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Although comedy is difficult to define, it is not hard to recognize. Here are some of the best from radio, TV, stand-up, and movies — those who worked hard to make it look easy. We don't know what fruit it was that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden, but if it was a banana, it's likely that one of them slipped on the peel — and comedy was born. Unlikely scenarios aside, comedy in its many facets has been around forever.
It began to reach its broader audiences in Vaudeville, as "revues" traveled the country, playing in venues large and classy and small and seedy. Many famous acts honed their skills on the stage, including The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and The Three Stooges. Immediate audience response sharpened their timing and revealed what was funny and what was not.
Many Vaudeville stars made the transition to the high-tech world of AM radio, where they could drop into your living room inside a huge wooden box that took an hour to warm up! These artists helped ease the pain of the Great Depression.
Fred Allen, "The World's Worst Juggler," moved to radio in 1932. He was considered the best writers and master of the ad-lib. During their famous mock feud, Jack Benny complimented him:
"You wouldn't say that if my writers were here."
Vaudevillians Jim and Marian Jordan had the most famous closet in radio. Fibber McGee and Molly loved each other on radio and in real life, although Fibber was a buffoon and Molly was long-suffering and smarter. Fibber: "My wife and I had words, but I never got to use mine." Molly: "When a man brings his wife flowers for no reason, there's a reason."
"Who's on first?" Abbot and Costello, of course! Fresh from burlesque houses, the duo became the first non-baseball-players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The team covered all the bases: Vaudeville, radio, TV, and movies.
In 1928, Chicago's WMAQ broadcast a groundbreaking program that would not find favor today, but lasted an astounding 32 years: Amos 'n' Andy. Written and performed by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the show portrayed Black characters that many of the nation's down-and-outers could identify with. The comedy was gentle, and because it was live, it could comment on the issues of the hour. The TV show lasted just three seasons and is considered offensive by some.
Television in the 1940s sowed a new crop of entertainers, nurtured by the legendary "Uncle Miltie," Milton Berle. His frenetic energy, outlandish costumes and characters, pie fights, and other anything-goes bits were perfect for the new visual medium.
Solo acts were exemplified by stars like Bob Hope and Jack Benny. Hope was the casual wisecracker who teamed up with Bing Crosby, who always got the better of his loser buddy. Hope was hardly a loser — he was called "The Most Honored Entertainer in the World" by The Guinness Book of Records.
Jack Benny was the master of the slow burn. He gave the impression that he was playing himself, not a character. However, despite his vain and cheap appearance, he was a competent violinist and a generous soul.
Although his name came first, his wife was the primary force in the team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Gracie's twisted but strangely-logical flights of fancy mystified husband George and tickled audiences. For example: "When I misunderstand what you say, I always know what you're talking about." "It's harder to work in the movies than on stage. Movie stars have to act in black and white." One of George's TV innovations was to talk directly to the audience — live and at home — during the show. He would address them at the beginning of their TV show, and even have the other characters "freeze" in the middle of a scene so he could update the viewers.
Speaking of husband-wife teams, a former model and a Cuban bandleader teamed up — in real life and TV — to star in I Love Lucy. The premise was that Lucy (Lucille Ball), mirroring the aspirations of post-WW II women, sought to rise above the kitchen-and-kids life and become a celebrity like her husband (Desi Arnaz). Her schemes and antics were well-scripted and strangely logical, supported by a perfect cast, innovative writers, and technical prowess. Not to mention Lucy's physical comedy, paving the way for later comediennes like Carol Burnett.
In our next installment, we'll take a look at the history of another television innovation, known as "sketch comedy," used to draw audiences in by the millions.