We all love to laugh. There is no better way to put a positive spin on our day, to leave our troubles behind, and to make us feel good for the moment. We have different tastes as to what is “funny”. Some of us prefer witty, intellectual humor that makes us think. Others are happy with a slap to the head or a good fall-on-your-face physical moment. The popularity of “America’s Funniest Videos” with its humorous “accidents” tells me that we are not far advanced from those early days of comedy when the Three Stooges graced the stage. Sometimes it is the littlest thing that can set us off.
So what is funny? Has humor changed since the early days of vaudeville and television? Are our tastes evolving? Or do the same things that tickled the fancy of grandparents still make us laugh?
And bottom line, who are really funnier – the comedians of old or the new ranks of funsters that populate today’s entertainment industry?
Slap and tickle
I was raised in a household where comedy was an important ingredient to everyday life. We tuned in on a regular basis to the likes of Red Skelton with his Freedie the Freeloader routine, Laugh-In and its cutting edge political and otherwise out-there topics, and of course the Three Stooges were a staple. Throughout my college career, my main man was Robin Williams. I don’t know if there will ever be another comedian who can so spontaneously think up exactly what it is that will make me laugh! And of course today we have the likes of Will Ferrell, George Lopez, Zack Galifinakis, Dane Cook, and a host of others.
Who is funnier?
That is the question. I decided to start with a few of the old world comedians that I am familiar with. Then to better compare with the stars of today, I chose three specific categories of humor. Finally I put together the all star list of oldster comedians based upon my personal taste (or lack thereof). Here is what I came up with (drum roll…):
Slapstick – The Three Stooges
Intellectual humor – WC Fields
Physical humor – Dick Van Dyke
Your list may vary but this is the all star team in my books.
Now, what modern day fun masters might dare to stand up to these champions of mirth?
Slapstick – Three Stooges vs. Jack Ass Movie
Slap, bonk, smack, jab, whack – all essential ingredients to slapstick comedy (hence the name). No one did it better in the early days than the Stooges. From hair pulling to eye jabbing, from hammers to saws, sacrificing knees and skulls, the Stooges used everything at their disposal to create a frenetic scene of pending injury and destruction. They perfected the art of the food fight, typically taking place at a well-dressed high society party. And their “chosen profession” knew no bounds as plumbers, soldiers, builders, painters, dry cleaners, caterers, car mechanics, cooks, and door-to-door sales rounded out resumes. In an era known for slapstick comedy, I believe they were the slappiest.
Slapstick is alive and well today although quite different from the days of the Three Stooges. And the “slapping” seems to have devolved into more of a theme of over-indulgence, excessiveness, and downright dangerous pranks. The Jack Ass Movie series has “actors” with alligators biting their nipples, playing dodge ball in the dark, “human bowling”, paper cuts administered to your mouth, and finally snorting wasabi (ouch!). That’s entertainment?
Sorry kids, but for my money, the old way is still the best way when it comes to slapstick comedy. Although the Stooges may have loosened a few teeth over the years, I do not believe that at any time were their LIVES in danger.
Intellectual humor – W.C. Fields vs. Stephen Colbert
W.C. Fields is my choice for the head high brow intellectual jokester of the early days. Forever clad in his stove top hat, dressed to the nines and not uncommonly seen wearing white gloves, he was class personified (okay, so that may be pushing it a bit). During his days, he was responsible for such pithy statements as:
- Don’t worry about your heart, it will last you as long as you live.
- Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.
- Never give a sucker an even break.
- Some things are better than sex, and some are worse, but there’s nothing exactly like it.
Stephen Colbert is a good example of today’s intellectual funny man. With an eye on all things political and a twisted sense of humor that I am sure surprises even him at times, he regularly takes on the world of reason and brings it to its knees. I am forever amazed with his lightening-quick off-the-cuff responses to guests on the show – never at a loss for how to say it best for the most impact. Here are a smattering of Stephens words of wisdom:
- “Equations are the devil’s sentences.”
- “Wikipedia is the first place I go when I’m looking for knowledge… or when I want to create some.”
- “Look, PETA! If God hadn’t wanted us to eat animals, he wouldn’t have made them so darn tasty!”
- “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach…just make sure you thrust upward through his ribcage.”
I have loved W.C. from an early age and the famous poster with him slyly looking over a hand of cards was on my college dorm wall all four years. However, Stephen has something magical – and a bit scary – that strikes my funny bone. In this case, I have to lean toward the crazy conservative.
Physical Comedy – Dick Van Dyke vs. Chevy Chase
Dick Van Dyke was known for his ability to stumble, bumble, and crumble across the stage, somehow surviving serious injury over years of entertainment. There is nothing like a good fall to loosen up our laughing! We all remember his tumble over the ottoman as he enters the set for the Dick Van Dyke Show. And over the years he slipped and slid across sitcom and movie sets everywhere. What appeared as clumsiness was no accident – practice, balance, and incredible athleticism were what made his “mistakes” look so natural. And the fact that he was an accomplished dancer didn’t hurt either.
Born Cornelius Crane Chase and thankfully nicknamed by his grandmother, Chevy Chase entered the world via Saturday Night Live where his physical comedy quickly set him apart from other stars. With more than 30 movies to his credit, he has hit the dirt stumbling over tables, falling from roofs, bumping into immovable objects, driving his car into a swimming pool, and blowing up a golf course. Wearing that famous smile at all times, we genuinely feel for Chevy and the mishaps that he cannot seem to avoid – ever.
Both actors keep us forever on guard for the next guffaw, knowing it is coming but not knowing when. I think that is one of the things that we find so engaging about these two and physical comedy in general. It is a pretty close one here and both are winners in my estimation.
We all have our personal tastes when it comes to what is funny and that is just fine. The good news is that new comedians are popping up all over and some are even good. And for those of us set in our ways, there is still nothing like watching those old black and whites and sharing another laugh with those entertainers who had us laughing when we were only kids.