Last year, when we were putting together “The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy,” our goal was to present a list of jokes that captured the entirety of capital-C comedy. While we feel like we succeeded in that mission, we also came away wondering if the scope had been too limited — if there were jokes outside the sphere of stand-up, sketch, radio, TV, and film that helped establish what we think of as comedy today. Between that and some difficult omissions the first time around — Martin and Maude, Monty Python and the Kids in the Hall — we realized a second edition was warranted, one that pushes the bounds of what could be called a “joke.”
On this list you’ll still find traditional setup–punch-line zingers and acts of physical comedy, but we no longer demanded that a joke be performed. This time we considered passages from novels, cartoon images, and even pieces of art. A joke, as we used it, is a unit of comedy. Unlike last time, non-American acts were eligible for inclusion if their work was popular at the time in the United States and had an influence on specifically American comedy. We’ve also decided, with very few exceptions, not to duplicate anyone from the first list. Of course, the greats have had multiple dimensions to their influence, but our objective with this list is to tell more stories, and that meant no repeats.
The list was put together by Jesse David Fox, Bill Scheft, Dan Pasternack, Yael Kohen, Mike Sacks, Christopher Bonanos, Hunter Harris; E. Alex Jung, Abraham Reisman, Andy Beckerman, Naomi Ekperigin, Andy Evans, Bridget Flaherty, Halle Kiefer, Jenny Jaffe, Elise Czajkowski, Ramsey Ess, Jake Kroeger, Matthew Love, Katla McGlynn, and Dave Schilling.
With that preamble out of the way, here are 100 More Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy. They are listed in chronological order, and you can use the timeline on the left to jump to different eras or specific jokes.
Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?
Mr. Tambo: Say, boss, why did the chicken cross the road?
Interlocutor: Why, I don’t know, Mr. Tambo, why did the chicken cross the road?
Mr. Bones: To get to the other side!
Minstrel is considered the original sin of American show business. The history of the country cannot be separated from the fact that it was built on the backs of black slaves, and the history of modern comedy cannot ignore that it started with white men in blackface. This includes the first joke most Americans learn as children, which has its roots in 19th-century minstrelsy. “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side” was one of a handful of riddle-gags frequently used by Christy’s Minstrels, a group of blackface entertainers, formed by Edwin Pearce Christy, who would go on to become the most famous minstrel troupe ever. (An 1847 issue of The Knickerbocker magazine is credited as the first to print the joke; however, it is unclear where the joke started. Likely it began as a folk joke that the Christy’s adapted.) The group is credited with inventing or at least popularizing “the line,” the name for the three-man act that would be the focus of the first of a three-act minstrel show, with the “interlocutor” in the middle, between “Mr. Tambo” and “Mr. Bones.” Rhetorical question-and-answer bits like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” were performed as a rapid-fire dialogue between the three. It was a precursor to the vaudeville two-man act, and thus a precursor to essentially all future comedy. The influence of the joke, and white minstrel shows in general, on the form is complete and total, but it shouldn’t be ignored that the goal was affirming white supremacy. The fight for fair representation of black people in comedy continues to this day, over a century and a half later; however, white minstrel shows would soon fall out of fashion in favor of black minstrel shows, burlesque, and, eventually, vaudeville.
Billiard Ball Trick
[While stuffing two billiard balls in his mouth] “If God had made my mouth any bigger, he would have had to move my ears.”
After the Civil War, minstrel shows starring white actors in blackface fell out of favor and in their place arose a number of bllack minstrels. None was more popular than Billy Kersands. Famed vaudeville comedian Tom Fletcher wrote, “In the South, a minstrel show without Billy Kersands is like a circus without elephants.” Though he eventually wrote the lyrics of the song that led to Aunt Jemima becoming a pancake icon, Kersands’s greatest gifts were physical. “The slightest curl of his lip or opening of that yawning chasm termed his mouth was of itself sufficient to convulse the audience,” said an observer. One could only image the response to his billiard-ball trick. Still, that joke underlines his complicated legacy. Kersands’s act affirmed many of the worst stereotypes of the slow-witted Sambo character seen in white minstrel shows. As a result, many blacks, particularly in the north, opposed his act. That said, Kersands had more black fans than white, and his popularity resulted in theater owners relaxing their segregation policies. Also, although his performance – especially from a modern perspective – might be seen as horribly offensive, it was more nuanced and human — even if only slightly — than those of white minstrels and incorporated some black folk traditions. As black-comedy historian Mel Watkins writes in his book On the Real Side, Kersands was likely the first black comedian to face what would become a recurring dilemma from Stepin Fetchit to In Living Color: “the conflict between satirizing social images of blacks and contributing to whites’ negative stereotypes of blacks in general.”
Way Down in Front
“And way down in front by the footlights’ glow /
The bald-headed men sat in the front row. /
They had big glasses to see all the sights /
Including the blondes who danced in silk tights.”
Modern-day burlesque may be synonymous with stripteases and tassels, but when Lydia Thompson and her “British Blondes” first hit America in 1868 with their show Ixion, their style of Victorian Burlesque was as much about bawdiness of mind as of body. Their parody musicals mocked the traditions of theater and opera, often featuring female characters in traditionally male leads and spoofing popular songs of the day. Within a year of Thompson’s arrival, the New York Times was declaring a “mania for burlesque,” despite the paper’s evident snobbery about this newly popular theatrical style. In the first wave of American burlesque, the productions were female-led and the costumes were revealing — above-the-knee dresses and tights — making them a risqué treat for the audiences who flocked to the shows. Since most of the music used was stolen outright from other works, they kept few records of their performances, but their influence was enormous, spawning troupes around the country and a style that remained popular for decades, offering a high-brow alternative to minstrel shows and setting up the rise of vaudeville. It also goes to show that women have been telling dirty jokes as long as women have been allowed to tell jokes, a legacy that continues to this day.
‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’
Major General Stanley: I am the very model of a modern Major-General /
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral /
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical /
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical /
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical /
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical /
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news [bothered for a rhyme] /
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
Gilbert and Sullivan had written a hit in London, H.M.S. Pinafore, and set sail for New York to stage it there. Only, nobody was interested in going to see it since copyright law didn’t extend to foreigners at the time, and a number of theater companies had already staged the show in America. The solution? Stage a new production in America, copyright it there, and beat the pirates at their own game. The classic comic opera The Pirates of Penzance would go on to feature the best example of their influential modernizing of the patter song — “The Major-General Song.” Made up of many types of humor — wordplay, references both historic and cultural, social satire (a “modern” military man must be educated rather than brawny), and even meta humor (“that infernal nonsense Pinafore!”) — the funniest and most lasting part remains just how absurdly fast it is, setting a comedic pace soon seen in vaudeville. The song brought the house down in 1879 and it’s still frequently parodied today. You may not know any of the hundreds of words, but I’ll bet you know the tune, and there aren’t a lot of Victorian-era operatic songs that can claim that.
Fools in Town
the king: Cuss the doctor! What do we k’yer for HIM? Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?
Mark Twain’s most famous work is best known for its biting commentary on racism and the Victorian panic over corrupted youth, but just as important is Twain’s satire of man as a whole. The young boy Huck and runaway slave Jim encounter two con artists, referred to as the king and the duke, who don’t just exploit their fellow man, they play them like fiddles. The two criminals disagree on whether they should quit while they’re ahead, since the doctor in the town that they are swindling has figured them out. The king says the above, not only winning the argument, but taking down every town in America in one fell swoop. There were plenty of people speaking truth to power and writing things that made people think back then, but when’s the last time you heard about somebody reading John Esten Cooke for fun? Twain was able to make his point stick because you laughed when you heard it, by rooting the jokes in specifically funny character, not just turn of phrase. There’s a reason, after all, that the Kennedy Center award for humor is called the Mark Twain Prize: So much of what we think of in terms of modern comedy comes from this revelation.
Jack: If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I certainly won’t want to know Bunbury.
Algernon: Then your wife will. You don’t seem to realise, that in married life three is company and two is none.
Jack: [Sententiously]. That, my dear young friend, is the theory that the corrupt French Drama has been propounding for the last fifty years.
Algernon: Yes; and that the happy English home has proved in half the time.
The wittiest piece of theater from one of the wittiest playwrights to pick up a pen, Earnest is not just a playful comedy of manners about marriage but a subtly subversive take on the life and times of Oscar Wilde himself. At first blush, the story of upper-crust gadabout Jack and his pal Algernon is about coupledom, class, and fibs told in the pursuit of love; scratch the surface, and it’s about identity, willful blindness, and the strains of living a double life in 19th-century London. Amid all the repartee and revelations about babies abandoned in handbags, Algernon’s notion of “Bunburying” sums up the play perfectly — and Wilde’s dilemma as a married man who was, at least, bisexual. While looking to avoid bland social engagements, Algernon pretends to care for sick friend “Bunbury” somewhere in the country; this mirrors Jack’s relationship with his nonexistent brother, Ernest. Wilde’s way with words has since helped spawn a culture of highbrow banter — one adopted by both gay and straight comedy alike — and elevated comedy, generally, as a form to be treated with respect. Earnest’s subtitle says it all: “A trivial comedy for serious people.”
Moreland: What kind of races do you play?
Russell: Horse races.
Moreland: What track you play at?
Russell: I play at —
Moreland: That track’s crooked. Why don’t you play over here, around —
Russell: That’s where I lost my money.
Moreland: How much did you lost?
Russell: I lost about —
Moreland: You didn’t have that much.
Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, a duo that started as a simple two-man act, later ushered in the Harlem Renaissance. Friends as children, it was not until Miller and Lyles re-met in college that they began to write and perform together. In their partnership, Miller and Lyles created a bit that became the basis of many Vaudeville routines and is sometimes called the black “Who’s on first?” Many others would replicate the back-and-forth candor, not only black performers like, most famously, Mantan Moreland & Ben Carter, but white as well, including Abbott and Costello and Amos ‘n’ Andy. (Miller would eventually write for the TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy.) Less a scripted sketch than a form, the idea of their “indefinite” talk was to anticipate the end of each other’s sentences and to progress the dialogue forward. By the 1920s, the comics wrote and starred in Shuffle Along, a legendary Broadway hit (which had a Tony-winning revival in 2015), but “Indefinite Talk” would prove to be their most lasting contribution to comedy. Comedians were performing it well into the 1950s, like the version below from Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue, one of the era’s black variety showcase films (a notable time in the depiction of African-Americans in the movies, in its own right). Beyond that, even if the specific routine fell out of favor, as people moved beyond vaudeville, its influence was tremendous and foundational, helping define how American comedic dialogue would sound.
Marcel Duchamp, like all who were a part of the Dada movement, was interested in asking profound questions about the nature of art and disturbing the status quo. This is why, in 1917, he bought a standard urinal from a plumbing supply store on Fifth Avenue, signed it with the moniker “R. Mutt,” and requested that it be displayed in a gallery with the title Fountain. In and of itself, it’s a joke told at the expense of a stuffy art world, but its reach extended much further. Duchamp, arguably, unwittingly created the first widely celebrated piece of anti-comedy. There’s a reason Andy Kaufman is often called Dadaistic. Kaufman shared a similar interest in confronting what would get a reaction from an audience. Duchamp asked why a pee pail couldn’t be art in the same way Andy Kaufman asked his audiences why just reading The Great Gatsby or singing “I Trusted You” over and over (and over) again wasn’t comedy. It’s not just Kaufman; it’s Steve Allen wearing a suit covered in tea bags; it’s David Letterman throwing things of the roof. It’s a spirit that has run through comedy ever since. Every time someone like Norm MacDonald stands up to read dad jokes at a roast or Tig Notaro spends most of her late-night set just pointing out the funny sound a stool makes when she drags it across the floor, it’s easy to sense the trickle-down effect from Fountain.
Harold Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman was as thoughtfully crafted a silent-comedy creation as Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” or Buster Keaton’s “Stone Face.” Hapless and helpless in the face of wild adversity, Lloyd would somehow always persevere … but just barely, in a trick Jackie Chan would eventually bring to his comedic fight scenes. The iconic sequence featuring Lloyd dangling from the hands of a giant clock on the face of a skyscraper is inarguably one of the most enduring images in all of cinema history. Audiences were thrilled, although reports of fainting in movie houses during the final daring sequence were common. Lloyd’s death-defying stunt is made even more astounding by the fact that he performed it with the use of only one full hand, having lost his thumb and index finger in an accident in 1919 — a loss that he concealed in his subsequent films with the aid of a flesh-colored glove. Physical and stunt comedy is forever indebted.
Amos: Don’t try to tell me. The way we is goin’ now, we is just starvin’ to death, that’s all.
Andy: Now, listen, Amos, you just stick to me and you’ll be rich. What would you think if you wake up some mornin’ an’ put your hand in your pants pocket an’ found a roll of 20-dollar bills?
Amos: I wouldn’t think nothin’. I’d know I had on somebody else’s pants, that’s all.
Andy: Don’t get me regusted. Shut up.
In 1926, as admirers and students of the minstrel comedy teams of the era, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll created the black-dialect-driven duo Sam ‘n’ Henry. Two years later, after changing the name of the act to Amos ‘n’ Andy, the two white men would create and star in radio’s first big hit show, becoming what many regard as the most successful in the history of the medium. Jokes like the above were essentially “blackface” on the radio, but the show’s appeal and impact were undeniable. When viewed in history’s rearview mirror, the malaprop-inflected dialogue is cringe-worthy, but in its heyday, it was embraced by white and black audiences alike who identified with the struggles of the striving characters throughout the Great Depression and after. The duo’s depiction of African-Americans, which went beyond one-note jokes, was, at the time, a major step forward in representation compared to the minstrel holdovers and Hollywood movies of the early-20th century. Still, looking back now, 90 years later, the show was undeniably problematic. Ironically, it was the television adaptation of Amos ‘n’ Andy, which starred an all-black cast, that became a lightning rod for controversy, ultimately facing cancellation in 1953 under pressure from groups like the NAACP. (Beulah, television’s other successful comedy with a black central character also disappeared that same year.) Following Amos ‘n’ Andy’s demise on the small screen, television would not have another comedy series with an African-American lead character for 15 years, until Julia starring Diahann Carroll debuted in 1968.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Life among the journalists and theater folk who frequently lunched at the Algonquin Hotel made poet, critic, and short-story writer Dorothy Parker a paragon of sophisticated wit; but her world wasn’t just the plays, booze, trysts, and bon mots that suffused her prose. Parker thrived in moments of emotional distress and consequence: the backstage jousting between men and women (“The Sexes”) or the morning after the bender (“You Were Perfectly Fine”). And though she died of a heart attack at the age of 73, she thought a lot about ending things early. The eight-line poem Resumé just might be literature’s sharpest and most succinct evaluation of suicide, and it indicates Parker’s willingness to use even the darkest and most crippling aspects of her depression as grist for the mill. Parker’s heirs are not only those who give biting, literary critiques, such as Fran Lebowitz, but the comedians who dwell in darkness, and who use quips to do battle with the world and their own worst impulses — including present-day comics such as Maria Bamford and Chris Gethard, who grapple with mental instability directly.
‘The Son of a Bitch Stole My Watch!’
Set in a bustling Chicago press room, this classic American play follows the exploits of one Hildy Johnson, a plucky reporter bound and determined to get married and leave the news game altogether, as well as Johnson’s wily publisher Walter Burns and a hard-bitten gang of reporters. When a huge story nearly falls into Johnson’s lap — in the form of a condemned man on the lam — the shenanigans with crooked mayors, bedraggled mothers-in-law, and roll-top desks takes over. Former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur elevate the action and vernacular of the ragtag newsroom, giving it all the melodrama, histrionics, fabrications, and exclamations of a tabloid rag. Even after the smoke clears, the switcheroos don’t stop. After the possessive Burns has gifted Johnson with a pocket watch and watched the retiring reporter exit with his bride-to-be, Burns calls the police: Johnson, he says, stole that watch and should be arrested. The explosive, rapid-fire dialogue has made The Front Page not only a film director’s delight, but goosed an entire generation of Hollywood screenwriters in the ’30s and ’40s — and also influenced latter-day stylists such as the Coen brothers.
‘I Don't Want To Get Thin’
“I noticed one thing, girls, you can store this in your dome /
All the married men who run after me have skinny wives at home”
Born Sonya Kalish to an American-bound Ukrainian-Jewish family, Sophie Tucker styled herself “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Her brassy stage presence and ribald tunes translated across vaudeville to radio and film, making her one of the most well-known stage acts in the first half of the 20th century. Playing up her size with songs like “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” and “I Don’t Want to Get Thin,” and appealing to her Jewish fan base with tunes like “My Yiddish Momme,” Tucker achieved her greatest success in the 1920s, both in America and Europe. Her larger-than-life character influenced later female performers like Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Roseanne Barr, and Bette Midler, who channeled Tucker’s stand-up in her 1980 concert film Divine Madness.
Hattie and Stepin
[Aunt Dilsey turns around to walk away with a tray of drinks she just poured, so Jeff Poindexter tries to steal a doughnut.]
Aunt Dilsey: [Turning around] Hey!
[Jeff drops the doughnut and his tambourine.]
Cut them monkey shines. How do you expect the judge to win his croquette game with no solace in his stomach?
[Aunt Dilsey walks out of the kitchen and Jeff picks up his tambourine]
Jeff: [Talking with his tambourine next to his face, like it were a hand trying to hid a secret] Aunt Dilsey you forgot the jug. The jug here. Alright, you can’t say I never told you now. Leaving somebody here with all this stuff. [Jeff puts food in his pocket] I bet she’s gonna blame me.
A comic actor of great talent, who used it — some say cynically for his own personal gain — to reaffirm the most grotesque stereotypes, there’s maybe no more complicated figure in the history of American comedy than Stepin Fetchit. Still, playing his character The Laziest Man in the World, Fetchit became the first black movie star at a time when black representation in film was essentially nonexistent. In retrospect, though Fetchit would still be popular for some time afterward, this moment from Judge Priest, a film starring comedy icon (and friend of Fetchit’s) Will Rogers, can be seen as a moment of transition in American comedy and the representation of black people in popular culture. At the time, Hattie McDaniels was still unknown, but she impressed director John Ford so much while filming that he cut scenes from Fetchit to give her more screen time. Though McDaniels is playing a servant, a role she’d go on to play frequently (eventually becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award for playing one in Gone With the Wind), she is self-possessed and sharp. She makes the joke; she isn’t made into one. She eventually would face criticism as well for fulfilling the role of a mammy, but the fact that she was free to talk back to men and white characters in film was undoubtedly a step forward. She did it with a quick turn of phrase or a simple, hilarious look.
The Three Stooges As Doctors
Voice-over intercom: Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard! Dr. Howard report to room 66! Dr. Fine, 72! Dr. Howard, 83!
[The Stooges run in and out of various doors.]
Voice-over intercom: Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard, report to Dr. Graves’s office.
[They run into Dr. Graves’s office.]
Larry: Hello, captain, you send for us?
Dr. Graves: Yes. How did you find that patient in 66?
Moe: Under the bed.
Dr. Graves: How did you find the patient in 72?
Larry: Up on the chandelier.
Dr. Graves: What did you do for him?
Curley: Nothin’! What’d he ever do for us?
Dr. Graves: What are you working here for?!
Stooges: For duty and humanity!
Voice-over intercom: Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard!
[The Stooges run out of Dr. Graves’s office with a flurry of Curly “whoop-whoops,” slamming and shattering the glass door behind them as they run off. The custodian nonchalantly strides up with a replacement pane for Dr. Graves’s glass door.]
The best work of this decidedly lowbrow trio of violent slapstick comedians occurred between 1934 and 1946 and featured the perfectly balanced lineup of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard. The Academy Award–winning 1934 short Men in Black casts the trio as inept doctors who, in classic anti-authoritarian tradition, undermine the propriety of their environment as well as anyone of status. Replete with their signature slaps, punches, eye pokes, “nyuks,” and “whoops,” the Stooges run breathlessly for the duration of the short, inflicting quackery and chaos everywhere they go. While the Stooges’ brand of madcap mayhem and unapologetic anarchy wasn’t for everyone, it absolutely endured for generations, remaining a cultural touchstone in the 1983 MTV novelty crossover hit “The Curly Shuffle” by Jump ‘N the Saddle Band, as a running comic point-of-reference by Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon franchise, and seemingly as the template for the Jackass crew.
Beginning during the silent-film era, over 200 Our Gang short films were produced in a period spanning over 20 years, introducing moviegoers to a regular cast of disobedient delinquents including Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Stymie, Froggy, and Buckwheat, in addition to discovering young stars like Jackie Cooper and Mickey Gubitosi (who would later change his screen name to Robert Blake). For nearly a half-century after their initial release, generations would be raised watching these shorts, inspiring and influencing every film or TV show featuring badly behaved children. It’s impossible to see Home Alone, for example, without thinking that Macaulay Culkin’s violent high jinks are extensions of Rascal pranks like this one. However, enduring for so long also meant that the shorts, which could be seen as progressive at one time for depicting all the children as equal, eventually faced controversy for their portrayal of children of color. Eddie Murphy shined a parodic light on representation in the early 1980s with his inspired take on the verbally challenged “Buhwheat” on Saturday Night Live. The Depression-era shorts faded from view shortly thereafter.
Baby Snooks: What’s insurance, Daddy?
Daddy: How many times must I tell you? It’s something I pay for so you can live comfortable when I’m gone.
Baby Snooks: Where you going?
Daddy: I’m not going anywhere.
Baby Snooks: Why?
Daddy: Because I’m not. I just want to be fit in the morning, so I can get this double indemnity policy.
Baby Snooks: What’s a dublimanenity?
Daddy: Well, I certainly stuck my neck out there. Double indemnity means if I die a natural death, I get 10,000 dollars. If I commit suicide, I get 20. Right now, that seems like a pleasant way of making 20,000 dollars.
Baby Snooks: Do it, Daddy.
Daddy: I will not. Now go to sleep.
Today, many people who know the name Fanny Brice are thinking of Barbra Streisand’s Oscar-winning take on her early life in the 1968 musical Funny Girl. But the real Brice was famous for another girl — her character Baby Snooks, a precocious 4-year-old who made Brice a radio phenomenon in the 1930s and ’40s. Brice developed the mischievous child in her days as a vaudeville star, parodying a famous child actress of the time. When she moved to radio, Bryce insisted on dressing in costume to fully inhabit the character, even though the show was only performed before a small studio audience. What charmed listeners of Ziegfeld Follies of the Air (The Baby Snooks Show after that) was the banter between the somewhat sassy (but never mean) little girl, and her exasperated (but never cruel) Daddy, who tried to answer every plaintive “Why-y-y, Daddy?” that his daughter threw at him. But despite the show’s success, it wasn’t a good fit for television; Brice was over 40 when the show started, and even her pitch-perfect baby voice couldn’t sell her as a little girl. The show continued in its radio format until Brice’s unexpected death in 1951, at the age of 59. Her legacy lived on in the comic archetype of the annoying, precocious little kid, which has remained a fixture ever since, as well as the character work of female comedians that came after, especially Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann, Gilda Radner’s Judy Miller, and Amy Poehler’s Kaitlin.
Molly: Maybe we better see if the closet door is locked. Let me take a look.
Fibber: Oh, it’s locked all right. You don’t think I’d leave all my personal defects around for some prowler to get his hands on.
Molly: McGee, it isn’t locked…
[The sound of many falling objects and glass breaking.]
Real-life husband-and-wife Marian and Jim Jordan starred in one of radio’s most beloved and longest-running domestic situation comedies, Fibber McGee and Molly. The working-class Midwesterners of 79 Wistful Vista were smart but salt-of-the-earth accessible. The best remembered running gag of the series was Fibber’s overcrowded closet, the contents of which would collapse onto him in an ever-extended cacophony of sound effects. Fibber would always seem to forget the last time, ignoring Molly’s pleas to not open the door. The result was radio comedy at its best, leaving the listener to envision Fibber buried under mountains of rubble in their theater of the mind. The bit continued when the duo transitioned to television, but the visual realization of the closet gag never lived up to the imaginations of their fans. The joke, like many of the era, has been imitated and imitated by numerous comedies since, to the point that it’s origins have been somewhat obscured. But it all started with Fibber’s closet.
‘Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians)’
“There’s Liadoff and Karganoff, Markievitch, Pantschenko
And Dargomyzski, Stcherbatcheff, Scriabine, Vassilenko,
Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Mussorgsky, and Gretchaninoff
And Glazounoff and Caesar Cui, Kalinikoff, Rachmaninoff,
Stravinsky and Gretchnaninoff,
Rumshinsky and Rachmaninoff,
I really have to stop, the subject has been dwelt upon enough!”
In 1941, the great Broadway playwright Moss Hart joined forces with fellow geniuses Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill on the musical Lady in the Dark, which introduced a then-unknown young performer named Danny Kaye. The song “Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians),” in which Kaye rattled off the hard-to-pronounce names of over 50 Russian composers in 39 seconds, was a showstopper and transformed Kaye into a star. Kaye quickly went into the movies, scoring hit after hit with Wonder Man, The Inspector General, Hans Christian Andersen, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In almost every film, Kaye would perform dialogue and songs that showcased his gift for verbal acrobatics. (Especially notable is the run in the 1956 film The Court Jester about the “pellet with the poison” being in the “vessel with the pestle.”) Kaye’s peerless precision wowed audiences but also provided a high bar that notoriously hard-working, perfectionist performers such as Sid Caesar and George Carlin would both later cite as being of significant inspiration.
Police: How does the girl fit into the picture?
Sullivan: There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?
Sturges not only took the screwball comedy and made it his own, he also pioneered a number of traits that we see the auteurs of today rip off. He had a stock stable of actors whom he turned to again and again, he wrote naturalistic dialogue, and he wrote intricate, fast-paced plots with crazy situations. Oh, and his main character in this film, Sullivan, has a dream movie he wants to make one day called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” In a Sturges film, even though everybody is clever and everybody immediately knows the right thing to say, like in the case of this joke, it never feels incredibly stylized, proving that witty dialogue doesn’t have to remind you that it was written. Sturges pushed the screwball comedy further down the field, and when he was done, he happily handed it off to the Coens and the Andersons of today.
‘Der Fuehrer’s Face’
“When der fuehrer says, ‘We are the master race.’ /
We ‘Heil! Heil!’ right in the fuehrer’s face.”
Before bandleader Spike Jones became a household name for novelty songs featuring doorbells, barking dogs, and pistol shots, he released a boisterous version of a song from an upcoming anti-Nazi cartoon starring Donald Duck. Just months after D-day and the U.S. entry into WWII, the release of “Der Fuehrer’s Face” struck a nerve by tying nationalism to a derisive sort of laughter. The song’s goofy oompah bounce and mocking repudiation of Hitler’s ugliest edicts, replete with a host of Bronx cheers, quickly made it one of the most popular songs of 1942. The Walt Disney–produced Donald Duck short eventually came out and won an Academy Award, only furthering the legacy of Jones’s version. Though the barely constrained bedlam of Jones’s band influenced everyone from Weird Al to Mel Brooks to Frank Zappa, Jones really made his mark by staring down Hitler and blowing a really loud raspberry.
Though dark humor speaks to so many people, one does not often associate it with comic strips. But Charles Addams was always a little different. Addams illustrated hundreds of cartoons, mostly for The New Yorker, which would serve as the inspiration for The Addams Family, but one cartoon outshines the rest. In it, your eye immediately focuses at the very top of a Gothic mansion, where three strange-looking humans are about to pour a steaming cauldron over the side of the roof. Slowly, your eye travels downward to see a group of happy Christmas carolers unaware of what is about to happen. The most interesting element here, though, is the use of perspective. The audience is not among the carolers. We are with the ghoulish family. We are overseeing this bubbling liquid and perhaps grinning just as much as the family is. With one simple drawing, Charles Addams taps into something lurking inside all of us, introduced a macabre tone to modern comedy, and paved the way for the entire genre of horror comedy.
Photographer: Now hold it a minute. Mrs. Goldberg, would you mind removing your hat, please?
Mrs. Goldberg: My hat?
Photographer: You see it throws a shadow on your face.
Mrs. Goldberg: Haha, Jake.
Mr. Goldberg: Molly.
[Mrs. Goldberg struggling to get her hat off.]
Mrs. Goldberg: I can’t get it off.
[Mr. Goldberg helps her remove her hat.]
Mrs. Goldberg: That’s better?
[The Goldbergs smile for the camera.]
The makers of the earliest television shows struggled to figure out what TV even was: vaudeville? Theater? Radio with pictures? The Goldbergs, brought over to TV in 1949 after 20 years of radio episodes, was perhaps the first television sitcom that had most of the form down pat. It doesn’t have the bright clowning of I Love Lucy, which came on the air a year or so later. It wasn’t packed with jokes. It had no laugh track. It was, instead, domestic and sometimes sentimental in tone. It was also mordantly, wryly funny, a gentler Norman Lear show before its time. But with a twist: a woman named Gertrude Berg was both show creator and star, and her on-air family was explicitly Jewish, living in the Bronx and speaking Yiddish-inflected English with the neighbors. (The kids, of course, were all-American, setting up much of the comedy.) In this episode, the Goldbergs are scheduled to take a family photo, but it comes out that Mr. Goldberg doesn’t like any of Mrs. Goldberg’s hats. After some squabbling, they settle on a hat, only to have the photographer tell her not to wear one at all. Neil Simon would take The Goldbergs’ form and run with it; less obviously, so did Norman Lear. Heck, this joke, with some modern punch-up, sounds like it could be from Modern Family. By the time the show went off the air in 1956, the Goldbergs had moved from the tenements to the suburbs, as Lucy and Desi did around the same time, and their life changed as they struggled to assimilate — as did America’s.
Charlie Brown’s Introduction
Over the 50 years that Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” ran as a daily comic strip, the strip evolved both with the times and against it. Slowly but surely the focus drifted from the human children over to a certain bipedal beagle, and in the process, much of the strip’s ingrained sadness went to the wayside. As beloved as Snoopy is, it is the constant stream of inevitable defeats that make up Charlie Brown’s life that the strip will be remembered for. And it was there from the very first strip. As the strip goes on, we see Charlie be denied baseball wins, a proper kite flight, psychiatric help, and, yes, a chance to kick a football, creating a unique contrast of melancholy and the sweetness expected from a cartoon about a kid. All that complexity of tone was there from the start, captured in just four line-drawn frames. It is a clear influence on every comic that followed, most obviously Calvin and Hobbes, but you can also see “Peanuts” in any character, like The Office’s Michael Scott, who hides a tinge of sadness behind a comic smile.
‘I Yam What I Am’
“‘You want ‘em buttered?’
‘Sho, that way you can get the most out of ‘em. Yessuh,” he said, handing over the yams, “I can see you one of these old-fashioned yam eaters.’
‘’They’re my birthmark,’ I said. ‘I yam what I am!’”
In 1953, Ralph Ellison was the first African-American author to win the National Book Award for his critically acclaimed novel Invisible Man. The book’s narrator was lauded as a complex yet universal black protagonist, recounting his life with constant intellectual reflection, emotional insight, and, of course, humor. Expelled from an all-black university and sent to New York to find work, he buys a buttered yam and eats it on the streets of Harlem. Suddenly euphoric at publicly indulging in stereotypical “black” behavior, for which the narrator had been made to feel ashamed, he embraces the stereotype, declaring proudly, “I yam what I am!” Invisible Man, Ellison’s only novel to be published before his death, influenced African-American authors throughout the 20th century, including President Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father. Comedically, Ellison elevated African-American folk humor, and was revolutionary in his ability to find comedy in the paradox between satirizing and fostering stereotypes that surrounded black comedy since Billy Kersands.
“I yam what I am” has been echoed throughout much of modern black stand-up, including David Chappelle’s chicken joke.
‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’
“But square-cut or pear shape /
These rocks don’t loose their shape. /
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
Dumb-blonde jokes can be traced back as far as the 18th century, but it was Marilyn Monroe’s portrayal of Lorelei Lee that cemented them in modern pop culture. During this big dance number, Monroe’s iconic look, bleached-blonde and adorned in a thick diamond choker with a tight bright-pink dress, creates the prototype for a dumb blonde. She needs to be flamboyantly feminine, and speak softly and vapidly. As she says in the movie, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” Monroe’s quick quips of feigned ignorance are supported by the groundedness of Dorothy Shaw, played by Jane Russell, in a rare-for-the-time female comedy duo. Helmed by Howard Hawks, a director famous for his “Hawksian” tough-talking woman, the movie demonstrates comedy through the actress’s use of sexual agency. Monroe’s femininity is not an object but a tool to get what she wants — famously, diamonds. The sheer size of Monroe’s performance defined this fundamentally American archetype. Without her, there would be no Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Cher in Clueless, or Elle Woods of Legally Blonde.
The Talking Mailbox
Mailbox: Be careful.
Woman: [Running backwards, screaming] Ahhhh!
[She returns and tries to put the letter in the mailbox]
Mailbox: Miss, don’t drop that letter in until I know where it’s going. Where you sending it to?
Woman: [Pulling the letter back] Are you kidding?
Mailbox: No, ma’am, this is the new service of the post office.
As long as there have been people to prank, there have been practical jokes, but it wasn’t until Candid Camera (which was developed out of the Candid Microphone radio show) that they became weaponized as a tool for big comedy. The show’s most famous prank involved a microphone, a loudspeaker, and a mailbox. As folks approached the mailbox with some letters, a voice that seemed to come from within would urgently accost them. It sounds pretty tame by today’s standards, but that’s because we’re used to pranks involving Justin Timberlake crying or Borat making fun of rodeo fans to their faces. But the show was a game-changer, eventually acting as a shorthand for whenever an incredulous person found themselves in a stressful situation. “Am I on Candid Camera?” people would ask for decades. It’s legacy, ironically, likely will outlive the mailbox.
VLADIMIR: We’ll hang ourselves to-morrow. [Pause.] Unless Godot comes.
ESTRAGON: And if he comes?
VLADIMIR: We’ll be saved.
Vladimir takes off his hat, peers inside it, feels about inside it, shakes it, knocks on the crown, puts it on again.
ESTRAGON: Well? Shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers.
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers.
ESTRAGON: You want me to pull off my trousers?
VLADIMIR: Pull ON your trousers.
ESTRAGON: [realizing his trousers are down]. True.
He pulls up his trousers.
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
Specifically building off vaudevillian dialogue rhythms, Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece offered a window into what a deeper comedy could look like. The ending plays like a classic two-man ending, but with real doses of menace and existential angst. Waiting for Godot clearly led in the great comedies of menace by the likes of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, but its influence on capital-C comedy was also tremendous. There is Godot in Ernie Kovacs’s disquieting absurdity, Michael O’Donoghue’s violent darkness, Andy Kaufman’s anti-comedy, and Woody Allen’s comedy of searching for meaning. However, more than anything, Vladimir and Estragon’s vacuous, intentionally aloof conversation instantly feels like a stripped-down version of what would become Seinfeld’s show about nothing. The ending, in particular, feels like it inspired Larry David’s rule of “no hugging, no learning,” especially since Beckett explicitly avoided explaining any underlying meaning to his work. Now, over 60 years later, you can see dashes of Godot in shows like Atlanta, The Good Place, The Eric Andre Show, and most other shows on Adult Swim as well.
“Ev’ry Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York”
Dean Martin: I love New York.
[Martin passes the microphone to Lewis.]
Jerry Lewis: I love New York.
[Martin takes the microphone back.]
Dean Martin: All the streets in the city are one in the same.
So I leave it to you …
[Lewis impersonates the faces Martin makes while singing]
what’s in a naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaame?
The post–World War II nightclub era was glamorous and glorious, and there isn’t another example of that moment as fabled and folkloric as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s sold-out run at New York’s famed Copacabana. It has been described as a sensation on par with the Beatles at Liverpool’s Cavern. Their power as a double act shook up the world of entertainment and catapulted them to stardom on television, on records, and in movies. Their signature song-and-dance routine “Ev’ry Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” was featured on their hit TV variety series The Colgate Comedy Hour and in their feature film Living It Up. But here, even in this poorly shot peek at a 1954 performance at the Copa, the excitement of seeing the performers live in a nightclub and the affection that defined their act is palpable. Two years later, Martin and Lewis went their separate ways in one of entertainment’s most notoriously acrimonious splits.
Straight to the Moon!
Alice: There’s only one thing, Ralph, that’s missing from my Disneyland, only one thing: the world of tomorrow. I have nothing from the world of tomorrow.
Ralph: You want the world of tomorrow, Alice? You want the world of tomorrow? I’ll give you the world of tomorrow. [Making a fist] You’re going to the moon!
There is no phrase more closely associated with The Honeymooners than Ralph Kramden finding himself at a loss for words with his wife, Alice, generally because she has made a biting comment about him, and then threatening to “send her to the moon.” Domestic abuse is in itself not funny, not in 2017 or 1955, but here Ralph isn’t expressing a threat so much as frustration. The viewer knows there is no one Ralph loves more than Alice, and that he’d never actually lay a hand on her. The key is the joke doesn’t end there, but in Alice’s dismissing him. Ralph’s fist-making is the result of him losing the fight. The joke is always on him. The Honeymooners didn’t sugarcoat relationships, allowing audiences to see that even though a couple may fight, if there’s truly love there, they can make it through anything. Every sitcom-couple fight, whether it’s between Archie and Edith Bunker or Homer and Marge Simpson or Louis and Jessica Huang, has its roots here.
A period sounds like this: puttt.
A dash: fsssssssh.
An exclamation mark is a vertical dash with a period underneath: fsssssssh putt.
A Danish pianist-comedian who performed into his ’90s, Borge delivered a gentle, playful form of stand-up that was mostly about classical music. He performed in an era when concertgoing was more commonplace, and thus page turners standing at the piano, or opera singers who have to come in on cue, were easy to parody. His most famous routine, though, involved no music: He’d take out a book onstage and read a few paragraphs while speaking and pantomiming the punctuation marks: a fsss-puttt for each exclamation point as he drew it in the air, a click in his cheek for each comma, accelerating as the passage went on. You can hear his cerebral approach in Tom Lehrer’s more biting songs, and perhaps Mark Russell’s more political ones; you can certainly see his literate quirks propagated throughout the Ira Glass–”Shouts & Murmurs”–”Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” universe. A funny-punctuation column, in the right hands, would fit perfectly well in, say, the next issue of McSweeney’s.
Slow Talkers of America
Bob: I am … The president … and recording…—
Bob: Secretary… of the S … T … O … A … The …—
Ray: What does that stand for?
Bob: Slow … Talkers … of America …
When radiomen Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott (father to Chris; grandfather of Abby) bantered on the air together for the first time in the mid-’40s, there was no way they could have known their budding partnership would last five decades. The gentle, patient comedy of Bob & Ray was about both medium and message: It used the burgeoning entertainments of radio and TV to poke fun at the programming and the personalities behind the media — hapless reporters, lackluster sports announcers, and marginal celebrities of every kind. One of their most recognizable bits, which they started doing in 1957, features Bob as a spokesperson for an organization called the Slow Talkers of America, and an exasperated Ray finishing each and every one of his painfully predictable sentences. The characterizations and pacing behind the Slow Talker bit make it a crystalline example of what makes their comedy great. This sort of playing with the conventions of double-act comedy is a clear influence on Saturday Night Live and the big comedy deconstructionists of the ’70s and ’80s — Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, David Letterman, and Andy Kaufman.
The Fudge-Cake-Powered Moon Rocket
Bullwinkle: [Holding a cake] Here’s the latest one, Rocky.
Rocky: Will it make a good rocket fuel, Bullwinkle?
Bullwinkle: Well, I don’t know but it sure will make a dandy lunch.
The late-’50s, early-’60s animated adventure parody from Jay Ward — the producer of pioneering cartoon show Crusader Rabbit — dazzled with its zany plotlines and crackerjack voice-overs, even if the movements of its anthropomorphic animals remained rudimentary. While the anthology series included segments featuring clueless Mountie Dudley Do-Right and many others, the chipper squirrel Rocky and dopey moose Bullwinkle remained in the spotlight. The show’s trademarks included melodramatic cliffhangers, intentionally bad puns, and knowing jokes that poked holes in the fourth wall (“I’m worried, Bullwinkle.” “The ratings of the show down again?”). From the first story arc, “Jet Fuel Formula,” the show dared Americans to laugh at their Cold War fears, as Bullwinkle’s prized recipe for fudge cake creates a rocket fuel the Russian baddies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale want to steal. Not only does the U.S. government make a grab for it, so do men from the moon — who’d rather not have to deal with tourists at all. A great combination of high and low, stupid and smart, R&B paved the way for people like Matt Groening (who gives characters the middle initial J. in honor of Ward).
One Leg Too Few
Casting Agent: Mr. Spiggott — you are, I believe, auditioning for the part of Tarzan.
Mr. Spiggott: Right.
Casting Agent: Now, Mr Spiggott, I couldn’t help noticing — almost at once — that you are a one-legged person.
Mr. Spiggott: You noticed that?
Casting Agent: I noticed that, Mr Spiggott. When you have been in the business as long as I have, you come to notice these little things almost instinctively.
Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller’s collaboration is credited as the origin of the 1960s satire boom and the birth of contemporary British humor. The revue became a sensation in the U.K. after debuting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1960. In 1962, the group’s absurd, deeply ironic comedy made its mark on America with a run on Broadway. Their most well-known sketch, “One Leg Too Few,” commands the audience to buy into the ridiculous premise of a one-legged man wanting to audition for one of cinema’s most athletic and agile characters, Tarzan. The joke hinges on Moore’s physicality, with him hopping up and down on the single appendage, each bounce emphasizing the shortcoming, and Cook’s pleading politeness, as he tries to offer a small glimmer of hope to the auditioning actor. Still, both actors play the situation entirely straight, opposed to the over-the-top performances seen in sketch comedy at the time. It was a complete revelation and seminal to the evolution of the form. Their act was a tremendous influence on Monty Python and Peter Sellers. It was so seminal to Lorne Michaels that not only did he have Dudley and Cook host an episode of Saturday Night Live in its first season, he had them reprise the sketch.
‘The Country Was in Peril; He Was Jeopardizing His Traditional Rights of Freedom and Independence by Daring to Exercise Them.’
Author Joseph Heller’s time as a bombardier in World War II did a number on him, in a curiously literal way. In Heller’s satire Catch-22, doubting pilot Captain John Yossarian encounters backwards officers such as Major Major Major Major — who only holds office hours when he is away — and does all that he can to escape the perils of combat. When Yossarian pleads insanity, he learns about the dastardly, no-win principle known as Catch-22: Only mentally unstable men would fly missions capable of harming themselves and others, but anyone who pleads insanity (in hopes of avoiding these duties) is clearly sane. Either way, mad or mentally sound, a soldier must obey. This idea lies at the heart of the novel’s topsy-turvy world, as is reflected in this joke told by the book’s signature third-person omniscient narrator, and at the center of Catch-22’s assault on the military-industrial complex and the God that made it. The book is considered one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century and spoke directly to political satirists of every stripe. Lewis Black, Armando Iannucci, and Heller’s pal Christopher Buckley are among those who have cited its influence.
‘Declaration of Independence’
Jefferson: Come on and put your name on the dotted line
Franklin: I gotta be particular what I sign
Jefferson: It’s just a piece of paper
Franklin: Just a piece of paper, that’s what you say
Jefferson: Come on and put your signature on the list
Franklin: It looks to have a very subversive twist
Jefferson: How silly to assume it
Won’t you nom de plume it today?
You’re so skittish
Who possibly could care, if you do?
Franklin: The Un-British Activities Committee, that’s who.
For its first few years, the potential of the young format of the comedy LP (long-playing record) was still largely unexplored. Most albums being released were merely recordings of comedians performing their routines before live nightclub audiences. Then, in 1961, recording artist and self-described “guerrilla satirist” Stan Freberg did something unheard of. He produced a lavish musical-comedy extravaganza for the ear that was a satirical journey through American history. The Los Angeles Times would later describe it as “The Sgt. Pepper of comedy albums” and Time magazine heralded it as “arguably the best comedy album ever made.” Beyond its impressive scope and scale, the album brilliantly employs the perspective of contemporary culture to bring a modernity to the revisionist characterizations of our founding fathers (a clear influence on the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live). A prime example is the Declaration of Independence track wherein an earnest Thomas Jefferson presses a recalcitrant Benjamin Franklin to sign his “petition.” In his resistance, Franklin expresses concern about it sounding “pinko” and protesting, “I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life writing in Europe!” The clear allusion to the long-standing red scare in the United States and the ongoing blacklisting of artists with suspected communist ties by likening modern-day political activism to the Revolutionary War was itself revolutionary.
The Nairobi Trio
Ernie Kovacs was one of comedy’s earliest experimentalists, abstracting humor to its barest or at least weirdest elements. His masterpiece was the Nairobi Trio, a recurring bit in which Kovacs and two guests in gorilla masks and derby hats (often one would be a celebrity like Frank Sinatra, but you couldn’t necessarily tell because of the masks) doing a mechanical, nonsensical routine choreographed to 20th-century composer Robert Maxwell’s goofy “Solfeggio.” What further distinguished Kovacs’s work was it was shot without a live audience, creating a sort of deadpan randomness that would play best for those watching it at home. It is as weird as it sounds. You would think Kovacs was ahead of his time, but this bit was a sensation. Kovacs created a strange flavor of comedy that you can see everywhere now, from Monty Python to SNL to Conan O’Brien. It’s especially hard to imagine any Adult Swim show existing without Kovacs’s band of gorillas.
Spider-Man Can’t Cash a Check
Spider-Man: I’d like to cash this check!
Bank Teller: I’ll have to see some identification!
Spider-Man: What about my costume?
Bank Teller: Don’t be silly! Anyone can wear a costume! Do you have a social security card, or a driver’s license in the name of Spider-Man??
Prior to the early 1960s, superheroes were, for the most part, unrelatable dullards. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America were wholly exempt from the concerns of workaday human beings, opting to shout dull platitudes about justice before returning to their pristine lairs for peaceful contemplation of future world-saving. If money were ever mentioned, it was certainly never an issue for these do-gooders. Thank goodness, then, for the advent of Spider-Man, superhero fiction’s first realistically lower-middle-class icon. Writer Stan Lee and writer-artist Steve Ditko designed the wall-crawler to be a neurotic and put-upon teenager who’s abruptly granted powers, then finds them to be as much a burden as a gift. After all, crime-stopping is an unpaid enterprise, and the kid needs to take care of his elderly aunt and put food on her table, for chrissakes. In the first issue of Spidey’s solo series, we get a delightful moment in which his heroic ambitions and financial needs run at cross purposes. He reluctantly shows off his powers in a live show in order to earn some much-needed dough, but when he gets the check, he realizes he can’t give away his secret identity and asks for it to be made out to Spider-Man. Upon arriving at the bank, he’s informed that, no, you can’t cash a check if you’re wearing a mask. The gag is a clever subversion of superhero infallibility, producing both laughs and renewed interest in the genre’s potential — all while showing that no good deed goes unpunished, even for a selfless metahuman. Plus, Ditko’s image of a fully costumed Spider-Man standing in line at a bank like a total zhlub is just flat-out wonderful. These days, Marvel’s superhero films are among the most-watched comedies of every year — sure, the punching and blasting is fun, but people really come to see these eminently human goofballs get into wacky, quippy situations with one another. With this joke, the concept of the quirkily relatable superhuman swung into comedy, and it’s been stuck there ever since.
‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter From Camp)
“Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,
Here I am at Camp Granada /
Camp is very entertaining /
And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”
Along with Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and West Side Story, Allan Sherman’s LP My Son, the Folk Singer was among the best-selling records of 1962. Sherman, a portly Jewish TV-game-show producer, sold over a million copies of his debut collection of gentle (but definitely not gentile) Yiddish-inflected song parodies, establishing him as one of the giants of the era’s musical-comedy record boom, alongside Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg. Less than a year later, Sherman followed it up with his third album, My Son, the Nut, which would include his best-known song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter From Camp.)” Set to the familiar tune of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” the song is a desperate plea from a child at summer camp to his parents, enumerating the atrocities he is supposedly enduring. The song went on to win the 1963 Grammy for a comedy record and would remain a perennial favorite on the “Dr. Demento” radio show for decades — long after Sherman’s untimely passing in 1973 at the age of 48. Essential to his development, Weird Al Yankovic included the image of an Allan Sherman LP on the cover of his own debut album. “Hello Muddah” would go on to find another audience in the ’90s, when it both partly inspired the plot of a Simpsons episode and was played as a joke in another one three seasons later.
‘Will the People in the Cheaper Seats Clap Your Hands? And the Rest of You, If You’d Just Rattle Your Jewelry.’
Pop stars had made quips onstage before, and some, like the Rat Pack, had full routines worked into their performances. The Beatles, who quickly garnered Marx Brothers comparisons, were different. Perhaps the most famous example was at the Royal Variety Performance, with the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret in attendance. Before performing their closer, John Lennon made the most out of the situation and uttered the immortal words above. Just as notable as the joke was the way it was delivered, with John almost ducking out of the way after delivering it, giving a sheepish thumbs-up to the camera and a smile to his bandmates. The quip would be among the first coverage the Beatles’ would receive in America, with Time using it in an article entitled “The New Madness” and a CBS reporter noting, “Some say they are the authentic voice of the proletariat.” The Beatles went on to become the biggest band of the 20th century and the influence of their point of view and attitude would extend beyond music to every comedic, cute asshole who gives you the finger with a childlike grin.
‘Hi! We’re Mr. and Mrs. Peters!’
Laura Petrie: Rob, there are no series of tests in the world that are going to convince me that is not our baby.
Rob Petrie: Oh, honey, I don’t blame you. You can’t face the facts. Poor kid.
Laura: Oh, Rob!
Rob Petrie: Well, honey, that’s probably the Peters now. Brace yourself.
Laura: Rob, nobody’s taking this baby. Do you hear me? Nobody!
Rob Petrie: Laura, I think it would be better if you went to your room. I can handle it.
Laura: I am staying right here.
[Rob opens the door]
Mr. Peters: “Hi! We’re Mr. and Mrs. Peters!”
Rob Petrie: Uh … come in.
[Mr. and Mrs. Peters walk in and Rob sees they are black]
This is actually the single joke the entire episode had been building toward for 20 minutes. Rob and Laura have just brought home their newborn baby, Richie. Rob, through a few moments of miscommunication, convinces himself that they have brought home the baby of the Peters, the couple in the room next door. Eventually, Rob convinces the Peters to come over, with them not knowing that they’re about to walk into a confrontation with Rob. That is until they step into the room and the audience sees that they are a black couple. CBS was initially nervous about offending African-American audiences, but creator Carl Reiner argued that the joke wasn’t on the Peters, as later in the episode Rob remarks that the Peters’ kid has straight-A’s while Richie is nothing but mediocre — a subversive comment at the time. This ability to execute an episode-length joke that is so specifically rooted in character and is also socially conscious highlights the level of quality and sophistication The Dick Van Dyke Show brought to the sitcom genre at the time. We take for granted now that a sitcom can be an auteur-driven, high-brow piece of art, but before Carl Reiner introduced the Petries to America it was mostly seen as discardable, lighter fare. The Dick Van Dyke Show was a seismic step forward.
“Everyone is lying to you, including magazines. Think for yourself. Question authority” is the editorial mantra for the famed Mad magazine. This mentality has aided in the zine’s ability to parody everything in American culture. Originally an EC comic, editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines founded the magazine in 1952. Tom Koch, who had worked with Bob and Ray, conceived of the legendary “43-Man Squamish,” and George Woodbridge illustrated it. Published in Issue No. 95, June 1965, the three pages of detailed drawings consisted of images of team members, the pentagon field, and even the National Squamish Rule Committee. It also listed all the absurd rules such as, “In the event of a disagreement between the officials, a final decision is left up to the spectator who left his car in the parking lot with the lights on and the motor running.” A reaction article on the concocted collegiate sport appeared two issues later. Readers wrote letters into the magazine with pictures of their teams. One stated they were undefeated champs due to their being the only team in Western Canada. What started as silly illustrations captioned with non sequitur regulations turned into a subversive achievement. It is Mad at the height of its powers: absurd, dumb, silly, ridiculous. Hard to imagine Weird Al, The Simpsons, or The Onion without it.
“[Sidling up to a man in the audience] You’re dying to touch me, aren’t you, you son of a gun? Come on, I’ll give you one little touch. Come on, hurry up, one little touch. Ah [throwing his hand away from her]! An animal. That’s what you are — an animal.”
Early comediennes couldn’t rely on jokes alone, and much like today, a woman’s appearance had a big effect on how audiences interpreted her act. Phyllis Diller pioneered women’s stand-up with the help of outlandish makeup, dresses, and wigs to make fun of herself. Joan Rivers picked up the self-deprecating torch, but did so as an attractive, thin, and well-put-together lady. Rivers’s contemporary Totie Fields struck a balance that would have a lasting impact on women in comedy: She made fun of herself — her actual self, overweight and short at only four-foot-eleven — with the honesty and self-satisfied confidence of a female Don Rickles. A bawdy, no-nonsense broad who thrived in nightclubs as much as she did in her many Ed Sullivan Show appearances, Fields paved the way for women like Roseanne Barr, Lisa Lampanelli, and Melissa McCarthy.
Oscar Madison: Everything you do irritates me. And when you’re not here the things I know you’re going to do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. I told you a hundred times, I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes, F.U.’ It took me three hours to figure out F.U. meant Felix Unger.
Neil Simon began his career as a television writer for Sid Caesar and went on to become the most lauded and prolific comedy playwright and screenwriter of his generation. After his first Broadway plays Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park opened to great acclaim, Simon hit the mother lode with the definitive buddy comedy about two roommates. One is a fastidious neat freak. The other is a slob. The Odd Couple premiered on Broadway directed by Mike Nichols in 1965, starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney, and was an immediate smash, winning Tony Awards for Simon, Nichols, and Matthau. The subsequent 1968 feature-film version created the greatest showcase for one of the cinema’s most adored occasional comedy teams of all time: Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The film was also a huge success, leading to the ongoing adventures of Felix and Oscar in the hit TV-series adaptation starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Three inspired incarnations of a simple but brilliant idea that could be boiled down to this one rant. Creating a deeper version of the classic duo, Simon created a template that has continuously been used in TV and movies ever since.
Pat Paulsen for President
“I want to be elected by the people, for the people, and in spite of the people.”
In the late ’60s, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour offered a home to comedy’s counterculture on a medium defined by being mainstream, featuring a range of politically engaged celebrity and musical guests and enlisting remarkable writers, including Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, and Don Novello. When the brothers wanted to parody U.S. political elections, they asked San Francisco comedian Pat Paulsen because of his deadpan delivery. The comic ran under the Straight Talking American Government Party, otherwise known as the STAG Party, and his slogans didn’t mess around: “United We Sit,” “We Can Be Decisive, Probably,” and “If Elected, I Will Win.” His run revealed the power of satire when done from inside the process and paved the way for Stephen Colbert’s similar run for president 40 years later. When Paulsen was older, he expressed some guilt about the false campaign, noting that he took votes from Hubert Humphrey in his close race against Richard Nixon. The fact that he got votes demonstrates the power of comedians playing politics.
‘Sock it to … Meee?’
Somewhere, someone is blaming comedian-hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin for Watergate. And while there’s no direct correlation there, it’s true that their fast-paced and slightly scandalous NBC sketch show Laugh-In provided Richard Nixon with a cameo that just might have gotten him elected. After the Great Debate sunk Tricky Dick’s chances against John F. Kennedy in 1960, he was eager for chances to appear lighthearted and likable on TV, and told writer Paul Keyes he’d pop in among the show’s short skirts and psychedelic backdrops. In his brief appearance, Nixon manages to turn toward the camera and say the Laugh-In catchphrase, but not without making it into an awkward, labored question. Still, the effort was enough to show the nation he wasn’t too wooden or buttoned-up to enjoy a bit of outrageous fun — and he was elected two months later. It’s hard to think Barack Obama would’ve traded jabs with Zach Galifianakis on Between Two Ferns, Donald Trump would’ve let Jimmy Fallon tousle his hair, and SNL would become an essential campaign stop without Nixon’s cameo. It encouraged politicians to be entertainers and comedians to sometimes make comedy with the people they are usually making comedy about.
“So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
American-Jewish shtick and American-Jewish literature had mixed with each other for decades, but has there ever been a higher-achieving mix? A novel that starts funny and angry and gets funnier and angrier, building to an actual punch line, explicitly labeled PUNCH LINE. Thereafter, the two idioms were fused, and you’d never have seen Larry David clearing his throat in an extended sex joke, or Jonathan Safran Foer writing in jokey Eastern European dialect, without it.
Mr. Praline: Look, I took the liberty of examining that parrot, and I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been nailed there.
Shop Owner: Well, of course it was nailed there. Otherwise, it would have nuzzled up to those bars, and VOOM!
Mr. Praline: Look, matey, this parrot wouldn’t “voom” if I put 4,000 volts through it. It’s bleedin’ demised!
Shop Owner: It’s not. It’s pining.
Mr. Praline: It’s not pining. It’s passed on. This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an EX-parrot!
The Oxford- and Cambridge-educated six-member comedy troupe stood on the shoulders of fellow British comedy collectives the Goons and Beyond the Fringe to become the first and most significant act to cross over to mainstream American consciousness. Considering the amount and impact of their work, picking only one joke is nearly impossible, but John Cleese’s incensed rant about a dead parrot to Palin’s gleefully dishonest shopkeeper is probably their most celebrated. The sketch masterfully balances its surreal, dark, absurd premise by establishing fully realized characters with a clear conflict. As a result, it has gone on to be a Rosetta Stone for modern sketch writing, endlessly studied and rewatched by each new generation of comedians. Its influence was quickly felt on the early years of Saturday Night Live, as well as just about every other sketch show since. Bob Odenkirk has stated that Mr. Show With Bob and David was an attempt to do an American version of Flying Circus.
‘The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book’
She corroborated Gore Vidal’s story about Lyndon Johnson, continuing: “That man was crouching over the corpse, no longer chuckling but breathing hard and moving his body rhythmically. At first I thought he must be performing some mysterious symbolic rite he’d learned from Mexicans or Indians as a boy. And then I realized — there is only one way to say this — he was literally fucking my husband in the throat. In the bullet wound in the front of his throat.”
Just before William Manchester published The Death of a President, his 1967 account of the Kennedy assassination, Jackie Kennedy’s representatives read the manuscript and demanded a few pages be pulled. Paul Krassner, a Mad alumnus and founder of the Yippie movement who’d grown up to start his own satirical magazine, The Realist, ran a fantastical, gleefully disgusting “account” of what they might have revealed. In Krassner’s purportedly deleted scene, set aboard Air Force One as Lyndon Johnson flew back to Washington with JFK’s body, Jackie had walked in on the new president as he had sexual intercourse with one of the corpse’s wounds. It was a spectacular example of the theory that if you offer such a whopper that the source cannot even acknowledge it with a denial, it will stand unchallenged. Radicals and conspiracy theorists, from Infowars to the Sandy Hook Truthers to the birther movement, have learned that lesson very well. Along with John Waters, who to his credit filmed a reenactment of the assassination with Divine as Jackie Kennedy around the same time, The Realist’s issue 75 marks an early high-water mark for the comedy of bad taste.
The Devil Made Me Do It!
“She came in the house, she had the box. Rev saw it. Rev said, ‘What, another dress?’ He says, ‘This is ridiculous. Three dresses in a week! Another dress!’ And she tells him, ‘[With his hand on his hip, in Geraldine’s voice] I didn’t want to buy this dress. The devil made me buy this dress.’”
In a 1979 interview, Flip Wilson said that the turning point in his career was when a white friend gave him some very pointed advice that he shouldn’t think of being black as something to feel sorry about but something to be amazed by. “That’s when I realized how interesting being black is,” he told the interviewer. “Okay. They waiting to see a nigger who’s afraid or shy. No way, niggers is fun. Niggers is good!” As Mel Watkins writes in On the Real Side, the revelation “allowed him to reflect an uninhibited celebration of black life in his humor.” The most famous example of this was Geraldine, whom he first introduced in this masterful stand-up routine in which Wilson acts as the narrator, Geraldine, Rev, and the devil. Geraldine was a brassy woman who, to use the parlance of the time, was liberated. She was always confident and always ready to speak her mind. Many might not know Geraldine today, but even if you didn’t know she was the source, her catchphrases permeated the culture through every race: “When you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not.” “What you see is what you get.” And of course, Geraldine’s excuse for when things went awry: “The devil made me do it.” Wilson parlayed the jokes’ success (The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress, the album the joke appeared on was a huge hit and won the Grammy) into The Flip Wilson Show, which was the first successful variety show to be hosted by an African-American. Geraldine became a sensation and a fixture of the series, with Wilson dressing in drag and usually seducing a famous male guest. In both his tremendous success and the richness of his characters, Wilson set the table for the black sitcom boom that would come a few years later.
‘This Your Truck?’
[Maude drives a battered green truck with a lone tree in the open bed through a toll booth without paying. Harold is in the passenger’s seat. A motorcycle officer witnesses this and pulls her over.]
Motorcycle Officer: License, lady?
Maude: I don’t have one. I don’t believe in them.
Motorcycle Officer: How long you been driving, lady?
Maude: About 45 minutes, wouldn’t you say, Harold? We were hoping to start sooner but you see
it’s rather hard to find a truck.
Motorcycle Officer: This your truck?
Maude: Oh no, I just took it.
The release of films such as The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Five Easy Pieces exemplified how the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s crept into cinema comedy. But perhaps the most original and distinctive example of this existential oeuvre is Hal Ashby’s unexpected love story between a disaffected boy and an irrepressible elderly woman closing in on her 80th birthday. Before meeting Maude at the funeral of a man neither of them knew, Harold is seen stone-facedly pranking everyone he encounters with ingenious staged fake suicide attempts. But in Maude he meets his match who, in her joie de vivre, unrepentantly steals multiple cars, laughing in the face of propriety and authority. Theirs becomes a romance more shocking in its own subversive way than even the era’s Bonnie and Clyde. The roots of everything you love about Wes Anderson’s best work, especially in Rushmore, are firmly planted in Ashby’s visionary classic.
Divine Eats Dog Poop
Writer-director John Waters has always been drawn to the outrageous gesture, both as reaction to the clean-cut and composed America projected by ’50s media and as a way to indulge his own gleefully twisted fantasies. In the early, low-budget cult hit Pink Flamingos, the so-called “Pope of Trash” introduces Babs Johnson — portrayed by 300-pound Baltimorean drag queen Divine — who must fend off challengers to her title “Filthiest Person Alive.” The plot is minimal, but once the film’s foul parade of murder, nonconsensual chicken sex, and singing buttholes is nearly over, Babs steps forward to perform one final act of depravity. While the Patti Page ditty “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window” plays, Divine/Babs crouches down behind a shaggy gray poodle; she nabs the dog’s turd, pops it in her mouth, chomps down, and finally gives the camera a glistening, brown grin. Disgusting? Shocking? Funny? Yes to all of the above. Waters codified a mass camp style and used it as weapon against “good” taste, inspiring everyone from Matt Stone and Trey Parker to RuPaul, who had Waters on Drag Race, to the Jackass guys, who had Waters cameo in their second movie.
Carol: Mother, I don’t understand your hesitancy. When they made it a law you were for it.
Maude: Of course, I wasn’t pregnant then!
Bea Arthur became the Joan of Arc of middle-aged women when Maude was spun off from All in the Family, with her lefty politics attracting a range of TV watchers during an era of widespread Vietnam protests. She was an antagonist to Archie Bunker’s refusal to change with the times. The show certainly contained heavy material, but Norman Lear most famously used his reputation to make sure an episode about the 47-year-old protagonist deciding to have an abortion got on the air with future Golden Girls creator Susan Harris’s script remaining unchanged. When this episode aired, Maude was not officially the first TV character to have an abortion (a non-lead on the soap Another World was the first, in 1964), but never had such a prominent character had one and never had a show captured the procedure with such humanity. And that means jokes like this one. Yes, the two-part episode addressed the issue with the severity it deserves, but it also treated it with enough humor to both make it feel genuine and to get its point across. Debuting 16 years before Murphy Brown and more than 40 before Inside Amy Schumer, both shows, and everything in between, can be traced back to “TV’s first feminist.” Coincidentally, the two-part episode actually aired just months before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.
Puerto Rican President
“Imagine if there was a Puerto Rican President and he got in trouble. How would he pass the buck? [In Puerto Rican accent] ‘Iz not my yob, main.’”
In 1973, New York comedian Freddie Prinze got his shot to perform stand-up on The Tonight Show. This joke was his closer and it got huge laughs, just like the rest of the set. Johnny Carson waved him over to talk on the couch, which was the first time that ever happened on a stand-up’s first appearance on the show. He was only 19. This was his big break. It was one of the biggest big breaks any comedian has ever had. Soon he would be cast to star on the new NBC sitcom Chico and the Man. (“That’s not my job” would become his character’s catchphrase.) Nine months after his initial appearance on The Tonight Show, Prinze was the star of a hit TV show. Two years in, NBC offered him a tremendous $6 million, five-year contract. Four months later, after struggling with drug use and depression, Prinze committed suicide. He was 22. This story is stand-up comedy’s cautionary tale. It’s a story about getting too much, too quickly and it not being enough. As comedy was about to boom, Prinze and his ascent became a legend. In turn, his first Tonight Show performance has become equally mythic and tragic.
‘Larry — Remember, They’re All the Same Upside-Down and That Went for Twinky, too. One Who Knows, French.’
When National Lampoon writers Doug Kenney and P.J. O’Rourke set out to parody a high-school yearbook, it wasn’t meant to shock or push boundaries like the magazine’s work in politics, sex, or religion, but it was a revelation of sorts: They managed to point out the commonalities of an everyday American experience and playfully mock them all. Years before The Breakfast Club gave us its broad strokes, the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody provided the halfhearted articles, awful photos, insipid inscriptions (from the music teacher: “Don’t B#, don’t Bb, just B.”), and a cast of characters recognizable to every suburban kid — the “Psycho,” the “Weirdo,” and Maria Teresa Spermatozoa, a.k.a. “Quickie.” It even managed to tell the story of this particular yearbook’s owner, the painfully mediocre Larry Kroger, who pined away for the unobtainable “Twinky” Croup. Of course, some musclehead lothario called “French” swept in, seduced Larry’s obscure object of desire, and posted this friendly little taunt above Larry’s official school photo. At some point, Kenny claimed that the yearbook “invented nostalgia,” and there is a genuine glee in pinpointing types here, but Larry and his classmates are also indicative of the heartbreak of entering adulthood. In this way, the yearbook made way for both Happy Days and Freaks and Geeks.
George: When you’re in my house, you better show some respect, with your elephant ears and chicken neck.
Allan: To collect respect, you got to earn it, so cover your nose, before I burn it.
Lionel: Hey, your brother can get down, when he has to. I mean, he can play some dozens.
Jenny: I didn’t know he can do that.
George: Take this elite nigger, wolfing at my door, with your yellow behind, I’m gonna mop up the entire floor.
There is a debate about the origin of the dozens as a folk tradition, but some historians date it back to the slave trade, if not before. Under any circumstance, over centuries, it developed into an essential part of black culture. A 1921 song by black vaudeville comic Henry Troy, “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozens, Please,” is often credited for codifying a definition of the practice, and battling (often rhymed) insults became more commonplace in American cities. Still it wasn’t until the 1970s that the practice was depicted in mainstream popular culture. In the first season of The Jeffersons, George Jefferson plays the dozens with a biracial neighbor as a sort of test of his blackness. The scene captures the game authentically and affectionately. Penned by black writer John Ashby, the scene also is a credit to Norman Lear, who used his considerable clout in Hollywood, after the success of All in the Family, to help get multiple shows about black families – in addition to The Jeffersons, there was Sanford and Son and Good Times – on the air, offering (with shows like What’s Happening! and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids) the most diverse portrait of everyday black life in American comedy to that point. It was a pivotal step that would lead to all-black sitcoms, not to mention the mainstreaming of black comedy that would occur over the coming decades, with Eddie Murphy, Def Comedy Jam, and beyond.
“I Can’t Stop My Leg”
[Stomping his right leg to the music]
“I can’t stop my leg /
I can’t stop my leg, now
I can’t stop my leg /
I can’t stop my leg /
Can you stop my leg?
[Forces his leg to stop]
My leg stopped”
In 1975, the Bronx-born, Yale School of Drama– and Second City–trained Robert Klein became the very first comedian to introduce the form of a live-in-concert comedy special on HBO. It would be his first of nine for the premium cable channel. Each of Klein’s subsequent specials would end with reimagined versions of the routine that became his calling card. Created onstage at New York’s famed Improvisation comedy club, “I Can’t Stop My Leg” married Klein’s virtuosic blues harmonica playing and his comedic mastery. It, along with his classic 1973 album A Child of the Fifties, established Klein as one of the three greatest influences cited by the next generation of stand-up performers, alongside George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart have all acknowledged that Klein brought a collegiate intelligence to the art of stand-up comedy that inspired their work.
The Mao-Tse Tung Hour Negotiations
Laureen: I’m not giving this pseudo-insurrectionary sectarian a piece of my show! I’m not giving him script approval! And I sure as shit ain’t cutting him on my distribution charges!
Mary Ann Gifford: Fuggifacist! Have you seen the movies we took at the San Marino jail break-out demonstrating the rising up of a seminal prisoner-class infrastructure?
Laureen: You can blow the seminal prisoner-class infrastructure out your ass! I’m not knocking down my goddam distribution charges.
[The Great Khan shoots his pistol off into the air.]
The Great Khan: Man, give her the fucking overhead clause.
On very rare occasions, a satire predicts the future with uncanny accuracy. Case in point: playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s 1974 masterpiece Network. After stoic newsman Howard Beale flips his lid, he starts a movement when he encourages TV viewers to shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” from their windows. From there, news becomes entertainment, addled viewers suck up anything cynical programmers deliver, and humanity gets lost in the cogs of the corporate machine. Some of the film’s funniest moments take on supporting characters such as the violent guerrilla group modeled on the Symbionese Liberation Army, who can’t help but be caught up in the race for ratings, money, and power. As the Army’s new Mao-Tse Tung Hour gains traction among viewers, there’s a tense negotiation about contracts that ends with the aforementioned pistol shot and stinging final pronouncement from the Army’s leader. Somewhere between media criticism and crystal-ball prophecy, Network presaged not only the bloviating fools of Fox News but their parodists, like those seen on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
‘War Is Hell’
B.J.: Ever get the feeling there’s a war going on?
Hawkeye: There’s always a war going on. War is the world’s favorite spectator sport.
Frank Burns: Everybody knows war is hell.
BJ: Remember, you heard it here last.
Hawkeye: War isn’t hell. War is war and hell is hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.
Father Mulcahy: How do you figure that, Hawkeye?
Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to hell?
Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.
Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in hell.
Based on the 1970 feature film by director Robert Altman, the dark comedy about a group of Army doctors stationed overseas during the Korean War featured runs of fast-paced, snappy dialogue set improbably against the bloody backdrop of a surgical operating room. Created by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, M*A*S*H premiered one season after the CBS television network’s overhaul of their schedule, which had previously been dominated by rural comedies such as the Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres. But after scoring with some sophisticated new series in 1971, including All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the network felt emboldened and programmed the cinematic, single-camera comedy the following year. The series deftly blended pathos and punch lines, even though it played to a country that was deeply divided about the war in Vietnam. Alan Alda starred as Hawkeye Pierce, the lead smart aleck doctor whose pacifism and moral outrage was incisively leavened by his Groucho Marx–ian wit. This joke, which came during season five (Gelbart had left, but the quality remained incredibly high), captures how the show was able to wrestle with the heaviest of subjects — morality, war, faith — all within a sharply written joke. M*A*S*H was an important step in the continued evolution of the sitcom, inspiring every ambitious series that followed, from Cheers to Community to The Good Place.
Miss Piggy Seduces Rudolf Nureyev
Rudolf Nureyev: My mother will start to worry.
Miss Piggy: Beautiful, what’s your hurry?
Rudolf Nureyev: My father will be pacing the floor.
Miss Piggy: Don’t be such a terrible bore.
From a whizbang intro peppered with gags to highly conceptual covers of popular hit songs, The Muppet Show offered a little something for everyone. Its variety-show-within-a-show framework made room for tap-dancing frogs, cooking shows in gibberish, and just enough time for all to forget their differences and sing “Bennie and the Jets” with Elton John. Using expressive puppets few had seen the likes of before, Muppet creator Jim Henson and his crew combined memorable characters, hokey puns, and silly visual jokes into one great big stew. Every child of the ’70s is likely to have a favorite Muppet memory, but no segments walked the line between the childlike and the adult like the one in which the amorous Miss Piggy tries to seduce celebrated Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev out of his towel in a sauna. While kids get to enjoy a pig molesting a visibly uncomfortable person, the grown-ups can snicker at the high-low contrast and the absurd implications of such a rendezvous. This interest in simultaneously romping with kids while winking at adults (with a solid bore-boar play on words) was a Henson hallmark — and it’s hard to imagine modern family entertainment without it.
Alex Trebel: I’m looking for one culinary dish, from each of the following countries. First: Italy.
[Blanche buzzes in]
Blanche: Italy? Umm … could it be cheese omelettes?
[Wrong answer buzzer]
Alex: Cheese omelettes? Unbelievable. No, I’m sorry, that answer is incorrect.
[The four contestants wave their hands and yell “Alex”]
People, don’t wave your hands. Use your bells. Please, use your bells!
[Darren buzzes in]
Thank you, Darren Peel.
Darren: Is it spare ribs?
[Wrong answer buzzer]
Alex: Spare ribs? No, I’m sorry that answer is incorrect. I’m looking for a dish from Italy.
[Lawrence buzzes in]
Lawrence: Swedish meatballs.
[Wrong answer buzzer]
Alex: Swedish meatballs? Lawrence, can I ask you a question: Where the hell do you think Swedish meatballs come from?
[Andrew buzzes in]
Arthur Andrew Ligette.
SCTV, short for Second City TV (after the famed improv theater), didn’t reinvent the sketch-comedy wheel. They just offered a vision of a better one, free of the looseness that came from SNL’s week-of writing schedule and dependence on live performance. The game-show format has always been rife for parody, for example, but nobody did it better at that point than SCTV. On “Half-Wits,” the game has been tied for the past two weeks with the same four contestants who have all failed to answer one question correctly. Throughout the sketch, the contestants are asked increasingly easy questions that they are unable to answer. From this description alone you might be thinking that the structure sounds a little familiar. Norm MacDonald would agree, writing on his Twitter, “I came up with the idea of Celebrity Jeopardy years ago by stealing it, note for note, from an SCTV classic, Half-Wits.” While SNL was always more popular, SCTV, with its sharper writing and more cohesive voice, cultivated a proto–comedy nerd audience, inspiring the next generation of sketch comedians, from Kids in the Hall to The State to Mr. Show.
‘Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals’
“The animals, the animals, /
Let’s talk dirty to the animals /
Up yours, Mister Hippo /
Piss off, Mister Fox. /
Go tell a chicken “Suck my dick” an’ /
Give him Chicken Pox – Oh!”
By 1979, Saturday Night Live had already launched its share of big movie careers. Chevy Chase was the first to leave to co-star with Goldie Hawn in Foul Play. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were off making The Blues Brothers after Belushi’s life-altering turn in the box-office bonanza Animal House. Even Bill Murray, who joined the cast in season two, had just scored a hit as the lead in Meatballs. But what about Gilda Radner? With arguably the deepest and most diverse catalogue of characters on SNL — Emily Litella, Judy Miller, Baba Wawa, Candy Slice, Lisa Loopner, Roseanne Roseannadanna — her time seemed inevitable. In 1979, at the height of her powers and popularity, she literally took center stage all by herself in Gilda Live on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre. It showcased her greatest hits and introduced the fun and filthy “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals,” which brilliantly capitalized on her girlish playfulness. It’s easy to see how Gilda represented a sea change for women in sketch comedy, and comedy in general, introducing a new sense of joy to the form, inspiring and influencing every generation who followed.
Humans Don’t See a Bulletin Board; Earth Destroyed
“All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”
It’s hard to pull off genuinely funny satire in science fiction, but Douglas Adams was no ordinary sci-fi scribe. Blending absurdism, fantastical whimsy, and clever social commentary into a heady comedic brew, the eternally dry Brit made a global splash adapting his popular radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into a 1979 novel. The tale follows an unimpressive Englishman named Arthur Dent, who travels the cosmos with an alien buddy after an abrupt apocalypse. Earth is blown up for a ridiculously mundane reason: an extraterrestrial demolition crew has it scheduled for destruction to make way for a space-highway. Their spaceships appear in the sky and deliver a lackadaisical PA message reminding us that there was an announcement at a governmental office on Alpha Centauri that gave us all ample time to evacuate. When someone informs the announcer that we haven’t even been to Alpha Centauri, he calls us apathetic and carries out the destruction. A lesser writer would have simply presented the demolition as a metaphor for the costs of industrial progress, but Adams also delivers a cute joke about the misguided assumptions and pass-the-buck amorality of bureaucracy. The humor of self-involved, colloquially spoken aliens is now common in works ranging from Guardians of the Galaxy to Doctor Who (for which Adams wrote, early in his career), but at the time, it was the uniquely magical talent of a speculative-fiction pioneer. Of particular note is the book’s influence on fellow Brits Edgar Wright, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg — much as Arthur consults the titular guide for advice on navigating deep space, the novel pointed the way for that filmmaking trio to bring literate wryness to mass-released genre fiction.
Air Florida Prank Call
“Is that going to be a permanent stop?”
“Comedy equals tragedy plus time” goes the old saw, but just how much time one needs is often up for debate. Self-proclaimed King of All Media Howard Stern has always been at the forefront of shortening that length on his daily radio show. Perhaps the most infamous example occurred while Howard was still in Washington, D.C., at WWDC, and just beginning to evolve into his shock-jock persona. On January 14, one day after Air Florida flight 90 crashed into a bridge over the Potomac River, Howard called the airline ticket office asking for a one-way ticket to the 14th Street Bridge. Though he claims the prank call did not affect the station’s decision, Howard would not make it through the year in Washington, and he was off to New York City to emerge to prominence. Though Twitter today immediately fills with jokes of varying degrees of appropriateness the moment a tragedy strikes, Howard was among the first to head right to the gallows and try to get a few quips in while the nation mourned. That day, and for decades after, Howard Stern pushed the boundaries of the comedy of bad taste, specifically the straight-white-male version of it.
[To the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”]
“Just eat it (eat it) eat it (eat it) /
Open up your mouth and feed it /
Have some more yogurt, have some more spam /
It doesn’t matter if it’s fresh or canned”
With one foot rooted in the goofiness of Spike Jones and Mad magazine, Weird Al Yankovic brought parody into the MTV era. Yankovic began parodying popular music as a teenager in Southern California, sending home recordings to Dr. Demento’s radio show. He would eventually get a record contract and had some minor hits with “Another One Rides the Bus,” a parody of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “I Love Rocky Road,” a parody of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But things changed when he filmed a shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video for his song “Eat It.” Take this lyric, which in the music video he sings in an empty lunch counter. It almost identically mirrors what Michael Jackson does at the same point in the song in the “Beat It” video, but instead of coolly gliding through, Al stumbles and trips. To be this sonically and visually accurate, and still this goofy, was a paradigm shift. It was what was now expected of a pop-culture parody. What is staggering is that even though over three decades have passed, his legacy is still firmly in place. The technology, especially in terms of distribution, has changed, but you look at most Funny or Die or College Humor parodies and Al’s weirdness is still there.
‘Remember This Face’
“You ever think you’ve met the right woman; you wanna settle down and change your life? Will you do me a favor, Mike? Remember this face. AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! ’Cause if you get married, Mike, that’s going to be your fuckin’ face, everyday.”
With this one joke, Sam Kinison’s career took off overnight, with the New York Times referring to “the savagely misogynistic” comedian’s signature innovation as “a grotesque animalist howl that might be described as the primal scream of the married man.” And with that, the myth of Sam Kinison, the rock-star comedian, was born. Taking cues from his days as a Pentecostal preacher, Kinison brought fire and brimstone to stand-up comedy, literally screaming his punch lines at the crowd. For Kinison, the audience wasn’t his friend, but the enemy, and the job of the comedian wasn’t to be liked but to make the audience laugh into submission. For better or worse (sometimes definitely for worse), this meant pushing the envelope of the darker side of comedy, flirting with misogyny, racism, and homophobia. Still, Kinison was a tremendous influence on Bill Hicks and ushered in a much more confrontational style of performing that would inspire what we still think of as “club comedy” to this day. Raising the bar on the theatricality of stand-up, a little bit of Kinison is in every force-of-nature stand-up, like Lewis Black or Leslie Jones.
“Everyone is meant for you /
You can make them love you too /
Sleep with anyone /
In the late ’70s, Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store, decided to convert a small, 50-person room upstairs into a performance space for female comedians who wouldn’t get stage time otherwise. Named the Belly Room, it became so much more than expected, as visionary comic talents like Whoopi Goldberg and Sandra Bernhard used the space to experiment with different forms of stand-up. While both shared a theatrical sensibility, Bernhard pioneered a sort of stand-up-as-cabaret-act style, which interspersed wry, personal stories with equally sardonic, self-penned dance and pop hits. Bernhard’s 1985 debut album I’m Your Woman, based on the one-woman stage show of the same name, captured her revolutionary style. In “Everybody’s Young,” Bernhard ruminates on an honest, frustrating fact about her life, then immediately sends it up, glamorizing it with a tongue-in-cheek pop song. While she later made her name critiquing celebrity culture (and being a part of it via her friendship with Madonna and role on Roseanne) in the ’90s, her influence on incorporating the one-person show into stand-up and defining a modern-cabaret Joe’s Pub–style of comedy is her greatest legacy.
“Black Acting School”
Robert Taylor: But this class is for dark-skinned blacks only. Light-skin or yellow blacks don’t make good crooks. Here’s a student in our advanced class.
Willie Jones: I didn’t steal that TV. It just happened to be under my coat. I don’t know nothin’ Police Woman … Kojak … Ironside. Yeah, I’m a gang leader. I’m in the Warlords, the Vicelords, the Onionheads.
Thirty years ago, comedian and actor Robert Townsend, fed up with the types of acting jobs available to African-Americans, decided to do something about it. In a story that became the stuff of indie-film lore, Townsend maxed-out multiple credit cards to make his own feature film. He wrote, directed, and starred in the loose connection of satirical sketches that hung together around a narrative about a struggling actor. The film within the film casts Townsend’s character as an “Eddie Murphy type,” with all the white bosses encouraging him to be “more black.” The rest of the film veers into Bobby’s Walter Mitty–like fantasies, including the still relevent “Black Acting School,” where black actors are taught how to “act black” like Hollywood demands — meaning, playing slaves and gang members. The sketch, and film as a whole, paved the way for Shuffle co-writer and co-star Keenan Ivory Wayans’s subsequent work I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, In Living Color, and the entire genre of code-switching comedy.
‘You’re Sick, Jessy … Sick, Sick, Sick!’
When Gary Larson’s caveman-, alien-, and animal-obsessed strip landed in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1980, there had never really been anything like it before. “Peanuts” did light social satire, Doonesbury did politics, but Larson’s intellectual surreality appealed to a different sort of brain: One that loved science, nature, and history, and was happy to see it all thrown in a blender and served in a completely new way. Over the next 15 years, Larson’s strips explained why the dinosaurs went extinct (cigarettes, smoked surreptitiously), what dogs are actually saying (“Hey! Hey! Hey!”), and how aerobics sessions are conducted in hell. Sometimes, it just hit readers’ funny bones with a wicked, impossible vision, as when he imagined one carnivorous cow cooking hamburgers in a chef’s hat while being heckled by her fellow outraged bovines. Larson clearly helped pave the way for smart nerds who have since made serious strides in the comedy world, including comics like Patton Oswalt and shows such as MST3K.
‘Maybe I Shouldn't Have Given the Guy Who Pumped My Stomach My Phone Number, But Who Cares? My Life Is Over Anyway.’
Being an addict was the quickest of Carrie Fisher’s punch lines, and Postcards From the Edge found comedy in the miasma of her Hollywood misfortune. As the offspring of an infamous breakup, Fisher was always unmoved by celebrity worship, but donning Princess Leia’s double buns made her nerd culture’s heroine. In Postcards, she made fun of all of it: mother and daughter — a pair not unlike Fisher and Debbie Reynolds — spar on every page, playing a tug-of-war for the novel’s focus. In her 2009 one-woman show Wishful Drinking, Fisher said she always knew the stomach-pump scene would be the book’s first joke. It works perfectly, encapsulating her irreverence for Hollywood, medicine, and her own addictions. Carrie Fisher was good at laughing at her life’s texture, and Postcards took her recovery seriously but with humor. While Richard Pryor had joked about his drug abuse previously, to treat addiction frankly and with much wit was something entirely new.
“Short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump”
The most influential magazine of its era left a mark on every other: complicated tiny typography, kitschy clip art, little floating heads as illustrations, charts and graphs analyzing everything it covered, and big memorable stories told with an ironic sensibility and unironic rigor. But clearly its single device with the longest legs was the compound hyphenated pejorative epithet, an update of the old Time house style. “Churlish dwarf billionaire Laurence Tisch,” “sex-kittenish Vanity Fair model Diane Sawyer,” “musky, supersuave love man Billy Dee Williams”: Spy’s editors had a knack for summing up an entire person in three or four words. Including one “short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump,” whose rage at this characterization continues to this day, and who now has his tiny, tiny finger on the button. (Sad!) Their glib irreverence would continue well beyond the magazine’s final issue in 1998; it’s almost impossible to find a funny blog that doesn’t at least somewhat depend on Spy’s voice and tone.
If there’s one thing that really honks me off, it’s the hopelessness and futility of the human condition.”
Long before George Meyer became the backbone of The Simpsons’ writing staff, he was a respected comedy writer in New York, working for the likes of David Letterman and SNL. Then he went into self-imposed exile in Boulder, Colorado, and his legend really began. There, Meyer created Army Man, a lo-fi zine full of heady, zippy little jokes and stories from writers he admired (including Bob Odenkirk, Roz Chast, and Jack Handey, who contributed his first Deep Thoughts there). Writers were not credited, which further allowed Meyer to shape and cultivate the magazine’s particular sensibility. The run of “America’s Only Magazine” was but three issues long, but comedy writers still speak of its motley musings and the purity of its intent in rapturous tones. The entire run exhibits a sort of unperturbed, jovial tone and some of the best gags — like the one above — remain in light even while toying with existential darkness. Army Man’s melange of poems, shaggy-dog stories, dialogues, and jokes about jokes laid the groundwork for a way of thinking about comedy that would carry over into history’s longest-running TV series, and beyond.
‘That’s No Asteroid’
Movie: That’s an asteroid!
Joel: That’s no asteroid … that’s a battle station!
What if instead of just having host segments around the commercial breaks as the movie is being shown, the host made comments through the whole thing, like you and your dorky friends making fun of a schlocky movie at home? The concept was simultaneously innovative and familiar. The real difference, however, was the jokes they were making, like the very knowing Star Wars reference, above, from the very first episode. The show was cheap enough that Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator and original human host, was allowed to fashion the weird puppet show the way he wanted, largely untouched, and as a result, it was rife with nerd humor. Never before had there been so many Frank Zappa, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and countless other nerd references crammed into one show. Hodgson was fond of saying that in the writer’s room, if anyone asked, “Will people get this?” the refrain was “The right people will get this.” Those people found the show and recognized that it was being made just for them. MST3K’s influence was first felt in alternative-comedy venues by comedians like Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn, eventually leading all the way to the most popular sitcom on television, Big Bang Theory.
‘Hickory Dickory Dock’
“Hickory dickory dock
Some chick was sucking my cock
The clock struck two
I dropped my goo
And dumped the bitch on the next block”
By the time Andrew “Dice” Clay reached comedy superstardom in the late ’80s, there wasn’t much new about his misogynistic insult comedy. Its positioning, though — that was different. His rise directly correlated with the reopening of the debate over political correctness, with his act standing in as its antithesis. Second, Andrew Dice Clay was ostensibly a character whom Andrew Clay Silverstein, the man who embodied him, didn’t like. Together, Clay codified a brand of stand-up that involved saying explicitly offensive material with the tacit implication of “I’m just joking.” After Clay, the “it’s a joke” style of comedy would become increasingly popular, even as stand-ups didn’t have obvious characters to blame. (If you broaden that pool to include reality-TV hosts, we just elected one of these guys president.) In the popular Australian comedian Jim Jefferies’s 2016 stand-up special, for example, he directly prefaced a bit about being raped by Bill Cosby by explaining it was just a joke and that he didn’t want to be raped by Bill Cosby. These comedians argue that the comedy club is a safe space to explore these dark thoughts without acting upon them in the real world. Their critics point to fans pumping their fists as proof that they do more harm than good. This cycle — comedians’ using their free speech to say inappropriate things, followed by audience members’ using their free speech to complain about it — has been going around in circles ever since Clay’s clock struck two, and will not stop anytime soon.
Buddy Cole on Racism
“People make fun of me because I lisp. Really! Such a lot of fuss over a few extra s’s!”
Of all the lasting contributions to comedy made by The Kids in the Hall’s signature irreverence, Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole character might be the most vital. The ’80s and ’90s were a particularly homophobic moment in comedy, with slurs being bandied about casually by the decade’s biggest acts — like Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison, and Andrew Dice Clay. The Cole monologues on the Kids’ TV show were a reaction to this, both implicitly and explicitly. Up to that point, if you were LGBT, you were either the butt of the joke — the dunderheaded Blue Oyster Bar gags from the Police Academy films using gay panic as a punch line are particularly odious — or closeted in the the Paul Lynde mold. Buddy Cole joked about being gay, and how perfectly normal and great it was. But Buddy wasn’t just a gay character talking about being gay. The genius of Buddy is that he was a gay character that talked about everything. It’s sometimes forgotten that the lisp joke, which does encapsulate the character perfectly, was part of a long monologue about racism and the stereotypes that divide us. Buddy questions the entire premise of racial animus, and wraps up his bit with a plea for understanding delivered with his trademark wry sarcasm. “I don’t know what all the fuss is all about, we’re all just here to find love. I just think the world would be a lot better place if the scientists could keep their slide rules in their pants. It reminds me of something that Yoko Ono once said to Malcolm X in a bistro in Rome. ‘Oh, the food’s terrible. But the waiter’s hilarious.’” Buddy Cole helped changed the tide of how gay men were represented in comedy. It took a while before mainstream comedy caught up, but Buddy Cole and Scott Thompson’s impact remained obvious nearly three decades later.
Garth: It sucked bigtime.
Wayne: I kinda liked it … Not!
Writing in 1833, Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil …” Wayne Campbell would probably agree, but in like a Dio way. When Mike Myers first pitched the Wayne character at Saturday Night Live in 1989, based on the description, writer Conan O’Brien tried to steer him away. Instead, Wayne’s World appeared in Myers’s fourth episode as a cast member in the infamous “ten to one” slot. Almost immediately, the sketch became a part of the zeitgeist, introducing a constant stream of catchphrases. “No way!” “We’re not worthy!” “Schwing!” All that irony and angst eventually got perfectly boiled-down to one exclaimed word, in the sketch’s third incarnation. The “not!” joke, which some credit the band Anthrax for first using in the ’80s, is simple — with someone saying something that seems genuine and then immediately undercutting it with a mocking “Not!” — but after Wayne’s World it was soon all over the place. The American Dialect Society named “not” its word of the year in 1992. Sarcasm would go on to become arguably the dominant form of comedy in the ’90s, embodied by the living “not!” joke, Chandler from Friends. Though its usage mostly died out by the end of the decade, “not!” still reappears from time to time, whether it’s being used by Borat or our president-elect.
“You know how kids act when they never been nowhere. You know how they act? We’re going to small, small world, they jump out the boat. Kid holding his dick, talking ‘bout, “Small world! Shiiit. Small World! We Be Be’s kids. We don’t die, we multiply.”
For years after the comedy club was invented, black stand-ups were mostly relegated to ghettoized black nights at mainstream clubs until they were deemed able to cross over. Then, in the late ’80s, there was a rise in black-owned comedy clubs, which allowed black stand-ups to talk directly to black audiences about life in their shared neighborhoods, without concerning themselves with the opinions of outsiders. The Chicago-born and Los Angeles–raised comedian and actor Robin Harris was a comic’s comic in L.A.’s black comedy scene and typified the style that emerged. With a gruff but loveable persona, reminiscent of Redd Foxx in his heyday, Harris cultivated a rabid following as the house MC at South Central’s Comedy Act Theater. His flamethrower delivery of improvisational crowd work became the stuff of legend, inspiring a new generation of comedians including Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer. The entertainment industry heard the buzz and would drive down into the heart of the Crenshaw district to witness Harris in his element. Movie roles such as his inspired turn as “Sweet Dick Willie” in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing soon followed. The most significant documentation of Harris’s stand-up is his 1990 HBO One Night Stand, which builds to his signature eight-minute routine about chaperoning a group of tough kids at Disneyland. With his star on the rise, Harris died of a heart attack later that year at the age of 36. The bit, thoroughly composed and incredibly specific as it is, was able to be directly translated into a feature-length animated film two years later.
‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’
The music video for “Supermodel (You Better Work)” debuted on MTV over the holidays in 1992, and quickly — also surprisingly, considering the dominance of grunge at the time (though Kurt Cobain was a fan) — made RuPaul a star. The single eventually became RuPaul’s greatest mainstream single, hitting No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100. But the numbers downplay the importance of the video itself, which has become canonical in drag, as it was mainstream America’s first real introduction to the vocabulary, style, and verve of drag queens. “Supermodel” itself is a blueprint of how to do commercialized drag, where it’s filled with pop-culture references. For instance, the joke in the last scene of the video is a reference to the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. RuPaul is channeling his best Gloria Swanson, all clenched smiles and jealous eyebrows. His supermodel persona looks older at this point, but is still greedy for fame and obsessed with her looks. At the time it was new to watch a camp version of an old Hollywood character, something that has since become standard on his show RuPaul’s Drag Race and beyond. The initial joke of drag is that the performance isn’t real: It’s a hyperbolic portrayal of another person. But the real joke, of course, is the idea that any of it was real to begin with.
‘Like Trying to Give a Whale a Tic Tac’
“See, see, here’s the kinda motherfucker, hollering about ‘blow job’ and he’s wearing about a size 4. Litte ol’ feet, so you know his dick’s small. I couldn’t give him no blowjob. My big-ass lips, his little ol’ dick: It wouldn’t work. It would be like trying to give a whale a Tic Tac, motherfucker.”
Along with Bernie Mac’s “I ain’t scared of you, motherfuckers,” this is arguably the most famous joke in the history of Def Comedy Jam, and maybe the biggest laugh ever caught on television (can you imagine bigger?!). Like Mac, Givens was a product of Chicago’s black comedy scene, and though she is probably a stronger joke writer, she, too, thrived when interacting with the audience. The Tic Tac joke and the reaction to it reflects the improved status of female comedians in the black stand-up scene. Though there have always been some, from Moms Mabley to Whoopi Goldberg, they were treated as exceptions – not unlike women in the white stand-up community. Comedians like Givens, Sommore, Laura Hayes, and Mo’Nique (who together toured as the Queens of Comedy) proved that female comedians could hit harder, get dirtier, and be more honest than their counterparts. Jokes like this also raised the bar on the creativity and specificity of crowd-work insults that club comedians of all races are still trying to keep pace with. Though she might not have gotten the TV and movie opportunities that came to her male counterparts, Givens was a step forward in asserting the black woman’s place in comedy. Jokes like these couldn’t be denied.
“I had two people say that to me today: I’m going to have you fired. Go ahead, be my guest. I’m wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn’t get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? I’m going to have you fired, and I want to lean over and say: I’m going to have you killed.”
It’s hard to imagine the current storytelling scene — including live shows like the Moth and the ever-increasing list of authors whose personal essay collections crowd the memoir sections of bookshops — without David Sedaris and his first appearances on NPR’s Morning Edition, and later, This American Life. The soft-spoken North Carolinian misanthrope led us through his days as a Macy’s elf: Guiding customers here and there as his half-jolly elf persona Crumpet, flirting, ducking fistfights, and doing “Away in a Manger” in his impressive Billie Holiday voice. Sedaris’s nasal baritone and dry delivery was curious but convincingly normal; it lulled listeners’ until the moment he revealed his wicked little fantasies (like the one above) to them. Longer than anecdotes and shorter than autobiographies, Sedaris’s digestible segments laid the groundwork for catty, incisive, and almost always heartfelt first-person stories in books, including Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Every comedian who has written a book of essays, from Tina Fey to Sarah Silverman to Patton Oswalt, owes him a debt of gratitude. Also, Sedaris, with his performance of his work, set the stage for the NPR-ification of comedy, where comedians, like Mike Birbiglia and Tig Notaro, found big breaks on This American Life, and others, like Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, even have their own public-radio shows.
The 1990s were a remarkable time for black comedy on TV — from Def Comedy Jam to In Living Color, and everything in between. The upstart Fox network was at the forefront of that explosion of creativity, with the aforementioned In Living Color, Roc, Living Single, and the show that made Martin Lawrence a superstar. It was a breakthrough moment for the reach of contemporary black comedy, as Martin was embraced by audiences who might otherwise have had no concept of the hip-hop played by the eponymous lead character. Perhaps they couldn’t relate to having a neighbor like Bruh Man, but anyone could understand the relationship between Martin and Gina, a modern update of the classic sitcom couple, with the irascible, manic boyfriend-husband and the always-forgiving, almost-always-right girlfriend-wife. And it was all captured in the show’s most lasting catchphrase: “Damn, Gina.” Said in a variety of ways — sometimes just “damn,” sometimes “damn it, Gina” — and to mean a variety of things — sometimes “I love you,” sometimes “I want to have sex,” often “I ran out of things to say and I’m frustrated” — it was a testament to Lawrence’s ability as a performer. (The real-life conflict between Lawrence and Gina actress Tisha Campbell — accusations of sexual harassment, a detente that involved Lawrence and Campbell not sharing scenes together — soured their initial chemistry, but there’s no question that what they shared onscreen was the bleeding heart of the series.) Lawrence would go on to a period of big-screen success in movies like Bad Boys and Blue Streak, but it was short-lived. It wasn’t long before he was starring in schlock like Black Knight and running afoul of the law, eventually finding himself hospitalized on more than one occasion. But the Martin series remains a gold standard, not just in his filmography, but in the annals of black comedy.
Conan O’Brien: Folks, we have a character that has generated a lot of controversy on the show. In fact, true story, one of our Texas affiliates has threatened to drop the show if we ever have him on the program again. But since it is so late and no one’s watching, please welcome, the Masturbating Bear.
[Masturbating Bear walks out with two handlers]
Conan O’Brien: Okay, bear, do your thing.
[Masturbating Bear doesn’t do anything]
Conan O’Brien: Hey, what’s wrong, bear? Go ahead, nobody’s watching.
[Masturbating Bear doesn’t do anything]
Conan O’Brien: Oh, right. I get it. Okay, bear, I’m sure somebody’s watching.
[Masturbating Bear stars vigorously masturbating under his large diaper]
David Letterman introduced the idea of the late-night show in quotes, where the format was treated with an ironic distance. It’s a Dadaist joke of “We have a late-night show and this is what we decide to do — we drop stuff off the roof.” When Conan O’Brien took over Late Night, he took this philosophy multiple steps further, adding a sense of unbridled silliness. In a very Simpsons-y, Harvard-y way, he specialized in creating a very high-brow setup for a very stupid bit, and there is no better example of that than the Masturbating Bear, who would usually come on to explain the economy or how an impeachment works, only to start vigorously masturbating. The joke is not only that Conan had a person dress up as a bear who masturbted to “Sabre Dance,” but also that he kept on having the bear back. It’s the comedy of we are just having a good time here, being childish idiots and goofballs. The spirit of O’Brien’s Late Nightinfused all of late night that came after it, but can also be seen in the looseness and silliness of popular podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang!.
You watch Jackie Chan in his prime and you see a little bit of all the physical comedy masters: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Chevy Chase, etc. What is incredible is he’ll embody all of them, while also executing a precisely choreographed fight scene. Chan has done some big stunts in his career — especially when he started working with American directors — but he’s at his best in scenes like this, where he can offer a more nuanced comedic performance. Chan’s greatest trick is giving himself a handicap in a fight scene — in this case, he must get increasingly drunk as he goes — effectively grounding him as a Lloyd-esque underdog just trying to persevere. Then, coming from the position of an everyman, he’s able to get laughs throughout with almost vaudevillian facial expressions. After a few false starts (like the much-unappreciated Big Brawl in 1980), Chan became a household name in America with the Rush Hour series, resulting in The Legend of Drunken Master getting successful U.S. distribution several years after it was released in China, earning a spot on Time’s list of the 100 greatest films of all time. Jackie Chan combined slapstick and martial arts like no one else before him, ramping up the level of action that could be expected in a comedy and comedy in an action film, setting the table for both movies like Deadpool and Central Intelligence.
The Spirit of Christmas
Cartman: What are you doing in South Park, Jesus?
Jesus: I’ve come seeking retribution.
Stan: He’s come to kill you because you’re Jewish, Kyle!
Kyle: Oh, fuck! I’m sorry, Jesus. Don’t kill me!
It was clear, from the first big introduction to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s little Colorado mountain town, that the world they were building was already fully formed and entirely crazy. In what is officially the second stop-motion animated South Park short, four potty-mouthed little white kids escort a newly returned Jesus to the mall — where Jesus’s arch-nemesis, Santa, awaits. The two father figures of the holiday season argue about the commercialization of Christmas, fight Mortal Kombat style, and inadvertently kill Kenny. At the episode’s conclusion, Stan, Kyle, and Cartman learn an entirely wrongheaded lesson about the meaning of the holiday season; apparently, it’s about presents. That the boys would immediately interpret Christ’s second coming as a revenge plot against their Jewish pal Kyle is perfectly indicative of the profane, blasphemous, ridiculous ride that is South Park. No wonder it went the mid-’90s equivalent of “viral”: VHS tapes got passed around Hollywood as a kind of Christmas card, and eventually they landed on Comedy Central. Parker and Stone’s short spawned the series that still packs a punch today, and the duo continues to push limits for offensive humor, on cable and in their lauded Broadway musical Book of Mormon.
“If you’re a transvestite, you’re actually a male tomboy. That’s where the sexuality is. It’s not drag queen. Gay men have got that covered. This is male tomboy. People do get it mixed up and they put transvestite there. No no no. A little bit of a crowbar separation, thank you. And gay man I think would agree. It’s male lesbian.”
Eddie Izzard practically defies categorization, however, since he self-selected the moniker of “executive transvestite,” that’s the one that has stuck. The British comedian and actor first burst onto the scene after gaining attention at Scotland’s famed Edinburgh Festival Fringe over 25 years ago. No one had ever seen the likes of him before. He was literate and absurdist, often to the point of the surrealistic, and glam But his appearance was never camp, upending long-established comic conventions of men in women’s clothing. This was not a bit. It was Izzard throwing down the gauntlet regarding his own identity and, in the process, doing in comedy what David Bowie had done in rock and roll. Izzard quickly became an international phenomenon, performing his comedy in multiple languages across every continent. John Cleese has called him the “Lost Python” and an entire generation of new voices in queer and British comedy, notably Noel Fielding of “The Mighty Boosh,” are clearly his progeny.
“And it was on this very day that I came up with my theory that everybody has a nice grandmother and a mean, evil, insane, crazy cujo one. I learned which one was which when I ran up to my little white looking grandmother and she was like, ’[impersonating her] Ah, bendito. Pobrecito. Cung, cung, cung here. Let me put a dress on you. You little, pussy.’ And that was the nice one.”
Comedians have been doing one-person shows since at least Lily Tomlin’s 1977 Tony winning Appearing Nitely. Gilda Radner, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sandra Bernhard had similar shows in this fashion. Each offered a combination of characters, storytelling, and song. John Leguizamo got his start in this tradition, with his 1991 Obie and Outer Critics Award winning Mambo Mouth and 1993 Drama Desk Award winning Spic-O-Rama, both of which he played many characters. Then in 1998 he had his breakthrough (creatively that is, as he had already established himself in Hollywood at this point), with Freak, a one-man show about his childhood. Combining elements of the character-based one-person show and monologists like Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo landed on something entirely new. Like in this joke, he would tell Bill Cosby-esque stories about say a family picnic, but then inhabit the relatives he was discussing, resulting in an unusually rich stand-up experience. The performance would win him another Drama Desk Award, as well as an Emmy for the HBO version of it. Along with Julia Sweeney, he kicked off the one-person show boom of the late 90s and early 00s, where it seemed every stand-up was giving their acts narrative arcs. As time went on, it became less a trend, and instead a different way for some stand-ups to approach their form.
VH1 Divass Live
“So, Mariah Carey. First of all, I love her story. Right? Once again she gets married very young. She marries the old rich guy in the mafia. [The audience groans a little.] Oh, come on, you read Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair did the best article about them last year, where they had an aerial picture of their compound. I got to get me one of those compounds. Everybody’s got one. You don’t want a house, you don’t want a mansion, you want yourself a compound. So, they got this compound, and this thing is big as Mall of America. Anyway, so she marries Tommy Mottola, who’s the head of Sony records who’s in the mafia! Or, like, I’m pretty sure, but anyway, whatever. I think if Robert De Niro goes to your wedding, you’re in the mafia, that’s all I’m saying.”
When Kathy Griffin began performing in the ’90s, she quickly discovered she wasn’t a good fit for traditional comedy clubs. “I realized that I bombed at clubs because I disrupted the standard listening rhythm of setup/punchline, setup/punchline,” she writes in her 2009 book Official Book Club Selection. Griffin is a storyteller who revels in pop culture and personal experiences, and the above excerpt, from Hot Cup of Talk, exemplifies the conversational style that would carry her career for decades. It comes in the middle of a 12-minute discussion about VH1 Divas Live, in which she recaps the entire show, constantly checking in with the audience like a gossiping friend (“Oh, did you guys hear the rumor that Céline and Mariah don’t like each other?”). Like a contemporary Joan Rivers, part of what makes Griffin’s act so successful is that she occupies both an insider and outsider perspective. As the person performing onstage and regularly on television (this special was taped while she was a co-star on Suddenly Susan), she is a celebrity (even if she considers herself “D-List”), but she speaks about celebrities and celebrity gossip with the same excitement as your nosy neighbor who relishes every page of Us Weekly. She treats her audience as equals and as one-half of a conversation, paving the way for such contemporary comics as John Early, Beth Stelling, and Phoebe Robinson.
‘Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake’
After the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon on September 11, many Americans were so shaken that they genuinely wondered if and how they’d laugh again. Thankfully, the stalwart writers at satirical newspaper The Onion were around to kick-start the process. The issue published just two weeks after 9/11 was a truly bracing and cathartic bit of work. It was also the first issue the editorial staff distributed after pulling up roots in Wisconsin and moving to New York City. The remarkable headlines, which were the closest The Onion has ever gotten to letting emotion creep into its wry detachment, included items such as “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.” One story that carried The Onion hallmark of magnifying the achievements of some middling “area man” was the one that reported on an unsettled woman baking an American-flag cake, even though she had “never before expressed feelings of patriotism in cake form.” The mundane and meaningless act, endowed with that sense of deep pain, spoke directly to an unhinged populace in the last months of 2001 and helped a lot of comedians get back to work.
Lindsay: Whatcha doing?
Andy: Writing in my gurnal. I write my thoughts in it every day.
Lindsay: Oh, you mean a journal?
Andy: Yeah, whatever, I guess I’m not all smart like you.
Wet Hot American Summer is arguably the defining alternative-comedy movie of the aughts, becoming the touchstone for the silliest tastes of a generation. Comedy, especially after Steve Martin, has always been trying to find smart ways to be dumb, and co-writers David Wain and Michael Showalter found new heights in Wet Hot. In this scene, not-yet-A-list Paul Rudd mispronounces the word journal as gurnal. And not only that, he thinks knowing the proper way of pronouncing journal means Lindsay is smart. This level of dumbness shouldn’t work, but the movie creates a distinctive universe where that makes sense, bridging the gap between the ’90s ironic, acerbic alt stand-ups (like Wet Hot’s own Janeane Garofalo) and its broad, low-brow movies (There’s Something About Mary). And this universe continues to be revisited, explicitly in the Netflix prequel to the movie, but also in the general sense of humor of the many projects this legendary cast has been involved in, from Wain’s work on Childrens Hospital to A.D. Miles’s work as the head writer for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Good News and Bad News
David Brent: Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if you wanna stay. I know, gutting. On a more positive note, the good news is, I’ve been promoted, so… every cloud. You’re still thinking about the bad news aren’t you?
In 2001, Ricky Gervais invented one of the most entertaining and ill-fitting lead protagonists in TV history. David Brent, the general manager of a paper merchant office, struggles with socially acceptable behavior. Even though the show is ensemble-driven, the other characters play as the straight man in the dynamic. Their assorted personalities create a realistic, grounded setting for Brent to make uncomfortable. A classic Office moment, Gervais as Brent conjures sincerity at the start of a statement to only follow up with a painfully awkward, profoundly selfish thought. He is the cringe master, and through this, a new sort of comedy took over globally. Gone was the unfiltered irony that defined much of the ’90s, and in its place was a joke that comes out of someone earnestly trying to be liked and failing so miserably at it. Obviously David Brent paved the way for the American version of The Office, but you can see glimmers of the British Office in almost all grounded, awkward, genuine comedy of the last 15 years.
Risky stunts and watching friends hurt each other have been a major part of comedy ever since the silent-film era. Johnny Knoxville’s gang of like-minded, thick-skinned jackasses just took it to its most extreme. Crashing golf carts, wrestling anacondas in ball pits, and lighting bottle rockets from buttholes were some of the show’s individual pieces; layered one on top of the other, the horrifying acts played like train wrecks at which it was impossible to stop gawking. In one of the earliest stunts that could truly have resulted in someone dying, Steve-O tries to walk a tightrope naked, save a jockstrap filled with raw chicken. No one could believe this MTV brand of bro schadenfreude raised their IQ, but it rendered any prior prank or hidden-camera show milquetoast by comparison and spawned any number of watered-down imitators, from Impractical Jokers to idiots on YouTube, as well as raised the bar on what comedy audiences would interpret as a dangerous situation, which Sacha Baron Cohen would, a few years later, leap over with Borat.
Season 1 Episode 1: Lucille’s fox pelt is missing its front left paw.
S1E10: J. Walter Weatherman is missing his left hand.
S1E12: Carl Weathers loses his arm in Predator. Also, J. Walter Weatherman’s dog is missing his front left leg.
S1E17: Captain Hook loses his hook in a school play.
S1E20: Buster says, “This party is going to be off the hook!”
S2E01: A news broadcast can be heard in the background mentioning a seal attack. John Beard says, “Meet one surprised bather, coming up.” The camera immediately shows Buster.
S2E03: Buster, upon seeing his lost hand-shaped chair, says, “Wow, I never thought I’d miss a hand so much.”
S2E06: There is a portion bitten out of the banana stand sign as it is pulled out of the bay; the bite pattern is consistent with a seal. Buster wins a toy seal from the claw machine. When he returns home, the narrator mentions, “Buster had gotten hooked playing”.
S2E8 Michael says Buster shouldn’t “be in a Lucille?” [Note: Lucille sounds like “loose seal.”]
S2E11: A seal can be seen in the background during Buster and Lucille’s beach photo shoot. Later, George Sr. says, “What if I never get a chance to reach out and touch that hand of his again?” As Buster sits on a bench near the beach, his position crops the words on the back of the bench to say, “ARM OFF.” Later in the episode, a seal bites off Buster’s left hand.
S2E12: Buster is fit for a metal hook.
Before Arrested Development and before the internet, there was a way the callback functioned: getting a laugh of recognition by referencing a previously made joke. Then, fairly brazenly (considering they were setups whose payoff would be in seasons that they might never get and demand people have access to DVDs that might never come out or reruns that might never happen), Mitch Hurwitz decided to reverse it by having a joke that would change the meaning of previously innocuous lines. “This party is going to be off the hook!” said Buster in April 2004, but it wasn’t until March 2005 — when Buster gets his hand bitten off by a seal and replaced with a hook — that it becomes a joke. Same thing for a handful of other moments that just passed by on first viewing. (There were also some examples of what would be considered classic foreshadowing.) This essentially revolutionized the fundamental timing of a joke. Hurwitz and his staff in turn changed the audience’s relationship to the joke, asking them to be an active participant, either by finding the joke or, at minimum, looking it up. A new level of sitcom-joke density was achieved. Easter-egg jokes are now a fairly common practice, with some shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or BoJack Horseman using them occasionally, and shows like Community and Archer similarly searching for nooks and crannies to place jokes for the most diehard fans.
Kazakh National Anthem
Borat: My name a-Borat. I come from Kazakhstan. Can I say first, we support your war of terror?
The story goes: Before Borat came out, the filmmakers held a special screening for comedy heavyweights, including Larry David, Garry Shandling, Simpsons writer George Meyer, and Judd Apatow, and after the movie finished playing, Meyer turned to Apatow and said, ”I feel like someone just played me Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time.” Partly, Borat feels like a ramping-up of so much of comedy history. There is the dialect humor, there is a Kaufman-esque unwillingness to break character, there is a Dr. Strangelove–level of satire, there is a buddy road comedy, there is a fish out of water, there is cringe humor, there is gross-out humor, there is stunt comedy. And it all came together to take the humble prank to the point of high art. By incorporating the sense of real danger, putting Borat in enemy territory (though the crowd doesn’t know they are enemies, but could realize that at any moment), Cohen & Co. found a way to build up the tension in the setup of a joke to an unprecedented level. To get a crowd of people to cheer when he says, “Can I say first, we support your war of terror?” — devastating. Then, when he sings the incredibly silly made-up anthem lyrics, that’s when the crowds boo. It’s comedy’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Borat’s influence on The Colbert Report might be most obvious, but you can also see it in most mainstream satire in general, especially Full Frontal With Samantha Bee’s viciousness and Last Week Tonight’s serious silliness. Beyond that though, Borat, arguably, inspired all comedy that came after it, if not in form then by raising the bar of what is possible.
Gay vs Black
“‘It wasn’t Soul Train, mom. It’s just who I am. I was just born black.’ ‘Oh, you weren’t born black. I don’t want to hear that. Nuh-uh. You weren’t born black. The bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Mary J. Blige.’”
In 2009, the USA had just elected its first black president, and the fight for marriage equality was closer than ever, and in her special, I’ma Be Me, which came out that year, Wanda Sykes eloquently articulates the complexities of identity. The changing viewpoints about race and sexual identity clearly resonated with the recently out comedian. Brilliantly, she dissects the contrasts between identifying as gay and as black. As the bit explains, being black was apparent from birth, but unfortunately, homosexuality is still viewed as something chosen. For instance, she “didn’t have to come out as black” to her family, and thusly, a beautiful premise is born. She maps out a scenario in which she would have had to tell her parents about her skin color. The joke was considered an instant classic and reflected comedy’s coming shift toward wrestling with the politics of identity.
‘RIP 2011: 2011-2011’
The best way to sum up Amram’s comedy might just be the quote from her mom that makes up her Twitter bio: “It’s this weird, sexual, anti-comedy comedy that’s ‘in’ right now.” And while that style of humor is instantly recognizable in 2017, it wasn’t as much before Twitter created a workout space (and often an audition room) for comedians. This happened around the time Amram graduated from Harvard and joined the social-media site, in 2010, becoming one of the first “unknown” writers to gain notoriety, and eventually quality TV-writing gigs, from her work within the 140-character limit. The beauty of Amram’s tweet lies in the simplicity of her Twitter-tailored one-liners (like the above joke that got over 4,000 RTs and started an annual tradition), as Twitter celebrated comedians who condensed the setup-punch-line structure down to one funny unit. Her style became a standard for fellow comedians and aspiring comedy writers who want to tweet or vine their way to the top, especially women who may be intimidated by going after traditionally male-dominated comedy-writing jobs. Years passed and how “jokes” were used on Twitter was corrupted; the democratization of comedy that Twitter offered eventually emboldened white nationalism and in turn a president (and vice versa).
‘Am I the Only One Who Pretends I'm in a Music Video When I'm By Myself?’
The first joke of the first episode of Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl introduces the viewer to more than the premise of the Insecure creator’s 2011’s web series. It is, in fact, told in the very personal first person, an introduction to her entire field of interest: the vast expanse between an African-American woman’s internal life and the much more excruciating banalities of the outside world. This joke represents the major shift that YouTube and relatively cheap digital production offered comedy. Characters, points of view, and voices that previously weren’t heard in mainstream culture had a platform to reach large audiences with hyper-specific worlds. Rae eventually journeyed from YouTube to HBO, but her comedic voice remained as fully developed and individual as the first awkward moment.
[A very small slave walks up to auction block A]
Slave on block B: Here we go.
Slave on block C: Here we go.
Slave on block B: It was a pleasure.
Slave on block C: Give ’em hell.
Slave Owner: Eight dollars on lot A.
Auctioneer: Going once, twice, three times sold
Slave on block B: How does that happen?!
Slave on block C: Nope! Not true!
Slave on block B: How does it happen?!
Slave on block C: That’s gobbledygook!
In 2012, sketch comedy seemed to be at a bit of a standstill with an era ending at Saturday Night Live as Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left the show, and people waxing nostalgic over classic sketches from Chappelle’s Show and Mr. Show. There was a lot of sketch happening online and at improv theaters, but nothing really broke out. Then, busting through the door that Portlandia opened a crack, Key & Peele arrived with an unprecedented level of execution, and in turn kicked off a mini American sketch boom. Creator’s Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele followed in Chappelle’s Show’s footsteps in their ability to build sketches that played off the absurdity of race relations, but they were also far more sketch classicists in the vein of SCTV. As a result, their best sketches incorporated both racial commentary and formal innovation. “Auction Block” is Key & Peele at its best: a smart, subversive premise — two slaves who are insulted when potential masters don’t bid on them at an auction — perfectly done. The difference here, and with all of K&P’s best sketches, was the direction. Frequent Key & Peele director Peter Atencio captures the look and feel of Hollywood slave movies exactly. Though not a direct parody, this cinematic feel was a game-changer, further pushing the tonal accuracy audiences would expect from comedy. Inside Amy Schumer’s famous 12 Angry Men parody and the uncannily accurate Documentary Now! learned a thing or two from Key & Peele, but so did the American sketch mountaintop, SNL, who can no longer really do hastily thrown-together parodies or homages (unless part of the joke is that it looks bad).
Mike McLintock: You could say, ‘As a woman, I believe that …’
Selina Meyers: No, no, no. No, no. I can’t identify myself as a woman. People can’t know that. Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that — which, I believe, is most women.
It is either fate or the ever-returning wheel of time that has gradually brought Armando Iannucci’s HBO comedy Veep level with modern American politics, but even when the show premiered in 2012, it was clear the Julia Louis-Dreyfus vehicle offered a devastating new insight into the nation’s politics, portraying our leaders as characters trapped in a never-ending absurdist sitcom. No episode more accurately captured the reality-as-satire feel of our nation’s leadership than season three’s “The Choice,” in which JLD’s Vice-president Selina Meyers must determine her stance on abortion via a Byzantine game of political chess. Her personal convictions must never come into play, because god help her if the populace catches on to the fact she’s a woman. Combing Iannucci’s work on In the Loop and The Thick of It, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s legendary comedic gifts, and a giant dash of timeliness, Veep represents a new height of political satire, tremendously insightful without being partisan.
Ilana: We are going to my grandmother’s shiva. Okay? The reason I’m like sitting and crying is because that bad-ass bitch did everything she ever wanted to. You want to go to the grave, dreaming of Jeremy’s hairy, adorable little butthole, or do you want to die knowing that you brought him pleasure by plowing it like a Queen?
Abbi: I just don’t know, Ilana.
Ilana: Bitch, you know. You wouldn’t have called me if you didn’t.
[Abbi walks out of the bathroom and takes off her robe.]
Abbi: Turn around.
[We see the strap-on between her legs.]
The impact of this joke was swift, with comedy nerds and sex-advice columnists alike rejoicing at what this said about our current comedic moment, where sex and sexuality can be funny without being the butt of the joke. Abbi and Ilana are female characters whose sexualities are integrated into who they are as people, but they are never made into vehicles for jokes about sex. Even though Abbi and Jeremy’s tryst doesn’t work out for other reasons, his sexual preferences never cause the show to look down on him, either. And having Ilana’s reaction be one of joy instead of ridicule neatly demonstrates what’s so important and unique about Broad City. When so much comedy involving woman has been about competition, Broad City’s is comedy of empowerment. Before that term got co-opted by companies, Abbi and Ilana found comedy by saying “Yas, queen” to each other’s happiness.
Black Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber: [Flips hat around, reporters gasp.] Wait. It’s cool. It’s cool. This is me. This is the real Justin.
Donald Glover once said his goal for Atlanta was “to show people how it feels to be black.” Specifically, in the show’s most memorable episode to date, from its rightfully acclaimed first season, Atlanta showed people how it feels to have Justin Bieber be black. The answer: It feels weird and uncomfortable and deeply funny. It’s a perfect example of how the show uses its surreal comedy to push the New Black Aesthetic further than it has been seen in mainstream popular culture. Not only does Atlanta depict intraracial diversity, but it depicts intraracial questions of identity. Would we treat Justin Bieber differently if he were black? Would a black Justin Bieber know he’s treated differently from how a white Justin Bieber would be treated? What does it mean to be Justin Bieber? What does it mean to be Justin Bieber, if he were black? What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be a person? Glover’s is a comedy of questions, presenting unusual situations and finding laughs in the awkwardness and confusion. The episode functions both as a satire of white privilege and a Waiting for Godot–like comedic meditation on black existence. It feels like a culmination of all the comedy that came before it, and also something completely new.
Design: Jay Guillermo and Ashley Wu
Development: Chris Kirk, Reuben Son, Jon Winton, and Allyson Young
Production: Sarah Caldwell, Larry Chevres, Hillary McDaniels, Drew Menconi, and Chris Mika