Apparently, Will Ferrell is going to play Ronald Reagan in a comedy about Alzheimer’s. And everyone is already going crazy about it.
When learning about this project, the first reaction most people have is: “Terrible idea.” “There is nothing funny about Alzheimer’s.” “His career is over.”
I beg to differ.
My dad had Alzheimer’s and my mom cared for him in their home. Once when mom was flying down to Texas to visit her brother, I spent a week caring for and being with dad — just me and him. He probably recognized me about 20% of the time. Despite that, it was one of the best weeks of my life.
Each night I would bring him his pills and some water in a pair of those tiny Dixie paper bathroom cups. He would sit up in his bed, take the pills and down the water. Then he would take each cup and twist them onto his enormous ears, so they would stay there on their own. After that he would simply stare at me, with a huge grin on his face, and wait for me to notice. When I did he would pull each cup off with exaggerated effort and a sucking sound. He did this for me every night I was there. It was genuinely funny and beautiful. And so was he.
We have at least a hundred stories like that. The time he sat down at the dinner table with my mom and gave a 45-minute speech to an imaginary audience about the Tripartite Pact [he was a historian]. The time he got hopelessly confused by the robot operator on a collect call my brother Will was making to him and he refused to simply say the word “yes” when it asked if he would accept the charges. “I’ve already responded in the affirmative,” he said once. “I can’t imagine the circumstances under which I would not accept the charges.” Will heard the whole thing. It was hysterical.
Many of the funny stories are, from another angle, quite painful too. Comedy is tragedy plus time. Truer words were ne’er spake. My dad was the smartest, funniest man I’ll ever know. The disintegration of his agile mind was shocking, terrifying and ultimately an experience that helps bind his survivors together.
When we remember the disease that killed our father, it’s those stories we cling to. They make us laugh. They genuinely help us cope. We’ve always been a family that laughs. He was our ringleader. He still is. I know several other families who have similar experiences. And I know many families who sadly have not. Alzheimer’s is a real asshole that way.
I agree there is nothing at all funny about the disease itself. My thought is that when good comedians take on serious subjects [and the best ones always do], they typically do so not to define the subject as funny or stupid or minor. Instead they try to find the human side of a tragedy and make it less terrifying by laughing about it to its face. In this way, humor can bring about better understanding and lessen fear and grief.
Look at how “The Producers” made merciless fun of Nazi Germany, as did “Or Not To Be” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” And don’t forget Benigni’s haunting and funny “Life Is Beautiful” which on paper should have been offensive. A father clowns around in a death camp to keep his child’s spirits up? And yet, an amazing movie.
Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” was universally condemned before it was ever shown because it “made fun of Jesus.” Once it was released, however, it was hailed as satirical genius. And what about that dreadful film that made pitiless humor of mental retardation? What was it called? Oh yeah, “Forrest Gump!”
We laughed at autism when we watched “Rainman.” In fact, for many people, myself included, this was the first we’d ever heard of it. But, we laughed because it didn’t make fun of the disease or people who have it. It made fun of how we struggle to understand the disease, how we cope with it, how ignorant we are of it. That’s really important.
I haven’t the slightest idea what Ferrell’s comedy will be about. I do know that Reagan’s bout with Alzheimer’s was long and terrible. I know that my family was extremely fortunate that, as the disease progressed in him, my father turned to humor and politeness to cope with his strange world. It’s what he did and who he was.
I understand that many people hold Ronald Reagan in high regard and that the notion of a comedian lampooning him might be upsetting to them. I think a lot of the people condemning Ferrell might be using the issue of Alzheimer’s as a smokescreen to cover this. After all, Alzheimer’s is universally reviled. Reagan considerably less so.
I also know that Will Ferrell is a very funny man who has done a great deal for some important causes. He’s used his stardom to raise a lot of money and a lot of awareness. He does have a heart. Before we all throw our “Elf” and “Anchorman” DVDs away, let’s wait and see what this team actually does. There are plenty of things to be angry about in this world. Let’s be angry at Alzheimer’s and AIDS and ALS and T1D. Let’s condemn racists and homophobes and bullies and terrorists. But let’s not get angry at comedians. After all, they’re the people who make all those other bad things tolerable.
I’m willing to wait and see what Ferrell creates before I judge it. If by doing something that pushes a few comfort zones he is able to shine a light on this tragic disease, make us laugh in its face a little, raise awareness and money, and move us closer to a cure, well, I’m OK with that.
To learn more about Alzheimer’s and find out what you can do to make a difference, visit: www.alz.org. Share you stories with others. It all helps.