The comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s 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.
“The new post-Korean War comedy poked and prodded and observed, demolishing fond shibboleths left and right; it didn’t just pulverize with a volley of joke-book gags,” critic Gerald Nachman writes in Seriously Funny; The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Nearly every major comedian who broke through in the 1950’s and early 1960’s was a cultural harbinger.” The names back his claim up, among them Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, Shelley Berman, Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby, Nichols and May, and, of course, Lenny Bruce.
Nachman discusses the comedy created amid an era he describes as “much maligned” and far from the innocuous and innocent image we have come to associate with it, in our August, 2003 interview.
Interview by Paul Hallaman.
“The hothouse rooms of the late 1950’s and ’60’s, where this era’s young comic geniuses were planted, nurtured, and bloomed, had little in common with the posh showrooms of America’s comic past. These small clubs didn’t start out as snug parlors for comedians but as hang-outs for folksingers and beat poets. Cheap wine was served in carafes and the price for the evening was a few bucks, no cover charge. People smoked cigarettes (of various composition) and argued politics and poetry. The shock troops who waded ashore and established beachheads in the small rooms were not comedians at all, but folksingers and jazz musicians. They struck the first antiestablishment chords while the comics strummed their own themes mocking the government, suburban life, the sanctity of marriage, and every other hand-me-down value and vaunted institution. The folksingers sang about it and the comedians dissected it.”
– Gerarld Nachman
JJM I would like to start with the title of your book, “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s.” To crib one of Mort Sahl’s lines, maybe you could define your terms? What makes them rebels?
GN They are rebels in the kind of comedy that they did. “Revolutionary” might be a better word that would have defined all the comedians of the era, because when you think of “rebel” you do think of a Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce or Dick Gregory — but rebel is a shorter and a sexier word, so I went with that. It is true that “groundbreaking” or “revolutionary” would be good descriptions, because the kind of comedy that all these people performed was satirical and socially relevant. It was a new kind of comedy for this country to experience.
JJM You quote the Village Voice writing in 1971 that the fifties were “a dismal decade of cultural rubbish.” Your book does a lot to refute that.
GN Yes. The fifties, when I grew up, is too easily dismissed and condescended to as a time when nothing much was going on While it was a politically repressive era, it was not so culturally. The things that exploded in the sixties, politically, socially and culturally, were set up by what happened in the fifties. There is a whole list of people in my book — Elvis Presley, Miles Davis, J.D. Salinger, Tennessee Williams, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, to name a few — who were making waves artistically, saying things about the “buttoned-up” society that contributed to changing it. Add the comedians like Mort Sahl, Nichols and May, Dick Gregory, Bob and Ray and a host of others to this group. The fifties were an era when things were really starting to happen. The forties is looked upon as being such a dramatic time because of World War II, and the sixties because of the social turmoil and political activism. The fifties have been lost in between, and there has to be a reevaluation of it. Hopefully my book does a little of that by pointing out some of the groundbreaking comedy that was being performed.
JJM The comedian Jean Shepherd said, “There is a nostalgia for an unlived past.” Popular historians like David Halberstam write of the cultural icons of the fifties in the rock and roll and sports worlds, yet chronicle very little about those in jazz, literature, the arts — whether it is Allen Ginsberg or Paul Desmond or Nichols and May. The result is that we are left with the images of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and Ward and June Cleaver as symbols of a past that didn’t necessarily exist.
GN It was innocent in a way, it was naïve in a way, and it was also much more than that. You can’t just stamp one word on a decade and have it apply to everything. While there is a certain kind of innocence associated with that decade, there also was a lot about it that wasn’t. The rebel comedians were satirizing all of that.
JJM What was a typical 1950’s nightclub setting?
GN Prior to the era we are discussing, nightclubs in the big cities tended to be big posh show rooms that required lots of money to see a band, show girls, and dance. These clubs had cigarette girls and sold orchids while on stage a comedian in tuxedo told jokes he had either stolen or bought. All that changed in these intimate clubs like San Francisco’s hungry i and the Purple Onion, Chicago’s Mister Kelly’s, and New York’s Bitter End and Village Vanguard. These clubs were little rooms that lent themselves to an intimate, intellectual kind of comedy. Much of the audience was made up of college students and educated professionals and the atmosphere provided a much different experience. You could go in and spend a few bucks on a bottle of wine or coffee or a hamburger, and it was much more conducive to truth telling.
JJM So it was a perfect venue for someone like Mort Sahl to speak his mind.
GN Yes. He came out of Cal Berkeley and the coffee houses there, and these little rooms like the hungry i were like classrooms. You couldn’t rely on schtick even if you wanted to, because it was a different sensibility — and Sahl was not into that. He was into ideas and talked about what was on his mind, including details of his personal life — all of which was really new in comedy. Comedians of that era and before mostly just told a lot of one liners about their mother-in-law, and jokes that were just jokes that didn’t have much to say about anything. They weren’t about the comedian’s life or the audience’s life, and certainly not about American life.
JJM Today there are the likes of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, who seem to be following in the footsteps of Mort Sahl.
GN Yes, and I would include Dennis Miller as well. They are the closest to Sahl, although many of the comedians of this era are more of what I call “attitude comedians.” Sometimes their content isn’t all that great, but their attitude is “scoffing,” which was what Sahl and other comedians from his era did. I like Maher a lot because he is very outrageous and will say anything — and he has a lot to say. He is a very smart guy and at times a little hostile. Although Sahl’s lines might be read as being a little hostile, he never was. He always had a cheery way about him — in the early days, anyway.
JJM When you asked him for an interview, you quote him in the introduction as saying, “It pains me to say no. I just don’t want to be in there with all of those other guys. Who are all those other guys?” And then he goes on to say, “You should write a book about me.” He is the subject of the cover of the book and his profile leads off the book. Was he right? Should you have written a book just on Sahl?
GN Well, he wrote a very bitter memoir in the mid-seventies called Heartland. It is a very vengeful kind of book, filled with bitterness. It is not very good. It doesn’t say a lot about him.
JJM There was a lot of paranoia in that book.
GN Yes. At that time he was still reeling from the problems he had when he was working shows to prove a conspiracy behind the assassination of Kennedy. It was disappointing that he didn’t want to talk to me because he was an idol of mine. I grew up here in San Francisco, and saw him perform at the hungry i. I always reviewed him very positively and interviewed him many times. We got along fine, so there wasn’t anything personal. Quite frankly, he is a very quirky guy with a big ego who didn’t know what I was going to write. I should add that he has since changed his mind. I did a panel in Los Angeles with he and Tom Smothers recently and he apologized profusely for not talking to me.
He is a man who thinks he is not just another run-of-the-mill comedian and feels he is above the others. He makes fun of his own ego — he realizes that. He is right about being a good subject for a biography, but I said most of what I wanted to say about him in the long chapter on him in my own book.
JJM During the course of your research for the book, you interviewed many great talents, among them Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Steve Allen, and Joan Rivers. People have asked you if they were funny. My question is who was the most fun to talk to?
GN During interviews they are not necessarily trying to be funny. Professional comedians are generally only funny when there is a camera or a microphone on them. They didn’t have to be funny for me, and I am glad they didn’t try to be because I wanted to talk to them personally, one to one, and hear their stories. As for who was the most fun, to be honest, I enjoyed talking to every single one of them. I hated for the conversations to end, because after an hour or two I really got a feeling for them. I enjoyed talking to Mike Nichols a lot. He gave me almost two hours of his time and I wasn’t sure if I would get to him at all because he is a very busy guy who is very much in demand. I also enjoyed talking to Phyllis Diller, who was very candid, honest, feisty and likable. Shelley Berman, who had sort of disappeared from the scene for many decades, had very good stories. Jonathan Winters was fun because he was the only one who invited me to lunch with him. We ate in a restaurant in downtown Montecito and I got to know him a little more socially that way. When they had good stories to tell, I was all ears, and I loved talking to them.
JJM You mentioned Shelley Berman, a comic who was ambushed in 1963 and never really recovered from it. What were the circumstances around this?
GN Berman was the hottest comedian in the business in 1963. You could say that he was the Chris Rock of his day. He was everywhere, and was in great demand, playing Las Vegas and making a ton of money. He was so popular that they would call him in to doctor sitcoms as a way to boost ratings.
Because he was so celebrated, a behind-the-scenes documentary called Comedians Back Stage spotlighting Berman aired on prime-time television. During a crucial moment of one of his performances being filmed for the documentary, a phone rang off stage twice, virtually destroying the mood of the vignette he was doing. During intermission, the cameras followed him backstage, where he proceeded to blow his top and tear the phone off the wall, as he should have. This show of anger was shown in the documentary, which the country saw, and in those days that was enough to ruin a guy’s career. Clubs subsequently didn’t want to book him because he got the reputation of being a hot head, and he was a kind of temperamental guy. So, this incident caused him to fade from the scene and basically ruined him. The book tells a lot about the career slides of some of these performers. They were hot and they weren’t so hot for all kinds of reasons. Some of them self-destructed, many experiencing how the up’s and down’s of a comedian’s life takes its toll.
JJM You included impressionists like Will Jordan, David Frye, and Vaughn Meader in your book.
GN I wanted to include impressionists, although based on the premise of the book the only one that really belongs is probably David Frye, who was the first comedian to do impressions of politicians. He had a lot to say. It wasn’t just that he could reproduce the voices or the faces, but he provided a kind of pithy commentary. I wanted to include Will Jordan because his story was so compelling. His signature impression was Ed Sullivan and everyone stole it. He wound up not being able to get any work because everyone stole the impression of Sullivan that he had created. In a way, it put him out of business. He was somewhat of a problematical man. Some of these guys are kind of trouble. It takes a special kind of a psyche to become a comedian — many of them are insecure and easily destroyed emotionally. It is very hard to stay healthy in show business in any aspect, whether you are a singer, dancer or comedian, but comedians are always on the line. They live laugh to laugh and line to line, and it makes for a very tenuous life.
JJM Yes, in the chapter on Woody Allen he talks about how incredibly difficult the life of a comedian is, to be funny for forty-five minutes, three shows a night.
GN That’s right, and again the next night, and the night after that, and you just never know what kind of audience you are going to face. In the documentary film on Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian, it was interesting to see that even the most famous and wealthiest comedian of this era remains unsure of his performance and how the audience will react to it. The film shows that even a talent at that level, who has achieved the very pinnacle of success, is very nervous about his material working.
JJM You describe Woody Allen as America’s first beloved nerd. He is not a schnook, and never was. The profile of him is as a good ball player in school and his friends say he was always able to get the girls that he wanted. Is that true of Seinfeld too? Is his nerdiness a stage character?
GN I don’t think of Seinfeld as a nerd, I think of him as a kind of “Mr. Average.” Woody Allen, first of all, looks like a geek, and many of the jokes that come up during his films about how he looks, and how he plays up his twitchy, nervous mannerisms, came out of his career as a standup comedian. Many people now in their thirties may never even know that he had a standup comedy career — they only know him from his movies. But laughing at his own expense worked so well as a comedian that he made that part of his movie roles as well.
JJM Before he was a stage performer, he was a brilliant joke writer in the classic one-liner style.
GN Yes, he came up the usual style, as a writer. He never wanted to be a comedian — maybe only as a fantasy — but he didn’t really have the nerve for it. He was kind of pushed on stage by his managers — Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, who later went on to produce his films — who thought he was hilarious when reading his own material. They could see him as a successful performer, and they basically created him to be one. As you say, Allen is a very un-nerdy, focused, single-minded, organized guy. He couldn’t possibly produce a movie a year for thirty years and not be. He is the most well put together, psychologically, of the comedians, even though he has his own personal problems as we have learned. Allen is a “worker bee.” He loves writing, making movies, and never takes vacations. He seems to truly enjoy doing what he does. His most recent films have not been so hot, but for twenty years he was producing some of the best comedy in the country.
JJM Lenny Bruce plays a major role in your book. The chapter on Bruce is entitled, “The Elvis of Stand-Up.” How so?
GN He exploded on the scene the way Elvis did. He was catnip to women, very sexy, and he was doing a new kind of comedy that nobody had ever done. He pushed the envelope further than anyone in terms of material and language, and then had problems with drugs that led to an early death, just about the same age as Elvis. “The Elvis of Stand-up” is a short-hand title, of course, but I think there are some real similarities, mainly the way they both exploded on the scene, made such a difference, and left such a huge legacy. Unfortunately, the legacy has not been picked up by anybody since, except that he opened things up in a way comedians could use any language they wanted and they could talk about any subject they wanted. But the ones that followed him — the Howard Sterns, Andrew Dice Clay — coasted primarily on crude humor to get reactions and laughs.
Bruce had a really creative, free wheeling, intelligent mind. He was a very original comedian who performed some very funny routines. He wasn’t just a guy using four or twelve letter words to get a laugh, he used them because he thought they fit within the context of his routine. When he got embroiled in the obscenity cases and the drug busts, it all blurred together in the public’s mind, and the result is an image of him being a dirty comic. But Lenny was very much more than that, which is quite evident on his records.
He influenced many people just because he opened things up generally — it wasn’t just the language. He made it possible to talk about anything. Unfortunately, the down side of that is that comedians today coast on the dirty stuff they can get away with, consequently they don’t create anything original or make any kind of commentary. Lenny had a lot to say. Some people call him a philosopher, and in a way he was a social and cultural philosopher. He made fun of social, sexual and racial hypocrisies, and guys like Howard Stern don’t come close to that. He was the guru of all that type of comedy, and today’s comics don’t really have all that much to say. It is sad. That is the legacy that Lenny left, and it is really being distorted.
JJM He had a point to make, whereas the Sterns of the world are successful because their humor is outrageous and somewhat shocking.
GN I don’t find him particularly clever. He is quite popular, obviously, and some of my friends like him, but I don’t get it.
JJM In the Lenny Bruce chapter you write about a very interesting character named Joe Ancis, who was a guy from Lenny’s old neighborhood of Bensonhurst. He was quite a storyteller — a spritzer — who hung out at Hanson’s Drug Store. Few people know much about him, yet he had an influence on Bruce, who helped him get in touch with his “Jewish side.”
GN Yes, and his surreal side, in a way, as well. I’ve never even seen a picture of Joe Ancis, he is a kind of phantom figure who looms in the back of Lenny Bruce’s path, as well as those of Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett and Will Jordan. He was kind of a guru or something like it. He was a strange guy who was so off the wall and daring, and who said things no one else was saying at the time. Many comedians were very influenced by him, and took ideas from him. He didn’t mind because he didn’t want to be a professional performer. He hung out with these comedians and provided them with performance concepts that were “out there,” well beyond what anybody else was doing at the time. Bruce was indeed heavily influenced by Ancis. I have to say that I don’t even know if he is still alive or what became of him. I have never read a piece about him. It is possible he just doesn’t want to be interviewed and loves being a shadowy guy.
JJM Yes, an enigma of sorts. There is a passage in your book about Lenny’s great routine where he discusses how chocolate is Jewish but fudge is Goyish.
GN Yes, that is very Ancis like. He was able to spin that out and perform it. Ancis, on the other hand, couldn’t perform. I believe he only did one gig that someone was able to talk him into doing, but it was viewed as a disaster. He could do the routines in the luncheonette around his friends and in the neighborhood, but he just couldn’t do it in front of an audience. Lenny Bruce could. He was a performer.
JJM You profile three black comics in the book, Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby. The line that stands out is, “Dick Gregory cracked the color line, Godfrey Cambridge crossed it, and Bill Cosby whited it out.” Tell me about that?
GN Gregory was the first black comedian to play any mainstream white clubs. For instance, he opened up at the Playboy Club in Chicago, which had never had a black comedian. He played a lot of ghetto clubs and was the first black comedian to break through. Other comedians like Nipsy Russell and Slappy White broke through after Gregory. Gregory was able to ingratiate himself with white audiences because, while he would tell standard one-liners, he also talked a lot about racism, but in a non-confrontational, non-threatening way. He would smoke a cigarette and look very sleepy-eyed out at the audience, and then drop lethal lines on them. He was able to cross over and address a white audience in that way.
A short time after that, Godfrey Cambridge came along. Cambridge has been kind of forgotten. He had a lot of health problems and died at a very early age — in his forties. He just started breaking through in movies like The President’s Analyst, and Watermelon Man before he died. He was a very warm, ingratiating, funny man. He had Jamaican ancestry and an almost British wit. He would make fun of the whole racial issue, and of how he was expected to perform only racial humor, but he cared about a lot of other things. In a way, I put him higher on the rung of black comedians than Gregory. While Gregory was a pioneer, I think Cambridge took his comedy to a higher level.
Bill Cosby came along after that and found that he didn’t have to do racial humor. He actually started out to be another Dick Gregory, but his manager, Roy Silver, talked him out of it. He didn’t want Cosby to be the second Dick Gregory, but to be the first Bill Cosby, which was very wise. He talked Cosby out of talking about his own childhood in a ghetto home in Philadelphia and told him to just be funny, to talk about his childhood as if it was everybody’s childhood — and in fact it was, the way that he told it. Cosby rose to the greatest fame of them all by not reminding people that he was black. These three comics all had a different approach to being black, and all were big successes as comics.
JJM You write about the importance of the comedy LP in the fifties and sixties, and suggest that it was the last time all Americans enjoyed a shared sense of humor. I remember how hard my family laughed together at the records of Berman, Allen, and Winters. They were very important to their careers.
GN Absolutely. A lot of these guys probably wouldn’t have broken through as quickly as they did without the comedy record. The LP came along in 1948, and by the early fifties it was discovered by comedians. A guy named Stan Freberg started making pop music parodies of Johnny Ray and Harry Belafonte songs, as well as radio and television shows. He did devastating parodies of Gunsmoke and Dragnet. He was probably the first comedian to come out with an LP, and then people like Shelley Berman came along, who was the first of them to have a comedy album on the charts. The comedy record was a whole new phenomenon that allowed Berman to become an overnight success, as it did Vaughn Meader when he came out with the JFK impersonation record called The First Family.
JJM Yes, and Bob Newhart too.
GN That’s right. Newhart had never even played a nightclub when he made his record. Some Warner Brothers record executives heard his tape and decided they wanted to cut an album. They asked Newhart where he was playing and he replied by saying he doesn’t play in a club, and in fact had never been in one except as an audience member. So, they had to find him a nightclub in order to record his act, and found one in Houston. That was the first time he had ever been on stage as a comedian.
JJM What comics do you admire today? You mentioned Bill Mahar a little earlier in the conversation
GN I have yet to see his new HBO show, but I liked Politically Incorrect. While I don’t think he is a very good standup comedian, I laugh out loud when he is interviewed by Larry King. He comes up with some really outrageous stuff, and he is not afraid to say what he thinks. He has a good mind. It is one thing to say something and not have anything interesting to say, but Maher, I believe is very much in the tradition of Mort Sahl. I just wish he were a better standup performer. I thought that was the weakest part of Politically Incorrect. He is a better talk show host, and Jon Stewart may be also. I understand he has done a lot of standup, but I think of him sitting at the desk, being funny.
There is nobody around now who has the stature of the great comedians of the fifties and sixties, nor of Robin Williams and Steve Martin of the seventies. Nobody knocks me out enough to say I look forward to seeing him or her in a club. I always liked Richard Lewis, and saw Seinfeld when he was here in a small club. I think Jay Leno is very funny but I don’t like his show. His monologue has become so predictable and unwatchable, and the same for David Letterman. These guys are much better when they are just out in front of an audience doing standup. I remember reviewing Leno long before the Tonight Show when he was out here, and he was making some relevant and cutting commentary on men and women, relationships, and topics like that. I don’t think he does much of that at all on television, but instead plays off the headlines now, or talks about McDonalds or a stupid commercial or something. It is all dumbed down, and it think that’s too bad. He and Letterman have so much more potential.
I like Conan O’Brien. I don’t stay up late enough to watch him very much, but whenever I see him, there is something about him that I find funny. Maybe it’s the way he looks, or his attitude, but whatever it is, he makes me laugh. But these guys get locked into these formulaic talk shows and they can’t break loose. I think Jon Stewart has done it because he has very good writers. Existing on television as just a standup comedian is very hard to do.
JJM In your book you touched on the comedy explosion of the seventies. Three of the great comedians from that era, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield, began their careers in the sixties. Why don’t they appear in your book?
GN While they were around in the sixties, they didn’t break through until the seventies. I have this arbitrary timeline that begins in 1953 with Mort Sahl at the hungry i and ends with Joan Rivers in 1965. It could have gone on and on but I just felt that that timeframe of a dozen years defined a specific era. Carlin went through a whole transformation. He was a very buttoned-up comedian in the sixties when he was doing the “Wonderful Wino” weatherman routine. Then he got down and dirty and came back as a hippie with a pony tail, dressed up in a t-shirt and Levis. He went through a physical and psychological transformation.
JJM Yes, the Ed Norton look.
GN Exactly, the hippie Ed Norton look. And then the same thing happened with Pryor, who looked like a cute little college guy when he was on the Merv Griffin Show, wearing a bow tie and cardigan sweater.
JJM Which is no mean feat when you are sitting next to Merv Griffin.
GN Pryor did the same thing as Carlin. He went through a major transformation and came back down and dirty as the Richard Pryor we all know, doing all that ghetto, street comedy stuff. Rodney Dangerfield had two lives, much as these other guys did. He was first known in the late forties as Jackie Roy — his real name is Jacob Cohen — but he couldn’t make it. So he retired and went back to selling aluminum siding. When he returned, he took the very preppy sounding name of Rodney Dangerfield, when in fact he looked exactly the opposite. He returned with his famous hook of “I Can’t Get No Respect,” and on the basis of that he made it in a big way.
And Jackie Mason was just about to break through when he had that famous incident on the Ed Sullivan Show, where Sullivan thought he flipped him off — and in fact he may have — it was off camera so we will never know. Sullivan read it that way and subsequently banned him from his show, which made it tough for him on television anywhere given Sullivan’s ability to make or break anyone at the time. Consequently, Mason disappeared until he came back in the eighties in his one man show on Broadway. All of these comedians have a presence in the book. I did a long interview with Mason because he has a lot to say about comedians, and he is not afraid to say it. He has become very political, where he wasn’t twenty years ago. He is very pithy and very devastating.
JJM No sacred cows for him …
GN Absolutely. He stepped on a lot of toes and you can fault him for maybe being a little insensitive ethnically, but he doesn’t care, and out of that comes great comedy. You have to go further than maybe you should, sometimes, to make great points, and that was certainly true of Lenny Bruce and many of the comedians I profile in the book.
The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s
Gerald Nachman products at Amazon.com
Interview took place on August 21, 2003
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Lenny Bruce biographer David Skover.