The first time I saw the comedienne Margaret Smith on TV may have been on Letterman. She had a haunted look, as if the memory of some horrid moment in her past had driven her to the brink of catatonia. She inserted long pauses in between her lines. She never smiled. She hardly even moved. Her voice stayed flat and small throughout her routine, never rising in tone or volume.

I felt nervous and uncomfortable watching her. I found the things she said disturbing and unsettling. Her power to create those feelings in me made Smith’s punch lines more powerful than those of nearly any other comic I can remember. I got a feeling of relief from those punch lines—a deep, physical feeling of gratitude at being able to breathe again. I have experienced that feeling when cops have let me off the hook for speeding, when a lifeguard pulled me out of a rip tide and when a drunken redneck decided not to beat the shit out of me. Andy Kaufman achieved a similar effect by engaging in infantile behavior and making you wonder when or if he would stop. But with Smith, I felt like I was dealing with a grownup.

I looked forward to her next TV appearance with the kind of anticipation I almost never feel. And I don’t think I’ve felt it since, or ever will. Her next appearance was a great disappointment. She was smiling, laughing, moving around, her voice rising and falling like that of any healthy, normal person, not liked the shell-shocked survivor I witnessed the first time around. I could only imagine that some industry hack—perhaps her agent, perhaps the host of the show, perhaps an acting coach or a well-meaning colleague—took her aside after that first appearance and counseled her to “dial it down a notch, you’re scaring people.”

However it happened, I resolved then and there never to watch her perform again, and I never did. I have read on the Web that she still has a deadpan delivery and an acerbic wit, but it seems as if she may have opted for the relatively more mainstream approach of someone like Roseanne Barr—sassy, irreverent and wounded, but without giving the impression that she desperately needs intensive, long-term psychotherapy.

Jimmy “J.J.” Walker said in 2000 that Smith is “is too smart to be successful…what a shame!” I have always respected his opinion. He always seemed to sort of float above the mediocrity of the grating sitcom “Good Times.” With praise like his, I may yet give Margaret Smith another chance, but I doubt that I’ll get over the sick, anxious feeling I had seeing her that second time, the feeling that someone had gotten to her. It looked as if she had given in and given up trying to fight not just the power of the people who run the entertainment industry, but American culture itself, with its inflexible demand that all of us smile and laugh at all times. It matters not what has happened in our lives; nor does it matter if we do not naturally jump out of bed at the crack of dawn, ready to roll up our selves and tackle the next challenge with a song in our hearts. Fake it ‘til you make it.

“Bigger people than you have tried to go against us, Margaret Smith,” I can see the Powers that Be intoning. “They have all fallen, and so will you if you don’t do what we say.”

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