Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Whataya Know From Funny?

A lot of people tell me I'm a funny guy. I'll admit, sometimes I crack myself up... But seriously folks, sometimes I think I'm funny too. Of course I sure do believe that I know funny when I see or hear it. That determination is, of course, fully in the eye of the beholder, right?

I grew up in a house full of music, theater, art, all that stuff - Including humor. Now, we're talking the 60s, so what I remember from then were records from the likes of Tom Lehrer, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and the Firesign Theater - Very disparate funny, that... I think one of the reasons I get called funny is because, like my dad and my oldest brother, I am blessed with purty-near didactic memory. What Monica is slowly discovering, as I rediscover and introduce her to stuff from my early days, is that a lot of what makes me funny is the fact that I've been stealing concept, content, and delivery all along from stuff I started hearing back then - She looks at me with a twisted grin and says, "So that's where that came from!" Busted... But then again, isn't that what most comedians do to some degree? Well, not all of them - Some of them were quite original, actually.

Bill Cosby is Bill Cosby - Pretty much 'nuff said. Now, he's is an icon, but back in the 60's he was a very, very funny guy - His series of stand-up albums from that period has remained indellibly printed in my brain ever since. Not only did he have great stories, (Fat Albert, Chicken Heart, Theme Songs), that captured the heart of how funny and weird any given pack of kids were, he had steller delivery. Let alone that he was a black guy appealing to a lot of white folks for the first time ever in this country - But that's another story. What impresses me most about him is the delivery. Think about stand up today - A lot of what is done to make people laugh is visual - When you're recorded only, you've lost that element of your shtick, so... Bottom line is, whatever you say better be funny, and your delivery better be great. Nobody did that better than Cosby.

Timing is everything; that fact established, probably nobody had it down better than Newhart. This is the guy who virtually invented the one-sided phone call as a comedy vehicle. He branched that into one-sided conversations of all kinds, that were devastatingly funny. Remember the Driving Instructor bit? "Alright, turn right here... Well, now, that was my fault again... You see, I meant the next street. Not this man's lawn. Oh, Sir, sir... Sir would you mind turning off the sprinkler? For just a... Newly seeded? Is that right? That's always the way isn't it? No, I don't suppose it is so funny..." Just killed me, and still does. Thanks, Bob.

Now Tom Lehrer, he was an original guy, in spades. I knew about Lehrer because my dad taught at Harvard, and had arrived about the same time that Lehrer had, in the late 40's: Dad was an Economics major and Lehrer was a Mathematician, close enough to know each other - They both got Masters Degrees there and began teaching there at just about the same time. Dad owned Lehrer's original album, 'Songs by Tom Lehrer,' which he had recorded and published by himself, and then sold by mail order. We ended up with all his stuff, but the one I remember and still know songs from was 'That Was The Year That Was,' which was much more political than his earlier stuff - Those songs had come mostly from his stint as the resident Songwriter for the short-lived That Was The Year That Was TV show. Brilliant and iconoclastic, (Yet he also claims to have invented the Jello Shot during his time in the Army in the mid 50's as a way of getting around base restrictions on alcohol...), a lot of Lehrer's schtick came from parodying popular song style: This is the guy who set the periodic table of elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Major General Song:' The influences are clear and everytime I hear the 'Officer Crupky' song from West Side Story, I think of Lehrer, frankly. The content of his later stuff gave people the impression he was anti-establishment, and as far as the Cold War politics of the day went, he certainly was. Yet he stopped doing music right about the time that the 60s counterculture movement kicked into gear, which a lot of folks who know of him thought odd: Lehrer later said that he never thought his stuff would have any impact on folks who weren't onboard the movement anyway. His work resurfaced in a musical in the mid 80s, and he wrote a few songs for the PBS children's show, The Electric Company, but little else; he'd basically gone back to teaching math and musical theater classes. In the late 90's he agreed to write occassionally for Garrison Keilor's American Radio Theater of the Air and Prairie Home Companion, and in 2000, Rhino released The Remains of Tom Lehrer which has a good vignette of his early stuff, and includes a little hardbound book with an introduction by Dr. Demento, (Who called him, "The best musical satirist of the 20th Century," Fair praise indeed!), and all the lyrics - If you don't have any Lehrer, or aren't familiar, this is a great intro. After this reawaking of his work, Lehrer was interviewed, of course. An Australian paper asked him his thoughts about the here and now: He said, "The real issues I don't think people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinski and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban land mines... I'm not tempted to write songs about George W. Bush, I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write..." Hmmm, I'd say that shows that Tom still knows what he's interested in, eh?

Last but not least, in the mid 60's came the Firesign Theater. Comprised of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor, Firesign fused high-minded comedy a la Stan Freberg with cutting-edge recording techology experimentation pioneered by the Beatles. This troupe of loonies were pretty much responsible for the merging of comedy and popular . I don't honestly know if they knew, referenced, or credited them, but for my mind, everyone from Cheech and Chong and the wave of doper comics that followed them, to Monty Python's Flying Circus owe Firesign everything - they invented the genre, really. We never heard their earliest work on KPFK radio in L.A., but we most certainly owned 'How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All,' 'Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,' and 'I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus.' Crammed with dope and doper references, their work wove dizzyingly complex blends of brilliant improv, washed with sound effects and overheard snippets of 'other stuff,' into a strangely coherent whole. Whereas you didn't necessarily have to be stoned to listen, it sure tracked better if you were! As the wave of 60s drug sub-culture segued into the 70s, the legions of Firesign followers diminished and the boys went their seperate ways. They've re-formed from time to time, and all are still, as far as I know, all still active in some genre of media...

So, am I a dinosaur, stuck on the comedy past? Not at all - There will always be very funny people. Yet just like music, comedy has roots. The guys I outlined here were my Robert Johnsons and Blind Willlie McTells: Undoubtedly they all had their own role models and idols... I just think it's important from time to time to remember our roots, and give them a proper nod. So yeah, I am now admitting to more folks than just Monica, my dark comedy secret: Now, you know too - Here's a big piece of my schtick, OK?

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