When I was in high school in the mid-1950s, I thought the funniest and brightest comedian on television was Steve Allen.
I quoted him all the time and wrote a number of skits for my high school assemblies based on Allen’s man-on-the-street interviews with the likes of Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Don Knotts, Bill Dana (the very nervous astronaut) and others. I think I’ve read every book he published, from his poetry to a series of short stories. I even have his autograph on one of his murder mysteries. His material was always clean.
In about 1957, a friend and I dropped into the basement of the Hungry I restaurant in San Francisco to see an up-and-coming young comedian by the name of Bob Newhart. Very funny and very clean. He brought the house down with his “interview” with the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. Who can forget his equally funny interview with the person who invented baseball?
Like most everyone, I love to laugh. I read somewhere that it is physically impossible for the human body to laugh and get an ulcer at the same time.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Tribune
So I’ve chosen laughter. I can’t seem to look at anything without the silly side creeping in. It has often gotten me in trouble with teachers and others in authority. My dad is partly to blame, because he was a very funny guy.
In the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to visit with Steve Allen. I confessed to him I’d stolen all his material and that the funniest thing he ever did was a routine involving his character as the “angry TV news reporter” who, when reporting on a strike between workers from a poultry plant and a cotton-picking faction, said there was no way to tell “when this cotton-pickin’, chickin’-pluckin’ argument would end.” We had a good laugh.
“I’m glad the material worked for you,” he told me.
That’s when I asked him what working comedians made him laugh. He had trouble answering, but did say he liked the material of Jerry Seinfeld.
So I was anxiously waiting for a series on CNN titled “The History of Comedy.”
I was very disappointed. The episodes I saw focused on those comedians who resorted to four-letter words and bodily functions. They were depicted as pioneers in the field of comedy, as if clean comedy had no stature. They pointed to the likes of Lenny Bruce, Red Foxx and even George Carlin and others of their ilk who used profanity in their acts.
Television, following the example set by the motion picture industry, has become a very raunchy place. In addition to the raunchiness, the violence has gone too far.
Episodes of intoxicated housewives trading insults just isn’t my cup of tea. I’m glad I don’t have children sitting in my living room. I don’t watch much television because of the language and violence I’m confronted with. So I’m limited to renting movies I like and public broadcasting, which is slipping slowly toward those areas I detest on the rest of TV land.