During the past 40 or 50 years, American humor has gotten increasingly crude and base. I don’t think this is necessarily bad. In fact, just the reverse; in many instances it’s beneficial. That being the case, I’m certainly not recommending any kind of censorship. Not by any stretch. Yet, some aspects of this trend are a bit disheartening.
Just for the record, the use of mild expletives and a “risky” story or two can be traced all the way back to seedy Vaudeville in the 1920s. During World War II, Bob Hope and George Burns pushed the envelope a bit on USO tours with the troops and, in the 1950s, Red Foxx made a few “adults only” 33 records that used the lord’s name in vain.
But things didn’t really get loose until the “raunch” humor of Lenny Bruce came along in the late ‘50s. He was the original “F-word” comedian, but today few people remember or know anything about him. Bruce was the inspiration for modern comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin who, in turn, inspired hundreds of today’s humorists on HBO, Comedy Central and independent channels like MTV.
Several of the new comedians are genuinely funny, but too many others haven’t yet developed a really humorous routine and, consequently, resort to 12-letter words because such language never fails to invoke considerable laughter – or at least a nervous, feeble chuckle. In particular, their racy jokes and sexual innuendoes are generously splattered with crude, street vernacular.
And speaking of racy jokes and innuendoes, these have become the main staple of nearly all modern sitcoms. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say every other line on “Two and a Half Men” has a not-too-subtle sexual connotation. Late night comedians like David Letterman also lace their monologues with mild swear words and frequent sexual quips.
Here again, I wish to point out that I’m not insulted by modern sitcoms and I certainly wouldn’t promote any censorship. Indeed, I thoroughly enjoy “Two and a Half Men” and watch Letterman on a regular basis.
However, it’s a little disheartening that modern comedy has to constantly resort to such base levels to get a laugh. As mentioned at the outset, this hasn’t always been the case. For example, movie star Charlie Chaplin was one of the finest, most gifted comedians of the 20th century and he didn’t tell a single sordid story or utter a single curse word. Indeed, his best films were made prior to the advent of motion picture sound, so all his positively brilliant humor relied entirely on body mannerisms and facial expressions.
After Chaplin and sound, there were a number of other wonderful comedians. Instead of profanity and sexy innuendoes, Laurel and Hardy relied on physical humor and pratfalls – silly comedy that revolved around moving a piano or fixing the plumbing. Abbott and Costello offered funny little skits, like their famous “who’s on first?” routine. W.C. Fields’ whole career could be characterized as one long war with Hollywood censors. Eventually, he started inventing his own swear words and substituting expressions like “we shot the sheep together” for the more common, risque expression.
Red Skelton was one of my favorite comedians. He offered humorous skits, like his commercial for Guzzler’s Gin, during which he progressivekly got drunker. He also developed a host of comical personalities – Willy Lumplump and Clem Kadiddlehopper – which he could quickly adopt, literally with the change of a hat. And he’d conduct the entire hour-long TV show without a single profane word or suggestive story.
Anyway, I fully support our modern comedians and sitcoms and usually find them very humorous. But somewhere along the way we’ve lost something. Something quite wonderful and very funny.