I was never a fan of SNL, and hadn’t seen much of Gilda Radner’s work. But CNN did a New Year’s day special on her, and promoted the heck out of it — enough to entice me to watch.
Like many other comedians, Radner didn’t become a funny person because her own life had been a hoot. Concerned about her childhood chubbiness, Radner’s mother put her on Dexadrine at the age of ten. Later, Radner would have to be hospitalized for an eating disorder that left her weight dangerously low. Her beloved father died when she was fourteen. As an adult, Radner was in and out of relationships, finally marrying Gene Wilder, with whom she remained until her untimely death from ovarian cancer at age 42. She miscarried the baby they conceived together, and then the discovery of her cancer precluded trying again.
Radner was funny in the iconic mode of Lucille Ball — both highly physical comedians whose bodies and facial expressions and gestures did as much to communicate humor as their words. Radner was not a stand up comic who relied on monologues, like Seinfeld or Rosie O’Donnell. Radner created hilarious characters — Baba Wawa, Roseanne Roseanneadanna, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner — and she inhabited them even as she spoke of their inhabiting her. She could, she told us as her audience, do anything as long as people were laughing.
I expected that the program might be a collection of her funnier sketches, but instead was touched by the deep dive into the life and early death of someone who was brilliant at her art, and whose work took comedic roles for women a quantum leap forward. Beyond that, she started Gilda’s Clubs, where women with ovarian and other kinds of cancers can receive support.
Radner made a lasting impact, despite her foreshortened years. One of the things I’m aware of as I’ve passed 70 and am headed toward 74 in 2019, is that long life gives lots of chances — for learning, and growth, for experimentation, for healing, for mistakes to be corrected and relationships rewoven, for growing in the appreciation of life’s beauty and preciousness. When you die at 42 you don’t get nearly enough of that, whether you are famous or not. Rest in peace, Gilda Radner.