Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2005/ 25 Shevat, 5765
Nothing to Laugh At
Johnny Carson has died. Another guy who made me laugh is gone and there are fewer and fewer of them around these days, it seems.
The comedians who almost always made me laugh were the comics of strong personality and characterization. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar were my favorites. Their humor came out of their characters, not one-liners. Oh sure, Hope would stand up and deliver machinegun jokes in his TV monologues, but it was never the jokes that made me laugh, it was Bob Hope's personality. For me, Hope was funniest in his films of the forties and early fifties when his movie persona was really cooking. I never tire of watching those pictures. Bob Hope made us believe that he was really the character on screen. He had an honesty about him.
Jack Benny could crack me up just by standing on stage and looking out into the audience. He had one of the strongest comic characters going. It was't as simplistic as some may think, either. The fact that Jack Benny portrayed a tightwad wasn't why he was so funny, loads of comics have used the cheapskate gimmick and none have ever come close to being as successful at it as Benny was. It was the totality of Benny's personality that put it over, that and a genuineness that came through to the audience.
Buster Keaton always makes me laugh in a way no other silent comic can. Somehow his screen character rings truer and funnier to me than Chaplin, Lloyd, or any of the others of that time. There seemed to be an innate honesty to Keaton. He wasn't trying hard to be funny, he was genuinely funny.
Laurel and Hardy are my all time favorite comic team, again relying on characterization, not just gags, to bring out the humor in any given situation. Their personalities remained constant throughout every film no matter what the situation, time period, or location happened to be. Once again, honesty comes through in their work.
W.C. Fields was another strong personality who always manages to break me up. Every time I watch The Bank Dick Fields never fails to knock me out. It's not the jokes, it's not the gags, it's not the plots that are funny onto themselves, it is Fields' character and how that character reacts in a given situation.
Keeping their characters true to themselves was what made the great ones so great. They never stepped out of character; they never winked to their audience. They were their characters at all times.
Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar played many characters and yet managed to stay true to them all. Gleason's best and most famous, of course, was Ralph Kramden, the big-mouth bus driver in the Honeymooners. Caesar played so many different characters in his sketches on Your Show of Shows that there really isn't any one in particular that stands out (with the possible exception of the professor.) Yet every one of the characters that he did rings true and was funny. I think it was because he never got out of character while performing and he made us, the audience, believe HE WAS the character that he was doing at the time.
Johnny Carson wasn't the great comedian that the others were, he wasn't funny to me in every sketch he did, but the Carson persona held up on a nightly basis. Johnny was Johnny always, and we knew who that was. Knowing Johnny Carson's personality was all it would take to crack us up when a monologue joke flopped or when a baby tiger suddenly snapped at his nose. Carson had that honesty that kept us tuned in.
There was something more to it as well, a certain intimacy call it loveable-ness or likeability if you prefer. The best of them had it. Keaton, Benny, Hope, Gleason, Laurel and Hardy, Fields, Caesar, and Carson. You laughed at them, sure, but YOU LIKED THEM A LOT, TOO.
I don t get that same intimacy with most of today s crop. Maybe I'm too old, but I just don't find Letterman or Leno all that lovable. I don t even like Conan O'Brien or Jon Stewart. And Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, and Chris Rock couldn't make me laugh if they had a thousand more writers.
Which reminds me, I don't understand the popularity of the in-your-face, garbage-mouthed angry standup comics. What is there to like, let alone laugh at? So they know all the four-letter words, big deal. I knew those words when I was eleven, so what?
There is an anger, a snide smirky-ness, an attitude that contemporary comics have that the best of the old timers never possessed. It seems that they've just got to be wise guys. They have a need to be hip. Jack Benny didn't have to be hip. Laurel and Hardy never felt a need to be wise guys.
So with the passing of Johnny Carson I have lost one of the last of the guys who could make me laugh. I wish there were a few more around I could use them, I think a lot of us could. There are loads of people that can tell a joke, and lots of people can make funny faces, but it's another thing altogether to have honesty in your act and get your audience to love you while you're doing it.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.