Chicago comedian Anthony Griffith reflects on loss and laughter
Ying and yang. Sweet and sour. The bad with the good.
It’s something comedian Anthony Griffith knows all too well.
Griffith, a native of Hyde Park section of Chicago, started playing comedy clubs after his love of magic faded. Doing the local comedy circuit with his traditional, mainstream humor (read: no profanity) would eventually lead him to Hollywood, a spot on “Star Search,” and the holy grail for stand-up life: A few turns on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
“I was different. I wanted to be a magician, an escape artist,” Griffith said looking back on his career. “I was just different, and the beauty of my mom was that she allowed me to dream.”
Griffith befriended fellow Chicago comedian Bernie Mac and got to know other known funnymen like Jay Leno. But amid his rise in popularity, Griffith endured the death of his toddler daughter Brittany, who had leukemia. In a recent book, “Behind the Laughter: A Comedian’s Tale of Tragedy and Hope,” Griffith and his wife Brigitte Travis-Griffin, share their journey through marriage, parenthood and the highs and lows of self-discovery and loss amid the noise that is life, career and purpose.
“If you’re a comic and if you’re not cussing in your act, people look at you like you’re sort of odd,” he said. “There are some things that the world says do and then there are some things in your heart that tell you to step off that road of normalcy and do this thing I think I’m good at. It’s a real rough time in that process of becoming who you are.”
We talked with the Griffith, who lives in Sherman Oaks, Ill., about lessons learned and how he keeps telling jokes in his 50s while dealing with multiple sclerosis.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: How do you keep going when your world is falling apart?
A: It’s very important to have a sense of community. You’re not alone. Even if the powers that be might want you to think that you’re alone. People have been at the same place that you are before, and I think if you can rely on people set in positions to help you, you can come out of what you’re going through and understand.
Q: You talk about a lot about the heavy topics in life: mental health, physical health, racism. Was this more of a motivational book or a wake-up call?
A: I would say it’s a motivational book and a comforting book for anyone who is going through trials and tribulations. I look at it as overcoming storms so you can excel in your new normal, because once you go through a storm like the loss of a loved one or loss of your health, you’re a little bit stronger, wiser and you have more patience and you’re bolder. I think in my 20s, I would never have let anyone know what I was going through. I think now, I say things in hopes of comforting others who are now going through the same thing.
Q: The comedy clubs must have been a whirlwind in the 1980s. Your wife said in the book, that she thought you would have been in a different stratosphere, had you pushed more back then. What do you think?
A: Everybody has their own speed, and my speed has always been to quietly get to where I need to go. Bernie and I were totally two different guys. If we were jazz musicians, Bernie would be Louis Armstrong and I would be like Charlie Parker. You would know Bernie was in the room no matter what. And I’m OK with being quiet and still doing my thing: You go about it in your own speed and your own beat. I have MS, and I’m still performing. So, you’re bigger and stronger than you think you are.
Q: During your career, you kept your life compartmentalized and didn’t tell the world about your daughter Brittany until you performed at The Moth. Why?
A: The Moth told the comics to tell us a story. I had never told anyone about the death of my daughter, and my daughter whispered in my ear, "Tell my story." That was the first time I ever told it. I didn’t really know a lot of people in California and I didn’t trust people (to tell them about Brittany). Chicagoans, we’re more guarded, and I think if you’re black and from Chicago, you’re super-guarded. I’m not going to tell you everything about me until I get to know you, and I think that with Brittany, it was so personal.
Q: At 57, you’ve out-joked and outlived many comics. What is your algorithm?
A: I couldn’t cuss because I feared my mom. I still do comedy, but life sort of dictated (when I became ill with the MS), that shifted my comedy, so my comedy became more storytelling, observational comedy. As a Baby Boomer, I found a new audience, because older people love stories and they want to know what’s going on behind the comic, what’s going on with your life. As you get older, it’s important that people love what’s going on with you, more so than that joke.
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