Looking at an age when the funny man ruled

Review Satire

September 10, 2006|By Rich Cohen | Rich Cohen,Los Angeles Times

Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America

Stephen E. Kercher

University of Chicago Press / 576 pages / $35

Nothing ages as poorly as a joke. It's a dirty little secret - the records of Mort Sahl, that revolutionary genius, no longer play funny. How do I know? Because when I listen to them, I don't laugh. Monologues that kept my father in stitches don't touch me. In the end, all that remains of the old comedian (or of most old comedians, since I still find the Marx Brothers pretty funny, ditto Jackie Gleason) is the pose of the comic, the way he held his cigarette or stood in the light - the way, in other words, he faced the world.

In fearful times, comedians are often the first to stand up to authority. It's in their nature. They know the teacher is going to come down with the ruler, but they go for it anyway. In fact, if you study the history of comedy, you study the history of dissent. This is what Stephen E. Kercher has done in Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America, a survey of the "satire boom," the comedic flowering that ran from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. "Far from being mirthless," he writes, "the two decades following World War II spawned satiric forms and techniques that have permanently altered the direction of modern American comic expression."

Kercher, who is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, has watched and analyzed legions of lost television shows, comic strips, routines, sketches. The old names keep turning up: Dick Gregory, Nichols and May, Bob Newhart, Bob and Ray. Much of their work was heroic because it flourished in the wake of McCarthyism. This was life re-asserting itself, the giggle that wells up in your chest after the gym teacher has chewed you out.

It began with the cartoonists - people like Bill Mauldin, a World War II grunt who painted Army life as it was lived, not as it was sold; or Al Capp, Herblock and Walt Kelly, whose "Pogo" comic strip became a national sensation. "By 1958," Kercher writes, "an estimated fifty million readers followed `Pogo' in 500 newspapers worldwide. ... The quadrennial `I Go Pogo' presidential campaigns that Kelly initiated in 1952 - campaigns intended to parody presidential candidates and their campaigns - became sizeable high school and college fads."

Plays, films, nightclub routines: Each is minutely detailed in Revel With a Cause. Reading the book is like watching a slo-mo explosion, one triggered by Ernie Kovacs, Sid Caesar, Henry Morgan, Stan Freberg and Harvey Kurtzman's Mad magazine. Then Steve Allen's The Tonight Show, the Compass Players in Chicago - who spawned Shelley Berman - and Second City, a reflection of which can still be seen on Saturday Night Live.

According to Kercher, many of the comedians who made their names in the 20 years after World War II were Jewish or African-American - outsiders no less obsessed with the phoniness of the system than J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield or Norman Mailer's White Negro. "[F]or many of these artists and performers," he points out, "humor did not provide an escape from reality but instead a momentary flight from the unreality of postwar American life."

By the late 1950s a parallel universe had developed, a world of funny people who saw themselves as distinct from the bourgeoisie. "We were members of a comic underground," cartoonist Jules Feiffer recalls, "meeting in cabarets and cellar clubs, making startlingly grave and innovative jokes about virginity, Jewish mothers, HUAC and J. Edgar Hoover."

When listening to these old routines, you have to ask yourself: What comes first, the joke or the message? Is the latter a byproduct, something that arises naturally, or is the joke the candy that hides the medicine? Because in the end - and the end is now - the candy rots and you are left with a generation of young people looking for what makes this stuff funny. Old newspapers are read only by historians and conspiracy nuts.

At times, Revel With a Cause strikes me as too earnest, too academic - that's my beef, as Jay Leno used to say. It reads like a college survey in which the professor shuts you up by saying: Comedy is no laughing matter! "By considering their humorous work seriously," Kercher writes, "I will demonstrate that American postwar satiric writers, artists, and performers responded critically and creatively to concerns many middle-class Americans shared over race relations, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the spread of hypocrisy and deceit."

Kercher is the sort of guy who takes four hours to tell you the plot of a 90-minute movie, who explains why a whoopee cushion is funny rather than letting the humor stand for itself. I'm not suggesting that a writer chronicling comedians has to be their equal on the page, but because these men, the best of them, were defined by a daredevil, hope-we-don't-get-lynched recklessness, I do think they are owed some liveliness.

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