Comedy, Cultural Memory & Legacy
In a recent session of my comedy class for Jewish high schoolers, I instructed the students to re-do a scene in the style of the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." I might as well have said "gee willakers" and put on my newsies cap.
I repeated, "Johnny Carson?" Blank stares. Ice.
"Ok, Jay Leno?" Nothing.
"How about Conan O'Brien?" One said that he knew of Conan but had never seen it.
OMG. Have I gotten older? Or did everybody just get younger? Have my references become ... gasp... outdated?! How did this happen, I'm only 32? I own skinny jeans!
This week PBS debuted the newest of its Masterpiece series, "MAKE 'EM LAUGH: The Funny Business of America, a six-hour comedy epic showcasing the most hilarious men, women, and moments in American entertainment and why they made us laugh." The series celebrates the many faces of American comedy in all its forms, persons and characters. There is no argument that in times like these, the role that humorcan play-exposing truths, making us laugh, allowing us to laugh - is especially significant.
Of the series' six episodes, there isn't one specifically dedicated to "Women in Comedy." Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is the impact of women comedians on the tradition of American comedy underplayed? Or have the ladies been remembered amongst the men, as a unified body of comedy-makers? Granted, with so much material to cover - we're talking a century of performance and as many performers - PBS has done a Yeoman's job of categorizing and celebrating the changing face of comedy in American life. In our struggle to de-marginalize women in comedy, perhaps it is to our advantage that Joan Rivers is listed in the "Wiseguy Hall of Fame" along with Jack Benny, Paul Lynde, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock instead of in an apologetic side category?
I'd like to think that perhaps our film, Making Trouble about three generations of funny Jewish womenhad something to do with that. The Jewish Women's Archive's film about Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein tell six uniquely Jewish stories about carving out an ethnic and gendered identity in the white-washed world of American entertainment.
In a review of the PBS series in the Toledo Blade, Amy Sedaris is quoted as saying "It seems to be like anybody can get on TV right now, anybody can do their own show," she said. "You see those comedians on the documentary and you can see how hard they worked at it. They sacrificed everything to do it. And I don't know if that's the case today."' For our six troublemakers, who broke out of the status quo and fought for every inch of success they earned, that absolutely was the case. May their struggle to make us laugh be remembered by all those who follow in their footsteps, or those who achieve instant success with their cat-on-a-roomba video. How can we understand Sarah Silverman without knowing about Molly Picon or Fanny Brice - her comedy foremothers?
So to answer my own question, I might be able to keep up the times with my new fangled internet machine, but I have gotten older, proudly. Like every generation before me, I proclaim "You crazy kids, with your rock n' roll, HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW X or Y?" My cultural memory is markedly different than that of my students-different enough that the necessity of cultural storytelling becomes even more vital. A shifting cultural memory begs its keepers to keep telling the stories and histories that got us to where we are.