Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Clean Comedy

Perhaps it was just the way I was brought up, but I really dislike rude and foul-mouthed comedy. My parents never used those kinds of words. Neither did my grandparents. Nor did any of the cartoons, implausible TV sitcoms and old radio shows I inhaled as a boy a half-century ago. They were all funny without f-bombs and references to women’s body parts.

Of course, that kind of language has been around forever, and it’s even been part of comedy for an awful long time. Evidently, it annoyed one of TV’s great showmen—Ed Sullivan. Before Sullivan became the world’s stiffest variety show hosts, he was a columnist for a newspaper, where I’m sure the vocabulary around the office wasn’t fit for church. Here’s Sullivan sounding off about clean comedy in his column of February 8, 1950.

Little Old NEW YORK

"Laughter Has No Religion"
When Olsen and Johnson were given an audience at the Vatican last week his Holiness, Pope Pius, was quoted by the AP as having said: "Ah, comedians, that is good. Laughter has no religion. There should be more of it in the world." . . . Performers all over the world must have beamed as the observation was flashed by the wire services. . . . In New York, Jack Benny, here to aid the Heart Fund drive, expressed his pleasure. So did Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, stopping in Manhattan briefly, en route from Florida to California, was touched. In Miami, where I happened to be, Harvey Stone, Danny Thomas, the Ritz brothers, Jackie Miles and Jan Murray discussed the high compliment paid to their profession.
Some of them were startled to learn that in the Catholic religion, the patron saint of the stage is St. Genesius, the great clown who was martyred because he refused his emperor's request to do a mockery of the Mass.
Laughter, of course, is not to be confused, with the smirking, embarrassed laughs that some comedians win, with soiled distortions of humor. Laughter is the sort of achievement that rewarded Jimmy Durante's run at the Copacabana, when in a 50-minute routine, Jimmy didn't utter one double-meaning gag, and didn't indulge in one gesture that could be misinterpreted. Myron Cohen, similarly, is a comedian who gets his laughs the harder way, which is the cleaner way. At least, some comics think this is the harder way, but Cohen will tell you it's the easier way. "Only a poor craftsman has to resort to filth, and when he does, he admits that he can't qualify," is Cohen's opinion. Some seasons back, when one writer started a drive to purge the dialecticians, I went to the defense of the Myron Cohens of the profession, because he is an outstanding gentleman of his profession.
Danny Thomas, a top-flight comic, never resorts to dirty material, and gets paid very big money. Jack Benny, of course, one of the highest paid stars of the business, always has used a gentle, self-deprecatory formula that is built around amusing situations.
Radio, motion pictures and now television did much to improve the breed of comedians and sharpen their good taste in comedy. Many, known in vaudeville as bad-taste guys whose material had to be watched continuously, reformed when radio proved they could become national famous via laundered jokes, free of smirks and leers.
Harvey Stone, GI alumnus, gets howls on his humorous approach to the problems of Army indoctrination and basic, training. Joe Adams' comedy is thoroughly clean.
Danny Kaye, when I saw him at the Beachcombers at Miami Beach, remained on stage for close to an hour, In that space of time, Kaye didn't pull one off-color line, made no anatomical references, and completely delighted his audience without once resorting to anything that the professional label "blue," meaning off-white in coloring.
Jackie Miles' most amusing comedy is built around a cowboy film, whose hero goes through all sorts of trials by fire and hostile arrows and emerges unscathed and unflurried, twanging his banjo and crooning the same song he started in reel 1. Frank Fontaine hopped from "Toast of the Town" to an MGM contract, because of one clean monologue, his impression of a sweepstakes winner explaining how the news was broken to him by a radio program. And how the radio actually answered his questions, when he talked back to the loudspeaker. (Willie Howard, I think, was the first comic to visualize the comedy in talking back to a radio, but Fontaine's employment of the gimmick was entirely his own.)
Ed Wynn's long and honorable record is unspotted by a single instance in which Wynn compromised with good taste. Fred Allen's drolleries of "Hogan's Alley" were always clean and witty, his talent registering without the aid of any dirty stuff or even questionable lines.
The Ritzes have been begged by all of us to eliminate those portions of their act which resort to effeminate mannerisms, because they don't need it. Berle, similarly, should not go in for this type of characterization, which is always distasteful, though productive of quick laughs.
Perfect illustration of the point of this article is the experience of Ken Murray. He arrived from the coast with a show that had run for seasons out there. At the time of the New York unveiling, some of us decried the spicy context, asserting that Murray was too expert a comic to rely on this type of materials.
The show closed. A few months later, Murray made his TV debut with an hour-long show. Obviously, there wasn't a single offensive line of situation, and Murray proved, if proof were needed, that he needed "blue" gags about as much as he needed a hole in his head. Comics have told me, and there undoubtedly is truth in their declarations, that as they work across the country, and are booked into clubs which merely serve food as an excuse for a liquor license, owners insist that they dirty up their monologues. "Look, we want no high-class stuff," says the small-town Ziegfeld. "My patrons want meat and potatoes when it comes to comedy."
This is an unfortunate situation, and not easy, to handle unless the comic turns down such jobs—and sometimes the economics of the situation don't give him much of an option.
But it does seem to me that all comics should take heart at the high praise bestowed upon them by the Vatican, and should review and revise their routines from the standpoint of good taste.
The yardstick of judgment is not difficult to apply. "If you're in doubt about the propriety of a gag, don't use it." That is pretty good advice, and its soundness has been proved by experience. Whenever any of us has forgotten the old adage, we've come a cropper.


  1. It's interesting that Ed Sullivan refers to Fred Allen's visits to "Hogan's Alley" instead of "Allen's Alley" in this article. The place known as "Hogan's Alley" was used by Richard Felton Outcault as the hangout of the Yellow Kid, in his turn of the 20th century pioneering newspaper comic.
    Today, at least to me, comedy just isn't funny. It is a continuous parade of bad language and explicit descriptions of bodily secretions and sub-bathroom humor. Many have made a profession of being offended by the ethnic comedy of the golden era of humor, but I have always appreciated the thinking and knowledge of people and specific types of people that goes into ethnic comedy. I would trade the slight embarrassment of an old ethnic joke for ten freight cars loaded with what passes for risibility in the 21st Century.

  2. The implementation of the MPAA's ratings system, followed a few years later by the loosening of restrictions on what could and couldn't be used on television may have opening up a few topics for comedy that had been restricted in the past. But long-term, what it's done is make comedians, writers, actors and producers lazier on how they get their laughs. The majority of dirty/risque comedy gets much of its punch out of shock value and pushing the envelope. But once you know the shock that's coming, the shock aspect of the comedy vanishes and the gag has to stand on its own merit. That usually doesn't make for good repeat viewing, while continuously pushing the envelope gets you to the point where you're really just doing adult versions of kids' gross-out humor.

  3. And it isn't just with "dirty" comedy, with "jokes" about people's privates (not just women's) or other "risqué" stuff.. Much of today's so-called "comedy" has a very pronounced streak of mean-spiritedness and cruelty to it, exemplified mostly by the likes of Ricky Gervais and Larry David, and the latter's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" cable show. Not to mention pushing a pronounced socio-political agenda more in common with what one would find in Communist countries from the period when the likes of Jack Benny were making people laugh year after year - when he was around to do so.

  4. I have also don't like such type of comedy in which foul language is used by comedians. we can not see this type of comedy with our family members. But now a days all comedians are interested in this type comedy. I request to all comedians that they should get information through these types of posts about clean comedy and they should always do clean comedy.