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Groundbreaking Comedy

On: Friday, May 7, 2010

I've been reading through some comments and thought I'd share my opinion on '"vintage comedy" in this post.

I think anyone who listens to vintage comedy should consider that quite often the material was ground breaking, and/or controversial at the time. In our evaluation of the material, we should start with the frame of mind for that era. For you younger folks, I can sum it up this way: 
1930s, 1940s & 1950s pure as the driven snow
1960s snow is melting but still pure
1970s snow is gone but the ground is pretty dry
1980s snowing again but a different kind, "happy snow"
1990s don't eat the yellow snow
and that should bring you up to today.

It's true, some older material and styles had their roots in vaudeville. But as is often the case (think Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordon) someone comes along who changes the way the comedy game is played forever. While some styles and material are now dated, someone had to do it first, and you can bear witness to that in these releases.

Another thought for you to ponder: at one time there were only 3 TV channels plus public access (OMG) So if someone wasn't invited to Ed Sullivan's, the Tonight Show or a few other variety shows, he or she was not seen or heard on a large scale. Only the cream of the crop made it on the tube and then it was strictly USA exposure. The movies provided another avenue, but it was rare to see more than a cameo unless you were Lou and Bud or The Marx Brothers. Radio? Yeah, back in the day but not with the same impact as TV.

Now? Everyone who can grab a mike can get his 15 minutes worldwide - on cable TV or even Youtube. You have to separate the wheat from the chaff (hey mid-westerners, did I get that right?)

So Vintage Standup Comedy blog visitors, what are your thoughts?
C'mon, leave a comment. If you're a comment virgin, Bust That Cherry and click on # comments just below. 

9 comments on "Groundbreaking Comedy"

Simon said...

Good points. I've recently been watching a couple of 'vintage' Saturday Night Live episodes on DVD and it does seem very tame and - to be honest - pretty short on laughs. But I'm still entertained by it, more as a historical document than anything else, because it's intriguing to see appearances from the likes of George Carlin and Andy Kaufman on TV, and to get a general snapshot of what stand-up on US TV during that era was like. (I say this as a 1st-time commenter, from the UK)

JimG said...

Bravo Simon,
regarding SNL, I had the same feeling when I watched it live back then, the feeling that it was live and improv, and so sometimes the jokes "missed." But when they were funny (landshark candygram) they were funny.
The brits still have 'nads! C'mon, yanks, don't let them show you up! Drop a comment!

Laszlo said...

Personally I prefer this vintage comedy over most of the new stuff that is out there. Dated or not, I appreciate these recordings for the brilliancy of the artists. Most likely has something to do with my age, dunno for sure. Regardless, I appreciate this and your other blogs. Always entertaining and always a pleasure to visit!

Daddio52 said...

I agree with Bob Newhart (as he comments in his book) in that the late 50's and early 60's was a revolutionary time in standup, evolving from the setup-punchline comic to the more complex story-telling comic (a la Shelley Berman). To me, this complexity of the routines (and the inclusion of "forbidden" subject matter) makes this time period the best for standup. I mean, you can listen to Henny Youngman (Take My wife) or Steve Martin (Excuse Me) or Cheech & Chong (Dave) once or twice or three times and then you knew it. You could repeat it by heart. But something like Woody Allen's "The Moose", or Bob Newhart's "King Kong" of Bill Dana's "The Astronaut" you can listen to again and again and hear new aspects that would keep it fresh. To me, this complexity extended into the 70's and the observational comics (George Carlin, Robert Klein) but died with the screaming comics like Sam Kinnison & Bobcat Goldthwait. They may be funny but I prefer comedy with depth. I always preferred the Marx Brothers & W.C. Fields over Abbott & Costello, the Goon Show over Jack Benny, Monty Python over the Lucy Show. I feel that it is the complexity & repeatablity that seperates good standup from great standup.

JimG said...

Another thought about Saturday Night Live -
it was, well, "live" and a throwback to the days before taped shows. I waited for the gaffs, laughs, flubbed lines.

Hey does anybody remember Gleason's live show ending early, with several minutes to go, when he commented how long those minutes were when the whole world is watching YOU

JimG said...

RE: Daddio's comment
Perhaps you've described your preference for the comic over the comedian; this, attributed to Ed Wynn, "A comic says funny things; a comedian says things funny"

Simon said...

Re SNL, like you mentioned in your original post Jim, I think context is everything when you're watching or listening to something that was made during a different era. I was aware of SNL's reputation a long time before watching any of those mid-70s shows, and was first familiar with the cast mostly through their subsequent film careers (The Blues Brothers was released before I was born). I find it understandable that the stand-up seems tame to me, because it was broadcast on live TV so is likely to be 'safer' versions of the routines some of those comics were doing at the time, plus I'm coming to it with preconceptions, no matter how hard I try to put these aside. Actually, the parts I thought dated the worst - on the basis of the few shows I've seen - were often the sketches, but then again great performances can sometimes lift a sketch even if the material is not-so-great. But it's really interesting to watch from a historical point of view, and in light of it having effectively been a springboard to Hollywood stardom. I do think your point about it being a live show is important though, because it maybe means adjusting the criteria slightly if comparing with pre-recorded shows of a similar ilk, or pure stand-up which isn't restricted by the 'rules' of live TV.

JimG said...

This line of thought brings Andy Kaufmann to mind.
When I first saw him, he was (I think) on SNL doing Mighty Mouse. I did not get it. I thought it sucked and actually visualized the show going to black ("one moment please..., technical difficulties"). I pictured TV corp types pulling their hair out that this guy got away with that routine only because it was live TV and he "slipped it by them." Quite some time went by before I grew older and came to appreciate the underpinnings of that routine. One might say that many of us lead that type of life to some degree every day.
Once again, nobody did anything quite... that... far... out-there at the time. Wonder what he'd be doing now? Playing bass for Elvis? WCE?

Simon said...

Absolutely, I think the Andy Kaufman example is a good one because I bet his act confused a lot of people at the time. And probably would do even now, aside from people who know a lot about comedy and are able to appreciate what he was doing. In a scenario like that, being aware of the context means we have a headstart now over audiences who were watching at the time, most likely being completely bemused by it. Of course, the flipside is that with that knowledge/context probably comes expectation - especially with such a ground-breaking show as SNL - and the difficulty is trying to put yourself in the same position as someone watching it on its original transmission.

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