Comedy has been intertwined with my existence since my earliest memory. Every Sunday night we watched giants like Alan King or Myron Cohen on Ed Sullivan. Watching the Three Stooges over and over again or the Marx Brothers is how I grew up. As I got older I grabbed on to the brilliant Steve Allen and then was introduced to comic geniuses by the master himself, Johnny Carson. But today it seems like this country has lost its sense of humor, and it is killing me and the rest of us.
When I was in my early 20s we went to the comedy clubs of Los Angeles during the era when Jay Leno was the emerging king. We had Richard Lewis, Gary Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld as budding superstars. We used to party with Budd Friedman, the owner of The Improv, on the weekends after it closed for the night. My personal favorite was the often dark but always masterful George Carlin. The question is would any of these people make it today?
There is an assault on comedy from all sides. I recently watched Can We Take a Joke? which in 75 minutes will make you think ‘no, we can’t.’ The film reiterated what I already knew – the bastions of free thought (colleges) are killing comedy because of political correctness. I had already written how Jerry Seinfeld -- who does a very clean, but hilarious stand-up show -- will not appear at colleges. This movie showed how comedians like Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli and Gilbert Gottfried are fighting back against the killjoys. You know, the people who don’t want anybody to be offended even though comedy is usually about offending people.
I personally come from the Mel Brooks School of Comedy – throw everything you can up on the wall and hope something sticks. The sad thing is I make a lot of Jewish jokes, but I must say after I make the joke that “I can say that because I am Jewish.” We are all afraid someone will be offended.
One of the greats that is still around is Don Rickles. He is the king of insult comics. He insulted everyone so no one thought Rickles was ever actually offensive. He would probably never make it today. Great comics say edgy things. I remember seeing Joan Rivers live. There were times I covered my face and leaned over to my wife and whispered “Did she really just say that?” She was both funny and irreverent.
Can We Take a Joke? refers to the god of comedy freedom as Lenny Bruce who suffered for the battles to be able use certain questionable words in a public comedy routine. Not too long after Bruce’s death, George Carlin was doing his routine Seven Dirty Words with impunity. Would he be able to do that routine on a college campus today without being run off the stage?
Then there is the other extreme. Because of political correctness, the only people you can make fun of anymore are white males who happen to be straight and Republican. Political humor has been around for ages. Bob Hope was a master of making fun of politicians, but never getting political. Johnny Carson did a great stand-up routine every night for 30 years on the Tonight show and we never knew what his personal politics were and Jay Leno followed in that tradition.
Comedy Central started to change things with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They occasionally attacked left-of-center stupidity, but their mainstay was attacking those stupid and bigoted Republicans. It used to be Republicans were just evil. Now they are stupid, racist and anti-woman. This has continued on with all the offshoots like John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah. Seth Myers is a very funny guy, but his decisions to cut off half of his potential audience is baffling. This happened with David Letterman who lurched more and more to the Left as his show on CBS continued and he became less and less funny. Making fun of people with whom you have political differences may seem funny to some, but it wears thin after a while telling the same old joke.
We now have television comedy all centered on attacking white male Republicans, and we have everyone else intolerant of anything that might offend anyone. We need to be able to laugh at whatever we are, whether that be Jew, black, Asian, gay, Hispanic, female, male or large-headed. I recently watched some episodes of You Bet Your Life from almost 60 years ago. Groucho skewered everybody of any background who was a guest on the show. It was flat-out priceless.
The funniest routine I ever saw was Mort Sahl, a man of the Left, sting the idiots in Hollywood over the scripts he wrote for their movies. You can take both sides. Richie Pryor, a comic genius, was never funnier than when he made fun of himself after he set himself on fire freebasing cocaine. Making fun of himself was mastered by Rodney Dangerfield. My wife and I went to see him on our second date. Sitting there doubled over in laughter may have sealed the deal as we were engaged 13 days later.
Lewis Black, maybe the funniest guy around today is another man of the Left, but if you go see him he attacks the Left as much as the Right. Carlin was like that also.
Possibly the greatest gift I ever received was from my son, who for Father’s Day a couple years back got me a complete box set of everything the Three Stooges ever made. I still think Curly is the funniest person who ever lived. Or was it Buddy Hackett or Groucho …?
The important thing is that we get back to not taking ourselves so seriously. Lighten up and listen to an Albert Brooks album. Life is short; laugh it up.