Sorry, but I don’t find jokes about body parts and bodily functions, punctuated by f-bombs, all that funny. Maybe it was my upbringing; my father loved non sequiturs and my uncle revelled in puns, especially ones that involved some thought. Maybe it was because my exposure to humour at a young age was through animated cartoons and TV sitcoms and variety shows in an age when shock or obscene humour couldn’t be broadcast into a home. I prefer to laugh at, or even admire, wordplay, and am bored with tired or obvious attempts to shock me.
Maybe that’s why I like the humour of a bygone age, and enjoy the comedy of radio, movies and television of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I still laugh at Jack Benny and Stan Freberg and Phil Silvers and Carol Burnett, even though their approaches (and humour) are quite different. And it’s nice to know others do, too.
Walter Winchell took time out of his red-baiting and personal grudge-bashing in his syndicated newspaper column of December 19, 1954 (within nine months, he would flame out at ABC and end up at the Mutual network) to let loose with some squibs on people he admired in the radio/TV comedy business. It was subtitled “The Comedians.” I’m not much of a fan of Winchell’s but I liked this column and he picked a pretty good group of people to write about.
Jesters have gifted civilization with laughter—a precious possession that provides temporary refuge against the terror of a world crisis or a dreary daily existence. Looming among the titans of buffoonery is Jimmy Durante, a remarkable performer, full of contradictory characteristics. He is the nightclub comic with high comedy attacks of apoplexy who rasps: “Dere goes a load of ice wid three olives. Twelve-fifty! Somebody gotta pay for the cocktail room.” He is the anguished man who was extremely sensitive about the size of his schnoz for many years. But he made it the badge of success. He is the piano-flogging fool, inka-dinka-doodling, who was gripped by melancholy and almost quit when his friend and advisor, Lou Clayton, passed. “Without Lou,” he mourned, “it was like losing my arms and legs.”
He retains his passion for Broadway's electric excitement and always occupies a hotel room offering the best view of the shimmering graph. But Jimmy also cherishes nature's solitude despite occasional irreverence for its primary assets. During a fishing trip some years ago through the woods he conked every tree with a stick, bellowing: “When Durante’s up—no boid sleeps!”
Groucho Marx's sunny mischief has extended beyond his professional chores. A genuine wit. he reserves some of his sharpest jollies for dignified occasions. . . . He once attended a PTA meeting and almost caused a riot with nonsensical queries. When a Latin-American president welcomed him publicly and announced intentions to see him again the following day. Groucho cracked: “How do you know you'll be president tomorrow?”
Not even the solemnity of his initial marriage ceremony could deflate the jaunty attitude, his son's biog avers. When the minister intoned: “We are gathered here to join this couple in holy matrimony,” Groucho interrupted with: “It may be holy to you, but we have other ideas.” And when the minister enquired: “Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?” he Groucho'd: “Well, we've gone this far, we might as well go through with it.”
W. C. Fields’ personality was more bizarre than any ludicrous character he portrayed. The early days of his career were bleak and tortuous. He was frequently bruised by hunger and disappointment. Consequently, Fields remained fearful and insecure as long as he lived. When he began climbing he distributed his coin at literally thousands of banks. Gene Fowler has noted that he had safe deposit vaults in countless U.S. cities as well as Europe, Australia and Africa. The rampant insecurity and the inevitable suspicion constantly haunted him. He concealed microphones in his Hollywood mansion—checking his servants “plotting” against him. Nightmares involving famine were incessant. The result was insomnia, fatigue, despair. The zany who made millions laugh and became a millionaire—was an emotional cripple who required an alcoholic crutch.
During his final days a friend inquired: “If you had your life to live again, what would you like to change?” His response was wistful and tragic: “I'd like to see how I would have made out without liquor.”
Vaudeville was the incubator and the crucible for many of our leading ragamuffins, of course. The struggle was a rugged one—as Bob Hope has recalled: “Bookings were often scarce. Before long, I was four thousand dollars in debt. I had holes in my shoes. I was eating doughnuts and coffee and when I met a friend one day who bought me luncheon featuring beefsteak. I had forgotten whether you cut steak with a knife or drink it out of a spoon.”
Wit frequently has a scornful quality that demolishes the absurdities of life and the vanities of individuals. Among the deftest practitioners of satirical thrusts is Fred Allen. For example, his classic: “California is a wonderful place—if you are an orange.” His barbed size-up: “Hollywood is a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for stars.”
After quitting radio he wryly commented: “It's wonderful this freedom. You can live on the money you save on aspirin” . . . His quipper-snapper about following the bangtails is typically scornful: “Horseplaying doesn't make sense. The jockeys get the ride, the horse gets the exercise, the bookmakers get the money and the horse-players get the headaches.”
His well-known knack for bright gloom inspired the legend that he once snatched a youngster from the path of s speeding truck. Then he growled: “What's the matter, kid? Don't you want to grow up and have troubles?”
Ed Wynn once noted that “the true comedian makes you laugh, but you hardly know why—at least the reason is not as obvious as the point of the gag. That's a gift, completely. Either you've got it, or you haven't.”
The source of laughter (and its motivations) has been analysed in several scholarly tomes. The average comic, however, is not as concerned with cause as he is with effect . . . Some years ago Jack Benny was dining at a Hollywood eatery when he heard the loud laughter of a lady at another table. Jack promptly approached the table and seriously questioned her escort: “Pardon me, but what did you say that made her laugh like that?”
He is constantly beset by the same impossible challenge that taunts many clicks in show biz: The compulsion to make the next show superior to the last. You become your own toughest competition—for success deprives you of the luxury of even a minor failure. This anxiety helps explain why Mrs. Benny has declared that Jack “lives on a steady diet of fingernails and coffee.”
Milton Berle is another perfectionist. He may rehearse five hours to polish a five-minute bit. In brief, being a comic is no fun. It's hard work.
A clown’s desire to revel in tragedy is an ancient lure. Fannie Brice once succumbed to it and starred in a serious drama produced by David Belasco. The reviews were so-so. That ended Fannie’s flirtation with serious drama. Incidentally, she bobbed her nose for the straight acting role.
The ability to inspire thoughtful laughter demands superior intelligence combined with a sharpshooter's accuracy. Will Rogers was a master of this form of wit. He wore the cap-and-bells like a crown . . . He could puncture the pompous delusions of politicians with a single stinging line. However, he was not content to merely ridicule. Will's flippancies were cushioned with wisdom. Consequently, he could gain the affection of the public and retain the respect of his targets. He could laugh at politicians and make them laugh with him.
Rogers’ wit was like this . . . When doing a daily “box” of comments on the news for the N.Y. Times, he wrote a gag which offended some readers . . . The newspaper spanked Rogers for it in a short editorial next day. He countered: “It ain't easy being comical in the paper when you get competition on the editorial page.”