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

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

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by Gerald Nachman

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
A veteran newspaper entertainment columnist, Nachman lights up when he is reporting; at its supplest his prose crackles with snappy one-liners and bright turns of phrase. He has done homework, ransacking clip files and absorbing standard sources that he borrows from liberally for both opinions and facts, sometimes with acknowledgment and sometimes without. And he has done legwork, interviewing a gaggle of people intimate with postwar comedy and its milieu, from key agents like Charles Joffe and Jack Rollins to fans like Roger Ailes, a Sahl devotee, and Robin Williams, who grew up idolizing Bruce and Winters. Generally, Nachman weaves his wide-ranging materials into effective, evocative portraits. As an introduction to postwar comedy, Seriously Funny does a solid, entertaining job. — Gene Santoro
The Los Angeles Times
Nachman's volume, with its prodigious wealth of detail, is a virtual encyclopedia that cannot possibly be digested in a single sitting. But it is a smorgasbord that will be savored by anyone with an appetite for an endlessly fascinating subject. — Stanley Karnow
The Washington Post
Few figures are as symptomatic of the era's contained volatility as the gallery of innovative comics Gerald Nachman profiles, analyzes and gives their long-overdue due in Seriously Funny. Often satirically impudent, basing their comedy styles on their own personalities rather than supplying machine-gun jokes, they also gave so-called mainstream America its first exposure to unrepressed minority attitudes -- for which read, primarily, urban Jewishness, although plenty of WASP flakes joined the party, and black comedians and, to a still lesser extent, female ones also made inroads. — Tom Carson
Publishers Weekly
Something happened to comedy beginning in the late 1950s. Geniuses like Mort Sahl, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen took a tired medium ("Take my wife-please" was about as good as it got) and transformed it into a sharper, meaner, more personal and more politicized art form than any comedy that had come before. It was, as Nachman notes in this broad survey, a "satirical revolution." Suddenly, police might arrest a comic for obscenity (Bruce). Or the American president might demand an explanation of a punch line (Sahl). Or network censors might freak out over politically charged TV scripts (the Smothers brothers). As a group, Nachman argues, these comedians changed the cultural landscape, pushing the boundaries of humor, art and good taste. But for many, genius had a price. Jonathan Winters spent time in a sanatorium; Bruce succumbed to drug addiction; and Sahl became paranoid and unbalanced, oddly obsessed with JFK's assassination. The list could go on-and does. Nachman (Raised on Radio) covers 26 comedians here. Necessarily, some details are lost. But whatever Nachman lacks in depth, he makes up for with his enthusiasm and firsthand knowledge (he interviewed many of his subjects himself, repeatedly, over decades). Even better, Nachman knows when to shut up and let the comics speak for themselves (Sahl on Barry Goldwater: "The fascist gun in the West"; Allen on the modern condition: "Not only is God dead but try getting a plumber on the weekends"). A must-have for comedy fans, this book is also a notable study of America as it shed its gray flannel suit and began, finally, to laugh. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This insightful book is an important contribution to an understanding and appreciation of the comedians of the early 1950s and mid-1960s, who departed in manner and method from their vaudevillian forebears and provided the inspiration and ideas (sometimes stolen without attribution) for hundreds of stand-up and sit-down comics who have followed them. Newspaper and magazine entertainment critic Nachman (Raised on Radio; Out on a Whim) succeeds brilliantly in reanimating 26 progenitors of new styles of making people laugh, examining their personal as well as public ordeals. Among the ranking wits represented are Mort Sahl (the political comic), Bob Newhart (the telephone comic), Dick Gregory (the race comic), Joan Rivers (the bitch comic), Lenny Bruce (the dirty comic), and Jonathan Winters (the wacky comic). The scope of Nachman's keen observation and thorough research enables him to set before his readers the very physical and intellectual image of these men and women. He has many intimate and little-known anecdotes to tell of his subjects, and anyone who has ever cracked a smile or roared with laughter at their antics will go on reading, all the way to the end. Essential for humor collections.-A.J. Anderson, GSLIS, Simmons Coll., Boston Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Veteran media critic Nachman (Raised on Radio, 1998, etc.) profiles a score of the most innovative comedians from the post-WWII era. The author’s research is meticulous and impressive. Nachman listened to stacks of old LPs, watched countless hours of low-fidelity videos, read dusty celebrity biographies and memoirs, paged through old magazines, and presumably cranked miles of newspaper microfilm. He has also chased down many of his still-living subjects to see what they’re up to. Some were cooperative (Bob Newhart), some surly (Shelley Berman), some bitter (Vaughn Meader), some "unavailable" (David Frye, whose voice-mail message features his Al Gore impression). In a longish introduction, Nachman argues persuasively that the 1950s, far from being the Decade of Cultural Darkness, instead "helped light the way for many of the cultural eruptions that followed." He begins with Mort Sahl, who declined requests for an interview, and ends with Joan Rivers, whose career, the author says, was fueled by "a fear-driven ferocity." In between are portraits of comedians as disparate in style and substance as Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce, Nichols/May and Ernie Kovacs, Phyllis Diller and Godfrey Cambridge (who receives short shrift here). It’s notoriously difficult to write seriously about funny people, but Nachman can fashion an arresting phrase: Diller, he says, looks like Big Bird’s mother, and most of the Lenny Bruce wannabes "are still diddling in the bathroom and refuse to come out." The organizational pattern of his essays, however, is numbingly monotonous: snapshot of career (with many quotations from critics and from the subject’s routines), childhood and youth, update, final assessment. Hereports some goodies, though: Cosby once sucker-punched Tom Smothers, and comedians love to accuse one another of stealing lines and shticks. Part reference, part anthology, part social history--a modestly successful experiment in genre splicing. (25 b&w photos)

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One The 1950s

A Voice in the Wilderness -- Mort Sahl

If you were the only person left on the planet, I would have to attack you. That's my job.

Nobody saw Mort Sahl coming. When he arrived, the revolution had not yet begun. Sahl was the revolution, at first, although he had no such grand idea in mind. He wasn't plotting the violent overthrow of the conservative comedy government. He was never a rebel, deep down. In thought, yes, but rarely in deed. His secret desire-a pipe dream, really-was to work somewhere as a comedian. He had no experience and little idea where to go to be funny, other than parties and all-night campus hangouts, where he held forth in his motormouth manner.

Of all the great groundbreaking comedians of that era-which officially began with Sahl's inauspicious debut on Christmas Night 1953 before a friend-packed audience at a San Francisco folksinger haven called the hungry i-nobody could have been more different from the standard stand-up comic than Mort Sahl. Even the revolutionary comedians who followed him-Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Phyllis Diller, Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters-were cast in a familiar nightclub comic mold; all but Allen, a writer, had worked as actors, or in radio, or as entertainers of some sort. Other comedians labored to find a stage persona, a voice, but Sahl's actual persona was eccentric enough, and his voice was loud and clear. He was a force of nature, a whirlwind whose ideas defined him; behind each joke lurked a sharply etched, cynical worldview.

Everything about him was candid and cool, the antithesis of the slick comic: his casual campus wardrobe (the signature cardigan sweater, slacks, loafers, rumpled hair, open collar, rolled-up shirtsleeves); his material (partly political but heavily laced with social commentary on fads, trends, and the American mind-set at midcentury); his consistently high level of original wit; and, to be sure, his conversational, in-your-face delivery. Unlike the comics of the day, he didn't attempt to ingratiate himself with the audience, yet he connected with them on his own terms. Often he didn't finish sentences-he spoke in a kind of shorthand and didn't worry about building to a finish or making logical segues; he didn't sing or dance. He was unlike any comedian who had ever been-except that he was stunningly funny. The mere idea of a stand-up comic talking about the real world was in itself revolutionary.

Sahl had "attitude" before it became trendy-and, much later, in the 1980s, before it passed itself off as a substitute for wit. Attitude comedy didn't stem from Steve Martin, David Letterman, and Dennis Miller. It started with Mort Sahl, whose audacious position was that, basically, the fix was in-that life in the 1950s, and politics in particular, was a joke and that he was simply reporting what went on in Washington.

That had also been Will Rogers's pose, but Sahl was citing chapter and verse, and was no benign, lovable, head-scratching cowboy philosopher. Sahl, it seemed, had never met a man he liked-or, as he cracked, "I never met a man I didn't like until I met Will Rogers." Sahl had read Rogers and concluded, "I'm not flattered when people say I'm the new Will Rogers. You read over some of the old things Rogers wrote and you find out he wasn't very funny." Sahl conceded that Bob Hope "works in some political material," but Hope had no political viewpoint beyond a glib patriotism. Of all the comedians of that time, his closest ancestor-and influence-was the bitter and acidic Henry Morgan, the iconoclastic radio satirist. "He really impressed me," said Sahl. "It was a great blow for freedom that this guy could get it across-it was a rallying point." Sahl was perhaps closer to H. L. Mencken than to any comic-in his ferocity, his lacerating wit, his language, his hyperbole, his imagery, and his impact.

For a time, when he was riding high in the early 1960s, he was almost a fourth branch of government-"the nation's only employed philosopher," said the Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams, and "almost certainly the most widely acclaimed and best-paid nihilist ever produced by Western civilization," wrote The New Yorker's Robert Rice in a 1960 profile. The press's careless comparisons of Sahl to Rogers and Hope were way off the mark. When Rogers or Hope did political material, their jokes weren't meant to wound or to make anyone squirm; Sahl's were, and did. "Will Rogers with fangs," he was labeled, or "the Will Rogers of the beat generation," "the surrealist Montaigne," and "a beat generation Cotton Mather." Sahl was, in fact, virulently anti-beat ("The beat generation is a coffeehouse full of people expectantly looking at their watches waiting for the beat generation to come on"). He said, "The beatniks don't want to be involved with society, which is the antithesis of what I do." Pre-Sahl, it was heretical, even career suicide, for a comedian to discuss politics, much less to cut up a sitting president onstage. Rogers and Hope were establishment figures, national heroes, but Sahl was completely out of the Washington loop when he began. Rogers used to say, "All I know is what I read in the papers," a posture close to Sahl's own, though Sahl's slant was that all he knew is what he didn't read in the papers.

Roger Ailes, the head of Fox Cable News, recalled: "I once sat with Mort Sahl in Mister Kelly's, and watched him read a paper in a booth. He got up onstage six hours later that night with forty minutes of new material. With no writers, he just did what he had seen in the afternoon papers. He was a genius." Later, Sahl would tell lengthy stories of attending White House dinners, heavily embellished, that depicted him as an outsider who had snuck in a side entrance to the West Wing when nobody was looking. He was no crony; he didn't hobnob like Hope or wish to be beloved like Rogers, both of whom emerged from vaudeville. Sahl was no show-business baby. He was a guy with things on his mind.

As he later wrote in his memoir, "Something was stirring in the late '50s in America even if people couldn't define it." Sahl defined it. Comics were utterly befuddled by him and what Ralph J. Gleason labeled "the new comedy of dissent." "Who wants a comic you gotta have a dictionary on your lap so you can figure out what he's saying, and even then he ain't funny," said Buddy Lester, a paid-up member of the comic rear guard. Other comedians, Woody Allen recalled, "became jealous, because Sahl was so natural. They used to say, 'Why do people like him? He just talks. He isn't really performing.' " Not performing in a traditional sense, but his mind did an astonishing tap dance across the front page.

Although Sahl clearly loved the attention and later even the friendship of politicians, he didn't seek their approval, only their attention. It cost him dearly when the Kennedy clan-although not John Kennedy himself-mistakenly assumed that, because Sahl had bashed the Eisenhower administration, he was the Democrats' boy. Mort Sahl was nobody's boy. Some took him for a comic hired hand because he had made the mistake of writing jokes for Kennedy during the campaign. Lenny Bruce liked to say, "I am not a comedian, I'm Lenny Bruce," but it was Sahl who truly was not the standard comedian.

Sahl was misjudged as merely a comedian just because he made his living in show business. He embraced fame and success, appearing on major television shows and rubbing elbows with celebrities and collecting all the trinkets of stardom, but he refused to play the logrolling celebrity game-and that conscious rejection would later come back to bite him. He was, like other great comics of that era whose careers skidded off course early, his own worst enemy. He was not just a political rebel, as his later sharp turn to the right revealed, but he had a rebellious personality that cost him friends, colleagues, club dates, managers, agents, wives, and girlfriends. Sahl still goes it alone, with a major ego that assures him he's superior to his fellow comedians. His deeply indignant, contrary streak fuels his passion and sparks his wit, but it also burns bridges.

The event that proved he could be as politically committed as, say, Dick Gregory or Lenny Bruce-someone willing to put his name and reputation on the line-was the Kennedy assassination. It scarred his career, and really his life, because his career was his life. In 1963, after blazing across the comedy skies in the 1950s and early '60s, Sahl all but fizzled out after JFK's death. The Warren Report so traumatized him that he never recovered his footing and still struggles against an ancient stigma that he's a head case.

Sahl was just gaining mainstream acceptance on TV when the assassination brought him down as clearly as it did Kennedy impressionist Vaughn Meader. Unlike Meader-a novelty item and a relatively minor talent-Sahl, with his boundless and resourceful wit, might be riding high even now if he hadn't got so immersed in the dubious findings of the Warren Commission that it damaged his objectivity. His major tactical mistake was in not maintaining a certain artistic distance, as a wit and commentator, from his material; and he failed, utterly, to recognize that this was how the public viewed him.

He miscalculated the fickle and perverse nature of show business and the copycat media, which hastily and wrongly wrote him off as a radical kook and, with cruel irony, as yesterday's newspaper. By 1966, only six years after he had appeared on the cover of Time-a stamp of approval that carried far more clout than it does now, the first true stand-up comedian so honored-and been profiled by The New Yorker two months later, Sahl was scrambling for club dates and trying to salvage his career. His fall from grace was Bruceian. To many he appeared to be preoccupied with the Warren Report, from which he read long excerpts onstage, and it was said that, like Bruce, he had stopped being funny. In fact, most critics felt he was still fresh and funny, but not enough people cared, and the rumor still hounds him. Sahl stalwarts stood by him and showed up religiously whenever he appeared, with decreasing regularity, but he had lost the precious traction that performers need, especially comics with small, hard-core constituencies. A film star or a pop singer has nine lives, a comic only one.

In 1983 Lawerence Christon wrote: "Mort Sahl has charted one of the most precipitous courses in American entertainment for the last thirty years and has gone from celebrity to internal exile. There was no precedent for what he did. There were no prototypes. He's a genuinely self-created man and a true existential in that sense. Once he passes from the scene, people will begin to lionize him and call him the great American and take to heart all the things he's said." Sahl is counting on that. It's what has kept him talking into the next millennium at seventy-five, fifty years after he first kicked the door down.

It's hard to imagine Mort Sahl as anything but a mature, adult cynic, but in his early recordings in the mid-1950s you can get a sense of the boyish Mort. While the material is richly sardonic, he doesn't sound as deeply cynical as he later became. His voice is lighter and higher than remembered, almost chipmunk-like as he delivers his most caustic cracks. He seems delighted with himself, enjoying his own performance, and his sporadic bursts of laughter are infectious yet not self-congratulatory. He sounds surprised when people laugh or applaud a line, and often he responds with a disbelieving "Really?" as if to say, You actually understand me! thus spurring him ever "Onward!"-his famous battle cry. The monologues were leavened with staccato good-humored guffaws, directed not so much at his own performance as at the general absurdity of American life. No matter how harsh and hostile his pronouncements, there was never any hostility in them. It was just that, as Sahl himself put it, "Everything bothers me."

He was born in Montreal as Morton Lyon Sahl (the middle name proved prescient, suggesting its owner's self-approving roar), the precocious only child of a Jewish couple who had moved from New York City to Canada, and finally to Los Angeles when Sahl was seven. His unlikely Canadian roots were quickly shaken off and he grew up a totally Southern California guy-wisecracking, movie-crazed, and, at twenty-three and just out of the service, the embodiment of what a new men's magazine out of Chicago would soon refer to as "The Playboy Man." Sahl was all of that-addicted to women, sports cars, jazz, hi-fi equipment, fancy watches, all the fifties talismans of young American manhood.

Although Sahl didn't come from a theatrical background, his father, Harry, was a leftist and a failed playwright from New York's Lower East Side, and Mort shared much of his father's contempt for show business, if not the entire system. "It's all fixed," Harry Sahl would say. "They don't want anything good." Mort's ebullient mother was "all enthusiasm." Both parents were radicals. His father owned a tobacco store in Montreal before settling in Los Angeles, where he worked as an FBI clerk, one of several low-level bureaucratic positions he held. After making it at the hungry i, Sahl moved his parents to Sausalito and, when his father died, Mort found clippings about Harry Sahl's thwarted career. "My dad was disappointed in his dreams and he distrusted that world for me,"

Even as a kid, Sahl was a precocious talker-standing behind a radio and delivering his own newscast, mimicking Gabriel Heatter and Walter Winchell; by eight, he was hanging around radio stations, fishing discarded scripts out of trash bins and reading them into a fake microphone he had built. His mother said that Mort was talking at seven months and, when he was ten, "spoke like a man of thirty." The young Mort was a teenage patriot during World War II, joining the ROTC in high school and winning a medal for marksmanship and an American Legion Americanism award. At fifteen, he left L.A.'s Belmont High School to join the army, but after two weeks in uniform his mother rescued him. "I was a martinet as a kid," he liked to say. His closest boyhood chum was the actor Richard Crenna. At thirteen, they would sneak into the KFI radio station and try to get on a show called Boy Scout Jamboree, but only Crenna was cast; Crenna recalls that Sahl was antiauthoritarian at ten.

Sahl's father tried to get his son a West Point appointment, but Mort was drafted and sent to the Ninety-third Air Depot Group in Anchorage, Alaska. There, his rebel instincts flourished and he grew a beard, refused to wear a cap, and edited a post newspaper, Poop from the Group, which won him an eighty-three-day KP sentence for editorials about alleged military payoffs. Thirty-one months later he left the service, still a private but a five-star rebel: "A few months under the heel of authority killed it for me."

Meet the Author

Gerald Nachman has for more than forty years covered theater, movies, cabaret, and television for newspapers and magazines. His previous books include Raised on Radio; two collections of humor pieces, Out on a Whim and The Fragile Bachelor; and a humorous book on marriage, Playing House. He lives in San Francisco.

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Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s And 1960s 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bladerdash! That's not a word Lenny Bruce would use to describe those who had complaints with 'Seriously Funny', but Gerald Nachman's book on Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s is the first honest writing on Lenny Bruce. Nachman, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended college at San Jose State, met some of these performers while writing a column in the Spartan Daily in the late 1950s to 1960. He attended SJS with the Smothers Brothers and was a professional writer visiting Enrico Banducci's 'hungry i' and the Blue Onion by the time Lenny Bruce was first busted by the SFPD at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco's North Beach. Nachman sprinkles bits from Bruce's routine thoughout the 46 pages of this sad story on the decline of Bruce. He also quotes various professional entertainers and writers on Bruce. Surpisingly they range from praise to disgust. I guess it has to do with when they first saw Lenny perform--before or after that October 1961 bust by the SFPD. Nachman notes that Bruce never blamed the cops who arrested him. 'He didn't call the cops pigs; he called them peace officers. He said they were just blue-collar guys trying to do a job.' One post-arrest line of Lenny's had me laughing out loud on the floor, but since I can't print it in its entirety, I'll just leave the page number. The bottom of page 417. I can hardly wait to read the other 20 chapters, but first I've got a deadline to meet.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you love thoroughly researched biographies and are a fan of comedic giants, this is a book you must, and I mean must, add to your library. It¿s absolutely enlightening and entertaining and you¿ll discover things about great comedians that you never even knew. It is an enormous research effort that analyzes the work and lives of 26 comedy super stars, including and not limited to legendary genius Lenny Bruce. A fantastic read. I really enjoyed it. Now, if you're looking for a few other amazing titles, look no further than these, Buckland's Hot List: most creative, The Butterfly: A Fable (Singh); most engaging, The Alchemist (Coelho); most interesting, Life of Pi (Martel); most enlightening, 9-11 (Chomsky); most thrilling, The Lovely Bones: A Novel (Sebold); and finally, the most creative, engaging, interesting, enlightening and thrilling book of all, The Little Prince (Saint-Exupery). These are the books I'd recommend to my family, friends, students, and wife. There are many more, trust me, but these are the first that come to mind (for having left an impact slight or proud as it may be). If you have any questions, queries, or comments, or maybe even a title you think I should add to my list, please feel free to e-mail me. I'm always open to a good recommendation. Thanks for reading my brief but hopefully helpful review. Happy reading. Donald S. Buckland.