Exploring classic comedy can often feel more like anthropology than entertainment, and today, names like Lenny Bruce are met with vague reverence instead of knowing laughs. Still, some comedy from decades past is as funny now as it ever was.
Even as a fan of midcentury comedy, the topical, political material of comics like Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory is sometimes so dated it confounds my sense of humor. My concept of what's incomprehensibly old timey isn't helped by my being born in the late 80s, but there's always Google to decode an esoteric reference or add context to a pop culture reference. Understandably, having to pause a recording and research every name dropped takes me out of the experience and makes it hard to remain invested, let alone to laugh.
Though the title of this post may suggest otherwise, the seven clips in this post are not meant as an exhaustive list of comedy that has stood the test of time, but rather as a collection of videos I feel are still very funny and that you won't need an almanac or time machine to appreciate.
Nichols and May -– Bach to Bach (1954)
From their debut album, Improvisations to Music, this sketch by Mike Nichols and Elaine May tells the story of two Beat generation youngsters one-upping each other's obscure references over pillow talk, cementing their outsider status and hipster love connection. Substitute Bach for Darwin Deez and this sketch sounds like any one night stand you or I have ever had. (Just kidding, Mom! What's a one night stand?) The sexual content in this sketch is heavily veiled and may seem innocuous to modern ears, but such references were indelicate in the early 50s and could only be implied by the very clever Nichols and May. In a 1960s dramatization of the sketch (from the film A Sunday in New York), the lovers were never shown, but discarded clothing in a clearly post-coitally unkempt room left no room for misinterpretation. Both Nichols and May went on to successful careers, collaborating on the 1996 comedy The Birdcage. Elaine may wrote/co-wrote the screenplays for The Labyrinth, Tootsie, and Dangerous Minds; Mike Nichols directed The Graduate, Angels in America, and Charlie Wilson's War and is one of the few entertainers to have won Emmy, Oscar, and Tony awards over the course of his career. And we have their early hilarity to thank for their later achievements.
Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce – Bla Bla-ed (Original: 1961. Reenactment: 1976)
Though being arrested for public obscenity may seem absurd now, Lenny Bruce's constant arrests and subsequent trial for course, sexual language sparked the bit in this clip taken from the 1976 movie Lenny starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role.
Woody Allen – The Science Fiction Film (1965)
This may be a stretch, but Woody Allen pretty much predicted most of the plot to the ABC's short lived sci-fi drama FlashForward in this bit.
Chevy Chase –- National Council for Mental Health (1976)
The movie from which this clip was taken, 1976's Tunnel Vision, is beyond meta, featuring a fictional uncensored television station under Senate review. The film is fragmented into unrelated sections being watched by a Congressional oversight committee. The clip above astutely mocks the public stigma of mental illness that's still fairly prevalent today.
At Last The 1948 Show –- The Four Yorkshiremen (1967)
The only thing worse than a one-upper is a one-downer. In this precursor to Monty Python, four posh Yorkshiremen reminisce about the bad old days to hilarious effect.
The mundane songs of SCTV's 5 Neat Guys makes today's insipid pop songs seem as pithy as heroic couplets. And, is it me, or are egg salad sandwiches the go-to comedy staple food? (See 40-Year Old Virgin)
Second City Television –- Career Home Study (Late 1970s)
If you thought those depressing late night commercials for at home certificate programs were a modern invention, this clip from SCTV proves otherwise. As far back as the 1970s, your dreams of becoming a veterinarian's paralegal assistant to the associate pharmacy technician were a mere phone call away.
Rebecca V. O'Neal is a Chicago-based comedy nerd and internet addict, the latter of which she feels facilitates her increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Do not enable her obsession by visiting her vintage fashion, comic book, literary, or comedy blogs or by following her on Twitter. She spends her time as a freelance writer, thrift store and estate sale frequenter, and depressed homebody who knows not the joy of smoke and drink. No known photographs exist of Rebecca, as it's purported that she is, in fact, a series of sophisticated holograms. She makes viral videos (1,2) in her spare time, because she has nothing else to do.