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Posts tagged as history

What the Hell Is the Deal with Clowns?

“All the world loves a clown,” Cole Porter once wrote. Turns out, not so much. Today, people’s perceptions of clowns are largely negative: clowns are weird, clowns are scary, clowns are incomprehensible. One thing clowns are not is funny. As Louis C.K. has said, “Clowns aren’t funny. There’s nothing worse than somebody who is not funny trying to be funny. That’s what a clown is.”

However, clowns remain intrinsically linked to comedy. The jokester in the back row is called the class clown. Chris Farley carried “The Clown’s Prayer” in his pocket at all times. There are a whole bunch of terrible articles referring to Robin Williams as a [...]

Exploring the Hidden Racist Past of the Looney Toons

I have an uncomfortable confession to make: I have never liked the Looney Tunes. Despite the cultural pervasiveness of these characters, and a lifelong love of animation on my part, they’ve always struck me as annoying, repetitive, and boring — for all the pandemonium that Bugs Bunny and his ilk ostensibly represent, their chaos is bland, their destruction is predictable, and their lineage is corporate.

To be fair, my exposure to Looney Tunes at the time bore that out pretty well: I grew up in the age of Space Jam and the slew of jerseys, sneakers, McDonald’s toys, pogs, and cookie jars that film spawned. Today is no better, [...]

What's So Special About 'The Richard Pryor Special'?

There's a famous story about The Richard Pryor Show — as Richard Pryor's star was rising in Hollywood in the 1970s, NBC commissioned the man to make a 10-episode sketch program to be broadcast in prime time. Family-friendly viewing not being Pryor's first priority, he clashed with the censors again and again until finally they let him off with only four episodes. These four episodes are still credited with an enormous influence over the genre of TV sketch comedy — directly cited by future blockbusters such as In Living Color and Chapelle's Show — and launching the careers of several performers, including the late Robin Williams in one of his [...]

Finding Long Lost Jack Benny Episodes

The last time on From the Archives that we checked in on Jack Benny, it was towards the end of his career, in 1973. While he was getting on in years, his oft-complimented timing was still just as sharp as it always was, and he still put on a good show. However, judging any comedian's performance at the age of 79 seems a little unfair, unless they're George Burns, so today we're going to examine Jack Benny at his peak, with the help of the new Shout Factory DVD The Jack Benny Show: The Lost Episodes.

I've spoken many times in this column about the various studios [...]

Big and Glossy and Wonderful: The Birth of the 'National Lampoon' Magazine

The first issue of the National Lampoon appeared in April 1970 and sold fewer than half of the five hundred thousand copies printed. Some readers may have thought they were buying yet another Harvard Lampoon magazine parody, understandably confused by a cover that was a variation on their recent Time parody; a dimly lit model in revealing costume posed against a muddy brown background with the caption “Sexy Cover Issue.” Less predictably, next to the model was a grinning cartoon duck — a Doug Kenney idea. “Henry would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do an interview with [legendary New Yorker humorist] S. J. Perelman,’ and Doug would say, ‘We [...]

This Russian Filmmaker Invented Response Memes 100 Years Ago

Ah, internet memes. Depending who you are, they’re what you make online and talk about with your buddies at school, what your goddamn kid won’t stop looking at at the dinner table, or the things you mock when you’re being an ironic piece of shit online. But we can all agree: memes are the best! Or the absolute most awful worst! In any case, memes work because of a particular weird psychological effect filmmakers have been consciously manipulating since the late 1910s.

A “meme,” properly speaking, is “a gene in the realm of the idea,” which is a complicated definition you can look up if you want. But language is [...]

How Bill Cosby Helped Launch Joan Rivers' Comedy Career

By the time she died, Joan Rivers had such an engraved image as an outrageous, foul-mouthed comedian that it’s hard to believe that she started out intending to be a dramatic stage actress. In the late fifties, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College with a degree in English lit and anthropology, she even played the then-daring part of lesbian in a play called “Driftwood” that had a six-week run in a 40-seat attic theater on West 49th Street. (Her lover was another still undiscovered young actress by the name of Barbra Streisand.) By the early sixties, however, Rivers wasn’t getting much theater work, so she accepted an offer [...]

Watch Woody Allen's Incredibly Rare Short Film 'Men of Crisis'

One of the rarest pieces of comedy of the modern era, Woody Allen's short film Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story, has appeared on YouTube. Originally made for PBS but deemed too critical of the Nixon administration to air, the film has never been officially released.

For more info on Men of Crisis, see the first installment of our ongoing column "From the Archives."

The Best of 'Army Man,' the Humor Magazine That Was the Foundation of the Original 'Simpsons' Writers Room

If there is such a thing as a cult comedy magazine, it's Army Man, America's Only Magazine. With a writing staff that included George Meyer, Jack Handey, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, David Sacks, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Andy Borowitz, Roz Chast, Ian Frazier, Bob Odenkirk, and many many more, it's criminal that Army Man isn't more well known.

But the humor magazine ran for only three short issues and was never widely distributed. It was a homemade production, each 'zine photocopied and stapled by comedy genius George Meyer. The quality of the humor is only surpassed by the the caliber of the writing staff and their subsequent projects. Most famously, creator [...]

The Unsung Brilliance of Tom Lehrer

One of the sharpest wits of the 1950s and ‘60s was Tom Lehrer, the mathematician-turned-satirist who sang and performed blackly comic songs lampooning social norms, musical genres and the headlines of the day. In his foreword to the CD collection The Remains of Tom Lehrer, Dr. Demento calls Lehrer “the most brilliant song satirist ever recorded,” and “Weird Al” Yankovic has referred to him as “the J.D. Salinger of demented music.” Yet for all this, Lehrer remains little-known to many contemporary comedy aficionados. This is unfortunate, because though his catalog is relatively limited — a few dozen songs — each is a gem, brimming with biting humor and genuine musical [...]

Hope-Less: How Different Would Standup Be Without Bob Hope?

The truth is, Bob Hope actually dug Lenny Bruce, he really did — even considered him “brilliant,” according to Richard Zoglin in his new biography Hope: Entertainer of the Century. Zoglin tells the story of Hope dropping in on a Florida nightclub to check out Bruce’s act. “Bruce introduced Hope in the audience and after the show,” writes Zoglin, “ran into the parking lot to flag him down, asking Hope if he would give Bruce a guest spot on one of his TV shows. Hope laughed him off: ‘Lenny, you’re for educational TV.’”

Whether there was more sharpness or self-deprecation in Hope’s remark, it’s a tender moment between two [...]

Puck Magazine and the Birth of Modern Political Cartooning

In the late 19th Century, long before Mad Magazine and the Daily Show, there was Puck. The magazine helped to change the very nature of political cartooning, was at the forefront of printing technology and agitating for progressive causes during the Gilded Age — and is even credited with helping to put Grover Cleveland in the White House in the election of 1884! In their new book What Fools These Mortals Be: The Story of Puck, America’s First and Most Influential Magazine of Color Political Cartoons writers Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard West look at the history and the influence of the magazine. Richard West has written extensively about [...]

Watch Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, and Conan Give the Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address 150 years ago this month, and documentarian Ken Burns has been asking people to film themselves reciting the famous speech and put it online at LearnTheAddress.org. Here's Stephen Colbert doing it in character as Lincoln with a beard and hat above and Conan O'Brien and Louis C.K., who does his with Jerry Seinfeld in the room, below (via Vulture):

Unearthing John Swartzwelder's 1996 Unsold Western Pilot

Antenna Free TV has a piece today on a near-mythical pilot from 1996 called Pistol Pete, written by the also near-mythical Simpsons scribe John Swartzwelder. A kooky, comic western, and an unmade show on par with cult lost gems like Lookwell and Heat Vision and Jack, it starred Brian Doyle-Murray and Steve Kearney, whom Harris tinterviews. Swartzwelder even makes a brief statement about the show, and shows up in a photo, both of which are remarkable, because if you know anything about the incredibly reclusive comic genius, it's that he's an incredibly reclusive comic genius.