The literary critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made a sharp distinction between “wit” and “humour,” a distinction that is useful also in characterizing radio and television comedians.
“Wit” was perhaps best defined by Pope in the “Essay on Criticism”:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d . . . . (ll. 297-8)
Pope’s poetry also provides numerous examples; one of the best appeared earlier in the same poem:
‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own. (Ll. 9-10)
Everyone has noticed how rare agreement is, except among politicians who have been fed “talking points” by their party’s campaign committees; yet no one but Pope thought to compare disagreements about literature to the disagreements we have among ourselves when we try to answer the question “What time is it?”
Wit, then, relies on the expression of an idea. It is a kind of verbal cleverness. “Humor” – or “humour” if you’re British – is an older concept, going back to medieval medicine. Medieval physicians believed there were four fluids (humours) in the body which were responsible for both diseases and he formation of personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy). (If I’m telling you what you already know, please forgive me; perhaps somebody else out there doesn’t know it.) A person in whom blood predominated was “sanguine,” that is, eager and excitable; if the blood was excessive, it caused a disease, and the patients had to be bled by attaching leeches to them.
The classic example of the literary application of this theory was a play by Shakespeare’s friend and rival, Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour, in which the comedy arose from the personalities of the characters. It was so successful that Jonson followed it with a sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour.
If you followed radio comedy in the days when there was any, or if you’ve been watching television comedy in the years since radio devolved into disk jockeying, you can see how the distinction between wit and humor applies to the comics on those media. Here’s how my watch ticks – and yours, like Pope’s, may very well run differently from mine.
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Bob Hope exemplified wit, verbal cleverness. Like Henny Youngman before him (“Now, take my wife – please”), Hope was a stand-up comedian, a master of the clever one-liner. Hope’s wisecrackwas often a zinger calculated to inflict a wound on the target, like a flick of a whip which stings and leaves a scratch on the skin. One remembers that Hope began his career as a boxer. Does that explain his aggressiveness?
Phyllis Diller falls into the same category; her barbs were often directed at her husband, whom she called Fang. What the laughter generated in Hope’s andDiller’s audiences tells about the American character I leave to psychologists to discuss.
Today Ellen DeGeneres is a stand-up comic (though on her television show she usually sits down) relying on wit. Her wit is softer than Hope’s and Diller’s, however; often the butt of her joke is herself (“I’m not superstitious, and nothing bad is going to happen to me – knock on wood”).
Contrast Hope with Red Skelton. Like Hope, Skelton was – at least at the outset of his career– a stand-up comic. As he developed his radio and television shows – beginning with Avalon Time, on which he was Richard “Red” Skelton with music provided by Red Foley – he began to depart from clever verbal insults and began performing skits in which he played various characters, such as the Mean Little Kid, Freddy the Freeloader, and Clem Kadiddlehopper. Mostly these were monologues, though he sometimes had another cast member as a foil, such as Harriet Nelson as the Mean Little Kid’s mother. Since the comedy arose from the characters, Skelton was a humorist, not a wit.
Skelton’s Mean Little Kid may have descended from Baby Snooks, a character developed by Fanny Brice. Snooks delighted in driving Daddy, played by Hanley Stafford, to the brink of desperation. Another of Snooks’s offspring may have been Edith Ann, a persona of Lily Tomlin (“And that’s the truth”).
Like Skelton, Jackie Gleason relied on humor. It is hard to think of Gleason’s television shows without thinking of “The Honeymooners,” though that was, at least in the beginning, only a segment of a longer production. Try to visualize Jackie Gleason, and you’ll see Ralph Kramden. Gleason of course was aided by the humorous characters of Kramden’s wife Alice, played by Audrey Meadows, and Ed Norton, played by Art Carney, who was Laurel to Gleason’s Hardy. So successful was Gleason’s character that Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor in the situation comedy All in the Family, was a variation on Kramden’s theme.
Earlier in time there was Jack Pearl. Rather than perform in an acted-out comedy drama like Gleason, Pearl was more like Skelton in that he performed monologues in character; he took on the persona of Baron Munchausen. Munchausen had been an actual eighteenth-century German Freiherr noted for telling outrageous stories of his personal experiences; there had been a contemporary book collecting and expanding on the Munchausen corpus. Pearl revived he character in vaudeville and on radio, inventing new stories which he told in a thick German accent; he played to a straight man who interrupted from time to time to express incredulity. Pearl always replied scornfully, “Vass you dere, Sharlie?”
Another raconteur of the incredible at about the same time was Frank Morgan. Morgan did not use another name or a fake accent but put himself into the character of a man who told fantastic stories using a sesquipedalian vocabulary, on which he frequently stumbled (as Morgan did when trying to pronounce “philanthropist” in giving the Tin Woodman a heart when he played the Wizard of Oz).
Unlike Gleason and Pearl, Carol Burnett is not identified with any single one of the characters she played on television. A true actress, she submerged her own personality in many humours. I have already mentioned Lily Tomlin, also a brilliant actress who played many characters, most notably Ernestine, the telephone girl, and Edith Ann.
But it is not necessary for the humorous comic to play a character other than himself. Like Frank Morgan, he can develop personal idiosyncracies, whether truly his own or not, into a persona. Ed Wynn was “the perfect fool.” Jack Benny began his career as the untalented violinist and then morphed into the quintessential tightwad. (“Your money or your life.” Long pause. “Well?” “I’m thinking it over!”) Jimmy Durante built his success on being a zestful, cheerful ignoramus who overestimated his own vocal talents.
While Eddie Cantor could be witty, he was also a tightwad and a father who wanted a son but instead sired five daughters. While undoubtedly married, Cantor had a banjo eye for a pretty girl and had no hesitation in trying to make a move on her; his moves were so clumsy and he had so little chance of success that not even Mrs. Grundy was offended. In addition Cantor served as a straight man for Bert Gordon, “the mad Russian.” (Hope was also a straight man for Jerry Colonna, but it is difficult to claim that those segments of Hope’s show were successful. Perhaps Hope selected Colonna as his foil because it was so easy for Hope to outshine him.)
Comedy teams also depend on humor rather than wit. Laurel and Hardy were both humorists, both stupid but otherwise sharply differentiated in characer. Hardy was pompous and overbearing; Laurel, meek and tearful. I attempted to retain those characteristics when I cast them as Goering and Goebbels respectively in my satiric novel Adolf Hitler in Oz.
More recent teams have usually consisted of a straight man and a clown, the latter of whom provides the humor. In Martin and Lewis, Jerry Lewis was a goofball; in Rowan and Martin, Dan Martin was a hard-drinking, not overly bright lecher; and in Abbott and Costello, a team which (like Red Skelton) came out of burlesque, Lou Costello was a person of limited intelligence, limited patience, and unlimited ability to vocalize frustration.
The three teams mentioned above all began with stand-up comedy, which is the dominant form these days. Comedians like David Letterman and Jay Leno – and before them Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson – seem content to follow in Bob Hope’s footsteps, using satiric wit. Leno’s monologues consist of a sentence introducing a topic, another sentence commenting wittily on the topic, and then on to the next topic.
But other comedians seem uncomfortable limiting themselves to wit and break out of that cage to find in situation comedy a field that enables them to utilize humor. One thinks of Danny Thomas, Bob Newhart, Jerry Seinfield, and Ray Romano, all of whom began as stand-ups and then developed a series of half-hour comedy dramas which gave them a chance to rely more on humor than on wit.
Andy Griffith did not quite fit that pattern. He began in stand-up with a humorous character, the deacon, who hilariously explained such arcane matters as football, opera, and a Shakespeare play to an audience of other hillbillies; then, after a wow performance in the movie A Face in the Crowd, Griffith moved into a situation comedy in which he provided many fewer laughs than his deputy, Barney Fife, played by Steve Allen alumnus Don Knotts.
Which brings us to Woody Allen, who began in stand-up comedy utilizing humor more than wit as he portrayed the character of the loser, the schlemiel; but then, after a few early slapstick productions like Bananas and Love and Death, Allen moved not into half-hour situation comedies but such two-hour motion pictures as Play It Again, Sam and Annie Hall. In these Allen played the same schlemiel he had presented in his stand-up days but placed the character in stories that had much more meat to them. If there is such a thing as capital-A Art in popular comedy, Woody Allen has achieved it.
It cannot have escaped the reader that my own watch ticks for humor more than wit. In my view wit is too often used for the cheap insult, while humor requires the ability to use imagination to project oneself into another person. It is the same ability that one finds in the great playwrights and novelists.
(c) Sam Sackett, 2012
Sam Sackett is a reformed English professor old enough to remember radio. He left teaching for journalism, then advertising, then public relations; then, having become an expert on career change, he spent 15 years in career management. He’s back in the US after having spent six years retired in Thailand, which he spent writing novels and short stories.