Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Comedy So Funny, It’s Not Funny

In the past week, I have been reminded how fragile three things are: plans, health, and comedy. You can probably see how the first two notions are related, but comedy? Give me a moment.

In August, 2007, I vowed I would be present at whatever events marked the 50th anniversary of the last stage performances by the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly (to shake up the usual name order a bit). Then, a couple of months ago, I was asked with some fervor to please be a chaperone on a school trip to Spain, no cost. The tradeoff? No Surf Ballroom on February 2.

I would have opted for the Surf anyway, as an ephemeral opportunity, but not going to Spain would have been a severe dereliction of duty at work. So, forget Clear Lake.

Then, a couple of days before I was to leave for Spain, an important person in my world was hospitalized, and I had to skip the trip. Once I had gotten past the disappointment of not going to Iowa, Spain had begun to seem alluring, and now I was not able to go. That disappointment was smaller than missing Iowa.

But now, although it was too late to get tickets to the February 2 concert at the Surf Ballroom, I could drive down to see the exhibits and listen to the panels, including one made up of people who attended the February 2, 1959 Winter Dance Party gig. Sometimes things work out as they were meant to.

Except, then, they don’t. A few hours after I was supposed to leave for Spain, and after the health crisis that had kept me home had passed, a disconcerting two-day loss of appetite turned into a gastrointestinal disaster of my own. Having been down with severe food poisoning a few times, I recognized the symptoms. It’s Wednesday morning here (and this post is going up hours later than usual), and I am actually sicker than I was Monday.

Of course, I did not go to Clear Lake, Iowa for any of the events. You could say, “Thank goodness you didn’t get on that plane, or you would be sick in Spain.” And I could counter with “I might not have eaten whatever sickened me if I had not stayed behind.”

That’s how plans are fragile. No Spain, no Iowa. Sometimes when I was distressed, I used to go out and buy myself a CD. Occasionally, I would have a “two-CD day,” which meant it was a real bummer. There was a memorable seven-CD day once. This time, I pulled out my Top 40 book, went online, and nabbed 400 One-Hit Wonders I didn’t yet own. Take that, Fates! This is officially a 21-CD set of circumstances.

How is health fragile? I have been laid low by a one-celled organism. I probably kill millions of them every time I walk around. But if you let this one into your gut, you pay. Since I haven’t yet turned the corner, I’m not happy about the situation.

What does any of this have to do with the fragility of comedy? Well, I’ll tell you: I am not in a funny situation now. In ten years, when we mark the 60th anniversary of the loss of those three young artists, I may indulge in a bit of dark humor about where I was sitting when Bobby Vee took the stage in Clear Lake.

What is not funny in 2009 may be mildly so in 2019. And, by contrast, what was uproariously funny in 1909 is not necessarily funny in 2009.

One way to make my point would be for you to seek a collection of New Yorker cartoons from the 1930s. The cartoons that appear in that magazine are made into cartoon-a-day calendars, and recent ones show up taped to the cubicle walls of many a frustrated office employee throughout the United States. The humor is sardonic, clever, dry. It always has been. It also tends to be topical. And while some comedic subjects are funny seventy years on, most political and social humor that is time-sensitive is not.

When we talk about vaudeville, we get the impression that there is a treasure trove of humor that we have missed, full of wonderful gags and one-liners that had the audience roaring with laughter. Well, these jokes did have the audiences roaring. But there is another factor to take into account: culture.

I have often heard that you can’t say you’ve assimilated a new culture (if you move to another nation or, in some cases, another state) until you begin to laugh at its jokes. Humor is an in-crowd phenomenon; if I laugh at Minnesotans’ Ole and Lena jokes, it is partly still as an outsider. I’m not laughing at my cultural roots, but someone else’s. The ones that I find amusing don’t have to be about two Swedes. The ones that depend on being Swedish to get them still escape me sometimes.

Listening to vaudeville recordings from a century ago shows that the culture that spawned vaudeville is very distinct from our current culture. One can extrapolate from there and see that, a century from now, very little of what we see on Saturday Night Live will seem funny to those people. We may think now that we are done with the Coneheads because we got tired of them, and that would be true if the people of 2109 found them delightful the first few times they saw them. But I would bet that people will stare blankly at a screen when those routines are run a century from now.

Vaudeville sketches that were recorded for sale on cylinders made up a huge part of the recording industry’s early chart history. People bought them, then sat around and listened to routines over and over. Imagine buying a CD that includes “Who’s on First?” by Abbott and Costello and sitting around the speaker with your family, listening to it every day for a few weeks, and laughing every time.

Recording limitations required that the sketches be recorded in the studio, which meant that there was no audience to provide a laugh track. All laughter would be supplied by the purchaser of the cylinder. This fact makes it easier for us to decide if a recorded joke is funny or not, because laughter is infectious, and its absence makes the joke responsible for any reaction it evokes.

A number of comedic artists seem to have made a success of these recordings. Some of the most successful include Len Spencer, whose most successful version of “Arkansaw Traveler” was the best-selling record released before 1905. Another extremely big spoken-word comic was Russell Hunting, who scored five #1 hits that played off his recurring character, Michael Casey, all between 1891 and 1894. Another artist, John Kaiser, used the Michael Casey character later, with less success.

A lot of these recordings were ethnic in nature. The prime targets of such dialogues were the Irish and African Americans, though some attention was paid to Jewish stereotypes as well. The relative assimilation of the Irish into mainstream culture makes 1900s jokes about them instantly less amusing, and the jokes about the other groups are simply not considered polite at this point in our cultural development.

Something else to note is that these artists speak differently from us (from current United States native speakers of English, I mean). I do not believe there are still pockets of the country where people speak as Hunting, Spencer and Kaiser do. Granted, there is some attempt to sound oratorical here, or to sound Irish, but it seems to me that there is a real shift in the way English is spoken when 1900s English is compared to ours.

Some of these recordings may have been meant to be educational as well as amusing. “Michael Casey at the Telephone,” for example, seems to serve as a procedural for using this invention, which would still be new to some Americans and especially to recent immigrants.

Well, I was going to launch into detailed discussions of the artists, but I’m beginning to get wobbly. So I’ll tell you that Len Spencer (1867-1947) was the first huge recording star, beginning with such eventual classics as “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom Der E” and “The Old Folks at Home.” His parents were noted citizens: his mother a leading suffragist, his father the inventor of an influential penmanship style. Russell Hunting (1865-1943) was first a dramatic actor, then a comedic recording artist. Hunting was perhaps the first recording artist to fall afoul of decency laws, and he spent time in jail for his jokes. He was a pioneer in using his fame as a recording artist to hawk products. He also recorded an 1893 recitation of the Ernest Thayer poem “Casey at the Bat.” After Hunting went off to be a record-label executive in England, John Kaiser was tapped by Edison Records to take over the Michael Casey persona. He was not as successful as Hunting, and the question arises: Was Hunting just better at it, or had humor just started to move on?

The routines that follow are not completely devoid of amusement, and they display a certain charm. Let me know if you happen to find yourself ROTFL, okay?

Saturday, it’s Week Six of the 1950s Billboard charts, and next Wednesday (I have my weeks straight this time), it’s a female singer-songwriter from the 1990s whose band should have been big but wasn’t. See you Saturday!

Len Spencer, Arkansaw Traveler

Russell Hunting, Michael Casey at the Telephone

John Kaiser, Casey Courting His Girl


Anonymous said...

Interesting comments about the "comedy." I have a number of so-called comedic records from the early 20th century. Maybe in those days they were knee slappers, but eighty to a hundred years later something has been lost along the way.
One example of being risque was Arthur Collins,"Helen Lost" from around 1905.

jb said...

Interesting post. Welcome to the small fraternity of bloggers who have written about the Pioneer Era of Recording. (I believe that makes three of us now.)

I agree with you that there's been a shift in the way English is spoken, although some of the stilted inflections on Pioneer Era spoken-word recordings are a result of having to project one's voice to overcome the limitations of the technology.

Smarter people than I would have to weigh in on whether and/or how much our styles of speaking have changed. Old recordings tended to capture highly formal styles (think of movies in the 1940s, where the actors and actresses speak with perfect diction and a cultured accent that's nearly British) because such formality was considered appropriate for a recording medium. Regular folks not being recorded had different accents, used slang, etc. It's analogous to the written word in the 19th century versus the spoken word back then--people didn't talk using the same style of verbiage that they did when they wrote. Writing conventions of the time required a high-flown style; the vernacular was a lot less formal.

The proliferation of modern media has largely put an end to this. It's all cinema-verite now, so people on TV and in the movies speak like the rest of us.

But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong.