Pre- and Post-Modern Comedy

Mack SennettMy but I am getting a late start on the birthdays today. Sorry about that. I’ve been doing a number of other things. And it’s too bad, because we have a number of interesting birthdays today.

On this day in 1899, the alpha gangster Al Capone was born. There is something about him that always makes me want to like him. There was, of course, nothing likable about him at all as far as I can tell. But then he caught neurosyphilis, causing brain damage that caused him to regress. And then he died of a stroke at 48. But watching even the worst person fall from great power to childish insanity is sad. He should have been gunned down in his prime at the age of 30, right around the time of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Betty White is 92 today. I’m really not a fan. She really has very limited appeal—or at least she did before she got so old. I have nothing against her. She seems to be decent person. She has long been an animal health advocate. To me, she’ll always been one of those celebrities who were on game shows when I was a kid. My problem with her is that people make a big deal out of her when she is and always has been a middling star. I believe in respecting our elders, but our society doesn’t seem to care about any of our non-celebrity elders. So I bristle at the unwarranted praise heaped on her.

The great comedian Andy Kaufman was born in 1949. Kaufman was probably the first entirely postmodern comedian. Much of Albert Brooks’ material was postmodern, but it was still at least half regular comedy—the kind that is still the standard. I thought it was sad during Kaufman’s tragically brief life that most people didn’t get most of his act. That was completely true of the wrestling that I immediately got because I had read my Roland Barthes. But what was most funny about his Elvis impersonation was not the obvious joke of his naive foreigner character who can’t do any impressions suddenly doing a great Elvis impersonation. What is most funny is how he asks for whatever clothes he’s thrown to the audience. In that link, he not only falls out of the Elvis character, he falls out of the foreigner character, in his effort to get his clothes. It plays with the whole idea of reality and fantasy, and it plays rough. His Might Mouse routine is the same kind of thing. He provides perfect lip syncing along with almost missed cues. He’s contrasting the perfection of the performance with the imperfection of the non-performance, which is, of course, part of the performance. I’ve always thought that by the time of his Carnegie Hall performance, he was pandering a bit. But still, when the cowgirl seems to die, he pushes act far longer than any other comedian of that time. I think it is one of the best comedy performances ever:

The singer Paul Young is 58. He has a great voice and I’ve always liked this song (I won’t speak for the video):

Other birthdays: the great actor James Earl Jones (83); the great boxer Muhammad Ali (72); yes, I know, the great actor Jim Carrey (52); writer Sebastian Junger (52); and the great theatrical actor Denis O’Hare (52).

The day, however, belongs to the great Mack Sennett who was born on this day in 1880. Really, he was the man who defined filmed comedy until Max Linder revolutionized it. Sennett’s work really didn’t depend upon characters as later comedies did. Instead there were “types” and often not even them. These are actually a lot harder to make work. As you will see in the following compilation, there is a great deal of creativity. In fact, there really isn’t much difference between this work and what Benny Hill was doing 40 years later. But a couple of these bits actually made me laugh. (Note: Sennett is in a number of them.)

Happy birthday Mack Sennett!

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