Even in the often-ephemeral world of pop culture, old stuff is important. Movies, books, plays, music, and TV are source material — the rich loam from which references are culled, plots are thieved, styles are appropriated. You can’t have Buffy the Vampire Slayer without Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931), and even Jerry Seinfeld has said you wouldn’t have had his sitcom without The Abbott and Costello Show. Those who ignore the past are doomed to write parodies of The Brady Bunch.
All hail the Pre-Ironic Age
Before ’65, most humor was blessedly free of the debilitating self-consciousness that turns so much contemporary comedy into a sustained smirk-fest. There’s a vast but increasingly unacknowledged difference between aggressive sarcasm (Groucho Marx) and withering, condescending irony (Craig Kilborn). The former punctures pretension and enlivens embalmed subjects with new, irreverent thoughts; the latter is a dead end, signaling a dreary hipper-than-thou attitude.
To wit, where is it today? Carefully articulated verbal humor — jokes with the finesse of apercus — surfaces (in Chris Rock’s best stand-up but not in Dennis Miller’s pretentious, logorrheic splenetics; the occasional Conan O’Brien joke — he and his writers can construct precise, metrical punchlines; and here and there in every episode of Buffy). But, drowned out by laugh tracks and debased by aimless vulgarity, artfully phrased punchlines and clever ad-libs are a dying art.
That is, when it didn’t exist. True, some pre-’60s humor was sexist and racist. But today, would any comedian dare make sidesplitting fun of children and blind people with the impunity of W.C. Fields in films such as The Bank Dick? (MTV’s Tom Green is on the right track, but he’s less verbally adept, more uneven, and Canadian.) When, in his most recent HBO special, George Carlin ranted about hating children, the self-congratulation — Look how daring I’m being! — curdled the humor. The Marx Brothers took it for granted that they could make fun of, say, fat or rich or rich, fat people at a time when such folk were considered off-limits as targets of ridicule.
Clothing that signals amusement, yet who wears ’em anymore? Laurel and Hardy’s prim, tiny derbies enhanced the chaos they created; Jimmy Durante’s dented fedora signaled the cool guy ol’ banana nose wanted to yet could never be — it was poignantly funny. Of contemporary funnymen, only Bill Murray (golf caps) and Adam Sandler (football helmets) occasionally understand the comedic good gained from the proper chapeau.
Get thee to a good video store and find the collections from his ’50s television shows. Kovacs gets deserved credit for pioneering TV surrealism with his technologically precocious sight gags (visual puns and odd juxtapositions that influenced everything from the films of Tim Burton to verbal images in Thomas Pynchon’s books). Kovacs could also slay you with words — wry observations delivered between cigar puffs.