From the Probably-Nobody-Cares Department, which is right next door to the Nobody’s-Reading-This-Anyways department…
My roommate says it’s good to make lists as you get older. I assume he means for the purpose of reflection and self-examination, and not just for remembering, say, the names of one’s children. I hope he’s right. I wanted to make a simple list of comedy links to post on my blog, and mission creep has turned it into the following: a list of the most important comedy influences in my life.
Big deal, right? To the general public, I’m just another faceless link whore who’s left his diary on the kitchen counter for everyone to read. However, in my former life, I was something of a comic actor and improvisor. Like many others, I found comedy because it made me acceptable. I was an odd, smart kid with a bowl cut, buck teeth, velour shirts, and thick-rimmed glasses. My manners and sensibilities were incomprehensible to my teachers and to my peers. I would not have survived those early years without a sense of humor.
What makes humor such a social lubricant? For one thing, humor is a way to weep with each other in full view of each other and of the ones who are causing us pain. So many oppressed groups – Irish, Jews, Russians, and African-Americans to name a few – have a long, proud humor tradition. Humor can say, “I recognize my place and yours. I recognize what we are to each other. I know this is a game and it’s a bit silly, but it is what we have.” Humor is a signal of respect and, simultaneously, of defiance.
Humor can also be a warning, like the stinkbug’s stink or the rattlesnake’s rattle. Humor is truth, and someone who can really tell the truth to you is not someone you want to fuck with; rather, you want them to be on your side. At the least, you want them to look the other way and not tell on you.
True humor starts with a common understanding of life the way it really is. Fat people really do sit around the house. 100 lawers at the bottom of the ocean would be a good start. It really does take just one psychologist to change a lightbulb (though the lightbulb has to really want to change.) Humor finds a way to say out loud the truth that we would otherwise only secretly suspect.
Humor is collegial and friendly. Humor puts its arm around you like a buddy and tells you you’re being an idiot. And if you don’t stop being an idiot, humor can pull your pants down and embarrass you in front of your family.
So much humor is based on the unexpected twist, a truth impossible to comprehend without acknowledging the fundamental duality of the universe. Think of the people you know who don’t have a sense of humor. Notice how they’re pretty linear thinkers? Is there room in their worldview for alternatives? Humor is the fork in the road, and humorless people can’t abide crooked roads or serendipitous destinations.
Humor is popular art. It’s not a coincidence that the best comedians can sell out a rock and roll concert venue. Comedy is music. It has rhythm, timing, it is in tune or out of tune. It’s also a war. Comedy kills. Or it bombs.
Humor is revolutionary, subversive. It is the mass’s way of telling the powerful, “We can seeeeeee yooou! We know what your doooo-ing!”
Humor is philosophical in a very personal way. Your sense of humor is dependent on your particular way of looking at the world. Like myth, humor hints at the vital, fundamental, immutable truths of the universe. And, like myth, humor is never as good or as effective when it’s explained to you.
I offer here a list of the humorists and comedians who have influenced me in a profound or formative way. My list leaves out a lot of comics I love, or who were groundbreaking in their time. Jack Benny, Steve Allen, The Marx Brothers, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce… back to Cole Porter, Will Rogers, Moliere, Aristophanes, and Og the Neanderthal Parodist… These are the giants upon whose jiggling bellies and forked tongues we stand even today. Modern comics like David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Bill Hicks (RIP), Eddie Izzard, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are defining comedy for a whole new generation. They don’t make my list because they were over here when I was over there, if you will; we missed each other. I offer you a very personal and imperfect list. I’d love to read yours.
I start with The Big Three, the comedians who continue to influence why I laugh, how I joke, and how I see the world. The rest of the folks on this list have contributed elements of humor or perception that I consciously recognize in my words and thoughts from time to time.
Ready? Cue the “It’s” Man. And….
h3. The Big Three
These five Brits and one Amer were probably the most important comedy influences in my life. Watching their show was like watching an Escher drawing come to life; it made your brain flip from reality to reality quite involuntarily. It was perfectly logical, yet it couldn’t exist in real life… could it? If I had a nickel for every Pythonism I’ve quipped to a blank, uncomprehending stare, I’d be as rich as Triple-Suicide-Death-by-Chocolate Cake. For me, though, I laugh at their routines even today. At 30 years old, Python comedy is still fresh, clever, edgy and surprising. They are, quite simply, the best.
I saw him in concert for the first time when I was in high school, but I had been listening to his tapes for years, even performing his routines in class and at camp. His “fuck all a’ ya’s” attitude, his crafstman-like mastery of the common man’s English, and his unerring bullshit-divining rod make him my comedy hero. Like few artists can in this fickle world, Carlin has been able to appeal to successive generations of audiences – from the prudish 50s to the coarse 2Ks – while maintaining his essential Carlin-ness.
The modern generation probably can’t imagine this, but back in the day, David Letterman was a breakthrough. Long before smirky-funny became de rigeur, back when late-night television was still pretty establishment (no disrespect to Johnny Carson, whom I miss terribly), David Letterman blew our minds. He was hip, self-deprecating, funny, and was willing to mock the television conventions of his era. Johnny Carson got huge mileage out of being the straight man to whom funny things happened. David Letterman jumped in a giant bowl of milk while wearing a suit of Rice Krispies. Carson kept himself at arms distance; Letterman got in and got his hands dirty. (By the way, am I the only one who remembers that Letterman had a morning show? Remember Coffee Cup Theatre, anyone?)
h4. The Close Seconds
David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams’ “Airplane!”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080339/ and “Kentucky Fried Movie”:http://hugereviews.com/Movies/kentucky_fried_movie.htm
This group’s later movies have had their moments, but Airplane! had me literally crouched down in front of my seat, bent over and holding my belly laughing. It was comedy Nirvana. A couple of years later, I discovered Kentucky Fried Movie and the same, raw, over-the-top comedy. These guys have had as much influence on any sitcom or comedy movie you see today as anyone else you can name.
“Chuck Jones”:http://www.chuckjones.com/entry.html animation
Purists will quibble over Jones’s contribution to the Looney Toons films under his direction, but there’s no question that he oversaw the golden age of Warner Brothers animation. The comedy in those animations was sharp, the comedic syncopations sublime. Mel Blanc was not only a genius at voices, he had comic chops like nobody’s business. It pains me to see the more recent PC-influenced cuttings of these films, the ones with all the violence cut out. That’s truly offensive.
From the days when I watched his skits (and occasionally his performances) on Saturday Night Live, I was soaking up Franken’s vicious, cock-eyed wit for years, often without realizing it was his. His books have been comedy gems; I had to stop reading Oh, The Things I Know in the airport waiting lounge because I was shaking with laughter and starting to get some looks. His latest book, Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them is only less funny because it’s truth.
Some impulse – I think it might have been sparked by reading the lyrics from “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” – made me buy a Tom Lehrer songbook when I was 14. Long before I heard any of his recordings, I learned the piano parts and lyrics, and impressed my friends at parties – at least at the parties I threw, where the guests couldn’t get away.
A comedy legend. With his white three-piece suit and arrow-through-the head, Martin poked a hole in the self-importance of the 70s and 80s. He created the modern absurd comic. Every time I do mock serious, I’m channeling Steve Martin.
The setup, the punchline, the capper, the topper. The density and rhythm of the show’s comedy was phenomenal. Cheers prompted me to take jokes further. “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” may be one of the finest single episodes in the modern sitcom era. The occasion was Woody and Kelly’s wedding, and for a present the writers gave us a full-on door-slamming farce -dumbwaiter included! – that ranks up there with the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Chuckles” episode for pure poetic comedy.
Art Moger’s “The Complete Pun Book”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0890096015/qid=1077508542//ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl14/102-4368411-0762526?v=glance&s=books&n=507846
My parents gave me Moger’s book just before a long car trip – to their eternal regret. I giggled and cackled and read puns out loud from North Carolina to Ohio and back. Puns, as has been noted by finer minds than mine, are the lowest of all wit, which is to say that they are the foundation of all wit. Art Moger’s book was like a Berlitz guide to the language of puns, and I have spoken like a native ever since.
“Cracked”:http://www.crackedmag.com/, “Mad”:http://www2.warnerbros.com/web/madmagazine/home.jsp, and “National Lampoon”:http://www.nationallampoon.com/ Magazines
These humor magazines taught me about parody and satire. I read Cracked incessantly, Mad only slightly less so. National Lampoon I discovered when I was older, though I didn’t understand half of it at the time. In that sense, NatLamp proved that being smart and funny could be better than just being funny. Or just being smart.
“All in the Family”:http://www.tvland.com/shows/aitf/
A case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. During the uneasy reconciliation period of the civil rights struggle, All in the Family let us laugh at bigotry, racism, and general stupidity. It showed me that there’s nothing wrong with humor that also has a message.
h4. Honorable Mentions
So he’s not so well known, but I mention him here because I’ll never forget seeing him live. I’ve seen many of the big-name comedians – George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, and many others – and I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any single concert as much as I enjoyed Ritch Shydner’s. At a dingy little comedy club in Greenville, NC, Ritch kept the audience laughing for over two hours. The audience would not let him leave. He told us he was pulling out material that he hadn’t used in years, but we didn’t care. He was on.
He’s the best fusion of heart, brains, and comedy on television. If I could have anyone else’s comic sensibility, I’d want his.
The “Hitchhiker”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/’s Guide to the Galaxy is the book I wish I had written. It’s science and philosophy and humor all wrapped up in a neat little package with the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover. Rest In Peace, man. You left us too soon.
“Saturday Night Live”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturday_Night_Live – “The Original Cast”:http://www.geocities.com/snlra/casts/7580.html
We remember these shows through rose-colored glasses, I know. They weren’t all gems, but when they were good, they were the best. The talent in front of and behind the camera that was assembled those first couple of seasons may never be matched. SNL broke new ground in TV comedy. (How perfect that its first host was my comedy hero George Carlin!) The intervening years have had their ups and way downs, but I still check in occasionally, ’cause one of the writers is a friend (well, okay, a “casual acquaintance”:http://www.tvtome.com/tvtome/servlet/PersonDetail/personid-85113 from some time ago who probably wouldn’t remember me, but still…)
“SAK Comedy Lab”:www.sak.com
“My”:www.sak.com/stuart.htm old stomping grounds. If you’re ever in Orlando, go to the parking garage just west of the arena where the Magic play and check out their improv shows. While their golden age, like SNL’s, may also have come and gone, in its time SAK had what I truly believe to be some of the finest comic talent in the world. Wayne Brady is only the most visible of the SAK diaspora. You’ve seen the work of others in countless commercials, TV shows and movies. Current Artistic Director Dave Russell is probably the funniest person no one has ever heard of. He should have been the next Peter Sellers, if anyone in Hollywood could have had eyes to see.
Another Orlando-bred improv troupe, THEM are some of the nicest, most genuine, and funny people I personally know. They’re out in LA now, getting ready to take over the world. You’ll hear of them soon enough.
“George Burns and Gracie Allen”:http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/G/htmlG/georgeburns/gerogeburns.htm
Out of loving tribute, I named my cats George and Gracie. Gracie Allen can still make me guffaw. George was the perfect straight man, and a genius behind the scenes.
“Abbot and Costello”:http://www.abbottandcostello.net/
My friend and I won third place in the 7th grade talent show performing “Who’s On First?” Not bad, when you figure everyone else in the contest was a singer or a baton twirler.
Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, awes me with its consistency. Forget for a minute that it’s on Public Radio and listen anyway as this innocuous-seeming show shoots deadly accurate spitballs of comedy, then turns its head and whistles. Keillor also executive-produces the fabulous “Comedy College”:www.comedycollege.net
My grandpa. His sly, subversive sense of humor has passed down intact to his children and grandchildren. One of his favorite dinner jokes was to take a bite of poultry, turn to my grandma, and declare, “Leona, this chicken is fowl!” It would make her fume, which caused him no end of glee.