Ask A Genius 399 – Golden Age of Comedy
October 1, 2018
[Beginning of recorded material]
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did we come to the Golden Age of Comedy?
Rick Rosner: I have a half-assed and obvious theory. Dominant media attract the most talented people. The shift over the past 120 years. The stage gave way to radio, to TV and movies. Now, radio sucks.
Because there are so many other media that pull the other good talent. That radio is this neglected wasteland with few good broadcasters. I would say Carolla was the last great one. But he is a podcaster now.
Mad Magazine was this little comic book. There was a Golden Age of Comic Books, especially horror comic books. Until they were shut down in 1954 when a book by Frederic Wertham was published, called Seduction of the Innocent.
It said comic books were destroying America’s boys. Then there were congressional hearings. The horror comics got shut down. All these authors and artists were working for EC comics. You had a giant corral of super-talented writers, artists.
The EC was decimated, more than decimated. It lost most of its titles, but Mad survived. You had a super big concentration of talent working on Mad Magazine. It was not only funny and incisive in satirizing American life and culture.
It was also a really good capsule guide to American life and culture. Most of what I know about the 50s comes from me collecting Mad Magazine in the 70s; all those issues from the 50s.
Many comedians of the latter half of the 20th century up to today mention Mad Magazine as being a major influence. It can be cheesy and super juvenile. It was squeezed out of its niche as being the leading satirical magazine by more salacious, less innocent products into the 70s and beyond.
The 70s, you had National Lampoon, which was an outgrowth of Harvard Lampoon. One a movie and another a dramatization. In the 70s, the National Lampoon took over the premiere satirical magazine.
It has a good 10 years and then was squeezed out by the company self-destructing. One of its greatest minds may have committed suicide; it is not clear. Out of National Lampoon came SNL. They poached most or much of the talent.
National Lampoon branched out into stage and radio productions. Then their stage of performers were poachers – some writers too – by Lorne Michaels. SNL has been in production for 44 years now.
It seems like a normal part of the comedy landscape, when it came out it was revolutionary; but when it came out, it was revolutionary. There had been sketch-comedy shows before like the Carol Burnett Show but nothing targeted at young people – and as irreverent and as anarchic as SNL.
Also, it also arrived during the downfall of Nixon, so the timing was great. Now that it has been around for 4 decades, it seems normal; people have always felt comfortable saying, “It sucks,” because, on average, about 1/3rd of its skits work.
It is actually a good batting average. A huge percentage of the things that it tries like coming up with new skits every week work and then become cultural touchstones.
Jacobsen: Who are some of the top comics with an influence from prior eras that led to now? Who are people you look towards in a similar way you look to Mad Magazine?
Rosner: As a general thing, before Mad Magazine, there was a little mass market satirical attack on American culture and American politics. Lenny Bruce gets a lot of credit for being among the first in the late 50s and early 60s.
A comedian who went after actual targets. There is a trend in comedy around the same time in not only telling jokes but also making it personal by telling about yourself and the world you live in, as opposed to the “take my wife, please” jokes like the Catskill/Borscht Belt comedy of the 50s.
People who came out and told generic jokes for people who wanted to get out and laugh with little social outrage. The Borscht Belt refers to resort hotels in Upstate New York where a lot of Jewish families would go in the summer.
Those places would book good but harmless comic: Henny Youngman, and so on. Then the comedy scene got targeted: Lenny Bruce was ruthless, Mort Sahl did political comedy. Then you had a wave of attacks through political comedy.
Mad Magazine did a lot of stuff against the Vietnam War – not as harsh as the National Lampoon when it came out. Then in the 70s, you started having the brick wall comedy clubs like Carolines in New York.
Then you had this wave of comics that came out of there: Letterman, Leno, Seinfeld. Before Letterman and Leno were talk show hosts, they were good comics and personal comics.
Comedy became developing your own comedic persona. This is who I am; this is my life; this is why it is funny. Then you had sitcoms developed around these sitcom characters: Everybody Loves Raymond. Roseanne was based on Roseanne Barr’s comedic persona as a stand-up comic, which she developed in Denver in the early 80s.
This character of the “Domestic Goddess, ” as she called herself. It was kind of a terrible housekeeper and mother and celebrating her own messed-upness in those roles. She was saying that she was entitled to be. That those were terrible roles anyway; that they deserved the full force of her half-assedness, as a wife and mom.
Along with these satirical pushes, you had an evening out of the comedy landscape. There is a Thomas Friedman book that says the world is flat. It is a book about economics. It makes the point about the increasing interconnectedness of the world reduces competitive advantage among producers and countries. Anyone can get into the economic game now with everyone having advanced communications technology.
When I say, “The world is flat in comedy,” I mean everything is knocked down; everything is subject to being made into a comedy. None of the taboos or few of the taboos are left that dominated TV from the beginning of TV through the 80s.
You and I talked off-tape yesterday. I mentioned some of these projects that celebrate the end of taboos. Preacher is a TV series where the Christian God has disappeared from Heaven and may be living as a dog in New Orleans.
A preacher goes out having super violent adventures trying tot rack down God because he thinks God needs to get back into Heaven. He runs into this Catholic military organization, which has the job to protect the descendants of Jesus for the past 2,000 years.
They always have a Messiah on hand, a descendant of Jesus, but because the descendant is the product of 2,000 years of inbreeding the Messiah is completely retarded.
Rosner: This is a TV show! There is American God. One is called Bilquis. She shrinks them down, collapses them down to their penis, and then absorbs them during sex. This is a TV series! It is not even a pay per view channel.
It is a regular cable channel. In movies, you can only say one “Fuck” and its remains PG. More than one and you get an R rating. On cable TV now, there are no limits; Atlanta, they say, “Fuck.” A lot of the FX shows. They say, “Shit,” a lot.
FX seems to think that saying, “Shit,” is okay to a certain extent, to be edgy. Comedy Central on South Park, they tried to swear more than any other show in a half-hour episode. You have references to anal sex on Prime Time sitcoms.
It is shocking to someone as old as me that this is going on. Nothing is off-limits. Even if it hadn’t been off-limits, I do not know what you would do in the current political landscape, where a major political candidate in Roy Moore in Alabama, I think, was narrowly defeated because of accusations that he was a pedophile.
We have another blatant pedophile – a proud, strong pedophile – who is running on a conservative ticket in one of the Southern States right now. You have something like 6 white nationalists and white supremacists running as candidates across the US.
You have the president caught on tape before he was president talking about grabbing women by the pussy. You have Samantha Bee on her TV show calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.”
We mentioned Roseanne. Her show was cancelled because she compared a black woman, Valerie Jarrett, with Planet of the Apes – that she was a product of it. The landscape has been debased, but, at least, we have the comedic tools to go after it now. Unlike, the miserably bland 70s, where you had shows like The Brady Bunch that tried to get comedy – and, I think largely failed – out of a bland and limited palette.
It left most serious issues of life off the table. That is enough of that.
[End of recorded material]
American Television Writer
Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Editor-in-Chief, In-Sight Publishing
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