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Vol. 21, No. 6, 2022
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Robert J. Lewis
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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham , A New Yorker at Sea,, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor and his most recent book, Scribble from the Apple. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

Many times during the 25 year period of my producing the Standup Comedy shows described in the last issue of Arts & Opinion, the question of whether this hugely popular entertainment rose to the level of an art form came up often. Addressing this question in a short essay is a formidable task but a historical survey of comedy can be helpful.

In Ancient Greece, Aristophanes looms as the giant figure at the onset of comic creativity. Even a quick reading of his play Lysistrata reveals the scope of his comic genius. For the first time in history we see Farce ( the scene with Myrrhine seducing Kinesias is hysterical) and Satire (women using sex to oppose the Peloponnesian war) as the two principal elements of early comedy. Aristophanes of course utilizes these elements in all of his plays and they are such powerful producers of laughter that they become the essential weaponry of comedy through the ages. Roman writers Plautus and Terence are quick to adopt this successful formula as they add versification, disguise, mistaken identity, situational irony and other techniques to further the farce and satire. Plautus’s play Menaechmi is a great example and connects us to Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Wisely, the great English bard here almost slavishly imitates the Plautus play which is arguably superior to his own early effort. Moliere later adheres to the same farce/satire structure, and much later Oscar Wilde follows suit.

Of course I am hopelessly skipping so many great writers of comedy and ignoring all of the other elements of their genius -- poetry, characterization, melodrama, hyperbole etc. -- but it remains essential that we recognize the farce/satire elements as the unqualified necessities for success in so many instances of comic history.

Because the initial success in modern movies and television relied so exclusively on farce ( Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd, The Three Stooges, Abbot and Costello, The Marx brothers) any discussion of their comedy as art rarely occurred. Soupy Sales’s pie-in-the-face shtick was the symbol of farcical success. No one wrote seriously about any inherent aesthetic merit here.

For the sake of brevity I’m glossing over minstrelsy, burlesque and vaudeville because they all were so heavily committed to farce . . . So we move on to the joke tellers. There are so many outstanding figures: Georgie Jessel, Burns and Allen, Fred Allen, Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, and later Phyllis Diller, Joey Bishop, Estelle Getty and Buddy Hackett . . . This list isn’t too helpful because I’m leaving out so many great comic talents and besides so many of the joke tellers incorporated elements other than simple punch lines.

Finally, we come to the standup “observation comics” that I produced in shows beginning in the seventies. With these performers, farce gives way almost always to satire. The material is taken from current events, politics, social commentary and human relationships -- all areas that are immediately recognizable by audiences who have often had the same experiences that the comic describes in his routine. But these experiences become funny only if the performer delivers the material skillfully utilizing crafts that are usually taken for granted i.e. timing, voice, movement, expression, pause and persona.

Among the many comic talents that I encountered for years perhaps the one that best represented what I just described was George Carlin. His material was taken from the aforementioned areas and his delivery included all of the craft elements I described. Any narrative that I might offer illustrating his work will ultimately fail to communicate his art. Luckily, readers can quickly access YouTube which contains much of his best work. A good example of what I’m discussing is a piece he described Advertising and Bull. In this piece we can readily access all of the craft elements described above. There are many of his other pieces on YouTube which support my description and once you log on you will find material from dozens of observation comics. Among the most talented in 'material selection' were figures such as Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld, Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Lewis. These performers worked in the shows I produced dozens of times. Among those comics most talented in 'delivery' were Lenny Schultz, Gilbert Gottfried, Sam Kinison and Andy Kaufman. The delivery that these performers gave often involved farcical elements i.e. humorous facial expressions, props, weird attire and fabricated voices. Thus, farce didn’t disappear entirely with some 'obervationists.'

When helpful critics analyze the 'artistic' elements of great playwrights, composers, painters, sculptors, musicians etc. they usually parse the talents the same way I have, judging the talent in terms of material and delivery. But artistic reputations usually take decades and even centuries to establish. Shakespeare was just another Elizabethan playwright until decades later when critics such as John Dryden and Samuel Johnson established his greatness. John Keats was a minor romantic lyricist until Alfred Tennyson uncovered his genius half a century after his death. Impressionistic painters i.e. Renoir, Monet, Degas, we’re banned from the French Royal Academy and Salon for half a century. Igor Stravinsky was ostracized after his initial performance of the Firebird Suite . . . and on and on. Artistic recognition is difficult to come by.

The problem with some newer creators is even more insidious. Talented Jazz musicians and standup comics are doomed at present because their area of concentration or discipline is not considered 'artistic' much less their individual contributions.

Discussions and feuds over what kinds of creations can be considered as art have been going on for centuries. I can only say that in my experiences with standup comics I have found it pretty easy to analyze their talent in the same way that I have analyzed Shakespearean drama, classical music, masterpiece painting, and other established arts for my university students. Many critics who proselytize endlessly about what they consider major arts or minor creations are parvenus; their analyses are too often self-serving and result in injustices to creators.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge operating in the same spirit as Aristotle iterated principles that are the best for evaluating the contributions of a creator and I will paraphrase them. Simply: What is the artist trying to do?, How well has he done it?, and What is the significance of what he has done?



So well done! Bravo!

Who knew. What wonderful analogies of comedy from the olden days up to today. As always, wonderful reading Dr Catalano’s articles.

By Nick Catalano:
On Standup Comedy pt. I
My Times with Benny Goodman
Higher Education and the Future of Democracy
Faith, Emotion and Superstition versus Reason, Logic and Science
Thinking: A Lost Art
Alternative Approaches to Learning
Aesthetic History and Chronicled Fact
Terror in China: Cultural Erasure and Computer Genocide
The Roller Coaster of Democracy
And Justice for All
Costly Failures in American Higher Education
Trump and the Dumbing Down of the American Presidency
Language as the Enemy of Truth
Opportunity in Quarantine
French Music: Impressionism & Beyond
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. II
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. I
Kenneth Branagh & Shakespeare
Remembering Maynard Ferguson
Reviewers & Reviewing
The Vagaries of Democracy
Racism Debunked
The Truth Writer
#Me Too Cognizance in Ancient Greece
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


Comedy Podcast with Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini
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