Great punch lines: the history of American comedy

I just finished reading Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, essentially an idiosyncratic history of stand-up, or at least, a history of live performance. It hardly mentions Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, for example, except for their vaudeville careers; hardly a discussion of their film work at all. Even his discussion of television is kinda weird; hardly a word about, say, I Love Lucy, while all sorts of talk about Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Of course, the subject of comedy is too huge for any single book, and I’m grateful, at least, for Nesteroff’s passion for the subject, and above all, his anecdotes. He was able to interview a lot of older comedians before they passed on, and there are some terrific stories that are likely found here and nowhere else.

But it got me thinking about jokes, about the way in which jokes are constructed. Set up, set up, payoff. “Did you ever notice how. . . .” “Take my wife. Please!” What are the greatest punch lines in the history of American comedy? Not possible to quantify. So what are some really good ones?

“I’m thinking!”

Jack Benny

Jack Benny’s comedic persona was that of a tightwad. A miser, a skinflint. (In reality, he was known for personal generosity). He was also master of the comedic pause. So in a radio sketch, he’s approached by a thief, who snarls “your money or your life.” The resultant pause went on forever; the studio audience cracked up. Then Benny built the joke further “I’m thinking.” The set-up was as funny as the punch line.

“Well, Vaughn Meador’s screwed.”

Lenny Bruce

This one needs some explanation. Vaughn Meador was the star of one of the biggest comedy albums of the ’60s, The First Family. It spoofed the Kennedy family, poking gentle fun at JFK’s accent and fondness for touch football games on the White House Lawn, and Jackie’s penchant for decorating. It was very popular; sold over 7 million copies, and the President especially enjoyed it, often giving copies away as a gift. Meador wasn’t much of a comedian, and wasn’t even much of an impressionist. Mostly, he was just a guy who sounded a lot like Jack Kennedy.

And then, Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. The country was in shock. Comedy clubs went dark; nobody was in the mood.

A few days after the shooting, Lenny Bruce had a gig in Miami. Fifteen hundred people in the house. And he came out, and there was another long pause. Nobody had any idea what he’d say. People who were there say that the laugh after the Vaughn Meador line lasted for minutes; a huge emotional relief laugh. I can imagine.

“We’re going to Greece!”

“And swim the English channel?”

The Firesign Theatre

This is a purely idiosyncratic choice; I loved the Firesign Theatre when I was a kid, and this exchange is just typical of their non-sequitar-based, surrealist verbal humor, first on radio, later captured on vinyl. Peter Bergman, Phil Austin, Dave Ossman, and Philip Proctor. This bit’s from their album Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers. Unless it isn’t.

“Dead honky!”

Richard Pryor

In the first season of Saturday Night Live, as it was establishing itself as the edgy, brilliant, essential show it has become, on their seventh episode, Richard Pryor was the guest host. He brought in Paul Mooney as a writer, and Mooney came up with the Word Association sketch. Chevy Chase played a white manager, interviewing Pryor, who has applied for a janitorial position. Chase insists that one final step before hiring is a word association exercise, which starts off innocuously enough. Chase says some neutral word; Pryor responds: “Dog.” “Tree.” But then Chase’s clue words get more and more racially charged. The last exchanges: “Jungle Bunny”, “Honky!” “Spade”, “Honky Honky,” and then the N-word. Pryor’s anger sells the bit, as does Chase’s oleaginous managerial straight man.

“Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”

Stephen Colbert

Generally, the White House Correspondents dinner is an innocuous enough affair. The President attends, and tosses out a few jokes at the expense of Washington insiders. A professional comedian is usually hired. But the 2006 Correspondents dinner was something else again. Stephen Colbert came on, playing the character he’d perfected on The Colbert Report; the obnoxious, clue-less conservative commentator. And he sliced and diced everyone in the room.

What’s remarkable about Colbert’s performance is not just the way he bashed (while praising) President Bush, or the media. It was how uncomfortable the audience clearly was with the performance. It takes a brave comedian to bomb on purpose. Because, of course, his real audience was YouTube viewers.

Comedy is, of course, how we cope with all sorts of terrible events. And a truly great comedian, a Jon Stewart, a George Carlin, a Louis C. K. captures the anxieties and tensions of their times on earth, and gives it just enough of a twist, to help us laugh, to help us deal with things. And yes, comedians are outcasts, sometimes, social misfits. But they’re also essential.

Leave a Reply