Hi again, folks! It’s been a long time, but I finally managed to make a return engagement with this second blog. I decided to do a long one this time, so bear with me.
Aside from the comedy material itself, another handy thing to have in your comedy library is some of the many wonderful books on the subject by historians and biographers.
In this entry, I’m going to reccomend one of the most interesting historical books on the subject of comedy out there, Gerald Nachman’s “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s”, published in 2003. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print and therefore not available from monkeyreader.com, which I only found out after writing this review(!). However, once you’ve read this blog, i’m sure you can find some great books and movies at monkeyreader.com to further explore the great rebel comedians of this era.
In it, Nachman examines the forerunners of modern stand-up comedy- the hugely influential group of performers who surfaced in the comedy “revolution” that took place between 1953 and 1965. These were not your grandfather’s comics who told corny jokes and did vaudevillian shtik. These were the young comics who dared to do something different by using their humor to examine the real social and political issues of the time, or at the very least to perform styles of joke-telling which hadn’t been done before.
The comedians who preceded them, like Bob Hope and Milton Berle, may have been funny, but rarely talked about anything more serious than their mother-in-laws. Any comedian in the past fifty years who ever dared talk seriously about politics, honestly examine their personal lives, or even use a four-letter word on stage owes it all to the pioneering group Nachman examines. Nachman was able to personally interview not only many of the comics themselves, but colleagues, agents- even some of the “old school” pre-revolution comics who were phased out by the new kids- and so was able to get the inside stories, providing a fascinating, detailed and informative read. Let’s take a closer look at the performers Nachman writes about in roughly chronological order.
The true father of the comedy revolution was a young Canadian named Mort Sahl. While other comedians wore tuxedos and told polished one-liners, Sahl wore a red turtleneck and performed stream-of-consciousness material with only the day’s headlines as his script. While Bob Hope was famous for his political humor a decade earlier, his jokes were glib wisecracks which hardly ever took a real political stance. Sahl was the first comedian to truly satirize politics and politicians onstage with an acid tongue and a headstrong iconoclasm. Discussing politics in comedy may be nothing new now in this age of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” (shows which Sahl himself has gone on record as disliking, by the way), but bear in mind that, in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War and the McCarhy “witch hunts”, expressing political views publicly, especially with the venom with which Sahl did, was truly dangerous. When Sahl joked about a McCarthy union suit that comes with a flap that covers the mouth, he was cutting much closer to the truth than most people at the time would have admitted. The great thing about Sahl, however, aside from his wit and innovation, was that he would attack both sides equally rather than taking a biased stance on one or the other. His catchphrase, “is there any group here I haven’t offended?”, just about sums it up.
Nachman next covers Sid Caesar, who, though his humor and style can certainly be said to be rooted in vaudeville, had an intelligence and sophistication which set it apart. Parodies of foreign films at a time when few Americans had seen any, or setting a pantomime card game to the music of Beethoven’s Fifth, was not exactly the typical shtik you would find most comedians doing at the time. However, unlike Sahl, Caesar was not really out to prove anything. “We didn’t know we were innovative,” Caesar is quoted as saying, “we were just looking for new material.”
Nachman then covers Tom Lehrer, the Harvard math major who wrote satiric songs for fun. Musical satire had existed before, but never with the delirious and occasionally twisted wit of Lehrer. His career was brief, by his own choice- only three albums consisting of around forty songs. He has been known to be extremely reclusive (to the point that he enjoys circulating rumors of his own death) and has only done a small handful of public performances in the past forty years, simply because he was never very devoted to a show biz career and quit when he lost interest in it. Nevertheless, Lehrer’s oeuvre was certainly innovative at the time if not downright controversial. He would proudly quote his own worst reviews in concert, such as “Mr. Lehrer’s muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” It is rather telling that on his live album “Tom Lehrer Revisited”, despite the great humor of his songs, there is more coughing, occasional tittering and polite applause than laughter. The audiences on his other live albums are much more forthcoming in their amusement, so clearly there were some people hip enough to get it and others who just considered it odd, and indeed, tasteless. Despite which, he stands alone today as a unique, clever and wickedly funny performer.
Next comes the inimitable Steve Allen. Again, Allen’s humor may seem silly and vaudevillian, but on his late-night shows, his jazz-tinged hipness, quick wit and zany willingness to experiment with funny ideas paved the way for David Letterman and Conan O’Brien a generation later.
Nachman next covers Stan Freberg, a pioneer in the field of studio comedy records, who parodied the popular singers and TV shows of the day. Although much of his humor, though pointed, was essentially harmless, let us not forget that he could at times be just as edgy a satirist as Lehrer or Sahl. His targets included the commercialization of Christmas and the hypocrisy of the advertising world in “Green Chri$tma$”, and even McCarthyism in “Point Of Order”, both of which nearly went unreleased.
Next is an all-too-brief chapter on Ernie Kovacs, one of the pioneers of television comedy. While Sid Caesar presented somewhat pre-revolution humor with an intellectual bent, Kovacs was purely a product of the new school, and, with the possible exception of Buster Keaton, owed nothing to anyone who came before him. His surreal, experimental television shows broke all the rules simply because his medium of choice had so few rules established at the time. Television in the 1950s was uncharted territory, and so he drew his own map. Kovacs was truly ahead of his time, and who knows what he could have gone on to accomplish had he not died in a car accident in 1962 at the age of 36?
One of the pioneering female comics, Phyllis Diller, comes next. Female comics existed before Diller, but mostly in the form of comics like Belle Barth who told dirty jokes to small audiences after hours, and whose “party records” were sold strictly under-the-counter in the ‘50s. Diller was among the first female comics to gain mainstream acceptance. But breaking the gender barrier is not the only reason Nachman includes Diller in his book of rebels. Diller’s humor was still a long way from vaudeville, as from her unforgettable laugh to her wild costumes, she had a zany style all her own.
The next chapter is appropriately named “The Wild Child”, and is about one of the undeniable innovators in modern comedy, Jonathan Winters. Winters’ wild improvisations complete with character voices and vocal sound effects, made him truly unlike anything that had ever been seen before, or even since, with the exception of his acknowledged disciple Robin Williams. Even George Burns told Winters, “No one can ever steal your act, because no one else could ever do it.”
Nachman then focuses on radio with a trio of satirists, Jean Shepard and the team of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. Shepard’s character-based, observational humor and Bob and Ray’s subtle Absurdist satire of human nature, again, set them apart from the “Fibber McGee and Molly”s or “Duffy’s Tavern”s of an earlier radio era.
After that, Nachman delves into some of the talent nurtured by the legendary Second City, which at that time was just starting out, and paved the way for many great comic talents to come. Shelley Berman and the team of Nichols & May are covered in the next two chapters. Berman was revolutionary not only in his subject matter, but even his technique. No comedian before Berman had delved into psychological angst the way he did. His monologs were observational and yet edgy and often dark, as he examined the neuroses of everyday life with the honest exasperation of a tortured soul. Whether his onstage persona in any way mirrored his real-life anxieties is difficult to say, but onstage Berman delved into a sort of dark humor that had never been done before. In at least one respect, Berman remains ahead of his time even today. Being theater-trained, Berman didn’t really address the audience in the same way typical comedians do. His monologs were tightly-scripted theatrical pieces in which he certainly was aware that he was addressing an audience, but was usually not really interacting with or engaging them directly, making Berman’s “stand-up comedy as theater” remain unique.
The team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May were at the Second City at the same time as Berman, and in fact Berman revealed to Nachman that he had at one point wanted the three of them to team up as a comedy trio. But Nichols and May went on to great if short-lived success as a duo, creating inspired, often topical improvised satire. Sadly, after only a few brief years, a smash Broadway revue and four albums together, their onstage relationship became strained and they split up. Nichols of course has gone on to great success as a film and Broadway director, while May has had only a few successful solo projects and has not granted an interview in decades.
An interesting departure occurs in the case of Nachman’s next subject, Bob Newhart. Newhart was certainly satirical, but in a much less vicious way than Sahl, Lehrer, etc. While most of the revolution comics were called “sick comics” by the press, Newhart simply poked gentle fun at human foibles. He certainly was influential and innovative, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t out to attack anyone. His uniquely clever humor and his telephone-monolog format (which Berman also used extensively) made him a far cry from the old-school one-liner comics, and yet there wasn’t anything “dangerous” or “sick” about Newhart.
But there was a lot which was dangerous and “sick” about the next comedian Nachman writes about. Lenny Bruce’s influence, innovation, and legend are so extensive that his is the longest chapter in the entire book at well over 40 pages. Bruce began doing shtik in burlesque houses before working his way up to the legendary hungry i nightclub (where most of the revolution comics started) in the late ‘50s. He is mainly remembered today for being the first comic who dared to use dirty words on stage, but there is infinitely more to Bruce’s material than that. Indeed, if one listens to his recordings, one doesn’t hear the gratuitous and incessant flow of swearing that many modern comics use. Bruce really used swearing for emphasis, and, despite using some words which are certainly high on the profanity scale, he very rarely actually used the F word on stage.
It was his language that earned Bruce such notoriety, to the point that he actually spent time in prison for using “obscene” language onstage, an unthinkable occurence today. Many comedians today take his linguistic trailblazing as their right to use four-letter words onstage even when devoid of actual purpose, but unlike most of those contemporary comics, Bruce’s act was also filled with intelligence, honesty, thought, and genuine humor. What made Bruce unique was that he was one of the first comedians whose attitude was essentially “here’s what’s on my mind, and I’m going to share it with you and express myself, and hopefully some of it will be funny”, rather than simply telling jokes. Honest expression of his thoughts and feelings took prevalence over getting cheap laughs. Nachman paints a vivid and heartbreaking picture of the notorious tragedy of the later part of Bruce’s life, when he had been through one obscenity trial too many and could only legally get bookings exclusively in California. He struggled to the very end to prove that what he was doing was socially valid and that he was misunderstood and mistreated by the law, to the point that he actually would read his court transcripts onstage in desperate attempts to justify himself and find someone who understood him and would listen. If any comedian ever truly gave his life for his art, it was Lenny Bruce, as he was continuing to pour over law books practically to the day he died in 1967. In lieu of all this, it seems truly unfair that Bruce is remembered simply as the first “dirty comic” and not for the truly pioneering, talented, intelligent, and yes, funny performer he was.
After an unfortunately brief chapter on pioneering black comic Godfrey Cambridge, the next chapter tackles a duo who accomplished even greater satiric heights after what Nachman considers the end of the revolution (1965) than they did during it, namely the Smothers Brothers. While their poking fun at the ‘60s folk-singing craze and seemingly improvised banter was different, their legendary variety show in the late ‘60s was what marked them as wickedly subversive political satirists, and their trials and tribulations with the CBS executives are duly recounted by Nachman.
The anything-for-a-laugh Mel Brooks is covered next in a brief chapter describing his rise from borscht belt tummler to writer for Sid Caesar to, of course, movie director.
The most pointedly satirical of the revolution’s black comics, Dick Gregory, is the next subject. While Gregory is more famous now for his role as a political activist (the cause of his retirement from comedy), his contributions to comedy were quite significant. Gregory was something of a black Mort Sahl, taking risks by talking openly and with a sharp wit about the civil rights movement, paving the way for Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle and many others.
Nachman’s next chapter contains brief summaries of three different careers grouped by a similar talent. While doing impressions of famous people goes back at least to vaudeville, the invention of the comedy LP during the revolution gave rise to a new breed of impressionists. Of the three Nachman talks about, Vaughn Meader is perhaps the most notorious. Meader’s “First Family” album, a million-seller which is still a constant presence in thrift stores to this day, was a novelty- a collection of aural revue sketches centering around Meader’s impression of then-President Kennedy. While the novelty of Meader’s impression may have worn out its welcome anyway, the careers of both Kennedy and his impersonator were cut short for obvious reasons in 1963. (Nachman notes that Lenny Bruce had a show to do that infamous evening and that his first words onstage were, “Phew- Vaughn Meader is screwed!”) Meader’s own story is nearly as tragic- the death of the man he had become famous parodying was so personally devastating to Meader that he drank himself into a stupor that night, then began experimenting with LSD and faded into obscurity living a hippie lifestyle in Arizona. While he did make a few post-Kennedy albums, some of them quite good, he never overcame his one-hit wonder status.
The other impressionists Nachman talks about are less well-known and comparatively less interesting, though by no means less talented in their field. David Frye spent years doing his Nixon impression on a series of LPs, while Will Jordan became most famous for his cartoony parody of Ed Sullivan. Jordan’s case is particularly interesting- a gifted impressionist whose portrayals were often frighteningly accurate both visually and vocally, if his quotes in the book are anything to go by, he spent much of his interview with Nachman expressing his excessive bitterness about how much of his act, including some original characters, he feels was stolen by other comics who became more famous. The fading of Jordan’s career seems to owe more to the man’s own ego than anything else.
Many of you may only know Woody Allen through his movie work, but his stand-up career was equally noteworthy. Allen would almost apologetically mumble his jokes onstage, again a far cry from the polished boisterousness of Henny Youngman or Milton Berle, to say nothing of the fact that Youngman or Berle certainly never used Sartre or Joyce as a punchline. The reason Allen’s career as a stand-up was so brief is very simple: being onstage scared the living hell out of him, and he wanted to move on as quickly as possible. In spite of that, the three albums Allen recorded are a testament to his brilliant comic writing, a skill which was only heightened by his movie experience until he became the legend he is today.
Another of the revolution comics who went on to enormous fame later on in his career was also one of the pioneering black comics, a man by the name of William H. Cosby. Again, not only was he one of the earliest to break the racial barrier, but his storytelling style was another of the comedy revolution’s many performance innovations. “I’ve always wanted my act to get the same reaction as when people are listening to me at the dinner table,” he is quoted as saying. While Sahl pioneered the more intimate and casual performance style, Cosby certainly perfected it with his anecdotal monologs which were not only funny but wonderfully crafted.
The final revolution comic discussed is another pioneering female comic, Joan Rivers. While Diller told zany, sometimes surreal one-liners, it was really Rivers who created the role of the modern female comic, talking about her personal problems and whatever else she felt like talking about with a sense of anger at the world’s injustices, which, like Sahl’s wry cynicism and Berman’s neurotic agonizing, was a distinct attitude which was a far cry from the homogenized cheerfulness of the vaudeville comics. That, perhaps, sums up the ultimate contribution of the revolution to comedy as a whole: performers with specific individual attitudes based on honest expression of who they were and what they believed in.
To sum up, the revolution was a fascinating period in both social and comedy history, and Nachman writes about it with insight, intelligence, and remarkable detail. If I haven’t already bored you on the subject by going into so much detail myself, I heartily reccomend that you go to monkeyreader.com and have some fun by adding the work of these great artists to your comedy library.