Laughter is still the best medicine: remembering Grizzard’s humor

A Story Worth Telling

“I don’t have any out-of-body experiences. I had indeed seen a bright, beautiful light once

and had followed it, but it turned out to be a

Kmart tire sale.”

—Lewis Grizzard

Laughter is still the best medicine. It’s essential to living, or at least to living a worthwhile life. I’ve long worried about people who find fault and criticism quicker than finding something to laugh about.

That’s likely why the work of columnist, author, philosopher and speaker Lewis Grizzard has remained as one my favorites since attending a conference in Atlanta many years ago where he was the keynote speaker.

Without any particular specialty, Grizzard commented on just about everything in life, exposing the humor in every single topic.

That included politics, culture, women, men, mothers, fathers, dogs, sex, honor, racism, the past, the present, the future, and the South — there were few topics Grizzard didn’t tackle.

A true Southerner he was, born at Fort Benning, Georgia on October 20, 1946 and claiming Moreland, Georgia as his hometown. An internet article last week, noting he would have been 71, reminded me of how much I enjoyed Grizzard’s humor. The humor that made his columns a favorite in the Atlanta Constitution also led to some 20 books (18 of them New York Times bestsellers), which in turn put him in great demand for speaking engagements.

My library includes several of his books, including a few I can recall as favorites. “If Love Were Oil, I’d be About a Quart Low,” about his three marriages and three divorces; “Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself,” about a child of the 50s coping with life in the 80s; and “Shoot Low, Boys — They’re Riding’ Shetland Ponies: In Search of True Grit,” about Americans he considered to possess genuine true grit.

Grizzard died in 1994. Shortly afterward, I wrote a column expressing my disappointment in “Life” magazine when they failed to include Grizzard’s death in their yearly review recognizing significant individuals lost that year.

Perhaps it was because Grizzard did not achieve greatness through many years of writing. He was just 47 years of age, and had really just “come into his own.”

Perhaps it was because his writing was not eloquent or culturally philosophical. He wrote about things he loved from chicken-fried steaks to Georgia Bulldogs football.

He lauded American institutions from family to a solid work ethic and the importance of education. In his own skillful manner, he often wove many subjects together successfully reminding us of the humor in life, and often the importance of laughing at ourselves — something he did frequently.

Writing about “That There Education,” Grizzard said, “Mother began saving for my college education with the first paycheck she ever earned. She bought bonds. She put cash in shoe boxes and hid them in the back of the closet.

“Having enough money to send me to college when the time came consumed my mother. Besides the bonds and the shoe-box cash, she kept a coin bank, bought day-old bread, sat in the dark to save on the electric bill, never had her hair done, quit smoking, and never put more than a dollar in the collection plate at church. She used some simple logic for not tithing the Biblical tenth: ‘If the Lord wanted me to tithe that much, he wouldn’t have made college so expensive.’”

Perhaps it was because his writing often laughed at things some hold sacred. He rallied against political correctness, once being described as “politically incorrect and proud of it.” Grizzard fought to preserve a sense of humor, maintaining that it was impossible to be politically correct and smile.

Grizzard never won a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, he poked fun at that institution, too. “They handed out the annual Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest awards, the other day, and once again, I didn’t get one. It’s becoming an all too familiar occurrence.

“Each year, I call my friends over, we ice down the beer and await the word from the Pulitzer committee. Word never comes, but my friends drink all the beer I bought, anyway. How two people can drink that much beer is beyond me.”

Grizzard died of complications from a fourth heart surgery. He was told that his chances of survival for the risky surgery were less than 50-percent to which he replied, “I just have one question: When’s the next bus to Albuquerque?”

Humor was the common factor in everything Lewis Grizzard addressed, and he didn’t waste one day. He kept everyone around him smiling — right up to the end.

Some have compared Grizzard to a contemporary, southern version of Will Rogers who said, “We are all here for a spell, get all the good laughs you can.” You have to believe Grizzard’s outlook on life was the same.

—Leon Aldridge can be contacted at leonaldridge@gmail.com. Other Aldridge columns appear on his blog site at leonaldridge.com

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