Be there one among us who has not idly toyed with the dream of instantaneous and untold riches? You can deny it, but I know your secret. Horatio Alger based his lifework on that dream: a little pluck, a little luck, and pow - the mazoola rolled in.
Of course, times have changed a little since his day. The supercorporations have taken the place of enterprise. It just ain't easy to open a struggling little computer company with IBM on the scene. However, there is hope. Television is wide open for striking the mother lode overnight. Through comedy. But how? Well, fellow dreamers, there's the rub.
Comedy has always been a staple of popular entertainment. Comedy and bathos (Pamela through Nell, "The Little Match Girl" through Flamingo Road). They are close artistic relatives. Woody Allen's pathetic sex-haunted, shrink-ridden schnook is a close kin to the bedeviled heroines of General Hospital.
Comedy is a mysterious art form, especially so to those who practice it as a profession. It seems to move in erratic, treacherous cycles. What was funny last year is curiously empty today, and, accordingly, what amuses us now will baffle those who come later. How often have you cherished the thought of a film as being "the funniest thing I ever saw" only to see it appear one night after the eleven-o'clock news, and, mysteriously, it has grown dull, stupid, and boring. On the other hand, films that didn't impress you a few years back have unaccountably become a hell of a lot better. Did the films change? Of course not. You did, and along with you, most of the population at large. Comedy, more than any other art form, reflects the mores, the social structure, the casual attitudes of its time. This complex network of factors changes in a civilization like. some vast tide of a shifting sea. If you can predict the next cycle in comedy, your fortune is made.
There are a few old situations that seem never to change. War, for instance. Comedies involving soldiers are always successful except during the time of the war they portray. If you doubt this, consider that Hogan's Heroes is one of the most popular rerun properties of all time. The sun never sets on reruns of Hogan's Heroes, yet its characters are predictable, their one liners are endless put-downs. It runs on and on. Incidentally, if you can remember that far back, when it debuted it seemed fresh and alive, just like the current darling of comedy fans, M*A*S*H, which also features predictable characters, endless one-line put-downs, and, of course, war.
In most other areas, comedy runs through cycles that are hard to explain. In the late Sixties, "camp'' humor was in. Batman and Robin soared to the top of the ratings. A year or so later, it was all over; leaving behind the ruins of bankrupt production companies and failed camp pilots.
Currently, we are in the last days of a cycle of "comedy" that involves two or more unmarried women (usually divorced) living together, accompanied by a lone, ineffectual male. Already the seams are beginning to show, and even the true TV yahoos are yawning during the big climactic scenes. What's next? Be careful. It's not as simple as you think.
I would suspect that our next cycle of humor might well involve the embattled contemporary male. A divorced slob paying alimony to three wives who live in condos in Acapulco, holding five jobs to afford his meager meals at McDonald's, sharing a room with Ralph, an eager young accountant who still believes in romance and is always threatening to get married, could be the next wave. But maybe not. The Odd Couple was a little before its time, but it was too insulated from the realities of today's alimony-paying male. They seemed to have no trouble with money, nor did their "wives" ever show up accompanied by hungry lawyers bearing court papers.
Another problem with comedy, as is the case with most art forms, is not only how you do it but where you do it. Today all comedy seems to be based in Los Angeles. Nobody believes for a minute that One Day at a Time takes place in Indianapolis. Nor is Alice in Phoenix. They're L.A. and a yard wide. In fact, some of the comedies, such as Laverne and Shirley, have begun to have their characters move to L.A. The professionals are forever tinkering with their product to keep it up-to-date and part of what appears to be the current cycle in comedy. Archie, once supposedly a bigot, now has black maids, Jewish wards, and appears to be supporting a vast army of minorities. It's not working too well, but Lear is trying.
Television didn't start this cycle phenomenon in comedy. Mark Twain was not accepted by the critics for many decades until something changed in the atmosphere and he seemed to make much more sense than he had earlier to the powers that create true success. It made Twain bitter in his later life. Perhaps this is why all comics and humorists have the reputation of feeling private sorrow. Most have known days when no one laughed, only to see someone else get the big boffs a few years later with the same material.
Humor, what actually makes people laugh, would be a very fertile field for sociologists to study. Laughter is a more honest emotion than tears. Any actor can tell you that it's far easier to shed real tears than to laugh real laughter in a scene. For that reason, what people of a specific time find funny says a great deal about that time, that moment in history. Shakespeare's clowns almost always lay an egg with today's audiences, but I can tell you they brought down the house in the Bard's time. Were they dumber than we are-the audience, that is? Not on your life. That same crowd, remembe1; obviously appreciated Hamlet's complex dilemma and the poetry of Henry V Why did they laugh at the clowns? We'll never know because we are not of their time. Hamlet and Henry V are timeless; comedy is not
Have you ever tried to listen to an old 1958 Mort Sahl .comedy record and wondered why the crowd went bananas at everything he said? Yet those same one-liners leave you unmoved today. You would have had to be alive, somewhat hip, of voting age (barely), in 1958, with Eisenhower in the White House, with Sherman Adams wearing vicuna coats, with Arthur Godfrey on the radio day and night, to truly understand Sahl.
Mark and Mindy is dead. Long live that great, fantastic, crest-riding, cycle-creating comedy that you are going to come up with. If Horatio Alger were writing today, one of his hit novels for boys would be called Mort, the Young Assistant Director, or How a Lad from Brooklyn, with Luck and Pluck, Made His Way to the Top of ABC.
PS. It's a long fall, however, to the rocky earth from the top suites of ABC. Freddy Silverman wishes you well.