Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s

Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s

Gerald Nachman

Language: English

Pages: 672

ISBN: 0375410309

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

The comedians of the 1950s and 1960s were a totally different breed of relevant, revolutionary performer from any that came before or after, comics whose humor did much more than pry guffaws out of audiences. Gerald Nachman presents the stories of the groundbreaking comedy stars of those years, each one a cultural harbinger:

• Mort Sahl, of a new political cynicism
• Lenny Bruce, of the sexual, drug, and language revolution
• Dick Gregory, of racial unrest
• Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge, of racial harmony
• Phyllis Diller, of housewifely complaint
• Mike Nichols & Elaine May and Woody Allen, of self-analytical angst and a rearrangement of male-female relations
• Stan Freberg and Bob Newhart, of encroaching, pervasive pop media manipulation and, in the case of Bob Elliott & Ray Goulding, of the banalities of broadcasting
• Mel Brooks, of the Yiddishization of American comedy
• Sid Caesar, of a new awareness of the satirical possibilities of television
• Joan Rivers, of the obsessive craving for celebrity gossip and of a latent bitchy sensibility
• Tom Lehrer, of the inane, hypocritical, mawkishly sentimental nature of hallowed American folkways and, in the case of the Smothers Brothers, of overly revered folk songs and folklore
• Steve Allen, of the late-night talk show as a force in American comedy
• David Frye and Vaughn Meader, of the merger of showbiz and politics and, along with Will Jordan, of stretching the boundaries of mimicry
• Shelley Berman, of a generation of obsessively self-confessional humor
• Jonathan Winters and Jean Shepherd, of the daring new free-form improvisational comedy and of a sardonically updated view of Midwestern archetypes
• Ernie Kovacs, of surreal visual effects and the unbounded vistas of video

Taken together, they made up the faculty of a new school of vigorous, socially aware satire, a vibrant group of voices that reigned from approximately 1953 to 1965.

Nachman shines a flashlight into the corners of these comedians’ chaotic and often troubled lives, illuminating their genius as well as their demons, damaged souls, and desperate drive. His exhaustive research and intimate interviews reveal characters that are intriguing and all too human, full of rich stories, confessions, regrets, and traumas. Seriously Funny is at once a dazzling cultural history and a joyous celebration of an extraordinary era in American comedy.

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there someday. “A lot of people talk and never do it, but I knew she would do it. Phyllis just exuded confidence and people loved being around her. Everyone wanted their desk in the same office as Phyllis, because she was fun.” In her mid-thirties, Diller was over the hill by showbiz standards, and also broke. “She was very poor,” recalls Ramey, who helped buy her clothes and costumes, but when Diller’s little girls visited the radio station, they would always be wearing white gloves. Once she

Hartman). Jan Wallman, who ran the Duplex, said: “I was very fond of Woody’s wife, who was very supportive and used to show up every night, and all of a sudden she’s supplanted by this weird girl, who just took Woody over.” Allen later said that he knew his first marriage was a mistake after a few days but stuck it out for six years. Allen’s frazzled feelings about performing took a toll on his marriage. Recalls Rollins: “The main thing we faced at the time was Harlene”—or “Mrs. Woody,” as she

was very sharp and reenacted the entire tableau of his daughter’s graduation and it was hilarious. Most of the audience was white and they were just loving it. When he’s on, he’s one of the most commanding performers.” Mike Nichols says, “He’s remarkable for doing something that’s almost impossible, which is staying funny for decades and decades—really funny. However he does it, more power to him.” It isn’t easy to lift funny lines out of a Bill Cosby routine because the themes and stories are

said, “The paradox of my life is that I can be very pushy, but at the same time, I am truly timid.” She was shunted into the role of secondary female. Nobody in the company, she says, talked to her, heightening her fears and loneliness. “I was not their typical Second City girl—compliant, very pretty, uninterested in being funny.” She found the group ingrown and wary of outsiders, especially of female New Yorkers with no improv pedigree, but things clicked into place when she played a hooker.

Freling apologized, saying, “Oh, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I’m sure you didn’t just get off the bus.” He had, in fact, just done exactly that. His foot securely in the Hollywood door, he created a menagerie of voices for all of the titans of American animation—Disney, Walter Lantz, UPA (the “Mr. Magoo” studio), Paramount, and, at MGM, the legendary Tex Avery—but his home base remained Warner’s, where he worked alongside Mel Blanc on such classics as Gopher Broke, Lumber Jerks, and

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