Spring has come to Virginia. We already see and hear the birds, and flowers are on the way. The state still is closed down and we venture out only for groceries, about once a week.
But the weather has changed and we have much more daylight. We live in a house on a marina. The marina was under construction for about a year and is now complete. Very few boats are moving in and out. We are quite vigilant when we are outside on our porch. We especially notice and appreciate the birds.
We see and hear the birds and they are bright and loud. Birdwatchers in my neighborhood have counted over eighty varieties of birds . I really don’t know much about them, but last year one of our bluebirds occupied one of our birdhouses and this year they are back.
They are amazing neighbors. They sing to us almost constantly, and they chirp to us. And they aren’t the only chirpers or tweeters (I think the bluebirds actually tweet).
Every time we go out on the porch and say something, we are greeted by loud songs from some little bird. I’ve never seen the loud chirper. The song is two notes repeated four or five times, but in a rhythm that sounds very much like conversation. We’ve gotten used to whistling back or talking to the bird. In the evening we say good night. It reminds me of having a two year old, a small living thing that talks all the time.
While I’ve never seen our talking companion, I’ve taken to using my camera outside, and I’d like to share some of what I’ve seen. For example, I’ve gotten a shot of what I think is a young eagle, perched on a pole near my house. He’s quite young, but has those white head feathers and an imperial beak. I’ve also taken numerous shots of goldfinches and cardinals:
Its spring, so I imagine that the birds I see are all young. They chirp loudly and seem very happy. Our eagle looked lost, not sure of what to do now that he was atop a tall pole. He stayed there for quite a while. I’m sure he can fly, but maybe he has no nest to go back to. Eagles fly very high and coast like kites in the air. This one is bigger than a baby, but not fully grown. He’s like a teenager sent out into the world, not sure of what’s next.
I also took a picture of a woodpecker. He is a close neighbor and comes frequently. He uses the same feeder as the goldfinches and chickadees and we’ve seen all of them this winter. They’ve made the quarantine a little easier to tolerate.
Now all the birds are singing out loud. I’m sure there already are nests full of baby birds. Our blue bird has also come to visit and he squawks (tweets) as loud as ever when music is playing.
In addition to birds, we’ve had to confront the spring flower situation. This year I hope we’ll get some annual flowers. I usually plant some pots of petunias and geraniums. I also usually have a few tomato plants in pots. For the moment I am content with the plants that carried over from last year. Maybe the state will open up a bit and I’ll get something new for the year.
We’ve had a very wet spring and seem to get rain every other day, but the weather has turned warmer with temperatures mostly in the 50s. I haven’t fed or watered anything. We still have three pots of flowers with green leaves from last fall. About five mums came back again, as have three miniature roses. One mum is five years old already.
We’re looking forward to seeing the flowers again. In two to three weeks the daffodils will open up. I’m also looking forward to our irises, though we moved them around and I don’t know which color is where.
I have no sense of whether the virus is under control, but at least I’ve had my first vaccination. I’m like the flowers, waiting my turn to finish the job.
Coronavirus and Jokes
I’m sure we will survive this pandemic and remember the lockdown as a little overkill. But like the flowers returning from last year (or never leaving), old jokes are also making a comeback. Here are some I received last week:
“A dentist and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail.
No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationary.
If you don’t pay your exorcist, you can get repossessed.”
I hope all are staying safe and healthy.
Years ago, I wrote a short article for a local on-line newspaper, entitled “Governor Andros, Christmas and New Year’s Day.” The piece tried to provide some historical context for our holidays, and Williamsburg, where I live, is steeped in early history.
I’m not sure who read my first piece or why, but it has always bothered me that I published it without doing proper research. I have since done quite a lot of reading about the period and have published four historical novels that rest on the facts that I’ve discovered. While my novels don’t mention religion in history and holidays, Gov. Andros is an important character in my first, The Wealth of Jamestown.
Cover, The Wealth of Jamestown
This being New Year’s Day, I’ve decided, finally, to correct the record. Thus, this piece is a long time New Year’s resolution for me.
I never questioned the history related in my first piece. I comfortably simply repeated what historians claimed. Now, after much work, I realize that historians of the eighteenth century and earlier served the people who paid and employed them. They arranged the facts to project the elite’s agenda. The story about history and holidays first related about Gov. Andros, repeating these historians, was incorrect.
The Truth about Edmund Andros
My first article described Governor Andros as follows:
“Edmund Andros (1637-1714) served, at various times, as royal governor of New York, New Jersey, New England and Virginia. He descended from the feudal aristocracy, was a strong royalist with powerful connections at the king’s court in London, and one of the most reviled and despised of colonial royal governors.”
Sir Edmund Andros. Rhode Island State House collection.
Born in 1637, Edmunds Andros came from the island of Guernsey. His father, of low-level nobility, served as Bailiff of Guernsey and Marshall of Ceremonies to King Charles I. The king’s Marshall of Ceremonies, a military figure who appeared in full dress uniform, organized the ceremonial greetings for visitors to the royal court. As a result, Edmund, the eldest son, received his education in London at court along with the other children of the royal household.
The Andros family, as royalists, supported the Church of England in the English civil wars of the seventeenth century. They suffered much, as forces loyal to Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell besieged Castle Cornet where the Andros family lived on Guernsey for nine years.
The Andros Family and Oliver Cromwell
The Andros family, though not actively religious, supported the king and the king’s religion. Most importantly, they upheld the old order, with the emphasis on feudal honor and duty among respected military leaders. They opposed Cromwell not on the basis of religion, but because he radically opposed the old order. Cromwell replaced the king and appointed himself as Lord Protector. He was anti-bishop, anti-Pope and anti-King. Cromwell and his rump parliament beheaded King Charles I in 1649.
In 1649-50 the Andros family escaped Cromwell’s siege. They sailed from Guernsey to Jersey and from there to Holland. In Holland, Edmund’s mother joined the court of the Queen of Bohemia, the sister to the deposed and beheaded King Charles. Edmund’s father became part of a court in exile and his uncle served as captain of the exiled Horse Guards.
As a teenager, Edmund befriended William of Orange who lived in Holland, as well as Mary, daughter of Charles I, who William later married. William and Mary became monarchs of England after the removal of King James II by the parliament in 1689.
Edmund Andros, Colonial Magistrate
When Charles II returned to power in 1660, Edmund Andros came back to England as a member of the Royal Militia. Over the next twenty years he built a distinguished military career. Though not a university graduate, he had strong diplomatic skills and could speak several European languages, including French, German, Dutch and Danish. He conducted a number of diplomatic missions as a skilled negotiator.
In 1674, Andros’ father died, and Edmund became Bailiff of Guernsey. By then he’d married, but had no children. He became a dedicated colonial governor and administrator in Barbados, New York, and New England. King James II knighted Andros for his work in achieving a treaty with the Indians while Andros served as governor of New York (1674 to 1681).
In 1681 colonists in New York charged Andros with financial irregularities and favoritism and he was recalled to London to stand trial. Once home in London he didn’t stand trial and instead returned to North America with a promotion: Governor of the Dominion of New England, a territory stretching from Massachusetts to New Jersey. At the time, if he was despised by anyone, it was by Puritans loyal to the beliefs of Oliver Cromwell. In London, Edmund Andros was highly respected and honored.
History and Holidays: Governor Andros and Christmas
In 1582 Pope Gregory decreed January 1 as New Year’s Day, but the British Empire (which included the American colonies) did not accept the new calendar until 1752. So, Christmas in the British colonies remained a stand-alone holiday, though it lasted for twelve days, from December 25 through January 6. New Year’s Day came two months later in March.
The British pursued many disputes with the Pope and Catholic monarchs of Spain and France, including not accepting the Gregorian calendar. Kings sat as heads of state and heads of religion, completely intertwining politics and religion. Royal governors took strong positions on religious issues like holiday celebrations. History and holidays form part of the backdrop to European religious warfare of the time.
The Puritans of New England disapproved of the celebration of Christmas, and banned it from Boston from 1659-1681. Andros. as governor of New England in 1686, revoked the ban and also revoked the ban on festivities on Saturday nights.
Puritans detested Andros for these acts. In addition, he limited individual colonial legislatures to one meeting a year, and used his powers to overturn certain colonial laws and customs. After all, he was Governor of New England. not simply of the historical individual colonies. Connecticut despised him so intensely that his name is still excluded from the state’s list of colonial governors.
Overthrow of James II
In April 1689 the parliament overthrew King James II and Andros attempted to escape New England dressed as a woman. He was caught when someone spotted his boots beneath his dress. Once again, he was sent back to London for trial. On arrival in London, he was immediately released again, and later returned to the colonies as Governor of Virginia (1692-1698).
Andros had been a good Anglican all his life. He’d built and supported Anglican churches throughout New England, New York and the Jerseys. By the time he got to Virginia, Andros had terrible memories of dealings with the Puritans in Massachusetts.
Andros, like many others of his generation, remembered the horrors and bloodshed over differences in religion during the time of Oliver Cromwell. Andros wanted to keep religion out of politics as much as possible. For him, the defense and economic strength of the colony overrode all other issues.
After six years of peace and strong economic development Andros retired as Governor of Virginia in 1698 . He’d never used his position as governor to amass property as many other colonial governors had before him. He retired reasonably well off, but not wealthy.
Conclusions about Governor Andros
My first article stated:
“The tale of Governor Andros leaves us with a few thoughts on the New Year. He certainly had many opportunities to succeed, but failed every time. Was he repeatedly sent back from London to the colonies, every time without trial, because his supporters wanted him out of London? Did he receive the first “golden parachute” on North American soil?”
Andros died in 1714 at the age of seventy-six. Toward the end of his life, he saw the end of the war of the Spanish Succession, with the conclusion of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Over the course of that war some 400,000 people were killed in Europe.
Sir Edmund Andros, in his lifetime, had seen peace only in Virginia. He lived to see the Act of Union in 1707, which brought Scotland into the United Kingdom. He’d lived an honorable life and was recognized in death for his accomplishments.
Andros as a Model Chief Executive
Andros was buried with honors with a marching retinue of sixty-six men each carrying a white branch light. They were followed by twenty men on horseback, and six mourning coaches, each pulled by six horses. He was buried at St. Anne’s Church in Soho, a building destroyed by the Nazi blitz of London in World War II.
Historians wonder where George Washington got the idea that he could refuse being a king and instead serve out a legally set term of office. During Washington’s lifetime, the rest of the world consisted of monarchies and empires based on the idea of the divine right of kings.
Washington didn’t have far to go to find a model. Edmund Andros had served as governor of Virginia. As the local chief executive, Andros codified local laws, enforced them, maintained defenses, and avoided dealing directly with issues related to religion. He allowed and didn’t interfere with holiday celebrations. He didn’t use his office to plunder, and opposed absentee land ownership. After six years he voluntarily retired to go back to his farm in Guernsey.
Religion, History and Holidays: a Final Thought
“I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up…. They have no holidays”. (Henny Youngman).
Due to COVID, we’ve been directed to wear masks to help stem the spread of the illness. People wear masks, whatever their feelings, and our current medical masks look very much the same. They cover nose and mouth, are generally pleated, and made of some kind of fiber.
People stuck at home have begun to make their own masks, and now masks respond to the feelings of the wearers. They come in a wide variety of materials, colors and print messages. They are cotton, silk, plaid, floral or just full of text.
I personally wear a surgical mask, given to me in a hospital, that is pink on one side, blue on the other. My son, who is a doctor, told me that my mask is 92% effective, but it’s designed to protect the patient, not the surgeon wearing it. Therefore, I am saving the world from myself, but my mask really doesn’t protect me. As a result, I have little feeling for the mask I wear.
While the surgical masks hide the nose and mouth, they don’t hide the eyes. People recognize each other mainly by looking at eyes. Last week a woman wearing a fabric mask covering her nose and mouth stopped me in the grocery store. We immediately started a fairly long friendly conversation, as if we’d known each other a long time. To be honest, I didn’t know who she was, and because her mouth was covered, I had difficulty understanding everything she said. I’m sure it was the same for her.
Although we wore masks, we shared the same feelings We both needed human contact and conversation, and the masks didn’t stop us. We acted like old friends, and I’m sure we both felt better for going to the grocery that day.
Masked Men and Feelings in History
Masks are as old as the human race. Over millennia, they’ve been used as a disguise, for medical protection, for religious rituals, and for theatrical performances. There are many famous masked men, for example, Batman and Zorro. My favorite masked man is the Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger on Silver. Tonto in Background.
The Lone Ranger was powerful and heroic; his mask gave us feelings of admiration and loyalty. Children dressed up as little Lone Rangers. They wore cowboy hats and black masks and carried shiny pistols.
But the Lone Ranger’s mask would be insufficient against COVID. It covers only the eyes and sits on the nose. A COVID mask covers nose and mouth and blocks breathing from one person to another.
Masks in Ancient Days
Masks can be found wherever people live, on every continent, Anthropologists believe some of the ancient cave dwellings in France show images of people wearing masks. The oldest physical mask, dating probably to 7000 B.C. and found in Israel, is made of stone:
Stone Mask, circa 7000 B.C.
The mask has vacant eyes and a toothy smile. It looks like a ski mask, something that bandits might wear when they stick up banks. These are quite different from the surgical masks most people wear now due to the pandemic. Hockey masks are reminiscent of these ancient masks.
In ancient Egypt, masks covered the faces of the dead and embalmed, in order to prepare them for the afterlife. Similarly, Andean people buried the dead with their faces covered with masks. Masks have been used for religious and ritual purposes for centuries. These masks evidently help to provide feelings of security or solace to worshipers and survivors suffering deep grief.
In the middle ages and early industrial period, people wore masks whenever they walked outside their homes in large cities. Cities were filthy places and pedestrians wore great over-cloaks and face masks to protect themselves from dirt and general pollution. The masks also provided privacy and a feeling of security.
Masks and Feelings in Performance
Unlike the ancient stone mask, ritualistic and theatrical traditions require masks to demonstrate emotional and moral expressions. In the west we are familiar with the sad and happy Greek masks that symbolize tragedy and comedy in drama.
Likewise, the classical Japanese Noh theater, which dates from the 14th century, presents performances that integrate dance, music and drama to relate classical Japanese folk tales. The masks are iconic in Japanese culture and are used to represent ghosts, women, children and the elderly.
Japanese Noh Masks
Compared to ancient masks, Japanese Noh masks are vibrant and lively. They communicate character and emotion.
Masks for Ritual and Symbolic Purposes
In Africa, many different cultures have used masks to celebrate the interaction of humans with agriculture and the natural world. Numerous masks from various African cultures represent animals and the sprouting of grain.
In Latin America pre-Columbian traditions merged with Christian rituals, and various masquerades emerged. Carnivals and wrestling matches have used elaborate and creative masks from ancient days until today.
Similarly, native American tribes have used masks in various ceremonies and celebrations. Hollywood has portrayed great spectacles of Indian war dances with dancers arrayed in colorful and frightening masks.
Masks in Epidemics
People have long known that disease could be spread by inhaling the breath of the sick. During the Middle Ages with the onset of the bubonic plague, masks were developed that would protect the wearer from any inhalation. These “beak masks” featured a giant nose in the form of a bird’s beak. The wearer would stuff the beak with cotton and aromatic spices to prevent inhaling the “atmosphere.” Thus, the wearer’s feelings for the mask were strong: he felt it protected him from illness and death.
The beak mask became a symbol of the doctor during the days of the plague. With the wide black hat and long black robes, this image of the Venetian doctor became a symbol of death. The mask and costume became a staple of Mardi Gras and other carnival marches depicting All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead.
Bubonic Plague Doctor in Beak Mask
A Lone Ranger Story
The Lone Ranger and Tonto went camping in the desert. After they got their tent set up, both men fell sound asleep.
Some hours later, Tonto wakes the Lone Ranger and says, “Kemo Sabe. Look towards the sky. What you see?”
The Lone Ranger replies “I see millions of stars.”
“And what does that tell you?” asks Tonto.
The Lone Ranger ponders this for a minute and then says “Astronomically speaking, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically speaking, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Why, what does it tell you, Tonto?”
Tonto fixes the Lone Ranger with a steely glare and replies “It tells that you are dumber than buffalo crap. It means that someone’s stolen our tent!”
Consistent with Thanksgiving’s history, this year, 2020, hasn’t been one to rave about. Thanksgiving is about remembering that things could be worse and that we should be thankful that we are here. This year, we’ve survived a contested national election, an epidemic, and harsh responses by government to the epidemic. COVID-19 took many lives and many small businesses lost their customers and disappeared. Children stayed home during lockdowns and spent a school year outside the classroom. But we’re still here, and looking forward. We are thankful.
According to current rules we’ll have fewer large capacity feasts and massive parades this year. People are beginning to ignore rules, but everyone still is aware of the dangers of contracting the virus.
About ten year’s ago in a year full of feasts, parades and football, I published a brief history of Thanksgiving for northernneck.com, a local on-line newspaper. The following is what I wrote then. History doesn’t change: Thanksgiving has always been about people recognizing that things may be tough, but we’ve survived.
Historians believe that the first Thanksgiving by Europeans in North America took place in Florida in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the coast. He claimed the land for Spain and offered a prayer of thanks for safe passage. Later, on September 8, 1565 Spanish settlers in Saint Augustine, Florida, sang hymns of thanks, celebrated Mass, and fed themselves and local Indians with food from ships—hardtack, beans and wine.
Native Americans celebrated Thanksgiving festivals for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Thanksgiving’s history for English-speaking Europeans began in Virginia on September 4, 1619 at Berkeley Plantation. There thirty-eight settlers, all men, gave thanks and proclaimed that thereafter the day of the ship’s arrival would be observed as a religious day of Thanksgiving. In Massachusetts, Plymouth’s first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a harvest feast, and involved the Wampanoag Indians. The menu is uncertain, but foods available included wild fowl and venison.
Jamestown Interpreter Baking Fish over Open Fire
The 1621 Pilgrim feast wasn’t repeated, but Thanksgiving’s history progressed. Over the years New England developed an annual tradition of thanksgiving prayers after the harvest. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom and by the middle of the 19th century many other states did the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. Since then every President has issued an annual Thanksgiving proclamation.
Thanksgiving: An Official Legal Holiday
Finally, in 1941 Congress established Thanksgiving as an official national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. World War II raged, and President Roosevelt delivered a famous speech celebrating four freedoms: for speech and worship, and from want and fear. Norman Rockwell created four paintings commemorating the speech. He depicted “Freedom from Want” as a family Thanksgiving feast of roast turkey.
The Norman Rockwell paintings were published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. The Treasury Department toured the paintings around the country, selling over $130 million in war bonds.
Thanksgiving today is a secular holiday, characterized by parades, football games and turkey dinners. The Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday or the official start of the retail Christmas season.
Thanksgiving dinner normally consists of roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. The National Turkey Federation estimated that about 46 million turkeys were consumed by Americans last year at Thanksgiving. Cranberry sauce is a very American tradition. The cranberry is one of only three fruits—the others are blueberries and concord grapes—to be native to American soil.
A Thanksgiving Story
Aside from the old question, “Why did the turkey cross the road?” (Answer: it was the chicken’s day off), there are many turkey tales.
A pro football team once finished daily practice, when a large turkey strutted onto the field. While the players gazed in amazement, the turkey walked up to the head coach and demanded a tryout. Everyone stared in silence as the turkey caught pass after pass and ran right through the defensive line. When the turkey returned to the sidelines, the coach shouted, “You’re terrific!!! Sign up for the season, and I’ll see to it that you get a huge bonus.” “Forget the bonus, the turkey said, “All I want to know is, does the season go past Thanksgiving Day?”
Puns and put-downs have been part of comedy history back to ancient times. Although the ancient Greeks distinguished between comedy and tragedy, to them comedy referred to a theatrical performance that ended happily, without serious death or dismemberment. Since then, over the ages, comedy has come to mean more than the absence of tragedy: it describes something humorous, causing audiences to be amused and laugh.
Comedy and Tragedy: the Masks of Ancient Greece
Historically, comedy has taken many forms, but emerged from live performances. It began with rough demonstrations and depended on physical surprises. Clowns tumbled and attacked each other merrily in circuses and comics threw pies in each other’s faces, in front of crowds of people who laughed and shouted. This kind of comedy carried over into silent film with visions of comics riding on the outside of train wheels, hanging from oversized public clocks well above street level, or riding in cars that disappeared into giant sink holes.
Visual comedy, because it lacked language, couldn’t be personally nasty or insulting. Astonishing and surprising stunts simply made people laugh. As a result, when stunts and rough-house weren’t funny, nobody felt insulted.
Clown at Work
Language Brought Puns and Put-Downs into Comedy
Theater and literature have a long history. Language communicates thoughts, emotions, philosophy as well as wisecracks, puns and put-downs. The ancient Romans and Egyptians used puns, and there are some in the Hebrew bible. “Pun Intended”, an old board and card game, has been popular for years.
Puns are surprising statements that derive from multiple meanings of different words and phrases. For example:
“Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.”
“In a democracy it’s your vote that counts. In feudalism, its your count that votes.”
“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
Other phrases are closer to telling a story, but in an unusual way. These paraprosdokians generally try to leave a message or a laugh. For example:
“Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.”
“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.”
“You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.”
Insults Have a place in Comedy
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comedians competed for attention with acts performed by singers, dancers, magicians, acrobats, musicians and animal trainers. They had very little time to impress their audiences.
One way of encouraging audience attention was to engage the audience directly. Comics came on stage and told silly jokes designed to stimulate boos and groans. When hearing these, the comics were well prepared: they created the “put-down.”
Audiences during the days of night club acts and burlesque came equipped with wise cracks to throw at entertainers. Knowing this, comics developed fast and sharp comments and great comedians became famous for put-down remarks.
Put-downs in History
The art of the insult is as old as human history, and many put-downs have been attributed to famous people of the past. For example, Ludwig van Beethoven was quoted as saying to another composer, “I like your opera. I think I will set it to music.” Dorothy Parker, when hearing of the death of President Calvin Coolidge, became famous for saying “How could they tell?”
Winston Churchill, in the course of debates on the floor of the House of Commons, exchanged remarks with Nancy Astor, the first female Member of Parliament. When she called him “disgustingly drunk,” he replied, “My dear, you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly.” When she told him that if she were his wife, she’d give him poison, he replied, “If you were my wife, I would take it.”
Winston Churchill: Specialist in Put-Downs
Henny Youngman, who developed his material before night club audiences, perfected the put-down. Youngman never told dirty or off-color jokes, but he was famous for the speed of his wit and its delivery in staccato, machine-gun like bursts. He could quash an audience with putdowns like these:
“The more I think of you, the less I think of you.”
“It’s good to see you. It means you’re not behind my back.”
“Would you mind looking at me? I’ve got the hiccups.”
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.
Bob Hope USO Show for US Troops in Germany, 1945
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.
Uncle Miltie, Mr. Television
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 and Fiddle
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, Thinking?
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.