It is a threadbare premise, for a medium still in its pull-ups. When we think of greatness, whose face goes on the largest of sculptures—formed by God but finished by men—vandalizing the Dakotan landscape?
For the field of American humor I’ve had one year to think it over. Last September my friend Steve (whose real name is Mark, but in these kinds of online articles an alias is typical) said to me:
“Twain is sort of the great white whale of American literature. Dickens assumes the same type of stature for 19th century England. And Tolstoy (sorry Mr. Dostoyevsky and my beloved Mr. Chekhov) occupies the place for Russian literature. Who for France? Hugo? What a Mount Rushmore for 19th century literature.”
I agreed with Steve, but turned the direction of our conversation to something even more trivial: American humor. Putting very little thought into it I said:
Of course, the problem is limit. I immediately regretted the absence of George Carlin, but I didn’t know if he trumped Pryor. I couldn’t remove Groucho to include both influential standups when Marx represented the long stretch of Vaudeville and Jewish humor that shaped early Hollywood. And Franklin? You don’t see a lot of comedians today reference Ben Franklin as a significant influence on their craft, but then again what politicians model themselves after Washington? At the time it didn’t matter. Steve agreed with my list.
“I think you’ve nailed the Mount Rushmore for humor…Franklin is the headwaters. Essential. But you’ve got a nice spread of eras there, too. If we were confining this to movies and television, we could throw out Franklin and Twain and make room for Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (hate to leave Fields out). But they don’t make the cut if we’re looking to represent all of American humor. Groucho is one of the few humor masters, by the way, who mastered almost every medium available to him: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, books. And he could get laughs in a stunning variety of ways: monologues, acting, singing, dancing, ad-libbing, sophisticated word play, low slapstick. Pretty remarkable career.”
One year later, I’m still stuck on Carlin. No one can deny the influence of Pryor on modern comedy, but why did I choose him over a comedian whose work has been debated by the Supreme Court? Was race part of my decision? If I wanted more color on my mountain of comedy did I make the right choice? Bill Cosby came before Richard Pryor and continues to provoke social dialogue with comedy long after Pryor’s troubles have blown away. I prefer Bill Cosby, so why did I choose Pryor?
You could say I chose Richard Pryor because I was playing it safe, expecting him to satisfy what I could not get from just Carlin (controversy) or from just Cosby (color), but there’s nothing safe about Richard Pryor. Suddenly I’m insulting legends by unconscious intentions. If only we could limit ourselves to film and television then my problem is avoided—Pryor was not great on film or television. But Steve brought up other names to debate. Charlie Chaplin I exclude because America could deport him. Lucille Ball and W.C. Fields were great, but transcendent? How do we quantify the impact of contemporary success when graven iconography upon the living rock is perceptibly timeless? We can limit the field, of course. Concern ourselves with genre to satisfy the minority when we cannot satisfy a majority. How about political humorists (20th century):
Barry who? Sahl whah? What about Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert—the Teddy Roosevelt and FDR of modern political humor? I did say 20th century, and Stewart did not assume control of the Daily Show until January 1999. Mark Twain was his most acerbic politically in the first decade of the 20th century, but popularly we keep him in the previous century. The popular opinion counts, but how much? Comedians know Barry Crimmins; he established the Boston comedy scene in the early eighties—a Petri dish harboring later, greater acts unleashed on the American people. I choose Crimmins, knowing that in genre I have more wiggle room to satisfy fewer people. Speaking of satisfying fewer people, what about stand-up comedians whose influence on comedy far exceeds their popularity or the average life expectancy?
The category allows us to exclude John Belushi, though he’d fit in with Bruce and Hedberg (with Chris Farley as Lincoln) if we limited it to drug overdose. Kaufman and Hicks lend a certain gravitas due to the unfortunate nature of terminal cancer, but to carve any of their faces on a mountain makes for a depressing landscape. I’m still troubled by the lack of color on lists dedicated to satisfying minority groups. Besides the Cherokee blood of Will Rogers, our comedians are white, and while I’m reminded of Carlin’s bit about the use of black and white to keep us polar opposites instead of our actual colors pink and brown standing a chance to blend, allow me to segregate for comedy’s sake, for a certain type of African American humor dissected the differences of race:
Foxx begat Pryor, Pryor begat Murphy, then Murphy begat Beverly Hills Cop III, but not before he begat Chris Rock and a slew of other comedians who compared the expressions of black people with the repressions of whites (MartinLawrence, Dave Chappelle, etc.)
By no means were they limited to characterizing dichotomies, but anthropologically speaking, these comedians concentrated on the emic within their culture, whereas there were others who concerned themselves with the etic:
I feel bad excluding Sinbad, but what can you do? The work of these four men has transcended race, primarily within the medium of network television. Though often cautious and self-censoring, television has eventually given voice to many of the disenfranchised, including women. To compensate for the testosterone on these lists, the Mount Rushmore of American Comediennes:
What do they have in common besides gender? Damned if I know. The first two played specific characters (the ditz and the social climber). The last two played a host of characters, be they conservative or eccentric. All of them are funny, but unlike their male counterparts I cannot categorize them to comedic genres with suitable partners of similar importance, unless it’s sketch. If Tomlin and Burnett are the Washington and Jefferson, with Gilda Radner as Lincoln, who plays the Trustbuster? Tina Fey? Kristen Wiig? I feel lost, and need to see the forest for the trees.
According to the National Park Service, “The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”
So said Gutzon Borglum, the artist primarily responsible for the composition and execution of sixty-foot portraits of our American presidents. From 1927 through 1941, Gutzon and his son, Lincoln, executed the vision of historian Doane Robinson, who wanted a massive work to bring more tourism to South Dakota. Mission accomplished. Mount Rushmore brings almost three million people a year from around the world to the Black Hills. Expanding upon Borglum’s conviction that the four presidents represent the four major phases of our country’s development to that date (just before World War II), the National Park Service explains the importance of each president and their role within that development.
Taking that summary and imposing a literal translation of the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of American humor, who do we now see in rock?
- Ben Franklin
- Mark Twain
- Groucho Marx
- George Carlin
Steve said it best, “Franklin is the headwaters. Essential.” To get scholarly, look at the quotes of I. Bernard Cohen (1953) and Esmond Wright (1986). Franklin was a master aphorist, and so was the next man in this mountain. Mark Twain is the embodiment of expansion. Despite a poor childhood in Missouri, he reached both American coasts, Hawaii, and the Holy Land before the age of thirty-two as a printer and journalist. From a young life packed with experience he became a writer and platform lecturer of humorous intentions sought by the world over. If he differs from Jefferson in any way it his regard for the French.
The parallels continue with Groucho Marx, our Lincoln. Preservation may not jibe with the anarchy represented by the Marx Brothers on stage or screen, but I can quote the book description of Roy Blount Jr.’s Hail, Hail, Euphoria!: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made
“In Duck Soup, a slim, agile, quick-witted, self-assured young man is summoned to save a nation from financial ruin. As the nation’s new president, he brings together a team of rivals, a band of brothers. Those brothers are Pinky, Chicolini, and Lt. Bob Roland. Their leader? None other than Rufus T. Firefly.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin couldn’t have said it better herself.
Finally we come to Carlin, our Teddy Roosevelt. For better or worse, Theodore Rex unified the Atlantic and Pacific with the Panama Canal. He made war against Spain to motivate the American people, and he made peace to settle Russian and Japanese hostilities. In the course of his career, George Carlin began life as a joke writer and impersonator, in the style of comedy ubiquitous to America in the 1950s and early ’60s. Unhappy with a style that afforded him a comfortable life, he turned introspective, and brought the audience along with him. Carlin studied language the way a doctor vivisects organs, to find the hidden meaning and understand the process. By explaining our words, he explained ourselves, and changed the direction of significance American comedy took its audience. With those four icons in place I cannot imagine a better landscape to embody the spirit of American humor.
But then there’s Richard Pryor…
(c) ABE, 2012