This used to be a funny country. You could go to work in the morning and tell a stupid joke without fear that you’d be called to defend yourself that night in front of Ted Koppel and millions of outraged “humor survivors.”
Just how far we’ve come from the days when a joke was just a joke—and funny at that—is made sadly clear by noting that nearly 75 percent of the material on But Seriously…The American Comedy Box, 1915-1994 was recorded between the late ’50s and early ’70s. Only one track represents the ’90s (Bobbitt jokes, natch, from Robin Williams), and just four are taken from the Greed Decade, when there was supposedly a comedy boom under way.
What this collection reveals is that it once was possible to laugh with each other, at each other. Instead of suing or shooting people, you made jokes about them. Release the tension, add some perspective to an issue, very little loss of life or income involved. Now, of course, humor is a weapon, meant for lowering the self-esteem of anyone who might possibly be subjected to it. For those who take themselves and life waaay too seriously, the worst crimes are those that hurt feelings.
But as Mel Brooks’ 2,000-year-old man puts it on Volume 4: “Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Comedy is you walk into an open sewer and die.” He was paraphrasing Plato.
Compiled by New York entertainment lawyer and radio show host Howard Leib, But Seriously… is organized thematically around such categories as “Political Humor,” “Sketches,” “One-Liners,” and “Characters.” The set is extensive but not exhaustive. Dread licensing restrictions kept many artists off the discs, including the group that perfected the art of the comedy album, the Firesign Theatre. Also absent are Jonathan Winters (Robin Williams’ acknowledged role model), Bob Newhart, Nichols and May, Lily Tomlin, radio legends Jack Benny and Fred Allen, Will Rogers, and the one, the only Groucho. Woody Allen released several albums of his brilliant stand-up act. They hold up better than much of his cinematic work, but are unfortunately not included here.
Nonetheless, these 49 tracks, spanning 80 years, offer ample variety and a fair amount of the classics.
The five recordings from the early part of this century involve dialect humor. Cal Stewart was supposedly Thomas Edison’s favorite comic and was called in to make cylinder recordings. His “Uncle Josh in a Barber Shop,” is a “Yankee Monologue,” literal hyuck-hyuck style, offering down-home country wisdom. Barney Bernard’s 1916 “Cohen at the Telephone” features an old-world fellow encountering the newfangled big city, much to everyone’s confusion. It differs little from Myron Cohen’s 1966 routines, though Cohen’s delivery was studied and precise. He offered his Yiddish-dialect stories as if he were presenting his daughter to the rabbi, a contrast which made the simple-soul punch lines all the more enjoyable.
Smith & Dale, the models for Neal Simon’s second-best work, The Sunshine Boys, also bicker in thick accents. Their “Doctor Kronkite and His Only Living Patient” routine was developed in ’08. This recording is from 1960, when the pair were truly old and not just playing codgers. This is where such creaky exchanges as “Have you ever had this before?” “Yes.” “Well, you’ve got it again” came from.
As fascinating as they are, one doesn’t laugh too much listening the these ancient cylinder and 78-rpm recordings. Much of the humor derives from the remnants of the 19th century colliding with a rapidly modernizing world. Cal Stewart, after all, was born during the Civil War. As my friend, the humor enthusiast and not the actress, Pat Carroll says, “Where’s my reference point?”
When one gets to Moran and Mack’s “Two Black Crows Part 1” and Sam ‘n’ Henry’s “At the Dentist’s” sketches, however, one doesn’t really laugh at all. This is “black-voice” comedy, which featured white performers doing black dialect. Sam ‘n’ Henry are in fact Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who took their act to a rival Chicago radio station in 1928 and became Amos ‘n’ Andy. Most of Amos ‘n’ Andy’s humor was based less on race than on universal human foibles, but that isn’t likely to make them any more acceptable to contemporary listeners. (In contrast, the television version, with actual black actors, retains much real humor.)
Of course Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First” is here (the clean “I don’t give a darn” version). Also George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which is rapidly becoming anachronistic. Sadly, Carlin has used the increasingly permissive license to cuss to ill effect. On his latest recording, many of his punch lines—and biggest audience responses—follow the less than witty “Fuck that!”
For another example of the degradation of stand-up, compare Phyllis Diller’s 1961 sketch, “The Beauty Parlor,” with the 1983 Joan Rivers rant about rock stars that follows. Diller aims the jokes at herself and we recognize ourselves. Rivers tears venomously into everyone and everything, with the charming phrase “son of a bitch” the oft-repeated height of her hilarity.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to get someone to sit down and listen to a comedy record. First, who has time? Second, you can’t dance to it. There are several musical comedy bits—Allan Sherman (“Al ‘n’ Yetta”), math teacher/recluse Tom Lehrer (“Pollution”)—all aimed more at the head than the feet.
Along with National Lampoon (“Catch It and You Keep It”), Martin Mull produced some of the best comedy—musical or otherwise—in the ’70s. Sadly, he has lately forsaken his guitar for the chance to appear in every commercial James Earl Jones is not in. I’d be hard-pressed to choose only one cut from Mull’s seven albums. His faux sea chanty, “Men” (co-written with Steve Martin), is an acceptable choice.
Before he sold his soul to Madison Avenue, Stan Freburg created meticulously produced music and media spoofs, often employing such top-flight voice talent as Dawes (“Huckleberry Hound”) Butler and June (“Rocket J. Squirrel”) Foray. “Little Blue Riding Hood” features both, as well as Freburg, in a sendup of the then-popular Dragnet.
Beginning in the late ’40s, the radio team of Bob & Ray (Bob Elliott, father of Letterman/SNL wiseass Chris, and Ray Goulding) churned out a daily program of bone-dry lunacy featuring such characters as Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelder, Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate, and identical bandleaders the McBeeBee twins. Their “Komodo Dragon” sketch is, in its way, an equal to “Who’s on First.” A hapless “expert” (Bob) must explain over and over the tedious facts about “the world’s largest living lizard” to the dense and unlistening host (Ray). Like a Laurel & Hardy film, this can be experienced time and again without losing its appeal.
Bill Dana is a Jewish comedy writer (Get Smart) whose claim to fame was the simple Latin soul Jose Jiminez. In a pitiful little voice, fractured English, and wide, frightened-deer eyes, Jimenez would ramble on with great authority, like a child explaining something years beyond his comprehension. In “The Astronaut,” first man in space Jimenez explains how he will occupy his time: “I plan to cry a lot….” In these times, it is difficult to argue that Jose was innocent fun. But that’s what it was.
Richard Pryor mines his heart attack for humor, proving again how far his legions of Def Jam acolytes have missed the point—obscene isn’t the same as honest and talking trash ain’t necessarily talking the truth. Robert Klein, of all people, put it well on a recent Charles Grodin Show: “Profanity is a very important part of the English language and should be used with great care.” (Klein’s clean and nostalgic “Civil Defense [No Talking]” is on disc four.)
The political humor disc begins not with Will Rogers, but with Bob Hope. Though his road pictures with Bing Crosby and other ’40s film work inspired Woody Allen and justify his membership in the pantheon, Hope was seriously out of touch by the time of this 1963 “Hope in Russia” concert. Bob was never particularly astute politically, merely a finely tuned mouthpiece for his gag men.
On the far left is Mort Sahl getting worked up about “organizing a hunger strike against Khrushchev,” and tossing out hipster lines like “I bugged.” Though always more in touch than Hope, Sahl’s “thinking man’s comedy” now seems as quaint as Uncle Josh.
Lenny Bruce, on the other hand, still has something to say. He is captured in his 35-year-old prime at, of all places, Carnegie Hall, before drugs and harassment by authorities dulled his edge. His mind is as agile and fractious as Robin Williams’, and he’s just as likely to be distracted by the mike stand. Stirring up trouble, he poses the question, “Who would you rather be married to—a black, black woman or a white, white woman?” The white woman is Kate Smith; the black woman is Lena Horne. People didn’t dig such questions in 1961. Maybe they still don’t.
The Committee is little-known outside comedy-buff circles, but reverently regarded within. The San Francisco improv theater troupe, akin to Second City, presented a tight and impressive live show. Their “Wide Wide World of War”—Vietnam news coverage as sports commentary—seems too easy and slightly naive. They were certainly preaching to the converted at this session. Like most blues music, improv is best encountered live.
Our very own Capitol Steps are showcased with their Quayle-caustic “Stand by Your Dan.” I’ve always found them a bit too precious, too dinner-theater-eager, and unless Mr. Potatoe-head returns to the White House, I don’t think this routine will become anything more than routine.
Albert Brooks’ real last name is Einstein and, relatively speaking, he too is a genius. He recorded two albums, one-and-a-half sides of conceptual comedy that is simply awe-inspiring. His style is to cut so close to reality that if you miss the setup, you can’t be sure if it’s serious or not. Which makes the jokes that much funnier. That said, his “Rewriting the National Anthem” is fairly broad, but gut-busting.
There’s nothing particularly funny about the phrase “a big orange drink” until Andy Griffith gets a hold of it. If you only know him as Matlock or Andy Taylor, you’ll be surprised by Griffith’s droll “What It Was, Was Football.” A rube’s-eye view of the sport, it was a big hit in 1958, and led to his TV career—where Griffith was smartened up a bit.
Steve Martin, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Steven Wright, Cheech & Chong, Rodney Dangerfield…so many more, but I’m all smiled out. The comedy record, though not entirely dead, seems hopelessly marginalized. With the advent of cable TV, round-the-clock stand-up shows, and wacky “comedy” DJs like the atrocious Howard Stern, people get their funny fix in other ways. Like Reader’s Digest and other bathroom reading, But Seriously is not intended to be consumed in one sitting. As with Ex-Lax, a small, regular dose will do the system good.