In my last post, I mentioned a 2003 book by Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. The surprise is not that someone as obsessed with comedy as I am would read this book but that the book’s existence would have eluded my notice for ten years. But I’m glad I finally found it. Seriously Funny isn’t deep, but it’s an entertaining survey of some of the major figures in American comedy from the middle of the last century.
Nachman wisely lets the 27 comedians profiled here speak for themselves most of the time. He quotes amply from their famous routines, from Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s brilliant sketch “The $65 Funeral,” about a budget funeral that becomes more expensive if the bereaved wants to buy add-ons such as a casket, to Lenny Bruce’s groundbreaking “Religions, Inc.,” in which a PR hack helps the Pope (John XXIII) with his bookings and image.
We learn how Steve Allen built The Tonight Show and are reminded of the enormous influence of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which helped launch the careers of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, Nanette Fabray, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and others—a Hall of Fame of American comic talent. In the chapter on Caesar, we see lower-paid young writers like Brooks and Simon sitting in the corridor outside the room where the higher-paid writing staff shout lines at one another, with the younger writers feverishly scratching out ideas that they hope will win them admittance into the big room. Thirty years later, five young Canadian comic actors would pay homage to Caesar’s hopefuls in the corridor by naming their sketch troupe The Kids in the Hall.
Each of the performers highlighted here was a trailblazer, although some to a greater extent than others. Before Mort Sahl, most comics would step onto the stage of a nightclub in suits or tuxedos and tell jokes about airports and mothers-in-law. Sahl was a revelation: Dressed in a red V-neck sweater over an open-neck white shirt and carrying a folded-up newspaper, Mort Sahl dared to tell topical jokes about such figures as Dwight Eisenhower and Joseph McCarthy (“Joe McCarthy doesn’t question what you say so much as your right to say it.”). Thus was born the era of modern political humor.
Stan Freberg was a pioneer of recorded satirical spoofs such as “St. George and the Dragonet” before showing the world that warped satire could be used in advertising to sell products from tomato paste to pitted prunes. Ernie Kovacs turned television into performance art with “Dada comedy,” as Robin Williams called it, heavy on outlandish visual tricks: “a saw cuts off a tree limb and the tree falls, not the branch…a lady tosses a flower onto a piano and the piano crashes through the floor…” In another gag, Kovacs replaced the cannon fire in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with snapped celery stalks.
Except for the occasional editorial comment—“Who needs more math teachers?” he says of Tom Lehrer’s decision to give up writing and performing brilliant satirical songs to return to academia—Nachman keeps his focus on the comedy, where it belongs. And what comedy: Jonathan Winters’s uncanny talents for voices and improvisation, both of which are evident in this clip from The Jack Paar Show; Dick Gregory’s devastating and groundbreaking humor about race, the jokes delivered “so sweetly and serenely…that you didn’t realize until you were walking out of a club that he had heightened your sense of civil rights”; Woody Allen’s hilarious routines about shooting moose or agreeing to take part in a vodka ad, all delivered in a style no one but Wally Cox had tried before, that of “a pipsqueak with the chutzpah to invade the territory that had for decades been the province of brassy guys in tuxes.”
The astute reader will have noticed that there aren’t a lot of women here. Only three are profiled in Nachman’s book: Elaine May, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers. Although it’s true that male comics predominated in the era Nachman chose to write about, one wonders why there’s little mention of Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Jean Carroll, Martha Raye, or Gracie Allen, all of whom were arguably more influential than, say, Godfrey Cambridge or Vaughn Meader. Wider recognition of the achievements of female comic talents would have made this a stronger book. But despite this oversight, Seriously Funny is still an engaging chronicle of one of the most fertile and revolutionary periods in American humor.
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