Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Comedy: Sick Versus Bland

“But Mommy, I don’t want to go to Europe!” “Shut up and keep swimming.”

When it comes to jokes, that’s a pretty hokey one, right? Maybe today, but in 1959, it was considered depraved humour.

In the late ‘50s, America got hung up on “sick” humour. Humour that was irreverent? In poor taste? Why, it was sign of the morals of U.S.A. falling apart (one would almost expect Robert Preston to show up and launch into “Trouble” from The Music Man). Boo to the sickos, guys like Shelley Berman. Whaaa? Shelley Berman?! And Don Rickles!?

Peering through newspapers of the day is fun. In 1961, there was a poll published saying “sick humor is slowly dying.” Then in 1967: “sick humor is dying.” Then in 1972, Dear Abby answered a question about why sick humor was so popular. Even funnier were articles in both 1959 and 1962 declaring Red Skelton a “tonic” from sick humour; Red had one of the foulest mouths in show business that he used in his post-broadcast, off-air show to his audience.

This story from United Press International appeared in newspapers on August 6, 1959. It quotes none other than Dan Rowan and Dick Martin who, at that point, had hosted a summer TV replacement for The Chevy Show. There’s a little irony here as ten years later, some people were accusing “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” of questionable taste. Their contradictory conclusion: “Sick humour is horrible. I wish we could do it.”

Comedy Team Gives Views On Acts of 'Sick' Comedians

HOLLYWOOD (UPI)— "Sick" comedians were scrutinized by the comedy team of Rowan and Martin Thursday. They decided the audiences are sicker than the sickniks.
"It's a cult that's grown up in a few big cities," Dick Martin suggested. "Most of the sick comedians depend on the same people returning night after night to hear their gags. The nightclubbers who follow them around are real addicts."
"The sick ones would never be popular on television," Dan Rowan said. "Their material is too far out."
"That's why they're popular in clubs," Dick said. "They can get away with controversial and spicy jokes with a limited audience--and use terms the average televiewer does not comprehend.
"They never get a laugh in real joints because the audience doesn't know what they're talking about."
The comedy team, who appear in movies, TV and clubs, have no "sick" routines themselves, but study the off-beat competition closely.
"Sophisticates—or pseudo sophisticates—are flattered by the sickniks because the comedians throw around psychological terms and other words that aren't usually identified with entertainers," said Dan.
"But even without censorship, mass audiences would never dig the humor. In fact, most of the country would be offended by the new group."
Among the sickniks named by the boys were Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, Shelley Berman and Tom Lehrer. Mort Sahl, who specializes in political barbs, isn't considered a sicknik by his cohorts.
"Their jokes are based on tragedy," Rowan went on. "Death, illness, religion and such things as lynchings make up the subject matter.
"Shock value is what they're looking for. And as audiences become more and more difficult to shock, their jokes keep getting more and more sick. The laughs they get are usually somewhat nervous."
Rowan and Martin, who soon move into the famed Coconut Grove, insist the sickniks must play small, intimate rooms to be successful.
"Comedians like to watch the sick ones perform," Dick said. "Most comedians would love to get away with some of their routines, but television is so closely censored comedians are limited to old, dull stuff."
"Right," Dan agreed. "You can't hope to be a success on TV unless you're really mediocre. There are so many taboos by pressure groups and sponsors we have to stay with bland, innocuous material.
"I wish I had a dollar for every person who has come up to us after our nightclub act and asked why we aren't as funny on TV."
"It's not that we use off-color jokes in clubs," Dick concluded, "but we can mention a product or controversial subject without having to worry about ad agency guys or network big shots. That's something the sickniks never have to put up with."


  1. Growing up I never really considered Mort Sahl a "sick comic "... more like political satire/commentary. In less than ten years O'l Dick and Dan would be accused of questionable humor. Arte Johnson told the late Tom Snyder on WLS back in 1988, that NBC's Standards and Practices were on the actors and writers of " Laugh-In " constantly. Arte explained that he told the first Polish joke in gibberish. NBC game running to him saying; " We knew what you meant..We *Know* what you're really saying!". I had read than during Skelton's " Blue Shows ", He and Martha Raye could cause a convention of sailors to blush.

  2. Most used the word "sick" as in "not well" rather than "gross-out"

    1. And nowadays kids use "sick" to mean "cool."

  3. "You can't hope to be a success on TV unless you're really mediocre." Mm-hm. Methinks that whole interview was a wink to the reader. Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.