Appropriately, Seriously Funny, Gerald Nachman’s study of the American comedy renaissance of the 1950’s and 1960’s, begins with Mort Sahl. Sahl was the first stand-up comic to comment on politics. He was an innovator of the first order, a hipster who wore slacks and sweaters in the style of the era’s graduate students and who took the stage armed with a daily newspaper for a prop. “I’m for capital punishment. You’ve got to execute people—how else are they going to learn?”
In the early 1950’s, nightclub comics wore tuxedos and did not discuss current events. Sahl was willing to mock presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon as well as Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, and Mao Zedong. Sahl’s influence appears in following decades at stand-up microphones and the sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live’s news segment “Weekend Update.”
Nachman organizes his chapters, each focusing on a different comedian, into a chronological, sociopolitical scheme to demonstrate how the comics influenced the mass culture of the United States and the world. First, however, they influenced one another. Sahl’s conversations with the audience, for example, led to Shelley Berman’s neurotic monologues. Berman spoke into an imaginary telephone as he sat sweating and twitching on a stool under the spotlight’s glare. There, in front of the world, he asked the girlfriend who was jilting him if anything was wrong with him, and all the audience heard was, “‘Uh-huh . . . uh-huh . . . uh-huh . . . uh-huh,’ then ‘Gosh, Shirley, a lotof guys breathe through their mouths. Hey, c’mon, I think yer reachin’ now, Shirley.’”
Berman’s angst-ridden act was adapted by Bob Newhart. Newhart spoke on the make-believe telephone, too, but to a historical personage such as a Visigoth or Abraham Lincoln (Newhart, playing the sixteenth president’s public relations man, advises Lincoln not to shave off his beard), or in more recent times with a fantasy twist, as when playing a worried night watchman “at the Empire State Building who tries to report a giant gorilla atop the building swatting at airplanes.” Newhart had never appeared before a crowd when Warner Brothers executives decided to buy his album. First they had to find a club in which to rerecord the routines with a live audience. It worked well. The audience had to imagine the recipients of Newhart’s calls, and their participation made his halting delivery even funnier.
Mike Nichols, who became a highly successful film director, and Elaine May, who did not, were a hot comedy duo in the late 1950’s.
May: “There is, always, another dimension to music. And it’s apart from life. I can never believe that Bartók died on Central Park West.”
Nichols: “Isn’t that ugly?”
May: “Ugly, ugly, ugly . . . Oh, I love this part! Listen.”
Nichols: “Almost hurts.”
May: “Yes, beauty often does.”
Their fans recognized themselves and laughed. May was a razor-tongued beauty, and Nichols was a Berlin-born New Yorker who synced with her perfectly in dialogues that satirized the pretensions of their sophisticated, college-educated audience.
So, too, did Dick Gregory, simply by being a clever black man playing to white audiences. Only a fraction of his material was about race. He wanted white people to see him not as a representative of black culture but as another human being who suffered from the same frustrations and irritations that they did. “I been readin’ so much about cigarettes and cancer, I quit readin’.” When he had sufficiently softened up his audience, Gregory let them have it with jokes about growing up poor: “Kids didn’t eat off the floor. When I was a kid, you dropped something off the table—it never reached the floor.” A man of deep convictions, Gregory abandoned stand-up comedy for the Civil Rights movement and other causes, including nutrition and fasting crusades that caused some to label him as a crank.
Godfrey Cambridge was another popular black comedian of the day; tragically, he died young of a heart attack. Cambridge, a man of extraordinary wit and charm, later acted in such films as The President’s Analyst (1967), Watermelon Man (1970), and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). His satirical stand-up made his reputation and caught his audiences off-guard: “Do you realize the amount of havoc a Negro can cause just...
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