Laughing Stock of the Mid-Century - Page 4

Crazy, cutting-edge comedians who made America a safer place to improvise, analyze and criticize

lucille ball One of the first and longest lived of the situation comedies to settle in the early days of television was I Love Lucy, and its title accurately reflected the adoration of its fans, who have continued to watch it in reruns and on YouTube snippets long past the death of its star, Lucille Ball, in 1989. When she started the show in 1951 with her then-husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, Ball had already been struggling in the business for a couple of decades, as a model and an actress on Broadway and in so-called B movies.

Aside from the challenge of a medium still finding its footing, Ball and Arnaz had to overcome skepticism about publicly broadcasting, with fictional names, a marriage between a Latin male (with a prominent accent) and a red-headed Anglo female, but the couple were their own producers (through their company, Desilu) and wielded considerable power. Ball also insisted on working her subsequent two pregnancies into the scripts, and her fans were delighted when the expectant mother graced the cover of the first issue of TV Guide.

Effectively setting the stage for decades of domestic sitcoms to come, Ball proved a hard act to follow--a strong and innovative physical comedienne who was also eternally appealing.

See her on YouTube.

 

5. SHELLEY BERMAN

shelly berman Although 'Inside Shelley Berman' has been immortalized as the first comedy album to garner gold-record status, its creator had not intended to be a stand-up. In his youth, Berman found expression in the Compass Players, a progressive acting workshop in his native Chicago and a precursor to the more-famous (and hugely influential) Second City. In the company of fellow aspiring comedians Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Berman learned how to build solid sketches inspired by improvisation, not unlike the approach to comedy of such earlier pioneers as Sahl and Bruce but with clearer theatrical intention and structure.

"We emerged in that time when all of a sudden our mouths could work," Berman said, looking back on comedy's emergence from the shadow of Joe McCarthy, following the censorial senator's death. Berman's numerous record albums helped earn him club bookings. But he soon began to run out of material for recording, and he suffered some unfair publicity about his offstage behavior. Berman returned to acting, which he continues to the present day, on 'Boston Legal' and as Larry David's rambunctious father Nat on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm.'

See him on YouTube.

 

6. LENNY BRUCE

lenny bruce Perhaps the most infamous funny man in our lineup, Lenny Bruce was also one of the most exciting and talented. He inherited humor and the show biz life from his mother, a burlesque performer in New York City, where her son also staged his debut. A tie-win appearance on radio's 'Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts' (during which he acknowledged elder comic Sid Caesar as a source) gave an early boost to Bruce's career, though he took a few missteps before finding his way to San Francisco and favor with media, jazz musicians, and audiences there.

There was much good and heady stuff in every Bruce set. He poured out a stream of impersonations; nods to high culture and art; hip jargon; and the occasional off-color word, phrase, and reference. His flaunting of convention drew persecution from the law, and admiration from such peers as TV host Steve Allen. As brilliant a social critic as he was an improviser, Bruce was ultimately bedeviled by his legal hassles, and he died of a morphine overdose in 1966.

See him on YouTube.

 

7. BOB NEWHART

bob newhart Aside from Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart may have had the greatest and longest success at mutating from stand-up comic to comic actor. His ease in portraying credible characters in a variety of TV shows and films seems linked to his original transition to comedy from the professions of accounting and advertising. In fact, his hit 1960 debut album, following on the heels of fellow Chicagoan Shelley Berman, was titled 'The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart' and depicted the straight-faced performer in downtown office clothing on the cover.