Friday, February 5, 2016

Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy || part 4 -» the sixties

1960 Driving InstructorBob Newhart, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart “Turn right here? [Pause.] Well, now that was my fault again. You see I meant the next street. Not this man’s lawn.”
In the age of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, of social satire and the "subversive" comic, it was a wonder that a former accountant who looked like your dad's best friend could put out best-selling comedy albums and become his own unique comedy institution. Bob Newhart always sounded like he was making up his act as he went along, which not only made him relatable, but exciting. In "The Driving Instructor," his signature style is on display: a one-sided monologue in which you only hear the instructor's befuddled responses, rather than the more unhinged student driver on the other side. Most of his bits followed this sort of "straight person, crazy person" structure, and this one is no exception. You also get a good sense of his expert timing; not many people could live inside a befuddled pause like Bob Newhart, and he went on to become one of the most-beloved comics of all time, influencing every understated comic who came after.

1961 Dick Gregory on Segregated RestaurantsDick Gregory, In Living Black & White “I walked into a restaurant, which was the wrong restaurant, in Mississippi … I sit down, the blonde waitress walked over to me and I said, ‘I’d like two cheeseburgers.’ She said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here,’ and I said, ‘I don’t eat colored people nowhere!’”There’s a head-scratcher at the center of comic Dick Gregory’s career: Is he a comedian drawn to politics or the nation’s funniest politician? Early in his career, it was much more clear which side of the fence he was on. After getting out of the military, Gregory told jokes in black and white rooms, got a leg up from admirer Hugh Hefner, and worked on TV appearances to provoke thought and motivate action through comedy. Though his early shows had punchy one-liners about everything from space travel to drinking booze, his clear-eyed look at black life in the segregated South will be his legacy. This restaurant joke was one of the first to undercut segregation and discrimination in a public setting with bold intelligence and humility. Whether he had it in mind to deliver a spoonful of sugar to help audiences take the medicine or simply channeled anger into laughs, it’s hard to say, but seminal jokes like the one above never betray a hint of bitterness. This contemporary of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, who still performs occasionally at the age of 84, has touched thinkers irascible, e.g. Paul Mooney, and genial, e.g. Bill Maher.
How to Relax Your Colored Friends at PartiesLenny Bruce, American “Uh, did you have anything to eat yet? I don't know if there’s any watermelon left, fried chicken or dice or razors. We’ll see if we can fix you up with something.”The idea of white guilt as a punch line feels like nothing new today, when publicly calling out people and organizations for racial microaggressions using the most up-to-date social-justice buzzwords is a viable path to online celebrity. But in 1961, when ally status wasn’t assumed or expected, Lenny Bruce’s “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” boldly indicted and lampooned his target audience, and said something important and new. The speaker in this bit clearly has the best intentions, yet still manages to speak almost exclusively in stereotypes or compliments steeped in unconfirmed generalizations. For example, in the above joke, he pokes fun not at the malicious racists, but the ignorant who mean well. It’s a line in the sand no one before Bruce had drawn. The joke also captures the fearlessness of Bruce’s comedy, unafraid to offend or paint himself as a villain for the sake of mocking injustice (see also: this bit). Though his comedy is of-a-time, this is ultimately why he continues to be held in such high regard. It’s not hard to see his influence in George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and all political comedians of the last half-century.
1962 The Kennedy ImpressionVaughn Meader, The First Family President Kennedy: I’ve got an important conference in 15 minutes, so I must be dressed in ten minutes, which means I shall have to ahead toward our bedroom with great vig-ah.It's now a given that any sketch or late-night show worth its salt will have someone who can impersonate the president, but there was a time when the practice was unthinkable. Then came Vaughn Meader, with his dropped r’s and Harvard–New England accent. After honing his President Kennedy impression at nightclubs, Meader released The First Family, a record of JFK sketches. Despite its lighthearted tone, James Hagerty, President Eisenhower’s former press secretary and a top executive at ABC, called it “degrading to the president.” The American public didn't agree, however, as the album was a sensation, becoming the fastest-selling record at the time. People nationwide were quoting the above joke. President Kennedy himself addressed the record, saying at a press conference, “Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself.” Chevy Chase's Gerald Ford, Dana Carvey's George Bush, Jordan Peele's Barack Obama: Comedy has a history of helping to shape public perception of a president — and it all started here.
c. 1963 The Human Tea BagSteve Allen, The Steve Allen Show [Wearing a suit festooned with teabags, Allen is slowly lowered into a vat of hot water, after which stagehands toss in lemon slices and sugar; the audience then comes up with teacups.]There’s no way you get to David Letterman without Steve Allen, whose early TV career — including the first iteration of The Tonight Show, plus several other series — was practically anarchic for network TV. He (and Ernie Kovacs, who’d be all over this list had he not died young in a car accident) just tried anything: camera tricks, man-on-the-street interviews real and mock, phone calls to random strangers that went off in weird directions. Letterman paid homage to Allen (and credited him) often and openly: His Alka-Seltzer suit explicitly mimics the teabag stunt, and he, too, drew on the endless comedy fountain that comes from watching street weirdos.
1964 The War RoomStanley Kubrick, Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb President Merkin Muffley: Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!The wheelchair-bound titular character gets the most laughs with his uncontrollable right arm and occasional outbursts that reveal his loyalty to Adolf Hitler. But the best line of the film belongs to President Merkin Muffley, another of the three characters Sellers portrayed. The delivery is so forceful, so serious, that it takes a few seconds to realize how absurd the line is, as the world faces assured destruction. Civilization doesn't fear nukes like it used to, but the sentiment of "Well, everything is fucked so we might as well laugh" makes this a timeless treasure and a peak of political satire.
The StickJonathan Winters, Jack Paar, The Jack Paar Program “Send in those big cats! [Pause.] Uh, send in the smaller ones.”In the early days of TV, networks had room to experiment, play, and occasionally fail — and without this freedom, the country may never have learned about the warm and antic improvisational comic Jonathan Winters. After some early appearances on shows such as Omnibus, he found a home on The Tonight Show during Jack Paar’s five-year stint as host. Occasionally, the audience would get a taste of his established characters, such as saucy old lady Maude Frickert; other times, Winters would be handed a prop or two and then be encouraged to let loose. One of Winters’s most famous appearances with Paar was on The Jack Paar Program, where he found himself with a stick in his hand, stretching his rubber mug, and impulsively creating a series of scenarios in rapid succession. As the comedian goes fishing, fights bulls, and reports to superior officers about seeing giant beetles, he often finds rich characters as well as crisp punch lines. With the mental agility and physicality on display here, it’s easy to understand why successive generations of comics, Robin Williams in particular, emulated Winters in every way they could.
c. 1964 The Hip CuckoMoms Mabley “They waited ten minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half-hour, 45 minutes. Finally, the cucko, you know, oozed out. Had his dark glasses on. Looked at him and said, ‘Man, what time is it?’”At a time when most comedians of color were relegated to finding success only on the Chitlin’ Circuit, thanks to killer appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, mainstream audiences welcomed a “dirty old lady” stand-up named Moms Mabley into their homes with open arms. It’s unclear whether Mabley’s cuckoo-clock bit preceded her as a stock joke that she made her own or whether she originated the joke that would later be covered by comedy greats such as George Kirby and Redd Foxx, but Moms was the one to put the joke on the map. Mabley’s unmistakable cadence and uniquely gravelly timbre took a piece of unquestionably hilarious writing on a subject (successfully hiding marijuana in a cuckoo clock during a police raid, after which time the cuckoo gets high and forgets or neglects to coo for hours) that at the time would have been considered indelicate at best, and elevated it from just a solid joke to something that wouldn’t be out of place performed on the bluest comedy show you could find.
1965 The Vatican RagTom Lehrer “First you get down on your knees /
Fiddle with your rosaries /
Bow your head with great respect /
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect …”
A Harvard mathematics professor starts writing funny Cole Porter–inspired songs, self-releases an album, and before long is performing those songs every week on national television. “The Vatican Rag” is Lehrer’s satirical look at the Second Vatican Council, which attempted to update the Catholic Church by getting rid of the hymns and bringing in some popular music. With jokes like the one above, Lehrer doesn’t just poke fun at a sacred cow, he slaughters it. “Weird Al” Yankovic cites Lehrer as one of his greatest musical influences, and it’s very easy to see the connection.
The TomahawkJohnny Carson, Ed Ames, The Tonight Show [Ed Ames throws a tomahawk, trying not to hit the chalk outline of a cowboy. He hits the cowboy right between his legs.] Carson: I didn’t even know you were Jewish.When people look back on Johnny Carson’s career, a lot of the focus is on monologue jokes and the comedians he introduced to national audiences. The fact that Johnny was a natural performer who was quick on his feet is frequently forgotten. After Ed Ames, a co-star on TV’s Daniel Boone, ended up striking the chalk cowboy with a tomahawk, right between the legs, the audience exploded. Johnny waited for his moment, even going as far as to prevent Ames from retrieving the tomahawk before dropping an ad-lib that would live on in a million blooper specials for years to come. Johnny was quick on his feet, he was risqué without saying anything dirty, and he knew how to spin a mistake into classic television.
1967 Don Rickles on Pat BooneDon Rickles, The Dean Martin Show “Pat Boone, one of our great stars, right? Has a daytime show. He’s marvelous, the way he comes out — ‘Hi, I’m Pat Boone!’ — what do you want, a cookie? You’re making a fool of yourself and going nowhere, pal, and I’m a friend.” While Don Rickles, a.k.a. “Mr. Warmth,” was making a name for himself in mob-run Las Vegas casinos along with the likes of Shecky Greene, other comedians were getting tight fives together for The Ed Sullivan Show. Unlike those of his peers, Rickles’s act required time and space to explore, and most important, a high-profile audience to relentlessly mock. The Dean Martin Show provided a national television stage for his celebrity-insult act by putting him in his element and re-creating a Vegas showroom, complete with stars of the day, such as Boone. Rickles is a model jester when mocking the powerful — even presidents — so the fact that Boone happened to be drinking milk during his act was basically like a layup. The key to the joke might be "and I'm a friend," as Rickles’s shtick worked, like the best roasters since, because he insulted out of love. His fearlessly subversive act ended up making him a TV regular on The Tonight Show, a star of roasts, and an inspiration for future generations of insult comics. Simply put, Chris Rock wasn't the first person to offer someone a cookie.
1968 Bob Hope’s Oscar MonologueBob Hope, the Academy Awards “Welcome to the Academy Awards, or, as it’s known at my house, Passover.”It’s hard to pick a single joke of Bob Hope’s because he had a million of them. Well, maybe not a million, but he did have an 85,000-page “Joke File” which was scanned by the Library of Congress. Hope hosted the Oscars 19 times, and despite being one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he was never even nominated for an Academy Award himself. Hosting the show in 1968, he opened with one of his most famous jokes: “Welcome to the Academy Awards, or, as it’s known at my house, Passover.” With this one succinct joke, in his influential, unmistakable cadence, not only do we get a funny, self-deprecating quip playing off his long career in show business, but he also hints at how Hollywood views comedy. Sure, we all love to laugh, but is it art? Hope was America’s comedic embassador, and as part of his duties he inspired (and employed) countless comedians over the span of his very long career. But that didn’t mean he was going to get an Oscar nomination (He did get 5 Honorary Awards, though).
Springtime for HitlerMel Brooks, The Producers “Springtime for Hitler, and Germany /
Deutschland is happy and gay /
We're marching to a faster pace /
Look out, here comes the master race”
Ah, irreverence! We take you for granted these days, as you are seemingly everywhere, but let's not forget the pioneers. In The Producers, Mel Brooks set out to touch the untouchable: Holocaust jokes. To have the climax of your film be an ironic song-and-dance number about the glory of Hitler and the Nazi Party was risky at the time, to say the least, and many studios and distributors wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. The film received wildly mixed reviews and it was an initial box-office flop. But apparently the world soon came to their senses, as Brooks nabbed an Oscar for his screenplay, while The Producers went on to become one of the most-beloved comedies of all time, eventually spurring a wildly successful Broadway musical of the same name. Vulgar, satirical, and filled with ethnic jokes, Brooks's early work would go on to inspire everyone from the Zucker Brothers to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose Book of Mormon wouldn't have existed without The Producers as a precursor.
1969 ‘I Will Never Give Up. I'm in My 14th Year of a Ten-Day Beauty Plan.’Phyllis Diller, The Ed Sullivan Show
Nobody self-deprecated like Phyllis Diller, a true pioneer in the art of making fun of oneself. She discovered that it helps a comic to not only have something “wrong” with themselves, but to also play it up, especially when introducing yourself. One of the first jokes a comedian writes is usually some form of “I know what you’re thinking,” followed by a self-administered pot shot to disarm the audience. For Diller, this manifested itself in wearing outlandish bag dresses and exaggerated hair and makeup, wanting the crowd to only focus on her jokes. (Note: She had many TV appearances in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but as you can see from her look, she was made for the late-’60s boom in color televisions.) For that, every comedian, male and female, owes something to Diller. Most immediately Joan Rivers, who honed her act by taking herself down a peg with one-liners about being an unmarried Jewish woman. Rivers wore cuter dresses, however.


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