This episode looks back at the bespectacled wannabe (Harold Lloyd) and the vain coward (Bob Hope) as the outsiders of their day. Along with pioneering women in comedy like Phyllis Diller and truly zany characters who seem to have arrived from another planet (Jonathan Winters, Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams), the great social upheaval of the 60s and 70s introduced counter-culture favorites Cheech & Chong, as well as superstar nerds like Woody Allen and “jerks” like Steve Martin – who ultimately became so popular that the idea of the outsider had to be re-cast.
Physical comedy and slapstick have always found rich soil in America. From the mastery of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the computer-generated antics that helped transform Jim Carrey into a human cartoon, slapstick has evolved into a sophisticated art, stretching the boundaries of time and space. This episode explores the comic genius of teams like Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Martin and Lewis, and the Marx Brothers, and the one and only Lucille Ball.
In the ongoing war against hypocrisy, conservatism, political correctness, prejudice, prudery, censorship, sentimentality, liberalism, extremism, and complacency, it was always the comedian who led the first wave of attack. Rather than using risqué jokes and four-letter words simply to get a rise out of an audience, the most audacious comedians – from pioneers like Mae West and Moms Mabley to 60s and 70s bad boys like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin – invoked what the First Amendment of the American Constitution calls “freedom of speech” to bring the biggest and most dangerous laughs to the American public.
America loves the wiseguy who defies convention by speaking the truth no matter the consequences. Whether in the form of the curmudgeonly W.C. Fields of the 1930s or today’s Larry David, who manages to aggravate everyone within reach, the wiseguy (or gal) always gets the last – and funniest – word. Along with classic smart-alecks like Groucho Marx and con men like Phil Silvers, other legendary names in this episode’s “Wiseguy Hall of Fame” include Jack Benny, Paul Lynde, Joan Rivers, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock.
Americans have always loved to make fun of the world around them using the slings and arrows of parody and satire. Whether it was Will Rogers, Johnny Carson, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert poking a finger in the eye of the government, or Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and the “Saturday Night Live” gang lampooning the latest blockbuster, generations have reveled in the anarchic tradition of mocking American life, politics and preoccupations.