The Funny Side of Business: From vaudeville and slapstick comedy to standup, political satire, cartoons, sketch comedy, sitcoms, and inside jokes, comedy as an art form and business has been around since funny found a receptive, paying audience.

Every decade and generation are defined, in part, by the humor embraced by the zeitgeist of the times and the medium of the art form, especially in the early decades of the 20th century. This is a unique era in American comedy for its convergence of talent and technology fueled by a country craving entertainment and distraction following the war years.

Coming into the 20th century, most Americans outside of big cities received fresh comedy from the theater troupes, roadshow companies, entertainers, and vaudeville acts that traveled the backroads of the country on a circuit of performance venues, providing everything from puppet shows for children to musical comedies, comedic theater, variety shows, and vaudeville acts, with varying degrees of talent.

In the Big City, club acts, Broadway musicals and the latest slapstick silent movie were the hottest tickets in town, but beyond the geographic and financial reach of the average American. The quality of your comedic entertainment was, to some degree, based on where you lived and what you could afford.

Comedy became democratic in a sense when technology allowed everyone in on the joke. Radio, the phonograph, movies, and television turned comedy into a shared American experience. Now everyone could experience what only a few before could, turning comedy entertainment into a hot commodity and big business, and comedic entertainers into the rock stars of their day.

By 1930, over 12 million American households already had a radio in their home (growing to over 28 million by the end of the decade), and a new option for receiving entertainment that was both free and could be shared and enjoyed from the comfort of their living room. Comedy proved to be the perfect form of programming for, and the common denominator among, an increasingly diverse listening audience. Comedians such as Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Judy Canova, Bob Hope, and Red Skelton were all top-rated talent on radio in the decades that followed, many of whom successfully crossed over to television and the movies when the opportunity presented itself.

Television was another technology game-changer in the comedy world. The demand for programming and entertainment resulted in a comedy revolution for TV in the 1950s, led by many of the comedians and comedy writers that pioneered comedy in radio back in the 30s and 40s. Jack Benny, as an example, first appeared on radio as a guest of Ed Sullivan in March 1932, but in 1950 brought “The Jack Benny Program” to television, a show that ran for 15 continuous years and holds the record as the longest-running comedy in the history of television.

Comedy-variety shows dominated television programming during the early decades, featuring such comedic talents as Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Jack Parr. Situation comedies (sitcoms) soon followed, giving comedians and entertainers such as Jacky Gleason and George Burns and Gracie Allen their own scripted TV shows. Comedians became as popular as movie stars. Americans couldn’t get enough of them.

When it came to introducing new comedic talent, Ed Sullivan’s “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which ran from 1948 to 1971, was the trailblazer, featuring stand-up performances by such legendary comedians as George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, Alan King, Phyllis Diller, and Albert Brooks, among others, in the early days of their career. In fact, a ranking of Ed Sullivan guests over his television reign shows that comedians dominated his lineup of weekly entertainment. His most frequent guest? The Canadian slapstick comedy team Wayne & Shuster, with 58 performances. Other frequent guests included Myron Cohen (43), Ventriloquist Rickie Layne and his dummy Velvel (39), Actor and comedian Alan King (37), and husband and wife comedy team Stiller and Meara (36). Ed Sullivan liked a good laugh, and so did America!

The 1960s was an even stronger decade for television comedy and sitcoms as now 52 million American homes had a TV set. Family-based sitcoms such as “I Love Lucy,” which first aired in 1957 on CBS, and soon after, shows such as “My Three Sons” (1960-1972), “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968), and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1967) brought multi-generational laughter to households across the country.

While TV played it safe for many decades by mostly showcasing known talent as a way to attract viewers, shows such as “The Tonight Show,” “Hee Haw,” “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” and soon after, “Saturday Night Live,” introduced America to a new generation of talent, forever changing the trajectory of the business of comedy. Today, stand-up comedians sign record and movie deals, one-man shows, celebrity appearances, road tours, TV cameos, Las Vegas residencies, and commercial endorsements. Comedy is no longer a joke but big business. In its wake is a trove of collectible history.

 

In this issue we look at the MAD-ness of MAD magazine, The New Yorker illustrations, Bozo the Clown collectibles, and collecting comedy albums among other funny topics. Join us for a good laugh as we stroll down the funny-side of collectibles.