I spent Friday night watching a legend. I can’t precisely say he “performed,” because he’s 86 years old, and performance is a peculiarly elusive ability at that age. A legendary comedian, he is one of the very last of a generation-honored group of entertainers, which is primarily why I wanted to see him in person.
To my ear, he said two hilarious things over the course of an hour. The first was, after he’d simply entered onstage to a roaring standing ovation and said a few “let me orient myself” comments into the mic, and after he received raucous laughter and applause just for being himself, he turned to his orchestra conductor, pianist and right-hand man, and into the microphone, he said “Are we done yet?” Absolutely priceless. I must’ve laughed a full minute.
The second time, much later in the show, he was telling one of his many “back in the day” stories. This one was about Frank Sinatra. It wasn’t part of a joke or even a punchline. It was just his set-up for his reminiscence. He said, “Through the door walk Frank and his friends, who are, uh, scientists…” and from an audience of 1,300, guess who was laughing so hard the musicians were looking at her? Yep.
We stood in ovation to that man at least five times. The rest of his onstage performance was unusually tender and meandering. There was a fantastic 13-piece orchestra, who clearly adored him. There was the singing of heartfelt, smaltzy songs hearkening to memories and patriotism. I paid great attention to his presence. I wondered why he would put himself through that series of paces. He had difficulty walking across the stage and handling the mic cord. Of course I know there’s the money, but I wondered if there was something else. Some other reason why a person, particularly at that juncture in life, doesn’t simply cease doing the thing they know best how to do.
I’m thinking about if it’s useful to be puzzled by all this. Diminishment is a worthy consideration. Amplification is a worthy consideration.