I picked up a copy of “Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America” at a wholesale store about a year ago. What I love about the book is that it breaks down history’s greatest comedians into six very distinctive categories. But what I love even more is that I completely agree with it! All comics, I believe, are manifestations of at least one of these following archetypes.
First, there are the “Knockabouts”. These are the slapstickers, the goofballs, the “I’ll-Do-Whatever-It-Takes-To-Get-A-Laugh” kind of knuckleheads. I believe their professional titles are “physical comedians”. Lucille Ball finds herself in this group (I envision her crawling wildly on a conveyor belt with a mouth full of pastries), as do Buster Keaton (surviving a house collapse), Jim Carrey (the rubber man) and The Three Stooges (“Why, I oughta!”).
The second coterie of comics are those who cover “Satire and Parody”. This brave bunch go out into this crazy world and tell it like it is: one big joke! You’ll find Jon Stewart in this bunch, Mel Brooks, Johnny Carson and – my favorite witticist – Will Rogers. And if you’d like a crash course in satire and parody just pick up any issue of MAD Magazine. I was swearing by it at the age of seven.
Section three is where I feel right at home: “Smart-Alecks and Wiseguys”. I didn’t really have a choice. My brother once threatened to punch my lights out after something inside me told me to knock his dinner plate out of his hand. All of my role models can be found here. W.C. Fields: “Never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump”. Groucho Marx: “Whatever it is, I’m against it”. And my first hero, whose entire stand-up routine I could recite before I even knew what 80% of it meant, Eddie Murphy: “Fine. I’ll taste the soup! Where’s the spoon?”
Where do you go from slick talkin’ con artists? Why to “Nerds, Jerks, Oddballs and Slackers” of course. That title pretty much gave it to you straight. If I said “Nerd” what would you say? “Woody Allen” I bet. If I said “Jerk”… Well, “Steve Martin” of course! Hell, he made a movie by that very name! And if I said “Oddball” it would get a little slippery. There seem to be a lot of those in comedy: Phyllis Diller, Robin Williams, Gilda Radner, Andy Kaufman. All there. But, when I say “Slackers” two names better come to mind: “Cheech” and “Chong”.
“Breadwinners and Homemakers” are next. Oh, domestic life. It would be considered tragedy if we didn’t laugh at it. If you didn’t see a lot of humor in the comedians of the first four categories it’s probably because you’re married. Don’t fret! This section’s for you! Because, after all, when you’re married you probably don’t see humor in a lot of things, anyway. George and Gracie live here. Bill Cosby owns property. You’ll also find that Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson and Dick Van Dyke are all neighbors with Roseanne. Almost makes you feel sorry for the poor fellas.
And last, but certainly not least, there are the “Groundbreakers”. I don’t think too much needs to be said about Mae West, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin? They’ve already said it.
So, which comic are you? My advice: be a little bit of them all. Gotta make ’em laugh, don’t ya, kid?