There are probably doctoral theses by the score that ponderously, and without so much as a giggle, pursue this question: What is it about Newfoundland that produces such great comedy?
Is it the rain, the fog, the drizzle? Or could it be the days when the weather gets bad? How come the island that can barely produce enough potatoes to get a body through the winter has produced Mary Walsh? Cathy Jones? Rick Mercer? Greg Thomey? Andy Jones? Greg Malone? Tommy Sexton? Is it the tinned Carnation in the tea? The partridge-berry jam? The bake apples? What is it about that storm-battered chunk of rock in the Atlantic that gives voice to such wicked satire, such biting commentary, such irrepressible comic invention, such giddy cleverness, and such undaunted irreverence?
If you are of an academic bent, there are probably half a dozen explanations that begin to formulate themselves on your cluttered desk. For all I know, you already may be proposing to your thesis adviser, or writing, or marking: "The Outsider Looks In: Mummery and the Comic Tradition of Newfoundland." Or, "Gift of the Gab: Celtic Oral Tradition and the Roots of Newfoundland Humour." Or, "Having a Time: Domestic Entertainments in Newfoundland and the Origins of Codco."
All well and good -- and I would be the last the dissuade anyone from undertaking such important lines of academic inquiry. But the fact of the matter -- as made abundantly clear by a remarkable new NFB documentary film, Tommy . . . A Family Portrait -- is that we will never really understand where this genius comes from and why it lands so frequently on a windswept island in the North Atlantic. It just happens to happen to Newfoundland, in the same way it just happened to happen to a Newfoundland family when Tommy Sexton was born into it in 1957. In one of the most poignant moments in Tommy -- a film that managed to make me both laugh and cry with embarrassing frequency, and that will be aired on CBC Television's Opening Night on Thursday -- Sara Sexton, Tommy's mother, spoke of AIDS and of her son's death in 1993. "I was looking for miracles and I didn't get them. But you know, the miracle was his life."
And miracle it was. Not to suggest that the Sextons would have been an unremarkable family without him. Large, boisterous, occasionally troublesome, the Sextons would have still been a formidable cast of characters had the stork with Tommy on board sailed on by. The family's primary characteristic seems to be a communal good heart -- represented largely by Sara -- that ticks away at the core of it. And not to suggest that Tommy was utterly unlike his siblings, or his mom or his dad. The family resemblances are uncanny. His sister, Mary, who co-directed Tommy with her husband, Nigel Markham, can sometimes move her head a certain way, or put on an accent or do a little comic rendition of something, and suddenly, for an instant, hauntingly, there's Tommy.
What was miraculous is how fully formed Tommy seemed to be from the beginning. In the interviews that run throughout Tommy, his brothers and sisters, mother and father look startled still, as if the filmmakers have asked them to explain how it was that a meteor streaked through their lives.
He was always an actor, always a comedian, always a performer. Whether it was a church choir, a school play or his performances for his family, Tommy's favourite place was on stage, in the spotlight. Just as precociously, and just as firmly set in place, his homosexuality was obvious from the beginning as well. Obvious to him, anyway. It was a fact of his life that apparently he never doubted; just as he never doubted that his life would be fulfilled in front of an audience. One of his first dramatic triumphs was in a school production of Alice in Wonderland. In a blue dress and blond wig, Tommy was Alice. "Of all the Sexton girls," Mary says, "Tommy was the prettiest."
Tommy Sexton is best known for his work with Codco -- a brilliant, inventive, and mercilessly funny comedy troupe -- perhaps the most daring and influential this country has ever seen. In a cast of bright lights, he was a very bright light indeed. At a showing of Tommy . . . A Family Portrait a few nights ago -- a benefit screening for the Toronto AIDS hospice, Casey House, that won Sara and Mary Sexton a much-deserved standing ovation -- I was reminded of how young the members of Codco were. They were just beginning, really. And that's the saddest part of Tommy. God knows what it is about Newfoundland that produces such laughter, and we're lucky the place gives to us what it does. Still, we were robbed one day in 1993. We could all do with more Tommy Sexton now.