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Humor in remembrance? Surely you can’t be serious

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Funerals are often described as “celebrations of life” but they rarely live up to that billing. Death is sad and there is just no way around that. When comedian Johnny Carson passed away a few years ago, I was struck with the sobering realization that the world had forever lost his gracious, comic genius. When John Lennon died, it was a huge blow when the realization sunk in that there could never possibly be a Beatles reunion and that a gentle spirit had been senselessly taken from the world.

The passing of actor Leslie Nielsen at the age of 84, while incredibly sad with the awareness that the world lost a talented man who made millions forget about their own problems through laughter, was covered differently than any celebrity passing I can recall. Throughout the web and the mainstream media, people noted his passing with references to the joy he brought to all of us. It is a truly remarkable statement for a remarkable man.

Leslie William Nielsen was born in Saskatchewan on February 11, 1926. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and then became a disk jockey in 1948 before beginning work as an actor. By 1950, he had made more than 50 television appearances. A suave and distinguished looking man, comedy came naturally to him but appeared at odds with his handsome, debonair appearance — a trait that only enhanced his comedic abilities.

On November 28, 2010, Nielsen passed away in a Fort Lauderdale hospital, which is a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that Nielsen lived the life he chose to live and in the process brought lasting joy to millions of people around the world. His lines from the 1980 movie Airplane are still widely quoted today, and still generate laughs. After Airplane, film critic Roger Ebert described Nielsen as the Olivier of spoofs.

With the success of Airplane, Nielsen exchanged his dramatic past for deadpan comedy. He later said that comedy was what he really wanted to do. Through his career, he portrayed 220 characters in more than 100 films and 1,500 television appearances.

Of the thousands of words spoken and written about Mr. Nielsen’s passing, Brian Williams of NBC News, himself a debonair and serious-looking man with a flair for deadpan comedy, summed it up most eloquently in borrowing a line from Airplane when asking what Nielsen’s death means:

So when we were left today with the sadness of Leslie Nielsen’s death and the question of what to make of it. There is only one answer: We can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl.

Leslie Nielsen suffered from a significant hearing impairment and wore hearing aids for most of his life. Knowing what he had accomplished with that impairment is an inspiration to me as a person who suffers from 90 percent hearing loss. A hearing impairment is a hidden disability; people can’t see it as they can with paralysis or blindness. While I certainly wouldn’t trade my disability to hear well with either of those disabilities, the additional effort required to understand what the world is saying can be exhausting. Also, as a disability that cannot be seen, there is often little patience for it. Nielsen was legally deaf and strongly supported the Better Hearing Institute (www.betterhearing.org), an organization with numerous resources for the hearing-impaired. With the elderly (and even the not-so-elderly) population in South Hillsborough, hearing loss is a disability that can be mitigated, if not overcome. Nielsen served to remind us that it is not necessary to live in silence.

This week in my feature article, I wrote about four people who made a big impact through simple acts of kindness. They thought nothing of it, but what they had done had deeply affected me. I will remember them long after they’ve forgotten me. They, like so many others in South County and around the world, touched my heart and that touch will remain. When my time runs out, I hope for a party more than a symbolic pyre. I want friends to talk about the inane and humorous things I’ve done and to remind my wife Michelle of the good things that were, rather than what might have been. I want laughter and good feelings that I was here at all, rather than sadness that I am gone.

Leslie Nielsen accomplished that. His numerous gag lines will certainly remain long after his death and his very passing allowed a far too serious and frightened world a chance to remember and laugh all over again. Could there possibly be a better tribute to the man? To anyone?

How do you want to be remembered? Do you really want those who love you to wail and mourn with flowing tears? Or do you want your family and friends to talk about the time that… well, you know. Somehow I think Mr. Nielsen would be happy to know that people are already remembering him in death with the same joy he brought them in life.

Of all the words spoken since his passing, it was Nielsen who summed it up best in the 1994 movie Naked Gun 33 1/3:

Cheer up, Ed. This is not goodbye. It’s just I won’t ever see you again.

Godspeed Leslie Nielsen. Thanks for the laughs. You are missed.

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