April has been a really weird, diverse and sad month for celebrity deaths.
Most notable was Barbara Bush, whose passing had me wholeheartedly agreeing with individuals from both ends sides of the political spectrum from Barack Obama to Donald Trump to Bill and Chelsea Clinton. She was a wonderful lady and the “real deal,” regardless of your politics.
There was also actor and veteran R. Lee “Gunny” Ermey, who is the reason my poor kids have heard me utter “What is your major malfunction” way too many times on the road, and DJ Tim Bergling, aka Avicii, who died a before he even reached 30. You can create amazing sounds celebrating living life to the fullest, but you have to lay off the sauce a bit to make sure that happens. The most ironic death was everyone’s favorite paranormal-themed broadcaster, Art Bell, who went on Friday the Thirteenth. I think he would have wanted to go on that day.
Yet, the one that stood out most for me was comedian and magician Harry Anderson, who died at age 65 on April 16. This one struck me for several reasons, first and foremost because I was a huge admirer of his work. Also, because no one wants to see anyone go at a relatively young age. I hardly consider 65 old, but he had suffered several strokes recently that put his health at risk. Mostly, however, it was the continual, wave of headlines the came out after his passing announcing “Night Court star dies…” or “Harry Anderson, best known as Judge Harry Stone in Night Court.”
I’m not criticizing the popularity of the show, but "sitcom star" was not the Harry Anderson I remember, and it never will be.
I'll remember the shifty grifter, the tilted fedora and dangling cigarette, the comedy and magic routines that came right out of the back alley, side show tent, or vaudeville stage. This was a guy who was valedictorian of his high school class, and from some stories I’ve heard was making a buck here and there as a street magician in his teens. He was “retro” before it was a thing, and actually influenced some of my own weird teen style for which I’m thankful there is little photographic evidence.
He was so much more than one show. This is the Harry Anderson I will remember:
• Performing geek acts like piercing his arm with a large needle or eating a live guinea pig. They were just tricks, but it was so much fun to watch the audience's reaction. You could tell he was having a great time watching them squirm.
• His smart-ass appearances on Saturday Night Live, during an era where they celebrated live comedy acts among their sketches. This is actually where I first saw Anderson, as well as Andy Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” bit and the pre-MST3K Joel Hodgson’s nerdy deadpan prop comedy. I haven’t watched SNL in a while, so I’m not sure if they still invite the occasional stand up act. If not, they need to bring that practice back.
• His giving me ideas for bar bets thanks to his appearance on my parents’ favorite show, Cheers, and his book Games You Can't Lose: A Guide for Suckers. I’m the eternal designated driver, so I made some bank of my friends, thanks to some of the tricks.
• The "escape race" he did with his wife where she was tied to a chair and he was in a straight jacket. He’d kick over the chair to try and slow her down, but she would still persevere. Boy that bit wouldn’t fly today.
For those who only knew Anderson for his admittedly great work on Night Court, I urge you to fall down the rabbit hole of YouTube and watch his old acts, peruse a used bookstore for his book, or take some time to learn some slight of hand. Let Harry’s legacy go beyond the sitcom and sparkle with the gritty, goofy genius of magic and laughs he deserves.
Mr. Anderson, we already miss you. Losing you is like a kick in the shin….and a needle through the arm.