Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Humour of the Future

Is the Bilko show still funny? How about Jack Pearl? Or Van and Schenck? Or Mark Twain? Or Andrew Dice Clay?

I suspect people like Jack Osterman in the vaudeville era never thought a day would come where blunt rudeness and crudeness would be considered comedy. But some comedians of a bygone era—one where Jack Paar was banned from saying “water closet” in a punch line—realised humour was evolving. Basically they were tired of the same types of jokes they had been hearing for 20, 30, 40 years and saw the new comedians, ones who were too young to stand on a vaudeville or burlesque stage, were trying something new.

Television changed things, too. Ernie Kovacs’ sight gag humour couldn’t work anywhere else.

The National Enterprise Association’s entertainment columnist wrote a two-part column on changing humour in America, interviewing a number of comedians. This was published on April 3 and 4, 1956. Some of the hoary old examples, to be honest, are so hokey they’re funny. Perhaps comedy goes in cycles.

Top Comics Detecting New Sense of Humor In America

NEW YORK (NEA)—Why did the chicken cross the road? If you say the perambulating pullet wanted to get to the other side, you're as out of date as a dinosaur. Humor, like dinosaurs, has evolved into higher forms. And a survey of top comedians and gag-writers highlights this evolution.
Take the road-crossing rooster. Dick Shawn, one of the better young comics, says that used to be pretty good as a laugh-getter. But today?
“Today,” Dick says, “with the way audiences are with their ‘go and show me attitudes’, the same joke would have to be twisted around—given a new strange, weird, sick slant. It would have to go something like this:
"Bill: Hey, man! Why did that crazy chick cross that road there?
"Joe: Boy, that was no chick. That's my father. He's got problems.
The surveyed comedians do not agree that the changing American sense of humor is progress.
"The standards of humorous material have been lowered," the late Fred Allen said in a reply shortly before his death. "In a mass production era the humor in radio, television and motion pictures comes off the assembly line. These media centered in New York, Chicago and Hollywood have eliminated regional humor its writing and performance."
Jack Paar agrees that all is not well in the humor factories.
"Because of the heavy barrage of comedy via TV, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, cartoons and even the back of cereal boxes," Paar says, "the average American is exposed to humor of some form for the best (or worst) part of the day. This saturation takes its toll and the public soon becomes jaded with contemporary styles of humor. For instance, whatever happened to the Little Audrey stories, the Little Moron jokes and 'Knock, knock, who's there?"
But Edger Bergen takes the view that the change is for the good.
"The public," he says, "demands a faster type of humor with fewer words. The build-up has been cut from 25 minutes to 25 seconds. I believe this reflects the higher intelligence of the American public. As I see it, both music and comedy have undergone changes because of the educational pressures of both radio and television."
Jimmy Durante is another one who looks at things happily. “TV has educated people to humor,” he says. “They know if they've heard it before and you can't tell a bad joke before 40 million viewers.”
They almost all agree that the deep, basic nature of humor is unchanging. But style changes, topics change, the surface humor continually changes. As Robert Q. Lewis puts it, "Basically, the American sense of humor has never changed and never will. Some of the specific topics for jokes have become outmoded. "In an old joke book, I ran across this:
"Zeke: That horse you sold me last week is no good. I can't get him to hold his head up.
"Rube: It's just cause he's ashamed. He’ll hold it up as soon as you finish paying for him.
"This is probably one of the earliest installment-buying jokes on record. With the advent of the automobile, shame was given as the reason for the engine coughing and, when the air age is really with us, it will probably be used as an excuse for the family helicopter being unable to get off the ground."
All any joke needs to bring it up to date is just a little change of props. In the year 2000, with rocket ships and space travel, the old walking-home-from-the-buggy-ride jokes will become parachute jokes; the he-she love-making jokes will still be the same, only instead of gazing at the moon, the boy and girl will smooch beneath an artificial satellite."
This sentiment is echoed by Milt Josefsberg, who for years wrote for Jack Benny and Bob Hope, and is now NBC's executive in charge of developing new comics and comedy shows.
"Jack Benny will today take a script," Josefsberg says, "that was done 10 or 15 years ago, cut out the dead-wood, remove the topical gags and spike it up with a couple of modern bits. This cannot be done with all scripts, of course, but it can, and has, been done with many of them."
Josefsberg's reference to topical gags is important. There is universal agreement among the 14 comics and writers that topical gags must keep topical. Use the same gag, but update the name.
"We used to do gags about glamor girls like Hedy Lamarr and Ann Sheridan, Josefsberg says. "Today these same gags are being done about Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell." "The frames of life change" is the way Lucille Ball puts it. “It isn't possible to get a laugh from the British about its loss of the Colonies, for example. At the time when ‘the sun never set on the British empire,’ they could be kidded about it."
"There is a certain humor that is derived from the headlines," says Mel Tolkin, writer for Sid Caesar. "That, of course, changes daily. What's funny about the gasoline shortage?'
So topics keep changing. Yesterday, it was the gasoline shortage. In some distant tomorrow, it may be rocket fuel."

Humor Can't Step on Toes
(Second of Two Dispatches)
NEW YORK (NEA) —"There are two American senses of humor," says George Gobel. "America's private, didja-hear-this-one type and America's public, or commercial type.
"The jokes we tell, songs we sing and remarks we make at office parties, in locker rooms, during card games, while eating lunch or waiting for babies to be born are pretty much the same free-swinging, any-target comedy as they ever were. But in TV, theater, movies and radio, we have had to narrow the area considerably in order to forestall the indignation of entirely too many groups, many organized and grievously articulate.
"We may not offer jests on topics considered controversial if we are to be successful in today's commercial entertainment field. And today the only thing which appears to escape controversy is the bubonic plague."
Most of 14 comedians and gag-writers surveyed on the changing sense of American humor agree that nowadays humor mustn't step on toes. Perhaps, as Gobel suggests, this has been carried to an extreme, but not all feel that way.
Audiences will no longer tolerate racist humor," say Arnie Rosen and Coleman Jacoby, the men who created Jackie Gleason's famous characters, "or accept caricatures of minority stereotypes."
"If we are to improve ourselves morally, economically and intellectually," says Steve Allen, "our humor will reflect these improvements. Many years ago it was considered in good taste to make jokes about Negroes, Jews, Catholics, etc., which would horrify people of today."
"There are less jokes at the expense of someone's feelings," says Jack Paar. "How often these days do you hear a Pat-and-Mike joke, stories told about people who speak with impediments or have physical handicaps? At one time, this was the main stream of American humor. Behind each laugh was a sharp-edge dagger aimed at racial minorities or unfortunates."
"In the old days," says Jimmy Durante, "there used to be Dutch, Jewish, Negro and Italian comics with racial take-offs. Now you can't do it, because you offend someone. You can't offend people with different afflictions or sicknesses. People resent it."
What's taken the place of this pointed humor? Dick Shawn says audiences "are becoming more sophisticated, more 'hep,' more grown up and definitely more blase." Phil Silvers says "our humor is a bit more violent." Rosen and Jacoby think "today's jokes are for the most part tied up with characterizations."
So sophistication, violence and characterizations are the thing. They've replaced the pointed humor and the puns gags like these, submitted by the polled comics, as examples of yesterday's humor that is now passe:
From George Gobel—"Straight man What's a Greek urn?" “Comedian—About 12 dollars a week." From the late Fred Allen—"Have you heard about the glassblower who suddenly had hiccups and before they could stop him he'd blown 200 percolator tops."
From Milt Josefsberg—"Why can't the locomotive sit down?" "Because it has a tender behind."
From Edgar Bergen—"Why is a kiss like a sewing machine?" "One sews seams nice and the other seems so nice."
From Phil Silvers—"A fine car I've got. You have to put it in second to go over car tracks."
As for the future, the consensus is that changes will keep coming, but basic humor will remain the same. This is how the panel looks ahead:
Edgar Bergen: "Humor will continue to become more intelligent."
Rosen and Jacoby: "It will continue to be refined and sharpened with exercise."
Steve Allen: "Humor is probably becoming a little more cerebral as the old burlesque and vaudeville comics are gradually being replaced by comedians who also have college degrees."
Josefsberg: "Take a good solid gag that played in 1936, and it will get a laugh in 1956 and I'm willing to bet in 1976, too."
The late Fred Allen: "The standards will get lower I'm afraid. Audiences get so much free entertainment they become blase. When people finally know all of the jokes they will stop laughing. Humor may go out of style. People may have to find a substitute for laughter."
George Gobel: "I'm worried about the direction the future will go. I would like to see a television audience which embraces all the peoples of the world, watching programs from every a nation on globe-girdling networks. "The audience will become better educated, more sophisticated and with sufficient understanding to tear down the censor's giant sieve and allow humor to swing wide and free at all targets deserving the attention of skilled, tasteful comedians."
Robert Q. Lewis: "The old jokes, good, bad or indifferent, will always be with us in one form or another."
Jimmy Durante: "The humor of the future will undoubtedly go toward good, clean humor, no offending and virtually no old gags or routines. The people will be sharper."
Dick Shawn: "The answer to that one is worth 10 million dollars."
Phil Silvers: "If I knew the answer, I'd bottle it and make a fortune."
BUT change it will. Change goes on continually. As an example, Sid Caesar's writer, Mel Tolkln, cites a joke he wrote only a few years ago.
"Sid as the German professor of psychology told of a case of an unruly child in a Summer camp who was annoying, disobedient and destructive. The psychoanalyst delved into the child's past, his relationship with his parents and so on. When Sid was asked what neurotic reasons he'd found for the child's condition, he replied: "None—he was just a rotten kid."
"Somehow that sounds dated now. It's too bad, but already psychoanalytical jokes seem dated."


  1. George Gobel was prescient; the Internet and various streaming services have created a "globe-girdling network" that allows people to watch shows from all over the world. Younger people seem especially inclined to do so.

    Jimmy Durante, on the other hand, couldn't have been more wrong about the direction comedy would take.

    Robert Q. Lewis may well have been right about the old jokes. Several years ago, I wrote a comedy play (strictly for local use) that consisted of new material except for one bit that went roughly like this:

    Stanley: I'm looking for Dr. David Livingstone. Have you seen him?

    African: Tall, brown hair graying at the temples, with a mustache and a pith helmet?

    Stanley: (excitedly) Yes, yes, that's the one!

    African: Haven't seen him.

    I'm sure most readers here saw the punch line coming a mile away, but that joke got one of the biggest laughs of the whole show (and not because my original jokes were bad; they garnered gobs of guffaws, too).

  2. As I was reading this blog, the Fred Allen " Glass blower with hiccups " joke had me laughing out loud. With some jokes, no matter the era...funny is funny.

  3. The other thing, I suppose, is what Chuck Jones said about Mike Maltese and Warren Foster using up their Warner Bros. material quickly at Hanna-Barbera -- the voracious nature of television, and the even more voracious one of the modern internet, means there's a huge demand for new material, at the same time there's a lowering of the standards for that material, because comedy shows, movies, podcasts, streaming videos, etc., have to have some sort of product to put out on a regular basis.

    That's made more subjects open for use in comedy that never would have been allowed as little as 30 years ago (and on the political side -- which I don't want to get into here -- there's also a lot of things from as little as 30 years ago you can't use as comedy in the public square anymore. The good or bad aspects of that are up to the individual).