image courtesy of the Candy family

Where Have all the John Candys Gone?

On the 25th anniversary of the comedian’s death, some thoughts on life, laughter, love, and the gaping hole left in our collective sense of humor.

On March 4th, 1994 — 25 years ago today— news began making the rounds that actor and comedian John Candy had died while filming the comedy Wagons East! in Durango, Mexico. He was 43 years old.

For most people my age (I’m 35) or younger, John Candy — if he is anything at all to them — is basically the older generation’s Chris Farley. He was one of a long line of Hollywood fat funnymen stretching back to Lou Costello and Oliver Hardy.

But he was more than that — much more.

Yes, John Candy was known as the big funny man. He did his share slapstick and one-liners. But his real appeal was in his down-to-earth, everyman quality — his innocent sincerity. In films like Uncle Buck, that quality poked right through the fourth wall and into the hearts of a generation of people — especially kids — watching a grown-up get down to their level and be somehow both hilariously buffoonish, and wisely cool at the same time.

John Candy made us laugh in a way that I don’t think any other comedian had done, or has since. He got us to laugh at him first, but then to laugh at ourselves, and then laugh with each other. The laughs were only at the expense of our inflated egos, and once they were effectively deflated, he went on with the show.

But beyond his ability to engage with us onscreen, it was off-screen where the real magic happened. You can search for stories online from people who worked with him on films, and find examples on each one of him being a generous, humble, and caring guy. One of my favorites is one that I can’t find an official account of, but I’ve seen in a few forums online.

As the story goes, Candy was at a bachelor party, which involved a stripper doing a show. The father of the groom was there, and wasn’t into that kind of thing, so he retreated to another room. At some point during the show, someone noticed that Candy wasn’t there watching with everyone else. Instead, he was found in the kitchen, sitting with the father of the groom, talking quietly and laughing with him. He sat in there the whole time, to keep the father of the groom company. Now that’s classy.

And there’s also the fact that, for a long time, he didn’t give interviews, and his reasoning was pretty telling. He told the LA Times once:

I think the real reason I hate to do interviews is because I think I’m boring. I just always thought there were more important things to talk about than myself.

He took his wife and kids with him on movie sets whenever possible. He offered his co-stars rides and invited them to dinner. He made up characters for his kids and put on shows to make them laugh — even when that was what he had been doing all day for months on set.

All those things are great, and I’m sure that plenty of folks in Hollywood have stories about them like that. But the John Candy story that really got me involves lasagna. One of the last things he did on the day he died in Durango City, Mexico — on the set of what would be his last film — was cook a lasagna dinner for his assistants. It’s something he did on a regular basis for them on set. Those young folks who are usually fetching food, coffee, and whatever else for the Hollywood elite were having a lasagna dinner cooked for them by one of Hollywood’s most famous funnymen. It was just what he did.

Here’s a barometer of a society — and perhaps in this increasingly global time, it’s a barometer of the world. How many John Candys are there? How many giant stars are there who can captivate us on camera with razor-sharp wit, deep humility, and sincerity, and regularly cook lasagna dinners for their assistants?

Right now, I don’t think there are many. 
Right now, we’re uneasy. We’re on edge. We could use someone to make the rounds knocking everyone off their high horses, but also making sure that everyone has someone to talk to.
Right now, too many people are trying to be like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, but not enough of them are trying to be like John Candy.

Even if we don’t get paid millions to make people laugh on the big screen, we can at least sit with a shy, reserved old man at a bachelor party, or cook lasagna for the people that everyone else would consider a few levels below us on the ladder. We can be just a little like Big John. Even if we’re nowhere near as big as he was.

I don’t have all the answers. I probably don’t have any of them. I think very few of us do. So perhaps the most helpful thing we can do when we can’t give people the answers is to humbly help them embrace just how funny we can be as we all grope around blindly for them. I think John Candy did that pretty well. And I hope that at this time 25 more years on, we’ll still remember why that was important, so we can try to do a little more of it ourselves.