A Brief & Inadequate History of TV Comedy

by Larry Brody

For me, television comedy began with Uncle Miltie. Milton Berle, whom I first laughed at/with/from in 1948. In just a few short years he was joined, as my definition of comedy, by Sid Caesar, Martin & Lewis (why did Dean get first billing? No wonder Jerry was mad), Red Skelton, Bob & Ray, and Ernie Kovacs (above), who I still believe was the cleverest comic who ever lived.

Yes, I’ve left out Lucille Ball. Because as a child I couldn’t really laugh at her. All that angst, that desperation to be loved – sorry, but she made me way too tense.

By the late ’50s I was getting most of my laughs from the One And Only Harvey Kurtzman, originator of Mad, first a comic and then a magazine and always batshit insane. I still remember how I felt when I saw my first issue and met “The Lone Stranger.” It was incredible. The most joyous moment of my then short life…because I had just found out that I wasn’t alone. That others – who got published! read! paid! – saw the same absurdity everywhere that I did.

I will happily argue (and have, in my sadly now out-of-print book Turning Points in Televisionthat until the birth of The National Lampoon in 1970 Harvey Kurtzman and his Uncle Miltie-plus-incredibly-complicated-panels-Jewish-humor sensibility were the basis for all popular humor. Every stand-up comic. Every sitcom. They all owed an incredible debt to:

The most influential comedy mayven of the ’60s probably was Neil Simon.

In one sense he was the spawn of Sid Caesar, but Sid Caesar was, in essence, Harvey Kurtzman on the screen instead of the page. Simon, AKA Mr. Badeep Badop Badoop, had a very definite dialog rhythm, page after page of:

  • set-up
  • set-up
  • punchline

Over and over, bringing tears of laughter to Broadway audiences and, then, to TV audiences as writers like James Brooks, Ed.Weinberger, and dozens of others (including another noted Sid Casesar alum, Carl Reiner) translated the Simon rhythm to the small screen…and, for my money, outdid him time and time again.

Until The National Lampoon, comedy was about the shleppers, the oppressed who laughed at the oppressors, delighting in raining on the parade of the uncaring, stupid 1% (although of course they weren’t called that then). Nat Lamp, however was Harvard through and through, humor for the Überclass.

That effect was even stronger when it made its way to TV on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Chevy Chase’s heartfelt, “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not” said it all. (How do I account for John Belushi in view of my statements above? Well, he was a big exception, and we know how well that went for him, don’t we?)

The 21st Century brought another sea change, ushering in our current era, The Judd Apatow Rebellion.

I say “rebellion” because I genuinely believe that. From THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW to UNDECLARED to any and all of his movies, Apatow has taken us back to the schlemiel losers with their cockeyed perspectives, disdain for the ruling class, and undying hope. His influence now is all-pervasive. Neil Simon was a shlepper compared to Apatow, whose slackers understand what Sabatini’s Scaramouche (my favorite hero, dramatic or comedic, of all time) knew so well:

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

I love current comedy. The chaos of it. The disrespect. But I have an admission to make. Every time I read about some comics property being turned into a film or TV series my mind goes back to Harvey Kurtzman and I wonder: “Why, why, why, isn’t someone making his greatest creation [with the truly awesome Will Elder]?”:

Author: LB

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world with a career going back to the late ’60s, Larry Brody has written and produced hundreds of hours of American and worldwide television and is a consultant to production companies and networks in the U.S. and abroad . Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including - yes, it's true - Emmys, Writers Guild Awards, and the Humanitas Award.