Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2007

 

 WHEN FUNNY GOT MORE
LAUGHS THAN DIRTY 

Mike Resnick

I was re-reading a wonderful book that came out three or four years ago called Seriously Funny, by a man who, like myself, never thought much of the stand-up comedians of his/my youth, like Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, etc., who just stood there and told jokes that other people wrote for them – and who also find almost all the comedians of the past 20 years totally unfunny. (I'll include Saturday Night Live and SCTV in the unfunny group. The only two bright spots on the past quarter century, the only two I'd pay to see, have been Rita Rudner and, very occasionally, Dennis Miller.)

The book concentrates on the "new wave" of cerebral comedy that never played the big rooms, rarely made films, and have been pretty much forgotten these days...but they were the cream of the crop, and he's got long, thorough chapters on them:

Mort Sahl (still the most brilliant of this bunch)

Mike Nichols & Elaine May

Tom Lehrer

Lenny Bruce

Ernie Kovacs

Jean Shepherd

Sid Caesar

Bob & Ray

Shelly Berman

Jonathan Winters

Woody Allen (before his movies)

maybe a dozen more

Then there's The Compass, a book on the Compass Players, the most remarkable comedy group ever assembled. They started at

Jimmy's, also called the Compass Bar, about two blocks from the slum apartment I lived in when I was attending the University of Chicago. Most (not quite all) were undergrad students at the U of Chicago, and in the three years they existed prior to moving to an abandoned Chinese laundry on Chicago's Near North Side and re-opening as The Second City in 1959, they numbered the following in their troop:

Mike Nichols & Elaine May

Jerry Stiller & Anne Meara

Alan Arkin

Severn Darden (far and away the most brilliant of them all)

Shelly Berman

Barbara Harris

Andrew Duncan

Ed Asner

Eugene Troobnik

Mina Kolb

Paul Sand

Del Close

That's a hell of a comic line-up. I actually belonged to a Second City workshop when I was in college, back in 1960 (before the original troop, which has never been equaled, moved to New York), and I got to do scenes with Barbara Harris, Andy Duncan and Gene Troobnik. The original Second City Players made three LP records – brilliant, cerebral, and long out of print – and I also have some audio tapes of them as they workshopped some of their improvisations. Never been anything like them for sheer talent.

Somehow the subject got around to this on New Year's Eve, at one of the CFG’s rotating parties. Mark and Lynne Aronson, who also attended the University of Chicago before moving here, and are just a couple of years younger than Carol and me, remembered almost all the above. But the other 25 or 30 people, none of them culturally backward, knew only Nichols & May (most hadn't heard them, but knew they were a team), Woody Allen, Shelly Berman and Jonathan Winters – a tiny handful, and far from the best of them.

Are these guys all due to become nothing but historical feetnote, their brilliance piled onto history's junk-heap?

What about some of the others? The hottest ticket in London in 1961 and New York in 1962 was Beyond the Fringe, brilliant humor by four young Brits, two of whom became Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I have a video of the performance ... but except for Mark and Lynne, no one at the party had even heard of it.

And I remember going to Manhattan in the late 1960s, looking for writing assignments by day, and hitting the small clubs at night. We discovered the Ace Trucking Company (anyone remember them?) with Fred Willard, Stiller & Meara, a couple of others. We saw Gerry Matthews and Madelaiue Kahn break into the biz with tiny, hilarious reviews at Upstairs at the Downstairs, where a lot of the songs were written by newcomers Cy Coleman, and the team of Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt. Again, does anyone remember them, or are we doomed to watch HBO and Showtime comics who think endlessly repeating the word "Fuck" is both hilarious and cutting-edge?

Ghod, I hope not. I mean, I know each generation’s growing up dumber than the last, but please tell me that Andrew Dice Clay is not the spiritual godfather of the next generation of successful comedians.

 

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