Starting in the mid-1950s and continuing through the early 1960s, an edgy groups of standup comedians emerged in American nightclubs. These performers, including Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, were not the non-stop joke machines of earlier generations. Their routines were story-based and discussed previously taboo subjects like politics, relationships, and psychiatry. Improvisation was central to this new comedy style, with Sahl, Bruce and (notably) Nichols and May creating routines on the spot. Many of these comedians were jazz fans, and several performed as opening acts for jazz musicians in nightclubs. Jazz was enjoying considerable popularity of its own during this period, so it’s rather surprising that very few of these comedians talked about jazz in their acts. There were the exaggerated imitations of the style, such as the “piano player” on Stan Freberg’s send-up of “The Great Pretender” who goes into an Erroll Garner riff because he thinks there’s a mistake on his part: It’s the same chord over and over. There were also parodies of jazz slang, including Steve Allen’s “Bop Fairy Tales” and the interviews of the fictional french hornist Shorty Petterstein, included on albums by Lenny Bruce and Henry Jacobs. One listens in vain for any jazz content in the LPs or “Monitor” radio broadcasts of Nichols and May, and Woody Allen (then and now a practicing jazz musician) only includes incidental allusions to the music on his standup albums. It seemed that despite its popularity, jazz was considered too esoteric to be included in a comedy routine.
There were a few exceptions, though. One of the earliest examples was by the de facto leader of the progressive comedians, Mort Sahl. Sahl was a huge fan of West Coast jazz, and caught live performances by Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck whenever he could. He wrote liner notes for Paul Desmond, and hosted a pilot TV show featuring Brubeck. Sahl was also friends with Hugh Hefner, so when the first Playboy Jazz Festival was held in Chicago in August 1959, Sahl was a natural pick as master of ceremonies. The “1959 Playboy Jazz All-Stars” album included a heavily-edited six-minute segment of Sahl’s routines from the festival. Here at last, Sahl had the opportunity to riff on the music he loved.
Much lesser known was Ed Sherman, who wrote humorous articles for Downbeat under the pen name George Crater. Around 1960, Sherman/Crater also recorded a rare comedy album on Riverside. (This was not Riverside’s only foray into comedy: the Sherman/Crater album was Riverside 841, and a Louis Nye recording was Riverside 842). The album shared the name of the Downbeat column, “Out of My Head“, and was unusual that it was recorded in a studio without an audience or a laugh track. Sherman/Crater actually riffs on the absence of an audience on the record, claiming that there are people who earn part of their living as audience members for records: Yeah, man, I heard you clapping on that album. Sherman/Crater’s style is something of a predecessor to Woody Allen with his deadpan delivery, and his frequent use of jazz slang. About half of the album deals directly with jazz; in addition to the routine below, he talks about jazz wind-up dolls (Wind up the Miles Davis doll and it turns its back on you; the Charles Mingus doll punches a critic, and the Horace Silver doll sweats for 30 minutes). He also spins a fanciful story about his performance at a jazz concert at Town Hall. As he speaks to the audience, he imagines that Ornette Coleman, upset at one of the comedian’s jokes, is sitting in the balcony armed with a zip gun. Sherman/Crater also provides a reasonably accurate (and quite funny) description of a jazz TV special, “The Singin’ Swingin’ Years“. This album is very hard to find, but while I was listening to it again, I noticed that I had taped the original (used) price sticker on the inside of the LP jacket. 99 cents: what a bargain!
Finally, we come to the latest Playboy emcee, Bill Cosby. Cosby’s love of jazz has engendered itself in many forms (notably the parade of jazz musician guest stars on “The Cosby Show”), but the comedy LPs that established him in the early 1960s had virtually nothing about the music. The clip below is from a 1973 appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” with Jack Benny as one of the guests. With a little prodding from Cavett, Cosby tells of his early aspirations as a jazz drummer. The story is extremely funny (Benny nearly falls out of his chair with laughter), but notice that Cosby cautions that the audience might not understand a story about jazz. What makes Cosby’s delivery so wonderful is that he makes it accessible. Try playing this clip for someone who is not a jazz fan and they’re likely to experience the same convulsions as Benny. Little more needs to be said. Just let Cos tell the story.
I make no claims that this little survey of jazz and standup is comprehensive. Do you know of other jazz standup routines? If so, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include a link, and if there are enough entries, we’ll include them in a future “Sidetracks” column. We’ll also plan to write about the unique comedy talents of musicians like Joe Venuti, Fats Waller, Leo Watson, Frank Rosolino, Clark Terry, Eddie Jefferson and Jimmy Rowles.
This article was written before Cosby’s trial and conviction for sexual assault. Jazz History Online does not condone Cosby’s off-stage behavior. The clip embedded in this article should remind us that Cosby was one of America’s finest (and funniest) comedians.