One of the first black comics to play to white audiences on the Las Vegas strip, Foxx was far more credible at establishing a black presence on prime-time TV, in his highly regarded '70s sitcom Sanford and Son, than fellow ex-comic Bill Cosby would be in the following decade. Foxx maintained his incisive but amusing portrayal of racial and generational stereotypes in other series and in a return to stand-up, until his 1991 fatal heart attack on the set of 'The Royal Family.'
12. STAN FREBERG
Back before rock 'n' roll, when novelties were still welcome in the pop music market, Stan Freberg got on radio play lists and into record stores with a series of 45-rpm takeoffs on popular culture. Among the earliest, in 1951, were a subversively erotic spoof of soap operas, 'John and Marsha,' and a dig at the popular detective TV show 'Dragnet,' titled 'St. George and the Dragonet.'
As a teenager in suburban Los Angeles, Freberg had gotten a start in funny business by voicing cartoons for a variety of animators, and by the time he'd progressed from releasing singles to albums, he'd established his additional multi-talents as a natural scriptwriter, musician, and producer. Throughout the '50s, Freberg's choice of satirical targets made recording and broadcasting executives nervous. They included the commercialization of Christmas, prime-time TV programming, and, after he'd secured his own radio show, some of the sponsors who funded his fun-making.
Chafing against media restrictions, Freberg turned to the more lucrative field of advertising, where he once again broke the mold (and advanced the form) by using humor to sell things. The creative standard set by Freberg in all these areas still stands well beyond the reach of most pretenders.
13. LORD BUCKLEY
Several decades older than most of the mid-century comics and their fans, and working outside their arenas, Richard Myrle 'Lord' Buckley nonetheless exercised a profound influence on all. Born in the California Mother Lode of English parents, Buckley emceed dance marathons in the 1920s, and then became a favorite in Chicago vaudeville and burlesque clubs controlled by the Mob. During the next decade, he began absorbing the hip argot of the city's black and white jazz musicians, while perfecting a well-paid stage act that involved gymnastics and ventriloquism.
With vaudeville passé, Buckley entered the '50s with an act assembled from historical accounts and classic monologues refashioned in an hilarious amalgam of proper English diction and hip discourse, for which he credited Cab Calloway, Frank Sinatra, Redd Foxx, the Beats, and others. Buckley's concepts were all his own, though, and included riotous 'cool' raps about Jesus and Gandhi ('The Nazz' and 'Hip Gahn,' respectively).
Buckley was befriended and repeatedly hosted by Ed Sullivan, showcased in jazz clubs and coffeehouses, and immortalized on more than a dozen albums, one of which took its title and spirit from his characteristic onstage rephrasing of Shakespeare: Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin Daddies: Knock Me Your Lobes.'
Special thanks to Mickey McGowan of the Unknown Museum for archival research and graphic support
Photos: John Springer, Rose Eichenbaum; and courtesy Richard Buckley, Corbis Sales, San Francisco History Center (S.F. Public Library), Capitol Records, Inc., Verve Music Group, Warner Music Group, Blue Note Label Group
For more on the classic comedians of the mid-century, don't miss Gerald Nachman's book, 'Seriously Funny: the Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s' (Pantheon Books, 2003).