Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Revel With a Cause

I read more books every year than I go to restaurants, unless I'm travelling. So this year, instead of mostly restaurants, I want to at least briefly review the books. Right before I picked up Not Enough Indians, I had finished Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America by Stephen E. Kercher. I had seen this book advertised in my favourite mag, The New York Review of Books. It had a picture of Lenny Bruce on the cover so I knew I'd enjoy it. I was right.
First of all, it's hard to write a book about comedy. One goes to "comedy" and "acadamia" for different things. Revel did not have a laugh a page, or even as many laughs as I got from the Shearer novel. Actually the number of bits of humour cited in this academic tome are rather few. But now I know where I can get a lot more. That's worth purchasing the book for.
The book covers mostly the 50s, a decade I remember about as well as can be expected since I was 9 when it ended. MAD magazine was something I enjoyed from those days, but the other things referred to in the book were too adult for me at the time. The book spends a lot of time on editorial cartoonists. I do remember Bill Mauldin, though I was unaware of his WW2 career, and Jules Feiffer has been churning out comics as long as I've been alive, but to the best of my knowledge I've never encountered Robert Osborn. Must do something about that. I remember being mildly entertained by Pogo, but Peanuts was my favourite comic strip in those days.
When the books goes deeper into the past, talking about radio, I can recall what Fred Allen's voice sounded like but don't think I ever heard one of his radio shows. I was a devotee of Jack Benny (long after his radio show went off the air) and knew he had a long-lasting feud with Fred, but I had no idea that Fred was so central to American satire. Thankfully many of his old shows are now online for my enjoyment. I do remember Stan Freberg, but he had gone from lampooning advertising to working in that industry when I was in Elementary school. I remember the TV show That Was The Week That Was mostly from Tom Lehrer's tunes, which still pop up on the radio when satire is needed. SCTV refers to a great Canadian TV show in the 70s and 80s for me and most people not from Chicago, though the origins of this improv institution predate the show I know by many years. Likewise, I thought the Committee was a late 60s comedy group, contemporary with the Firesign Theatre, only to discover from this book that they were also old vets when the Firesign started in 67.
Like any good scholarly work, Revel goes deeply into the roots of its subject and more than lives up to its intention to show where Jon Stewart and his colleagues came from. Long after the last Beatnik shaved his goatee, I became a fan of Beat literature, particularly Kerouac. I did not know that Mort Sahl, whom I remember more for his sweater than his humour, was considred just as jazz-influenced as Kerouac. I don't know if I'd find Sahl's riffs on Eisonhower funny now, but it's worth looking into. I was reading about the British comedy group Beyond the Fringe (in the book, referred to as The Beatles of Comedy, something the Firesign Theatre would aspire to a few years later) when the skit Kercher was quoting from appeared on the radio. Not that much of a surprise: Santa Cruz radio station KUSP has a show called The Surrealist, where-in DJ John James plays old comedy (and not so old) records and shows on Wed. 12-2AM which I listen to online when I can stay up that late.
The book ends in the mid 60s with Lenny Bruce, whose humour I didn't hear until after his death, and Bruce accolyte Paul Krassner, whom I have had the great pleasure of meeting, and who is still doing the stand-up comedy Lenny urged him to do more than 40 years ago. Paul's mag, The Realist, ceased publication, then came back, and is now permanently retired, or perhaps not. Paul is a youthful 70 something. If Lenny Bruce were still alive, would he still be doing standup? For sure, he'd still be funny.
The history of comedians and the times that gave them their jokes is of particular interest to the comedians themselves. The Firesign proudly proclaim their Dada roots. When we were in Zurich in 1980, it was moving to me to walk the streets where that artistic movement began after World War 1. For Mort Sahl to be considered the Will Rogers of the 50s, it's a good idea to know who Will Rogers was. I know enough of the Beat movement (from research, not memory) that Kercher's cultural history does not exist in a vacuum for me. In the straightest of times, there were always clever people doing very non-straight things, and getting away with it. If there weren't, we would have all died of boredom before civilization could get started.


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