1941 W.C. Fields in LoveW.C. Fields, Edward F. Cline, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break Fields: I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That's the one thing I’m so indebted to her for.The portly, hard-drinking comic spoke that line in his last starring role in a career marred by alcoholism. Off-screen problems aside, Fields found a way to make audiences laugh at and root for a character who hated children as much as he loved liquor and thumbing his red nose at societal norms. Generations later, we'd get Archie Bunker, Larry David, and dozens of other semi-lovable misanthropes, all indebted to Fields.
1948 ‘Your Money or Your Life …’Jack Benny, The Jack Benny Program Criminal: Your money or your life … Benny: [Pause.]Criminal: Look, bud. I said your money or your life.Benny: I’m thinking it over.This joke is reputed to have had the longest sustained laughs in radio history. Though that might be an exaggeration, what it did do was create the perfect joke to represent the medium’s biggest comedic star. Jack Benny had a lot of recurring jokes associated with his character: no matter how old he got, he always insisted he was 39; he was terrible at the violin; and he was very cheap. So when Benny’s character is walking home and is given the ultimatum “Your money or your life,” the studio audience is already dying when Jack takes a pause. When Benny finally says, “I’m thinking it over,” the audience explodes. It’s a joke that can only be told by this character, when the audience is already anticipating how he’d react. This is the hard-to-write type of joke that long-running series like The Simpsons or recurring characters on Saturday Night Live need to constantly invent in order to surprise the audience. A joke that is perfect for the character, but is still surprising to an audience — nobody nailed it like Benny.
Milton Berle in DragMilton Berle, Texaco Star Theatre “And now, ladies and gentlemen, introducing America’s No. 1 television star, your June bride, Mildred Berle ...”It was 1948, a year into commercial-television broadcasting, and literally nobody had figured out what TV comedy would or could be. Berle had worked a million stages, starting in vaudeville, and had a clue: The ten-inch, black-and-white screen meant that almost nothing could overwhelm, and the broader the performance the better. Unsubtle shtick, ridiculous costumes, patter, a frantic, frenetic pace — it all turned out to be right for the smudgy image on a ten-inch, black-and-white screen. Within a few years, TV grew slightly more sophisticated (and screens got bigger), and Berle’s career started to run out of gas, but you can still spot his comedic DNA in any club where a comic is capably humiliating a heckler in the back of the room.
c. 1950 Jean Carroll on Her Husband’s PrideJean Carroll “I’ll never forget the first time I saw him, standing up on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze — and he too proud to run and get it.”While there were other female comedy performers — in TV and movies, or as a part of double acts — Jean Carroll was the first to break through by standing alone onstage. Though called the “female Milton Berle” and the “female Bob Hope” (she had to be compared to men, because there were no female comedians to compare her to), you watch her stand-up now and you see a style uniquely her own. Her rapid-fire delivery that sneaks in punch lines as she blitzes her way through a monologue, like in the joke above, feels arrestingly contemporary, and might remind you of Amy Schumer or the way Jim Gaffigan delivers his punch lines in falsetto under his breath. She moved so quickly and was so ahead of her time, she literally tells the audience to catch up. Ed Sullivan got it, though, asking her to appear on the show over 20 times. Watching those appearances was a young Lily Tomlin, who dressed up like Carroll as a kid.
1952 A Streetcar Named???Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Your Show of Shows Blanche: Well, when I left the plantation, I went to New Orleans. And there I met a very wealthy gentleman who wants to marry me … [Stanley eats chicken as she continues to speak.]Sid Caesar’s first TV show was so successful that its sponsor couldn’t produce enough to meet audience demand and had to cancel the show. His second show was so popular that it was cancelled so the network could break it into two different shows. Milton Berle figured out how to do comedy on TV; Sid Caesar perfected it. Your Show of Shows was basically SNL before there was SNL: A guest host would perform sketches with Sid, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and the rest of the players, and a song or two would be performed. There had been parodies on television before YSoS, but this program was among the first to write parodies that capitalized on the specific strengths of its performers. Watch how in “A Streetcar Named” Sid, one of the greatest physical comedians who has ever lived, is given a number of physical jokes to perform, which don’t necessarily have anything to do with the original film. Yet he is able to boil down all of Marlon Brando’s legendary performance into 30 seconds of eating sloppily. Without Sid, there’s probably no Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Mad magazine, or SNL.
Chocolate Conveyor BeltLucille Ball, Vivian Vance, I Love Lucy Lucy: Here she comes. [Lucy stuffs chocolates in her mouth, hat, and down her shirt. Puts hat on her head.]As if being arguably the greatest American sitcom star of the 20th century weren’t an impressive enough achievement, Lucille Ball also broke huge barriers both on and off-screen. She was the first woman to run her own production company, the reason CBS changed its mind about allowing multiethnic couples on television, and quite possibly the only reason Star Trek exists (no, seriously). Though I Love Lucy may seem almost obscenely wholesome now, at the time, story lines like that of “Job Switching” — Lucy and Ethel get jobs while Ricky and Fred act as their housewives — were pretty envelope-pushing, not to mention the fact that it pioneered the three-camera, live audience setup, without which we wouldn’t have Cheers or Seinfeld or Friends or The Big Bang Theory. But what Lucille Ball (and Vivian Vance as Ethel) did in scenes like the forever-parodied chocolate-conveyer-belt scene was pave the way for generations of comedians to be unabashedly funny, fearless, and no-holds-barred silly, all while writing their own rules.
1953 Joe McCarthy JacketMort Sahl “Have you seen the Joe McCarthy jacket? It's like an Eisenhower jacket, only it's got an extra flap that fits over the mouth.” In 1950s San Francisco, when audiences expected performers to grace the stage in jacket and tie, Mort Sahl shuffled into the spotlight in a disarming bright-red sweater and freshly pressed khakis, ever-present newspaper in hand. He was often mistaken for a student at the trendy hungry i club, and that unassuming appearance came in handy, as his biting topical humor was known to split the room. No topic was off-limits, no target was taboo, not even the communist witch hunts of McCarthy-era America. But Sahl made it palatable by speaking to his audiences in their own language, with unprecedented conversationalism and intellectualism. In the joke that helped him develop a cult following, for example, he invoked the then-popular Eisenhower jacket, in an accessible metaphor about oppressive government fear-mongering. Before The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, there was Mort Sahl, who besides being a tremendous influence on Woody Allen, was the progenitor of the challenging political comedy we know today.
c. 1956 Pickpockets vs. Peeping TomsRedd Foxx, Laff of the Party “What’s the difference between a pickpocket and peeping tom? A pickpocket snatches watches.” The incredibly prolific “King of the Party Records” was a revolutionary figure in his day, trading in bawdy one-liners and long-winded yarns that transfixed black clubs on the Chitlin’ Circuit, as well as white crowds on the Vegas strip. Before he starred in Sanford and Son, Foxx found his voice telling the sort of off-color jokes one might expect from a tipsy uncle letting loose after Thanksgiving dinner; audiences in early recordings of his multivolume Laff of the Party albums laugh with such unbridled enthusiasm, it’s easy to make out the kind of release he provided to otherwise polite ’50s audiences. The pickpocket joke is certainly just one of thousands Foxx had in his pocket, but it represents two things he loved most in a joke: wordplay and sex. Foxx’s taboo-busting frank talk earned him many admirers, though his most obvious descendants are cheerfully filthy storytellers such as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
1957 ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Mel Blanc, Arthur Q. Bryan, Looney Tunes Elmer Fudd [to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”]: “Kill the Wabbit”There's a reason that, in 1994, 1,000 animation professionals named Chuck Jones's masterpiece "What's Opera, Doc?" the greatest cartoon of all time. It's astounding how much story and comedy they cover in such a short time. Parodying Richard Wagner's operas (not to mention Disney's Fantasia and arguably Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd's whole thing), it essentially tells all of "Ring Cycle" in less than seven minutes. Its density influenced, and will continue to influence, all cartoons that came after it.
What's Opera Doc by MistyIsland1
What's Opera Doc by MistyIsland1
1959 ‘Nobody’s Perfect.’Billy Wilder, Joe E. Brown, Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot Jerry: I’m a man! Osgood: Well, nobody’s perfect.Two jazz musicians accidentally witness a gang murder and go on the run, disguised as women. The plot seems pretty innocuous today, but in the 1950s the Hays Code required films to be “moral” and “wholesome,” so Some LIke it Hot, with it’s cross-dressing and hints at homosexuality had to be made without the approval of the Motion Picture Production Code. Banned in Kansas and condemned by the Vatican, the film’s last line is just perfection, sharply capping off 120 minutes of subversive zaniness while at the same time subtly hinting at the idea that people should love whomever they want to love. The joke is hilarious yet oddly touching, subversive yet romantic, all while essentially summarizing the whole movie; it’s no surprise that the film tops almost every list of best comedy films of all time.
Bach to BachNichols and May, Improvisations to Music May: Too many people think of Adler as a man who made mice neurotic. He was more, much more. Nichols: Much more.May: Much more.Nichols: Much more ... Can you move over a little? I’m falling off the bed.May: I'm sorry.Nichols: A great deal more.Though An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May was the duo’s biggest critical and commercial hit, it's even easier to see how revolutionary they were with their rawer debut, Improvisations to Music. There is just so much in this joke. There is the natural banter and subtle heightening of improvised dialogue; the duo met earlier in the decade as members of the Compass Players, the seminal improv group that also included Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Shelley Berman, and Del Close, whose members, in the same year as this record came out, founded the Second City. Beyond that, the joke is remarkable for how well it captured how mid-century, high-brow people talked. Nichols and May affectionately parodied beat trends and intellectual pretensions, in which pillow talk becomes a game of who-can-drop-the-impressively-most-obscure-literary-reference. (Their back-and-forth sounds like an Annie Hall outtake, and it came out 18 years prior.) After Nichols and May, and some of their peers, comedy would no longer be primarily defined by a man in a tuxedo telling jokes in a nightclub. Still, what’s most enjoyable about the piece is hearing Nichols and May enjoy each other: They were their own audience and above all they made each other laugh. It's an influence you still see today, as comedy has become more insular, reliant on increasingly obscure references. The idea of making comedy for yourself, your friends, and people who think and experience the world the way you do was uncommon before Nichols and May, and fundamental to comedy after.
Nichols and May - Bach to Bach from Rebecca O'Neal on Vimeo.