Being on-line every day I am the recipient of numerous e-mails that contain jokes or humorous anecdotes. From time-to-time my online friends also send me clips from television shows. Such was the case the other day when I was sent a clip from an old Dean Martin Show.
In the clip of this show Dean Martin, "Dino," is sitting by a piano when in stumbles Foster Brooks. To those unfamiliar with Brooks, it was he whose shtick was playing a drunk. His act was so good that it put him in a category of his own among his contemporary masters of the art of comedy. Even "Dino," who at times entertained his audiences by giving the appearance he had been bending elbows with Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker and Old Grand Dad before each show, was a comedic teetotaler compared to Brooks.
Approaching Martin, an obviously inebriated Brooks asks if he might join him for an alcoholic libation.
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Brooks: "I n-n-n-need a drrrrink b-b-before I go to w-w-w-work."
Martin: "What kind of work do you do?"
Brooks: "I'm a-a-an aaaairline p-pilot."
Martin: "What kind of work did you do before you became an airline pilot?"
Brooks: "I u-u-sed to d-drive a taaa-xi, but I q-quit because there w-w-were toooo m-many derrrrunks on the r-r-road."
And so it went, and the audience roared with laughter. In the end, Martin couldn't control himself, laughing so hard he had tears running down his face. I'll grant you this was adult humor, but it wasn't of the sexually oriented, smutty, potty-mouth variety served up by today's sit-com stars.
After replaying this a couple of times I couldn't help but wonder: "Whatever happened to really good comedy?" Contrast the self-styled guys and gals of comedy today with those comedy icons of yesteryear like Nipsey Russell, Jonathan Winters, Flip "The devil made me do it" Wilson, and the self-deprecating one-line humor of Rodney "I don't get no respect" Dangerfield.
I can't think of one today who can hold a candle to the likes of Russell, Winters, Wilson and Dangerfield. These comics did not depend on a constant stream of barn yard epithets, four-letter words, and a parade of sexual innuendos to make television audiences laugh which, as I see it, set them and their contemporaries apart and far above today's comedic pack.
In days of yore, comedy legends such as Dean Martin, Carol Burnett and Jackie Gleason performed before live studio audiences, and in real time. Their shows didn't require laugh tracks because the laughter of their audience was real.
The highlight of the Jackie Gleason show was the classic comedy "The Honeymooners." It starred Gleason as New York bus driver Ralph Cramden, Art Carney as his sewer worker pal Ed Norton, Audrey Meadows as Gleason's wife Alice, and Joyce Randolph as Carney's spouse Trixie.
The versatile Gleason also portrayed a number of other characters on his shows; one of my favorites was "Joe the Bartender." In this role Gleason's repartee with customer "Crazy Gugenheim," played by Frank Fontaine, was always a hit.
Other memorable characters included the rich, snobby "Reginald Van Gleason III" and "The Poor Soul," the latter being unique in that he never spoke a word but still got laughs. I doubt our modern day comics could top that.
"The Carol Burnett Show" was a variety show played before a live audience. Her show was a mixture of comedy, song and dance. Carol, Vickie Lawrence, Lyle Wagoner, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway made up the comedy team. Because this show was broadcast "live" there were no retakes. If someone forgot or screwed up their lines, which was not uncommon, it led to some extremely funny situations, especially when it was Harvey Korman and Tim Conway playing improvised lines off one another.
"I Love Lucy" was another truly funny show starring Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnez; ditto, "Sanford and Son" starring Red Foxx as Fred Sanford and Demond Wilson as his son Lamont. "The Red Skelton Show" and "WKRP in Cincinnati" are two more classics that come to mind.
Whatever happened to good, clean comedy? Is it, like many of the old""time pros, gone forever? Fortunately, that isn't the case. Although these icons of comedy are no longer with us they have left behind a legacy of laughter that may still be seen through television reruns; and in some cases past performances are available on DVDs or sent via the Internet.
John R. Stoeffler is a Ballwin resident and president and co-founder of the Madison Forum, a constitutional think tank dedicated to upholding the principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.