Oh, how thin-skinned we are these days! How overly sensitive! How easily offended! Not like the “politically incorrect” old days, right?
Um, guess again.
Let’s go back to 1957 and read what one of TV’s fast-rising stars had to say about what things were really like back then. This column appeared in This Week, a newspaper magazine supplement. It was published October 27th.
Jokes You Won't Hear On TV
By GEORGE GOBEL (As told to Leslie Lieber)
It's getting tough for a comedian to make a living, says Lonesome George. There are so many taboos he's going crazy but—oops, that word's frowned on, too!
There's a comfortable old show business wheeze according to which all comedy is simply a new twist on seven basic jokes. Well, this is your old friend Lonesome George mixing that bromide with a grain of salt. Maybe back in the good old relaxed vaudeville days comedy was hitting on all seven basic-joke cylinders. But not on ulcer-row television it isn't. No Siree, Bob.
You see, television has grown so cautious about treading on people's toes that the seven original jokes have been whittled down to one—and I can't rightly remember what that one is at the moment. Eliminate bald heads, mothers-in-law, buck teeth, toupees, bowlegs (dangerous because the sponsor's wife may be bow-legged), Neapolitan dialects, doctors, nurses, shyster lawyers, chiropractors, southern senators, psychiatrists—and what have you got left to crack jokes about?
Well, I'll tell you what I've got left: my wife. Alice. Thank the Lord that Alice and I have a private understanding. She belongs to an extinct species of humanity which never joined a protective organization dedicated to writing scathing letters to comedians. If Alice suddenly decided not to let me crack jokes about her, I'd have to fall back on pantomime tomorrow.
Now don't get me wrong. I think it's wonderful to live in a country where big, powerful networks have to pay attention to the little guy's likes and dislikes. That's enlightened democracy. But a TV comic nowadays needs the soul of a seismograph to know where the next rumble of public wrath is coming from. We have to be verbal tightrope walkers.
Listeners' squawks have already put the kibosh on many comedy routines. Jack Benny and the late Fred Allen had to stop calling each other "anemic" during their famous running feud because anemic people's blood boiled at such levity and their angry letters blasted the networks sky-high.
On a recent Jerry Lewis coast-to-coast hoedown, some of the hilarity revolved around a toupee which got entangled in telephone wire. In came the letters, including one sizzler from a man in the business reminding all and sundry that 250,000 men wear hair pieces. So now NBC takes a very dim view of toupee humor.
All you have to do in television is upset one sensitive soul and you're in Dutch. You probably remember that imaginary Brooklyn dunce named Melvin that Jerry Lewis used to burlesque with broad, drooling parody. Well, a Brooklyn mother telephoned the network to tell about her son. His classmates kidded and embarrassed him because his name was Melvin just wasn't fair, she wailed. And that one small voice in the wilderness (excuse me, Brooklyn) rapidly knocked Jerry Lewis's Melvin off TV as a regular performer. A couple of Sid Caesar's rough-edged characters were silently overhauled behind the scenes due to public demand. Remember Sid's portrayal of a roistering, slang-slinging truck driver? It took just one tart letter from trucking interests to drive that shabby chauffeur off the NBC highway. Of more recent vintage was Caesar's characterization of a mop-haired, thick-spectacled bop musician named Mr. Cool Cees. Perhaps you may have noticed that in his later appearances, this "cat" no longer wore his grotesque spectacles: a note from the Maryland School for the Blind did the trick.
Once the Jackie Gleason show was rehearsing a skit about a schoolteacher. Two hours before broadcast time, Gleason, in a terrible stew. called his directors into a huddle. They didn't know why, but he insisted on removing the rather drab actress playing the school marm role and replacing her with a beautiful blonde.
"I knew from experience," Jackie told me later, "that if we didn't have a real knock-out playing the school mistress part, the PTA would hop down my throat for discouraging girls from becoming teachers."
On the Garry Moore show some time back, Durward Kirby introduced a sketch entitled "The Happy Postman," a dyspeptic lettercarrier who never cracks a smile. Immediately thereafter, mailmen on the CBS route got hump-backed carrying sacks of irate letters from their own colleagues all over America. Result? "The Happy Postman" returned to the air the following week wreathed in jolly smiles.
But royalty isn't the only area where feeling runs high. If an aspiring young TV comic asked me for my most valuable piece of advice I'd say: Beware of the Dog! Beware of the Cat! Beware of all Animals! Put one on your show and you're a dead duck and a cruel ogre to half the nation.
On the Martha Raye show, Nat Hiken wrote a skit in which a tiny canary's chirp was annoying someone. A shot was heard offstage. Then a pitiful peep. Then silence. Next day boom! Bird watching societies everywhere were mad as wet hens. Many vowed never to tune in Martha Raye again.
One day about a year ago I hired a swayback horse for my show. We paid him $150 to stand around all day and eat gourmet hay. During the show my side-kick, Pat Buttram, told me that if I bought the spavined steed I should never ride him down a main highway.
"His stomach's so low it wipes the white line right off the highway," he told me.
Well, believe it or not I got 150 complaints from outraged swayback-horse lovers for waxing jocose over a poor animal who "probably got that way working for mankind."
Doing a skit which pokes the slightest fun at some powerful organized group brings an almost certain rebuke. You can't base your humor on a dishonest lawyer or an inefficient cop. All law-enforcement officers must be four-square on the side of the law.
In addition to these taboos, there are, of course, a few words on the unusable list. The networks discourage a comic's use of the words "crazy" or "idiot." "You're goofy" is all right because it isn't a psychological term.
Cut-up Dick Shawn prepared a clever ditty for his TV appearance which had cute rhymes on "schizophrenic." The ever-alert chief of NBC's Continuity Acceptance department, Stockton Helffrich, took the position that the song tended to make insanity sound like a big joke. Shawn changed the lyrics.
Only bebop musicians are allowed a certain leeway, with jive expressions like "Crazy, Man!" "It would be foolish trying to strait-jacket Dizzy Gillespie into shouting "Silly, Man, Silly!" says Mr. Helffrich.
Sometimes it's the sponsor rather than viewers who hamstrings the comics. On one cigarette program, for instance, no performer was allowed to use the word "lucky." You had to use the word "fortunate."
At the same time I'll be the first to admit that a TV comedian ought to exercise sensible restraint in picking his gags. There are things that just don't make good kidding. Any comic has memories that make him squirm—the things he wishes—somebody else had said. Let me cite a couple from my on checkered career.
With the best of intentions I stirred up a nice hornet's nest on my Labor Day show a year ago. For a sign-off I wanted to give a safe-driving plug. Unluckily, I chose to deliver my message with irony: "This is your old friend. Lonesome George, leaving you with this thought: the National Safety Council predicts there'll be 480 traffic deaths over the holiday weekend. Up until this moment only 103 have been reported. . . Now some of you folks just ain't trying!"
Was that a mistake! If there were fewer accidents than usual that weekend it was because an awful lot of drivers stayed home to write me the nastiest batch of letters ever to come down the chute. For that blooper I deserved to have my knuckles rapped real good. Next time I won't trust sarcasm to put a serious point across. As the National Safety Council says, I'll jibe carefully.
Another time when discretion proved to be the better part of valor was at a rehearsal of my own TV program. I was to open with the following monologue: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and a special warning to Gypsy violinists playing in Hungarian restaurants: Men! Don't close your eyes while playing. You may get resin in the goulash or back into a flaming sword and sear your shish kebab."
Now in retrospect that looks innocent enough. But we stopped rehearsal for an hour to thrash out with network and agency vice-presidents whether we should put it on the air or not. We decided to kill it: Russian tanks were rolling through blood-soaked Budapest that day. Under those circumstances, even Hungarian goulash became too political for TV banter. Khrushchev killed my shish kebab joke that night. As reread it now, I have to admit that this was one casualty the Free World could afford.
I wish I had used a little more self-censorship on another occasion when the frantic quest for laughs again led me onto forbidden ground. Everything had gone along swimmingly on the show. Then came that leave-'em-laughing sign off:
"This is your old friend Lonesome George leaving you with this thought: contrary to popular belief, happiness can be bought. On your way home tonight why don't you stop and pick up a fifth?"
Well all I can say is that I bought very little happiness with that whopper. It temporarily lost me more friends across the nation ("we thought you were a nice guy— but") than I care to count. And it gave me a real scary lesson in one of TV's primary laws: be careful how you use giggle-water to get a laugh.
And one final word of warning: if you think you can make up an outlandishly sounding fictitious name for some character and then involve him in imaginary scrapes, you've got another guess coming maybe even a lawsuit. Sometime ago, my gag writers and I dreamed up an escapade involving a fictitious businessman. We conjured up a name we knew no one could possibly have and did the sketch. Right after the show there was a livid long-distance call:
"What are you trying to do to me?" a man yelled. His name? Precisely the same as the fictitious one we'd made up. He threatened to sue the program.
So I guess I'll sign off. This is your old friend Lonesome George leaving you with this thought: If I run out of jokes on my up-coming show, you'll know why. We'll have lost Alice. The End