next couple weeks G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen will be celebrating a few women who have made an impact in their field and changed the face of our community. This week, Allen revisits two unforgettable women who should be remembered for their contributions and methods of making us chuckle.
This week, we kick off a series of G-Sync editorials that will seek to celebrate Women's History Month. We'll examine how some unique women from Michigan and its second-largest city, Grand Rapids, have made contributions both big and small to our planet.

There may be giants all around us, but this week I wanted to settle down with a few quieter folks, just inches from the spotlight, who will help me understand two women's roles in society that many of us may have never heard of before or may have simply forgotten.

If you read the title of Rourke & Radner and thought I was going to reveal a new vaudevillian comedy troupe coming to Grand Rapids, well, in some ways you are partially correct.

I seek to shine a little light on the contributions of Grand Rapidian Constance Rourke and Detroit native Gilda Radner. Both women shared many things in common, including their arrival on the comedy scene right after dark periods of America's history.

Rourke, an author and scholar, published during a time of financial darkness in the 1920s and 1930s. Radner began to step out in her career in a period of civil unrest immediately after the 1960s, during a decade where we spent much of it trying to come to terms with the new America that emerged.

Both Rourke's and Radner's lives were tragically cut short by early deaths before they could fully realize their dreams. In their passing, we are left to be champions of their work and carriers of the wonderful spirits of curiosity that drove both women to great feats worthy of our celebration. In short, both women continue to inspire us today.

Rourke arrived here in Grand Rapids by way of her birthplace of Cleveland, Ohio. Radner migrated from Detroit to Ann Arbor before her theatrical wanderings took her to Toronto and Chicago and then to New York's Saturday Night Live.

Rourke was a scholar during a time in American history when women were not necessarily welcomed in academia. In fact, you could even make the argument that her outsider personality and adventurous spirit would make Rourke a better researcher.

Rourke worked without the modern tools of research like Google. She did not have the fax machine to receive the reams of material needed to produce scholarly books, biographical sketches, and more than 100 articles for publications such as The Nation and The New Republic. Rourke, while rooted in Grand Rapids even during her short stint as a professor Vassar College, employed a vast network to her advantage – the American library system.

"She knew so many librarians around the country that it is simply astonishing," says Jo Ellyn Clarey, independent scholar and leadership member of the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council. Rourke had an ability to cull massive amounts of material, much of which went toward the most famous of her eight books, American Humor: A Study of the National Character, published in 1931.

Before we study the importance of a comedienne like Gilda Radner, according to Clarey, we have to pass through Rourke. American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Rourke's iconic book, is still in print today and is probably the most scholarly account (if not the very first of its kind), illustrating the early history of our national brand of humor and the way we arrived at the present-day vision of comedy. Before Rourke, even the now-common topic of American studies was not being taught as it is today in our post-WWII education institutions.

Rourke's look at our early years as a nation provides a navigation point to peek behind the puritanical images that our ancestors used to converse and chuckle over in distant former homelands during the time the U.S. came to be known in their circles as the great melting pot, a messy soup -- and of very little value culturally.

But this was not true and Rourke proved it by unearthing, from the streets to the stages, a perspective on American humor that is still true to this day.

"At the time of her research, Rourke engaged in what was [in the early twentieth century] a fierce national debate raging over the cultural poverty of America, arguing that Europe's devaluing of the young America's accomplishments were not correct," says Clarey. "Constance Rourke was among the first to argue against this position and in publishing American Humor she proved this wholeheartedly."

Rourke's work illustrates three distinct areas of American humor: the Yankee peddler, the backwoodsman and the controversial minstrel performer. These three are often referred to as the "trio" by Rourke scholars, including Clarey and another scholar, Dr. Carleton Gholz. Gholz is the founder of the Detroit Sound Conservancy – a group committed to the preservation of lost Detroit sound recordings and related historical material like press interviews found often on magnetic or other analog media.

Gholz has taken to modernizing Rourke for a new generation by becoming the editor of her Wiki page as well as running a Facebook and Twitter account devoted to the Grand Rapidian.  

By using living research, Rourke, much like Radner, would go into the field to mine our cultural narrative as it pertained to humor, but along the way she discovered so much more regarding what the American brand of humor says about a people.

"To explain the rise of these three archetypal American characters, she quoted the philosopher Henri Bergson: 'The comic comes into being just when society and the individual, freed from the worry of self-preservation, begin to regard themselves as works of art,'" says Columbia University's professor Caleb Crain. In his work, What's So Funny About Americans Anyway, Crain writes, "Europe might have castles, cathedrals, and rock sculpture by Druids, but the United States had garrulous hicks who were canny enough not to mind being mistaken for fools."

This unique brand of humor, showcasing America's ability to fearlessly play out a role for a laugh, is something I was reminded of the other day as I spoke with Gilda's brother Michael Radner.

"There were times Gilda and I would be at the dinner table singing some crazy tune to the point where our father would step in to say, 'Enough,'" says Radner, recalling his childhood with Gilda, who was five years younger than Michael. "Every Sunday we would as a family travel to our neighborhood Chinese restaurant for supper and just like our dinner table, we would act out. And almost every week our father would pronounce, 'Never again,' as if to say we would not be back – even though we would return again and again." Kids understand, even at a young age, boundaries are meant for being challenged.

After being cast in Godspell, Gilda would catch the attention of many producers and eventually Lorne Michaels would bring her to Saturday Night Live. Gilda met Alan Zweibel at SNL. Zweibel would later write Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner – a Sort of Love Story, recounting his years as Gilda's friend. The book would later be adapted to the stage.

From the streets of our cities to the stages around the country, both women made their mark. Rourke contributed to the world of comedy by documenting those critical years that provided a foundation others could build upon. Radner channelled her life in Detroit and, with her best friend Zweibel, would  go on to create some of the most remarkable and diverse characters that television has ever produced, many of whom are still with us today.

Since their lives were cut short, at the start of Women's History Month, our challenge is to let their work live on in us as we carry their legacies forward.

Radner's memory and humor have inspired the formation of Gilda's Club, which provides a social and emotional support community to people living with cancer. Our own nationally recognized chapter produced Laughfest, celebrating its fourth year March 6 - 16.

Rourke's legacy is still burning bright in many circles, but here at home many locals have forgotten her. This will change soon if Clarey and Gholz are successful in capturing your imagination as they have mine. Both shared stories of her life and her local accomplishments (with others) that many have forgotten.

For example, Rourke was part of the creation of the first exhibit of American Fine Art at the Grand Rapids Gallery – later renamed the Grand Rapids Art Museum. This breakout exhibition would later be praised in the national press as a model for other museums to follow suit. Just six months later, Rourke, along with others locally, created another stellar exhibition on American Folk Art.

American humor is based upon the fact that we are, in many ways, still a group of diverse people with an equally rich and diverse set of stories. And according to Rourke's "trio," this source of what makes us laugh, whether we are sharing myths or stories of our life's passage in America with a few at a tiny gathering or performing to a wider audience on the stage and screen, proves we are still an imaginative people when it comes to finding ways to have our funny bone tickled.

And yet, struggles are a part of the pain of the American saga, too, and often are evidenced in our darkest humor and the resulting release of laughter that follows.

Our attempt to get it right is perhaps best summed up with a line from Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors as the director character on screen flippantly defines "comedy as tragedy plus time."

Under Rourke and Radner we see that there is an American treasure still waiting for the next humorist to discover comic gold. That is the quest of all of us seeking to entertain. We need to be aware that this complex journey still continues in us.

"I am reminded of Rourke when I watch the very first episode of the Chappelle's Show on Comedy Central," says Gholz. Dave Chappelle's first skit about the roots of hip hop music's misogyny problems are discovered in an unlikely source: Nat King Cole. "We watch this squirming a bit because we are still a little prudish as Rourke recognized even from our early days."

To Gholz and Clarey, we are a culture that truly loves these larger-than-life figures we have created with the "trio." These moments of acting out challenge us, make us uncomfortable, and ask us to think about what we know and how we know it.  

"If Rourke could have continued her work at the end of the 20th century, she would have had a lot to say about the borrowings from Yiddish for American English and the amazing influence of Jewish entertainers of various types on American culture--Jewish entertainers including Gilda Radner," says Clarey.

On the anniversary of Rourke's birthday, Luc Sante said, "Constance Rourke died — from a slip on an icy porch — way too young. If she had finished her projected five-volume Roots of American Culture, it might have synthesized all her research into a grand key to the American Scriptures."

If we have learned anything from the lens of time, it is that time is guaranteed to no one. "While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die – whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness," wrote Gilda Radner.

I couldn't agree more in light of all we know now, thanks to these two towering women of humor. In their own way, they each push us to be more with the time we have before us, inspiring not just other women but all mankind to make our days count as we follow our bliss.

The Future Needs All of Us

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Four fantastic options are on deck in this week's G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This!

Images this week include personal family photos courtesy of Michael Radner, researchers Jo Ellyn Clarey and Dr. Gholz, and Grand Rapids portrait aritst David LaClaire.
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