Puns and Putdowns in Comedy History

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.”

 

Comedians of the Past

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.

Technology Changes How We Live

Back in April I wrote in this blog that technological change appears to be accompanied by old jokes.  That was six months ago, and jokes have dried up a bit. The boredom continues, but people have overcome isolation through the use of modern devices. The use of new technology changes how we live.

For example, new technology has changed our lives  by providing us with virtual education through Zoom meetings. My granddaughter before the pandemic played drums in the high school band.  The pandemic stopped that. Now she teaches younger students how to play percussion through the internet. She has two students, one eight-year-old and one about thirteen, and she has written to me about her challenges teaching drums using Zoom.

My granddaughter becomes irritated after sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours doing high school work. She takes a break by writing me a long-hand letter that she places in an envelope, stamps and mails. I’m sure she also bangs on her drums now and then for the pleasure it gives her. I treasure her letters and they bring back old memories.

Fountain Pens Were Once New Technology

My father’s pen, coated in dark red wood, felt heavy in my hand.  An early fountain pen, its gold point wrote smoothly. My father loved doing this.  I think his pen, a gift from his parents, brought back memories of his childhood.  He loved the beautiful sleek instrument and valued it more than jewelry.

Fountain pens came with rubber inserts that carried more ink than a simple dipping, and in its day represented a great innovation, a new technology. The defective ones leaked, but fine fountain pens became works of art and style. They were favorite gifts to children, and writers used them to create wondrous long letters. Without the fountain pen, Bob Dylan might not have written the 20-page letter to an ex-girlfriend, from which he later extracted the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Fountain Pens Had Style

 

In response to my grand-daughter’s letter, I dragged out my old fountain pens from a box at the top of my closet.  I answered her last letter using one and it wasn’t easy.   Like shoes, fountain pens have to be used regularly to feel comfortable. Their points change shape over time and the pressure used by the writer affects how much ink is released. I wasn’t used to my own pens, and my favorite one seemed scratchy. In this case, technology (new pens) has changed my life for the better.

Nobody thinks about pens as valuable any more. Modern technology produces pens that write smoothly, are cheap and easily replaced.  Who needs fancy pens when nobody writes letters?  The old companies- Parker, Waterman, Cross- don’t exist any longer. Their brand names now belong to foreign firms that manufacture mostly in China. We communicate through smart phones and the internet.

Technology Changes Life in Unforeseen Ways

We  already can see the next revolution in how people will live.  Pens are ordinary cheap instruments, but changes in their use affects the economy. Great companies disappear when people no longer buy their products. We can’t foresee all the effects of people moving their work back into the home, and communicating electronically instead of personally or through the mail.

Ruth Goldman in her book “The Domestic Revolution” writes about the shift from wood to coal fuel in sixteenth century Elizabethan England.  The population of London grew and wood prices became exorbitant because wood had to be shipped from miles away overland. Coal could be shipped by sea from Newcastle. Britain was the first country to convert from wood to coal fuel and it happened quickly.

The switch to coal transformed the country. Since  wood wasn’t needed for fuel, forest areas were converted to agriculture. Smoke stacks with chimneys were built to vent the noxious fumes caused by coal fire.  Once tall smoke stacks were being constructed, it made sense to build larger buildings and London began to see two and three-story buildings topped by chimneys.

Coal burned hotter than wood and British industry began to develop and produce cooking utensils made of iron and brass. This laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution hundreds of years later, based on knowledge and machinery using iron and coal.

Technology changed life dramatically. People cooked, ate and lived differently.  Coal fires stained walls and wall hangings.  Tapestries came down and wall paints were developed as well as wall papers. Coal ovens could be regulated producing a steady temperature. The use of coal-fire for cooking allowed foods to be roasted.  With the new technology, the British invented boiled puddings and kidney pies.

Coal Fire Made Possible the Baking of Steak and Kidney Pie

 

Will the Use of Virtual Communication and Technology Change How we Live Long-term?

Moving people back to home from the place of work reverses trends of the last few hundred years.  The industrial revolution began with cottage industries.  Workers in their own homes had to produce goods, without regulation of hours, working conditions and no restrictions on child labor. When factories were built, they were considered an advance in living conditions. Factories had light, heat, and were designed to produce goods efficiently.

Factories moved manufacturing out of the home and away from crafts and hand labor. Eventually abuses brought about strikes and legislation regulating conditions of work.

When we move work back to the home, we aren’t going back to the eighteenth century. We’ll expect our salaries, pensions, health care and other legislatively provided protections to continue.

Nevertheless, we’re moving back.  A house that contains workers as well as families has to be built to accommodate all the functions necessary for the people living and working in it.  Will houses be redesigned to house work spaces?  What would that kind of house look like?

If very many people work at home, will food delivery services have to improve and increase?  What will happen to food production and delivery, if restaurants stay in a state of decline? Will our stay-at-home chefs come up with brand new food ideas and how to prepare them?

What about big cities and big office buildings? Will the city of the future be simply an entertainment park where very little productive work is done? Technology changes how we live, how we eat, and how we work in unpredictable ways.

 

Technology has Already Changed How We Live and More Change is Coming

We are aware of how technology changes how we live, but we don’t see the wider picture of where we are going.

But the following describes what we are experiencing now:

  • You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach a family of four
  • Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don’t have email addresses
  • Accidentally you enter your password on the microwave
  • You haven’t played solitaire with real cards in years
  • You pull in your own driveway and use your cell phone to see if anyone is home to help you carry in the groceries.

Communication and Dictatorship

My newspaper this morning delivered the news about dictatorship in the world, and the role of communication in supporting or defying it.  The stories told about actions taken by dictatorial bosses who did not consult the general public. Consequently, whether they liked it or not, dictators had their acts communicated to the public.

For example, three unconnected stories illustrate similar truths:

  • The dictator Lukashenko in Belarus called out troops to put down protestors who claim he stole a recent election. In the old days, he would have shot a few people and gotten away with it.  The protestors are organized and communicating with each other and the international press. Subsequently, Lukashenko alerted his Russian patrons that he may need military help. In a timely way, I’m reading about it in my newspaper.
  • Israel imposed a national lockdown forbidding large groups from gathering, on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. Most importantly, the lockdown will last till October, making impossible worship of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by large groups of people sitting together. Ultra-religious Israeli citizens are very angry, and my newspaper presents the details.
  • The Dallas Symphony for the first time during the pandemic held a concert in its usual concert hall for some of its subscribers. The symphony hall holds more than 1800 seats, and this concert played for about seventy subscribers. The program consisted of three relatively short Beethoven pieces, short because no intermissions were allowed. A famous pianist played with an orchestra of 35, under an Italian conductor who entered the U. S. by special arrangements. First steps taken against rules imposed by government, and now people everywhere know about it.

 

Communication has Changed Form

This blog is about as old as the current pandemic lockdown. In a way it’s a child of current trends in communication. In my lifetime, communication has moved from newspapers, radio and movies, to television, and to digital communication. Print media gradually faded into the background, replaced by cable television and digital media.

Many newspapers, book publishers, and movie theaters failed well before the pandemic lockdowns. However, fifty years ago the communications media provided widely watched and respected national news, as well as high quality popular entertainment and artistry. Newspapers and books printed educated commentary and thoughtful essays.

Newspapers Used to be Numerous

Today, instant images of events, distributed to a world-wide audience by electronic devices, stand in the place of the news reported in the old media. The time consuming business of creating thoughtful commentary  today is replaced by partisan shouting on television and in newspapers. As a result, newspapers keep dying and the old broadcast television and theater-based movie businesses continue to shrink. In other words, we are seeing a Gresham’s Law in communications: bad news drives out good news.

Communication and Dictatorship

Like most complex changes, there are pluses and minuses to the transformation of modes of communication.  In days when literacy wasn’t widespread and small elites owned the newspapers, newspapers could sway national leaders and affect policy. Elites monopolized national communications and could excite the public. They created fervor for whatever interested them. Newspapers could start wars. Dictators also used them  to support their actions and abuse opponents..

The old dictatorships manipulated radio, movie and print communication.  If they didn’t like a newspaper, they sent thugs to destroy the printing presses.  They could forcibly take over radio stations and stop the showing of movies they didn’t like.

The dictator has a harder time monopolizing thought and communication when everyone is a communicator. For example, if Lukashenko sends in troops to support his rule, the images of the event will appear on cellphones and mobile media instantly and world-wide. His Russian patrons know that.

Cell Phones Tell the News When it Happens

Lukashenko can’t stop cell phones from working in Belarus and throughout the world. When Israel decreed the lockdown, the government couldn’t stop loud complaints.  When the Dallas symphony took small steps at reopening, it was reported not only in Texas but in The Wall Street Journal.

 

Forms of Communication and Content

About eighty per cent of the readers of this little blog use mobile devices. In other words, people are reading this mainly on smart phones. Since I’ve already reached my 80th birthday this delights me, At my age, the feeling of being relevant is very enjoyable.

The digital world has no geographic limits.  My readers live in India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other places.  Because I write in English, and mostly about the lessons of American history, I’m not surprised my readers live mainly where English is spoken.

I can’t tell which blogs do best in which place.  I guess comments about the contributions of women to history and visions of grandchildren are appreciated everywhere.

 

Communication and the Breakdown of Dictatorship

As everyone probably knows, state governments have imposed a pandemic lockdown on those of us living in the United States. We are also enduring a national election.

Local governors have seized emergency powers, without resort to public approval. They are miniature dictators, imposing rules by emergency decree. They dictate the size of group gatherings, spacing for social distancing, and the opening or closing of various businesses.  Governors decree what size of group can meet where and where people are required to wear masks. State governors decree whether restaurants can open and when they can serve indoors. They dictate the distances people must observe when out in public. Governors make decisions about placing sick people in nursing homes or quarantining nursing homes.

These rules vary from state to state. Some states permit large numbers of people to carry on public protests. If protests become too violent, governors make the decision whether or not to call out the national guard. Social media report  events in real time, instantaneously. Newspapers and television follow up with partisan shouting and little objective analysis.

It is hard to measure the effects of widespread instantaneous communication. How soon do people make decisions on elections? Do they wait for debates?  Which is more prone to partisan manipulation and outright deceit: newspapers, television news reports, or social media?

Dictators have a harder time with social media.  They can’t ban the use of phones and digital media without harming the general economy: business requires regular communication and ease of data collection.  But with that, you get twitter, and personal tweets from the president down (or up?) to everyone, including children, and the reverse.

It’s the reverse that counts: dictators now can hear what people are saying and can’t control everything that’s said.