Thanks to everybody who responded to my list of funny/unfunny comic stars. As I suspected the people we like and dislike varies widely except for an unlucky few who include Robin Williams and Sasha Baron Cohen.
Bob Levinson mentioned Shelly Berman, a man I considered a true artist probably because we seemed to have a matched set of neuroses. Berman was a performance artist as much as comedian, holding the stage as a man for whom every hour was a battleground of frustration, grief and rage. These weren't just funny lines, they were pieces of serious writing.
People my age may remember that Berman's extraordinary success ended when he allowed CBS to film a documentary about him. No puff piece this. As I recall it was shot cinema verite and it showed Berman to be a troubled, angry man who wasn't always fun to work for. People were shocked. I felt sorry for Berman. A lot of performers aren't pleasant bosses. But then not many performers would expose themselves the way he did. He never quite recovered from the documentary. Filmfax did a long and very insightful interview with him a few years ago. He seemed as baffled now as he was then over why the public turned on him.
Another comic who has had a long and very funny run is Robert Klein. He's never been at Berman's level but his sarcastic sardonic take on middle class life is truly witty. He frames everything in slightly absurdist terms so he can show us the true nature of what he's attacking. His version of the O.J. Simpson trial still makes me laugh out loud. His take on Judge Ito, the prosecution team and the LA cops was the most savage routine I ever saw him do. As you can imagine, his portrait of OJ was particularly nasty--and hilarious.
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I was lucky enough to see Berman on stage in 1959 or '60. One of the highlights of the era for me.
Robert Klein was one of the best. And nobody could beat Richard Pryor in his prime.
On Sherman being a tough guy to work for. I often wonder if comics in general carry around a lot of inner angst that would be near impossible to live with. Seems so from what I've read. I'm sure there's a psychiatric definition or explanation as to why that is; a need to be funny while walking around in a constant state of misery.
I always found David Steinberg and David Brenner to be excellent comedians, much like Klein but with totally different styles. Mort Sahl was also a favorite and must be ranked in the genius category for his extemporaneous readings from the newspaper. What ever happened to this guys, especially Brenner?
Brenner is still a working comedian...though like Steinberg, he often directs and does other behind the scenes work these days. Lenny Bruce, as uneven as his recorded work was, has gone unmentioned here...remarkable. Better than Pryor, better than Berman, better than Sahl for me, and I like all of them, too (and Gregory and Newhart and Nichols and May...and Freberg and Cosby and Henry Morgan). And the Firesign Theater, speaking of uneven...and, surprise, Beyond the Fringe, Python, and all their extensions.
Jake Johannsen is someone whom I think underrated. Dmitri Martin's new series on Comedy Central is a welcome addition.
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