Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Funny.


Why is what I think funny funny and most of the crap you see on TV right now just that – crap? I honestly have no clue.  I just know what makes me laugh.

I can guffaw at the right Three Stooges short, but really the Marx Brothers were THE movie comedy team for me. “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” is a song that always brings back memories of good times. Animal Crackers is up there with Cary Grant’s Father Goose as my all-time favorite funny flick.

You know what really makes me laugh? Let me tell you the three comedy masterminds that have most influenced what I perceive as "funny."

Monty Python. My mom took me to the drive-in once and it happened to be showing a double feature of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and And Now For Something Completely Different. How’s that for the proverbial defining moment. The prosaic humor of Happy Days and Mork and Mindy would never quite ring true again.

Buddy Hackett. Yeah, that Buddy Hackett, the short, fat little guy from It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and numerous other movies and talk shows. You know why he’s on this list? Because of one routine. At one show, Buddy picked a very straight-laced-looking lady in the audience and proceeded to tell her a “dirty” joke that he said she could tell anyone. I don’t even remember what the joke was, other than it was quaint and almost syrupy. After the prerequisite laugh, he asked her if she’d like to hear another one. A nod and “Okay, there were these two fags fucking a dead alligator in the back of a bus…”  Yeah, yeah, not P.C., I know. But I know at least four people who watched it with me that were rolling on the floor laughing after the punch line. I mean, Buddy Hackett? C'mon!

Following that, there was only one option: Seek out the Master … the original shock comic. The “sick” comic. Lenny Bruce. 

The bastards fucked that man over so badly. Sure, some of it was his own doing, as part of his own marketing scheme gone awry, but as time went on there was no way to tell where promotion ended and Lenny began. His albums were blandly vicious, as a lot of things just could not be put to vinyl back then. Hell, half of his first album isn’t even Lenny – it’s some other comic that barely sounds like him.  The parts that are his are masterful; such as the bleeped-out Lawrence Welk auditioning an addict of a jazz man for his band, and Father Flotsky’s Triumph, a parody of thirties’ prison flicks, which are wonderful and funny bits that transcend most of the comedy that was available at the time.

Many fans criticized him for never doing most of the bits from his albums in his shows. I could never understand that. Why would you pay to see someone recite comedy shticks you’ve already heard? Maybe you can enjoy the five hundredth millionth “You might be a redneck” routine, but I’ve got better ways to spend my time and money rather than hope for one new gem out of a dozen of rehashed throwaway lines.

It is the live performances that strike the nerves. We’re lucky in that several of them still survive unedited. The Carnegie Concert and The Berkeley Concert are available in audio, and you can probably find the Lenny Bruce Performance film around. Lenny Bruce was the master of observational humor, and he didn’t really tell jokes or do shticks. He made observations and brought forth a lot of basic truths in a manner that made them both understandable and got them right in your face. The Berkeley Concert’s opening bit about religion and the growth of society is masterful in its simplicity. And then he’d throw a counterpoint out like wondering if Bela Lugosi liked smelling his own armpits when he lifted his cape to scare someone. Lenny just talked to his audience, and had them eating out of his hand.  One of my single favorite observations he made was “Everyday people are straying away from the Church and going back to God.” If that isn’t prescience, I don’t know what is.

Unfortunately, the many legal problems Lenny Bruce had, as well as his addiction to drugs took their toll on him. His concerts, as somewhat evidenced in the Performance film, became personal indictments leveled at the system that had attacked him, and Lenny became the joke rather than seeing it. Once that happened, there really was no alternative to his eventual fate. He was a product of a changing time that changed a little faster than he was allowed to follow. His death by overdose was preordained; as much of a waste as it was, I would like to think it was his own choice - to end things on what was left of his terms rather than let the forces against him take even that from him.

Lenny Bruce once said “The only honest art form is laughter … comedy. You can’t fake it. Try to fake three laughs in an hour – ha-ha ha-ha ha-ha – they’ll take you away, man. You  can’t.”

Funny doesn’t have to make you laugh. Funny can also make you think, and usually that’s the very best kind.




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