Madeline Kahn at the Tony Awards in New York City, June 1993 (AP Photo / Richard Drew)
Madeline Kahn didn’t consider herself very funny.
In fact, she reflected later in her life that she would have made a good therapist – and that maybe she would have preferred that profession to comedy. She was a good listener, but a less confident comedian. “I can’t even really tell a joke,” she said.
The rest of us beg to differ.
Mel Brooks, who directed Kahn in four of his goofy comedies, said of her, “She is one of the most talented people that ever lived... I mean, either in stand-up comedy, or acting, or whatever you want, you can't beat Madeline Kahn.” And she shined in roles like the weary Lili von Shtupp in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and stuck-up Elizabeth in his Young Frankenstein.
Both of those roles showcased one of Kahn’s greatest talents: mixing comedy and music. She may have doubted her own ability to tell a joke, but she could certainly sing one – as anyone who has chuckled through “I’m Tired” from Blazing Saddles can attest. And she didn’t just sing funny. She sang beautifully, with an operatic voice swooping from low and sultry to clear-as-a-bell high notes.
Indeed, musical theater was where she found her first success. After studying music and drama at Hofstra University (as well as speech therapy, the major she graduated with… just in case), she landed roles on- and off-Broadway in productions like Kiss Me, Kate and Candide. She continued performing on stage even as she made her mark in movies, from her Golden Globe-nominated film debut as Eunice Burns in What’s Up, Doc? to Judy Berlin, released less than a year before she died.
And still, despite her many award nominations (and one Tony win), despite her good reviews and her well-received guest spots on Saturday Night Live and The Muppet Show, Kahn wasn’t quite sure.
“I am not, in general, a funny person,” she said. But at least she came to terms with the fact that America disagreed: “I don't mind inventing a portrait that allows others to laugh if that's what they want to do.”
We did, at over-the-top portrayals like Mrs. White in Clue….
And sweeter moments, like her song with Grover on Sesame Street.
Madeline Kahn would have turned 80 today, September 29, 2012. But she succumbed to ovarian cancer, the same disease that killed her friend Radner. Kahn died on December 3, 1999, just a month after she publicly announced her diagnosis.
We can still laugh our way through her work, and hope she’d understand.
Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published September 2010.