With less than two weeks before election, I’m remembering past election campaigns. I recall Michael Dukakis looking silly in an oversized military helmet. When Ronald Reagan told Walter Mondale that he, Reagan, wouldn’t hold Mondale’s youth against him, I laughed. For me, comedy is what I remember best. as a result, thoughts of humorous political debates and events remind me of the great comedians of the past as well as some of their famous punch lines.
The Great Comedians Had Long Lives
The comedians of the past began their careers before live audiences. Egged on by live customers, many were versatile. They often could sing and dance as well as tell jokes and stories. Sometimes they played musical instruments. As a result, they connected to people: their personal characters were on display and didn’t change. Consequently, audiences felt they knew these people, as if they were neighbors or relatives.
I’ve kept the obituaries of various great comedians of the past, and they all lived a long time. Amazingly, Bob Hope lived to 100; Milton Berle died at 93; and Henny Youngman died at 91. Joan Rivers, the latest and best educated of the group, died at 82.
All of these great comics of the past left legacies of jokes and stories that were unique to them personally. Above all, they addressed everything, from health and doctors, to personalities, to family members and politics. For example, Bob Hope left his collection of over a million jokes to the Library of Congress; Milton Berle claimed to have some 200,000 jokes and stories.
The Oldest: Bob Hope
Bob Hope’s career spanned nearly 80 years. Born in England in 1903, he moved to the United States with his family when he was four; he grew up near Cleveland, Ohio. He began his career as a boxer, but subsequently moved to vaudeville and appeared in several Broadway productions in the 1920s. In the early 1930s he performed in radio broadcasts and after that moved to Hollywood.
Starring in 54 feature films, Bob Hope’s movies included seven “Road” musical comedy movies with Bing Crosby as costar. In recognition of his ability before audiences, Hope hosted the Academy Awards television show 19 times, more than any other host. He also authored 14 books.
Hope is best remembered as a comic, delivering rapid-fire one-liners, and, above all, entertaining American troops around the world during wartimes. From 1941 to 1948 he performed nearly all of his 400 radio shows at military bases.
Vincent Canby in his New York Times obituary of Hope says that “There was nothing Bob Hope loved more than an audience, and audiences responded in kind, particularly soldiers facing combat who desperately needed a laugh.” Canby describes Hope’s character as that of “a fast-talking wiseguy, a quaking braggart, an appealing heel with a harmless leer and a ready one-liner.”
Quotes from Bob Hope
Hope loved sticking barbs into politicians. For example, Canby relates Hope’s commentary on the 1984 election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale:
“I wonder if anyone woke up the president and told him.”
“Mondale knew this was gonna be a bad day when he called Dial-a-Prayer and the taped message answered him by name.”
“The farmers hate to see it end. All those campaign speeches were good for the crops.”
The Most Famous: Milton Berle, Mr. Television
Milton Berle, born in New York City in 1908, entered show business at the age of five when he won a children’s Charlie Chaplin contest. Subsequently, he appeared as a child actor in silent films and claimed The Perils of Pauline as his first film appearance.
Berle appeared in vaudeville and Broadway shows and by the 1930s was a successful stand-up comedian. He wrote musical scores for films and appeared regularly on popular radio broadcasts. By the late 1940s, Berle starred in his own radio variety show, together with a cast of writers and performers who would move to his television show in 1948.
Lawrence Van Gelder in his obituary of Berle for The New York Times describes the revolution brought about by Berle:
“The uninhibited Mr. Berle almost single-handedly led the entertainment revolution that addicted the nation to the small screen by wobbling on his ankles while wearing high heels, flouncing in evening gowns, grinning to reveal blacked out teeth, braying “What the hey,” being whacked silly with sacks of flour after shouting “Makeup!” and invariably thrusting himself into the routines of his guests.”
Within two months after its debut on Sept. 21, 1948, Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater was so popular that it was the only show not canceled to make way for election coverage on the night that Harry Truman upset Thomas E. Dewey. After that, Berle dominated Tuesday night television for several years and reached a 97% share of the viewing audience according to Nielsen ratings.
Quotes from Milton Berle
Milton Berle was often accused by contemporary comics of stealing their jokes, and Berle didn’t deny it. For example, Walter Winchell hailed him as the “Thief of Bad Gags”, and Berle replied “God, I wish I’d said that, and don’t worry, I will.” Other quotes from Berle:
‘Folk who don’t know why America is the Land of Promise should be here during an election campaign.”
“Why are we honoring this man? Have we run out of human beings?”
“The human brain is special. It starts working as soon as you get up and it doesn’t stop until you get to school.”
The Greatest One-Liner: Henny Youngman
From Tom Kuntz’s obituary of Henny Youngman in the New York Times:
“Henny Youngman was a real musician, born with a fiddle in his hands and a bow in his legs. Youngman had more talent in his little finger than he had in his big finger. He had such a big mouth he could eat a banana sideways. Henny and his wife were a fastidious couple: she was fast and he was hideous. He thought of himself as a wit, and he was probably half right. Henny Youngman was an entertainer who needed no introduction; he needed an act. His last audience was with him all the way; no matter how fast he ran he couldn’t shake them.”
Henny Youngman was hailed by Walter Winchell as “the King of One-Liners.” In other words, a performance by Youngman might last only fifteen or twenty minutes, but would contain dozens of jokes in rapid succession.
Henny Youngman was born in London in 1906 and brought by his family to New York City when he was a child. Growing up in New York he began in show business as a musician. He led a small jazz band and often told jokes. Soon he became a stand-up comic and appeared mainly in nightclubs. Henny Youngman spent most of his life performing hundreds of shows per year, in small clubs and theaters around the country.
Quotes from Henny Youngman
After appearing on Kate Smith’s radio show in 1937, Henny Youngman became famous. For example, when the New York Telephone Company started Dial-A- Joke in 1974, over three million people called in one month to hear 30 seconds of Youngman’s material—the most ever for a comedian.
Obviously, Youngman’s one-liners became very well known, not only to other comics who stole them, but to the general public. Here are a few:
“You have a ready wit. Let me know when it’s ready.”
“I haven’t talked to my wife in three weeks. I didn’t want to interrupt her.”
“Two dumb guys go bear hunting. They see a sign saying, “Bear Left,” so they went home.”
“I’d like to help you out. Which way did you come in?”
Youngman never retired. He performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs until the time of his death at 91.
Joan Rivers: First Female Host of a Late-Night Television Talk Show
Described in her obituary in the New York Times by Robert D. McFadden, as “the raspy loudmouth who pounced on America’s obsessions with flab, face-lifts, body hair and other blemishes of neurotic life, including her own” provided “five decades of caustic comedy that propelled her from nightclubs to television to international stardom.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933, Joan Rivers attended private schools and participated in student theatrical activities. She graduated from Barnard College in 1955 with a B. A. in English literature and anthropology. Before entering show business, she worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, a writer/proofreader at an advertising agency, and a fashion consultant at Bond Clothing Stores.
During the 1950s and 1960s Rivers performed in numerous comedy clubs in Greenwich Village. By 1965 she had a stint on Candid Camera as a gag writer and participant; she was the “bait” to lure people into ridiculous situations for the show.
After numerous auditions she made her first appearance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in February 1965. Subsequently, she became well known on television, appearing as a guest on numerous popular shows. She made prize winning record albums, directed films, and performed at Carnegie Hall. A permanent guest host on the Johnny Carson show, she was offered her own late-night television show in 1986.
Joan Rivers received an Emmy for her day time program, The Joan Rivers Show, in 1989 and authored 12 best-selling books and three comedy LP albums. In 2015, Rivers posthumously received a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album, for her book, Diary of a Mad Diva. She also marketed a line of jewelry and apparel on the QVC shopping channel. In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked her sixth on a list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.
Quotes from Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers projected a controversial personality. She could be self-deprecating, but always was sharp. She saved her most acerbic comments for celebrities and politicians. Here are some quotes:
“On Nancy Reagan’s hairdo: Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.”
“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die, they will donate my body to Tupperware.”
“At my funeral, I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents.”
“I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”
Great Comedians: What We Can Learn from Them
Creating laughter must be a good thing. They all lived so long. Almost all the photographs of the great comedians of the past show them smiling.
Laughter is infectious, imagine three million people in one month paying to hear thirty seconds of material by anyone other than a comedian, like Henny Youngman. Only a comedian, like Milton Berle, could compete with Presidential election coverage. Only a comedian like Bob Hope, could be remembered with such warmth by all the servicemen who saw him when he performed during the war years. The only woman in the group, will be remembered for saying what we all were thinking. I guess I miss them all.