What’s the speed of dark? — Steven Wright
There are two ways to effectively influence people– beauty & comedy. Beauty is striking, and always works on the attracted sex. Comedy is more universal in that everyone loves to laugh, but it requires more attention & open-mindedness to get to. Too many people lack those skills, so they miss a lot of laughs. That’s a human society problem we need to address.
People might think it’s ridiculous to quantize comedy, but actually it’s easy. Everyone loves to laugh, and YouTube exists, so people experience it everyday. As with any other artistic genre, in comedy it still comes down to who makes us laugh. Everyone is influenced & shaped by the epoch they grew up in.
In the 1970’s, children were sat in front of a television set, as a means of occupying their attention, which had become an accepted parenting practice by then. More & more parents were being asked to multi-task, and television placated children, occupying their inquisitive minds. This allowed parents more time for leisure, or work– depending on their class. That’s part of television’s universal appeal.
What was television in the 1970’s? It had been colorized in most households, but black & white models were still common. Most homes only had one, maybe two sets. Remote controls were new, and crude, but everyone loved the innovation. The kids were the first to learn the nefarious ways you could “sneak the control,” and affect the room– mostly using volume. There were only a few buttons for tint, chromatic & contrast adjustment, and when you adjusted them, really wild stuff happened to the screen. That was new, back then.
As far as the broadcast content went, in reflection is was 95+% pablum. That leaves <5% cool. Most of what was cool, was funny. These are the people that made me laugh when I was growing up.
Sanford & Son had gone into re-run mode by the time I was allowed to watch it. The opening sequence, which they never changed in it’s entire 6-season run, was Redd Foxx walking out on his faux front porch, and sitting down to get out of the hot sun. What gets you going are two things: 1) You know Redd Foxx is hilarious and will say anything; and 2) Quincy Jones’ theme song, “The Streetbeater.” That song has a bass line that grooves and bounces off the floor, with funky everything else. Gets me going every time…
The first time I saw Rodney Dangerfield was in a Miller Lite commercial. “I tell you I don’t get no respect…” He did a series of them with the beer sponsor, including this one where he’s bowling, and screws it up at the end. After that it was Caddyshack (1980) & Back to School (1986). Sam Kinison and many others (for better or worse…), were Dangerfield protégées.
In the 1970’s television programming was three (3) networks: CBS, NBC & ABC– roughly in that order of prestige. PBS was also available, when you switched your TV from UHF to VHF– manually. Home video games in America came along in 1977, when Atari released its VCS (Video Console System), later renamed the Atari 2600. This, along with the arcade revolution, changed television, youth culture & mass media– forever. The same can be said for the arrival of cable TV ~ 1980.
Comedy was hip to this. Saturday Night Live had launched, and became a cultural phenomenon which exists through today. What made it all work, was the talent. Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd & Eddie Murphy are all A-list Hollywood stars for a good reason. Chevy Chase made funny movies before he staled, while John Belushi did the same before he killed himself from excess. Their performances remain legendary, as testified to by the millions of people who still watch their movies, TV shows, and stand-up routines.
Generation X makes little distinction between stand-ups comedians, and funny actors, writers or whatever… Anyone who can make us laugh is funny, and therefore valuable. Making people laugh, and getting them to think about serious stuff, is genius. Comedy is a nice way for angry people to get through to other people. You can see this in Robin Williams and other geniuses like him.
There is a baseline level of respect, which always needs to be given to any good stand-up comedian. There is probably nothing harder in entertainment, than getting in front of a group of people, and making them laugh with fresh material. In rock music, if you suck, you can crank up the amps and blast everyone out. When it’s over, you leave, while their eardrums are still ringing. Elvis has left the building, with all your money– so go home.
In comedy, there’s low-volume heckling, which is part of the deal. You have to handle that, which can get personal. The trick is to handle the heckler, as part of a funny act. Comedy is an act, but for the true masters, it’s also natural. Jerry Seinfeld is who he is, and that’s his act. He’s a prodigy who has the gift, and lives for the laugh. George Carlin & Richard Pryor are his comparables. That elite level of comic talent is always ready to make an audience laugh, because they are naturals.
Second City Television (SCTV), was a Canadian television sketch comedy show that ran between 1976 and 1984. Basically it was a lower-budget version of SNL, which irregularly aired across Midwest affiliates. Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis, and a host of other funny people became known on this show.
You had to be paying attention to catch this stuff. To know what was going on in television, everyone mail-subscribed to TV Guide, which listed next week’s shows, with a blurb about each upcoming episode. TV Guide helped avoid turkeys and re-runs, and it was the only way– until cable & satellite TV got their acts together.
Sledge Hammer! was a crazy Dirty Harry parody show, that ran two seasons in the later part of the 1980’s. Creator Alan Spencer envisioned the title character role for one man specifically: David Rasche. This was a half hour comedy show, that broke every rule in television in it’s brief heyday. More details on this show here .
Game shows always held great fascination for me, especially as a child on snow or sick days. No school in the winter on weekdays meant game shows in the morning & soap operas in the early to mid-afternoon. Then it was re-runs of Gilligan’s’s Island, The Brady Bunch, The Beverley Hillbillies, M*A*S*H, Hogan Heroes, etc. Werner Klemperer, Bob Crane & Alan Alda offer the best humor from that fare.
Game shows are fascinating, because they always feature live contestants– people just like you & me! That leads to a lot of unintended humor. Even though candidates are carefully selected to meet corporate specs, accidents happen and were often aired without complaint back then.
Bad hair, bad clothes, et cetera, show up more vividly on game shows, that’s why they retain their syndication value on the Game Show Network today. The best game show hosts are funny. The funniest, and most undoubtedly out-of control game show of my childhood was The Gong Show. It was really a variety or sketch show, but who cares?
Honorable mention to Bob Eubanks, who did a great job clowning young couples on the Newlywed Game. There is a part of every comedian that wants to be a game show host. Hollywood Squares was hosted by Peter Marshall from 1966–81, introducing kids to a gaggle of fossil comedians from the 1950’s & 1960’s. Buddy Hackett, George Gobel, Jonathan Winters, Paul Lynde and Joan Rivers were among it’s rotating cast of stars. Some thought they were funny. I never did, even going back today and watching them on YouTube.
As far as classic film comedy goes, it starts with Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin. I always preferred the former, for his athleticism & self-effacing ingenuity. The Marx Brothers always came off as shtick to me, but many of their sketches on film were undeniably brilliant.
Television came along after WWII, and was strongly influenced by McCarthyism and the Communist “Red Scare” hysteria. This is why many young viewers look at a hit show such as, I Love Lucy, and say it isn’t funny today. What’s perceived as truly funny, must meet a much higher standard today, than in 1954.
This is because comedy is much more inclusive today. We hear comedy from all sexes, orientations, ethnicities, classes and nationalities. None of that was made available when Lucy was the only comedy show on, and there are only two other networks in existence. Lucille Ball must be considered in this context in terms of television comedy history. She acted feisty, but was always willing to be the good wife when it counted, and that’s what the blacklisters wanted on-the-air in the 1950’s.
As far as the serious comics before my time, Lenny Bruce earns the most respect from me. He took chances, tackling complex issues head-on, producing mind-bending ideas, and challenging his audience. He didn’t live long, but his impact is still felt.
My fascination with game show hosts is not unique. Television executives long ago figured out that a funny man who could hold an audience for an hour, was worth his weight in gold. The Tonight Show was the original variety show, starring Steve Allen (1954–57), Jack Paar (1957–62), Johnny Carson (1962–92), Jay Leno (1992–2009, 2010–2014), Conan O’Brien (2009–10), Jimmy Fallon (2014–present).
Obviously it was Johnny Carson as the iconic host when I was growing up. I always enjoyed the “King of Late Night Television,” but what I respected most about him was his willingness to support young talent. He knew he was older than his MTV audience, so he helped break young comedians.
Carson’s ratings always dominated his time slot, in spite of other late night competitors including David Frost, Alan Thicke, Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, David Brenner, Pat Sajak, Ron Reagan, Dennis Miller, Arsenio Hall, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, and Dick Cavett. The reason Johny Carson clobbered all of them (over & over), is because he was funnier, hipper, and a better entertainer. Charles Grodin had a show for a time, as he is a good example of someone who can be funny, but isn’t a comic. Consider Grodin, as a Jon Stewart or Bill Maher predecessor.
Carson’s only real peer was David Letterman. Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC on February 1, 1982. This put Carson & Letterman back-to-back on the same network, and gave NBC a ratings lock on late night television for over a decade. After a feud with NBC over who was going to replace Carson (NBC ultimately chose Jay Leno), Letterman began hosting Late Night on CBS in August 1993. Letterman’s last show was on May 20, 2015.
College kids in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, would ritualistically gather in the room with the television set, every weeknight ~11:30 PM. David Letterman was funny, and like Carson, encouraged new & under-exposed talent. “Stupid Pet Tricks” & his Top-10 lists were famous segments. His hosting & interviewing skills were superb.
His rapport with music prodigy Paul Schaffer was critical to the show, and in many ways more genuine that Johnny Carson & Ed McMahon. Letterman always insisted he wouldn’t do the show without Schaffer, who stayed for its entire run. Lots of cool & underrated bands were exposed on Letterman. Sidenote: Paul Schaffer played Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records in This is Spinal Tap (1982), which earned him extra bonus points. For many viewers, Late Night with David Letterman was the best TV variety show ever.
In 1988, there was a strike of the Writers Guild of America, which ran from March 7 to August 7, affecting production of movies & TV shows. During this span David Letterman was forced by NBC to host his shows, with no material. “Hal Gurnee’s Network Time Killer“ was concocted, as David Letterman turned the camera up into the control booth, and let them try to entertain the 20 million or so people who were watching. Brilliant, no?!
Fox Broadcasting Company launched on October 9, 1986, as a competitor to ABC, NBC and CBS. Fox went on to become a fourth major television network, because it developed the best new comedy shows, and then took over American sports broadcasting. Before Fox’s sports dominance, it was Married… with Children, The Simpson’s and In Living Color that put Fox on the television map– virtually overnight. The cast for In Living Color included Damon Wayans, with his family— Kim, Shawn, and Marlon, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, and future pop music star Jennifer Lopez.
The rise of cable television and advances in computer engineering allowed motivated comic geeks to find their way into the mainstream. Joel Hodgson is the creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), which ran for 10 seasons, first on Comedy Central, and then on the Sci-Fi Channel from 1989-99. The concept is bad movies being riffed. The cast called themselves Best Brains, Inc (BBI), and included Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Jim Mallon, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, Paul Chaplin, and Bridget Jones Nelson.
In many ways MST3K is more influential than Seinfeld, itself one of the most successful TV-series ever– which ran concurrently on NBC. The reason: Best Brains’ talent, and their far-out creativity which consciously pushed back at capitalism. The concept for Mystery Science Theater 3000 involved obtaining the copyrights to really bad movies, then trashing them with acerbic wit, spliced together with puppet sketches in between. Each episode ran two hours. I still maintain MST3K was the most brilliant television series ever . What do you think, sirs?
At this point in our time-line, Howard Stern and a new era of raunchy comics begin to take over the airwaves. The funniest among this new breed (for me) was Denis Leary, who broke on MTV. The Ref (1994) is the best Christmas movie ever, and surely one of the funniest black comedy’s ever. Raw, energetic & intelligent is Leary’s appeal.
The 2 Live Crew was where freedom of expression met First Amendment free speech issues. Right wing feminism (PMRC was led by Tipper Gore, wife of senator Al Gore [D-TN] and later VP under Bill Clinton), led the crusade to censor 2 Live Crew, who were essentially a comedy act put to rap.
The 2 Live Crew’s song titles told the story: “We Want Some Pussy”, “Move Somethin'”, “Me So Horny” (Me love you long time!), “Fuck Shop”, “Get the Fuck Out My House”, “Banned in the USA”, and many others from their first early albums remain DJ staples at nightclubs & dance halls through today. The 2 Live Crew was the origin of booty dancing, which is good for all of us. In the words of Luther Campbell, “Just tellin’ it like it is.”
These issues which Luther Campbell & 2 Live Crew stood up for in the 1980’s (and paid a price), remain relevant during today’s #MeToo feminist witch-hunt campaign sponsored by the Democrats.
Today, comedy is available on the Internet, and anytime we need laughs, we can find something funny on YouTube, whether it’s brand new, or something old, that is new to you. For me personally, I reject much of the Adam Sandler school of comedy. Funny is funny. Gross or stupid isn’t funny. America’s Funniest Home Videos was never funny to me. Nor was Realty TV in any of it’s variants. Nor today’s cartoons.
Cartoon’s deserve mention, because they were originally created to make kids laugh. Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies was an American animated series of comedy shorts, produced by Warner Bros. from 1930 to 1969. They’re easily the best & funniest of the oldie cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Pepé Le Pew, Speedy Gonzales & the Tasmanian Devil are quintessential cartoon personas. Yosemite Sam, Marvin Martian & Wily E. Coyote are hilarious “villains.” My personal favorites are Foghorn Leghorn, when he gets into it with the kid chicken hawk, as well as the episodes with the egghead genius (Junior) he has to baby sit.
In the end, comedy is like food & music, we all have our favorite tastes, but we should also be discriminating about what we put into our body & mind, as some of it isn’t good for us. Making jokes and laughing is about coping with stress. It’s about making the best of a really bad situation. It’s about making people feel better. Comedy is therapeutic, and low cost. All you have to do is use your imagination.