Comedian Simon Rakoff: Making Ugly Truths Palatable

Comedian Simon Rakoff: Making Ugly Truths Palatable

(Photo of Simon Rakoff courtesy of Alex Urosevic)

Like so many other people on the planet, I grew up in an environment that was loaded with abuse and alcoholism. Home was a frightening place, and it was not conducive to having friends visit.

That was easy; I didn't have many of them. I was painfully shy, afraid anyone would discover the ugly secrets I tried so desperately to hide.

But when I was 13, I learned a new way to cope with feeling like a screwed up outsider who would never belong. I became the class clown, and always had a witty come-back for the teachers I didn't like.

Comedy became my mask, something behind which I could hide so no one would see the awful secrets I was hiding. And once I began doing stand-up, I did what so many comedians do - the late, great Robin Williams, for example - I turned some of the most traumatic events of my life into jokes.

But there are other comics who have simply always been jokesters, and for some of them, far from being a cover, comedy reveals the truth of their thoughts. It is used to safely convey opinions and views of the world and its many foibles that most people would not dare share with anyone other than their friends.

Yet when marinated and served in a good dose of humour, such opinions and views become not only palatable but applauded.

Simon Rakoff is one such comedian. For him, comedy is not a cover for emotional pain but rather, it is a vehicle to discuss social issues and injustices in a way that is simultaneously frighteningly honest and warmly welcomed by audiences. In this way, comics can almost be seen as ambassadors or advocates for the underdog, speaking on behalf of those who are unable to speak for themselves, or who may fear the repercussions.

"I talk about what I want to talk about," says Rakoff, "and I want to talk about things that have some substance. I don't talk about pop culture. I talk about things that real people talk about in the real world, my thoughts and feelings and opinions on things. My worries about the world and how dumb [people can be]."

Rakoff is particularly bothered by hypocrisy. "Like right-wing Christians who turn out to be gay or cheating or perverts or molesters," he suggests. "They cry, 'Oh, I've let everyone down!' But if they hadn't got caught, they'd still be doing it. There's no self-reflection."

Tearing into the subject of injustice, Rakoff dives into a list of problematic politicians, loose laws, and societal slides that leave him shaking his head. "America claims to be a nation of laws but they're not laws because they don't apply equally," he asserts. "The rich and powerful can get away with stealing everything but the poor are not going to accept that that's a law when the cops come down hard on them for looting a grocery store but they don't arrest people who are stealing billions. A law is...the same for everybody. Gravity is a law. You can't collect enough money so you can float."

He adds, "It's one thing to be a guy who's stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family versus people with privilege and opportunity who...are sociopaths, happy to do whatever they need to get where they want to be."

Rakoff says, "We're lucky here. If I lived in Brazil and had to dig through the trash to get enough calories to get through the day, I'd understand if I was corrupt and doing shitty things just to get by. But how many people are just shitty, doing all kinds of shitty stuff all the time and it's like, 'For what, man? You've got enough!'"

Although Rakoff's comedic gifts are not borne of an emotionally painful or abused life, like so many other comics he has dealt with depression for as long as he can remember. "As a kid life was good, but I've always had this tendency to sort of be a little sad and inside myself. I've always been a big joker. My family's very funny...[but depression] is always there in your chemistry; like it's in your DNA."

(Photo of Simon Rakoff courtesy of Rob Trick)

Growing up with a psychiatrist for a father and a GP for a mother, intellectual pursuits were important in the Rakoff home. "There was a lot of very interesting talk in my family. We were discussers of real issues all the time, even as kids...My folks were very cultured and introduced us to all kinds of stuff, Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire, and we would go to the museum, science center - everything. [My parents are] very smart people."

Rakoff adds, "There was always tremendous emphasis on 'What are you giving?' It was more important than what you're getting. Gifts are nice, like intelligence, humour and whatever else you get are different than choices. People often make the mistake of admiring gifts and ignoring the bad choices people make. Like all these pro athletes who beat up their women. They're gifted with speed and strength and drive and ambition but they're awful people."

He's right. There's a lot of rottenness in the world. And sometimes the only way to make people understand or pay attention to it is through comedy. "It's a way of expressing frustration in a powerful way," he suggests. "It gives you a little bit of perspective on the things that are making you angry. It's the power of the powerless; it's a way of making things that you can't control somehow less scary, less frustrating, less angering...and it gets the anger out of me."

He acknowledges that occasionally, he writes "...the funniest stuff out of the dark energy, dealing with the hard things, like the way the court jester could mock the king. He was the only one who could speak the truth and not get in trouble."

Keep speaking the truth, my friend. We need to hear it.

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