Laughing and Crying: The Compassionate Humor of Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner, as her recurring Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, who appeared between 1977-1980.

Content warning: references to eating disorders

I use this sentence nearly daily: “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” I’ve been contemplating this sentiment a lot lately, because it encompasses the odd mixture of emotions that plague us in pivotal moments. Confronting the ever-changing present—the ongoing uncertainties of the virus, the disintegration of our democracy, a renewed questioning of truth—I’m faced with a choice of either laughing or crying. In what I believe is a very Jewish response, I generally laugh. I’ve come to believe that there's humor in everything, and we only have to look to find it.

Gilda Radner embodied this mindset; as one of the original Saturday Night Live (SNL) cast members, Radner tackled her personal struggles with humor. When she was dying of cancer, she wrote a book about her life and battle with the disease which she describes as “seriously funny.” Radner begins her book by saying, “cancer is probably the most unfunny thing in the world, but I'm a comedian, and even cancer couldn't stop me from seeing the humor in what I went through.” By introducing her book in this way, she gives the audience the go-ahead to defy social norms and laugh about a tragic topic. Her approach to humor was an act of rebellion that shattered the illusion that events are black or white—funny or sad—and instead revealed that the human condition is one of contradictions.

Radner was also revolutionary in other ways. At a time when many questioned whether women could be funny, Gilda Radner pulled laughter out of her audiences and resolutely answered: "Yes." I believe the trope in media of a woman attempting to enter a certain field, running up against an obstruction, and eventually overcoming it to bring improvements is overdone because it’s often accurate; night after night, Radner killed on SNL. And I think Gilda Radner killed on SNL for the same reasons that she wasn't the typical image of a feminist in her era’s sense of the word.

For much of Gilda Radner’s career, second wave feminism—a movement characterized by its rejection of gender norms—hummed around her. But Radner found solace in traditional gender roles; She loved working on Saturday Night Live, but she also doted on her future husband, Gene Wilder. Radner wrote in her memoir, It's Always Something: “My new ‘career’ became getting [Wilder] to marry me.” Her “feminine qualities,” specifically her empathy, gave her cultural power, and I think her comfort in roles both traditionally understood to be feminine and roles traditionally understood to be masculine marks her as a third wave feminist before the term existed. 

As I scrolled through YouTube to “research” Gilda Radner, her complete devotion to her characters stood out to me. Radner’s skill lay in playing ridiculous people like Judy Miller, a young girl who staged a disjointed television show from her bedroom. But Judy Miller didn’t provide just a one-dimensional snapshot of a random kid. She was a person you could imagine being your neighbor, even though she strutted around her room pretending to be the queen of France. Judy Miller was alternately whimsical and angry and sad and happy, and she leaned into each emotion in its entirety. Gilda Radner's charisma came from the love she had for her characters, the same love that she showed everyone around her (and that won her an Emmy).

When Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, her audiences were devastated. Gene Wilder famously said that when people came up to him on the street and asked how "she" was doing, he knew immediately who they were talking about. Through her empathetic performances and manner, Radner built up social capital. Her experience turned society's attention to the issue of misdiagnosis for female patients and the dismissal of women by healthcare professionals. Radner didn't shy from her power as a cultural figure, and continued to make appearances to build publicity, including her book tour, toward the end of her life. Her work spurred others to action, and after her death, Radner’s husband and friends established Gilda's Club, a cancer support group that blossomed into local chapters across the country.

Gilda Radner demonstrated that sharing one’s struggles publicly can be a powerful act. But there were aspects of Radner’s life that she didn't share. Radner struggled her whole life with an eating disorder, fed by society’s expectations of Radner as a famous woman. When I developed an eating disorder, it was under the guise of health; I often wonder how my path would've differed if I knew the dangers behind dieting and the twisted cycle of harm that people-pleasers can fall into when deciding to “eat healthy.” I doubt Gilda knew of these dangers when she began taking diet pills at the age of ten. I wish she'd publicly shared her eating disorder and tackled it with her characteristic humor, because although eating disorders are terrifying and destructive, I sometimes can't help but laugh at mine and the ridiculous logical backflips my disorder performs as it tries to perpetuate its existence. I wish that she was here to laugh along with me and other people struggling with eating disorders; as I watch grainy clips of her performances, I have a feeling she would have something funny to say to both deepen and lighten the conversation.

Gilda Radner shined because she used compassionate humor to build her audience, and because she created one hell of a show. She died in 1989, but her legacy lives on in the comedians who admired her and built on her style. Her life and work also has so much to offer those dealing with chronic mental or physical health struggles, demonstrating that laughter can make space for and reveal the complexities of these experiences.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Comedy, Writing
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How to cite this page

Schwalb, Jessie. "Laughing and Crying: The Compassionate Humor of Gilda Radner." 22 February 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 31, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/laughing-and-crying-compassionate-humor-gilda-radner>.

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