Since You Asked Comedy Retrospective:
An interesting article in “Newsweek” “The Boomer Files: The Way We laughed” by David Noonan examines the impact of comedy on baby boomers and the resultant change on our culture.
This author gave much of the credit to “Mad” magazine and it does deserve a lot of credit for establishing a baby boomer base of anti-establishment irreverence. When I grew up, comedy was in the form of corny Catskills guys in suits, i.e. Henny Youngmen, giving dated one- liners to rim shots in smoky clubs.
When we watched “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” we were fed a steady diet of Catskills comedians but they weren’t ours. It was like that whacky neighbor with the sideburns who worked for the ad agency who came to your parent’s cocktail party who could imitate Johnny Carson the best.
Lenny Bruce was the first stand up cutting edge pioneer but I was too young and I missed him.
As the Sixties grew to define us, comedy had to change. Suddenly there was “Laugh In” which was hipper and cooler than Johnny Carson, but you could tell it was still a Nehru-jacket-and -beads-wearing, pipe smoking network executive’s idea of “what the kids want today.”
As the Vietnam-era country was dividing us between hip and not hip, you could see the divide in comedy illustrated by the change in direction of George Carlin. Carlin started out as a Catskills like cornball and saw that he was losing the next audience, so he grew his hair and suddenly he was cool again. The same thing with Richard Pryor.
We loved the old black and white films of “The Three Stooges” and their more intellectual cousins “The Marx Brothers” but, again, they weren’t ours. Nobody even had a bottle that shot seltzer water anymore. We laughed as much at the delivery of the ice blocks as we did the bits. We knew that the Marx Brothers were way more clever than the Stooges, but we found ourselves laughing more at the Stooges. Well, guys did, anyway.
For me the big change was Bill Cosby. (Of course I am referencing the pre-preachy ugly-sweater Cosby) Here was the opposite of Henny Youngman in every way. Cosby was younger, black, cool, he didn’t tell jokes, he told stories using weird voices and hilarious facial expressions. More importantly, Cos was mine, he didn’t belong to our parents generation.
The first three records I ever bought weren’t the Beatles or the Stones, they were Bill Cosby’s “I Started Out As a Child” “Why Is There Air?” “Wonderfulness” and “To My Brother Russell Whom I Slept With.” OK, the first four.
Cosby did an entire album on sports that, for some reason, I can’t find in his biographies, that I could recite from beginning to end. His stories about playing football for Temple against the evil Hofstra and his high jump and mile relay stories still stick out.
This may be sad, but I can still recite those bits word for word. Like when he was high jumping and the bar got so high he finally had to take his sweat pants off and reveal his skinny calves. The calves that he would try to build up with extra sweat socks. He could hear the crowd say to themselves in a hilariously sympathetic and kind voice the second he whipped off his sweats;
“Ohhhhhh. Look at those poor calves. Why he must have had some sort of disease when he was a child. Well, it is just marvelous that he can jump so high with those things. Look at how his thighs just swell out and then (raspberry sound) nothing.”
Our seventh grade Creative Arts class teacher, the very cool and pretty Miss Instant-wood-causing-amazing-legs was flabbergasted that I could stand there on stage and not only recite entire six minute bits word-for-word, but using all the Coz inflections and sounds.
Not only was being a Cosby fan fun to do alone, it marked you as cool with your classmates who also “got” Cosby. You could see they were just a little hipper and funnier than the other kids. Howie Detmer, Duncan Judson and Steve Lewis – three of the cooler kids – and I would take turns reciting our favorite bits on the playground and after school. To be candid, I did the best Cosby voice. But Howie’s was a close second:
"When I grew up, I thought my name was Jesus Christ and my brother Russell was Dammit. My Dad would yell; "Dammit, I'm talking to you. Jesus Christ, you get over here."
"No, Dad, I'm Jesus Christ, he's Dammit."
It is amazing, in retrospect, given the horrible civil rights history at the time, that all of these apple-cheeked white kids in the leafy suburbs of Chicago were sitting around the stereo - as it was called - clinging to every word from a black man brought up in abject povery in the Philadelphia projects.
Talk about a cross-over artist.
A huge influence as we got a little older and the times continued to get a little more depressing as we entered the Seventies was “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Nobody knew what to make of this at first. The kids who first claimed to like “Monty” were lying just to sound cool.
Monty Python was just so, so, foreign it made us feel cool for some reason. We didn’t get 80% of the references, but we just knew it was funny. Now this, was ours. They were our comedy Beatles. And it could not have been more different than anything else we had seen. It made “Laugh In” look like “The Jack Benny Show.”
Woody Allen fits in here somewhere because, when he was funny, he was a genius. But Allen’s overly-studied rumpled corduroy intellectual Manhattan artsy analysis-hooked elitism caught up to him and disconnected him with normal folks. Plus Woody would always assign a-way-too-hot starlet as his lover in films who would, in real life, never have anything to do with him.
You know what was important to me at this time? Cartoons. Political cartoons and the cartoons in the “New Yorker” and later "Doonesbury" represented what was going on at the time better than anything else.
About this time sardonic irony took the form of David Letterman. To this day, I can still remember one of his classic jokes when he first started out on “The Johnny Carson Show.”
Dripping sarcasm and in a faux fake TV cornball enthusiasm, Letterman did a take off on a Wesson Oil commercial at the time and he would beam:
“So, what’s our little skeptic up to now?” “She’s frying the cat in Wesson oil. It all comes back except one tablespoon.”
You had to be there, but it was so different and so funny. The best part about that humor was that our parents didn’t get it. Anything our parents didn’t get had to be cool.
Of course, after this there was a steady diet of truly great – especially compared to now – stand up comedians, Steve Martin, Jay Leno and of course, Robin Williams. These comedians were so good and came up so fast in the new Kooky Komedy Klub Kraze that they were their own worst enemies.
They had very short shelf lives.
“Oh, you still like Steve Martin? Man, you are out of it. This Robin Williams guy is now the funniest.”
This led into “Saturday Night Live” Finally, a TV show that was cool and wasn’t as foreign as “Monty Python.” We loved this show more than it actually deserved. Some of those sketches that are now considered legendary were really just OK. And a lot of them sucked. In retrospect it was a miracle they were even any good at all considering how much blow there were doing.
And then along came Richard Pryor.
Steve Martin was a social phenomenon. You had to know his bits in college or you were not cool. But Richard Pryor was the very first true comedy rock star. His “Live on the Sunset Strip” is the highest the bar has ever been set.
Now we have a lot of comedians who are so busy being hip and cool, they don’t really care about being funny. In fact, it’s almost like they think being funny is beneath them. It is more important to be politically trendy (Cough, cough, Jeanine Garafulo, cough, Patton Oswalt, cough)
The only reason to be a stand up comedian now is to land a sitcom. The joke at the LA comedy stores is that it is easier to get a sitcom than it is to get a laugh from the too-school-for-cool LA crowd.
“Seinfeld” of course was great, yadda yadda yadda.
And the sitcoms now seem prefabricated, formulated and rushed. “Joey” for the love of god? Who ever thought that would be funny?
Talent, I am happy to say, in TV comedy is making a big comeback. Tina Fey is awesome as the writer and performer on “30 Rock.” What can you say about Ricky Gervais but that he is hilarious in “Extras”? And “Extras” is just an English “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” "Two and a Half Men" is hysterical. Especially the liner notes on the producer Chuck Lorre's Vanity Card.
It kills me how, since I write freelance jokes for Jay Leno, a guy flat out told me he didn't think Jay Leno is funny. Really? Leno has the biggest audience on late night, he earns over $30 million a year that he doesn’t have to spend a dime of, but this clown, in all of his comedy wisdom, has decided Leno isn’t funny?
Maybe not to some humorless guy he isn't, but, not to log roll, Leno is very funny.
Conan O’Brien is also very good. Letterman is still great. Jon Stewart is great. Dennis Miller is great. Bill Maher is funny but I can’t get past all the stories about what a putz he is.
Irony? Ultra hipness? Political cutting edge? Hyper energy? (See: Cook, Dane) These are all temporary trends that will eventually lead back to the most important thing that has always been the most important thing:
A well thought out, well written and well performed joke.
But what do I know? As I have said repeatedly, quoting ready steady Teddy R, it is not the critic who counts.
Any thoughts, let me know:email@example.com