Funny, not funny

Recorded comedy bits have been around for a long time, before the turn of the last century. A vaudevillian named Cal Stewart was doing jokes as “Uncle Josh” Weathersby back in 1897, according to an excerpt on a PBS site. And if you can’t trust public broadcasting …

Uncle Josh was a rube from New England, evidently, who knew nothing about the big city, as this skit of a run-in at a Chinese laundry in New York City portrays:

So I told him I’d like to git him to do some washin’ fer me, and he commenced a talkin’ some outlandish lingo, sounded to me like cider runnin’ out of a jug, somethin’ like–ung tong oowong fang kai moi oo ung we, velly good washee.

Yeah, that’d go over well these days. Hilarious.

When I was growing up, we listened to comedy albums all the time. George Carlin and his Seven Dirty Words, when Mom and Dad weren’t around. (Warning: They’re as dirty now as they were then.) Flip Wilson (“The devil made me do it!”). Later, it was Steve Martin.

But the album we absolutely loved — my brothers and my sister and I had every track memorized — was a comedy gem, “to russell, my brother, whom i slept with.”

The 27-minute title track was the story of two brothers who shared a bed, fighting and playing in the middle of the night. It was a standup routine set in the projects in Philadelphia, but it rang so, so true in Willow Grove, Delaware, too. We could not get enough of it.

Bits of that album made their way into our everyday lives. We told my younger brother that, kind of like Russell, we found him on the side of the road. “The police are your mother and father,” Russell was told. “We found you in the sewer, wearing magnetic boots,” we told my younger brother.

When one of the Donovan brothers would do something strange, we’d echo the father on the album: “What’s wrong with that boy?”

We, just like the brothers on the album, had a nice, healthy fear of our dad, too, though our dad, really, was a sweetheart of a man. Though a sweetheart you definitely didn’t want to cross. Especially late at night when he was trying to sleep.

ALBUM DAD: You better be quiet in there, or else I’ll come in with the belt.

OLDER BROTHER (as narrator): We had never seen the belt, but we had heard about it. The belt was nine feet long, eight feet wide and it had hooks on it, and it would rip the meat off your body if it ever hit you.”

We, too, jumped on our beds, trying to touch the ceiling with our heads. “Oh, mannnn, you done broke the bed,” said one of the brothers toward the end of the album.

“to russell, my brother, whom i slept with” was absolute comic genius. It appealed then, and I think it still does, to everyone who ever fought with a brother or sister. Or who ever lived with a brother or sister.

RUSSELL (in the bed at night): Youuuu, you hit me in the eye and made all the stars jump around in my brain. My eyeball fell out.

OLDER BROTHER: No I didn’t.

RUSSELL (crying): It did so fall out. You look at it. The eyeball is out … I’m telling dad. I’m telling dad. I’m telling dad. I’m telling dad. I’m telling dad. I’m telling dad. I’m telling dad.

OLDER BROTHER (trying to quiet Russell): No. Shut up, man. Go to sleep. Forget all about it. I never hit you. I never hit you. I never hit you. I never hit you. I never hit you. You fell out the bed, you fell out the bed, you fell out the bed, you fell out the bed, you fell out the bed …

OLDER BROTHER (as narrator): My father never turned a doorknob to open the door to our bedroom in his life.

[EXPLOSION as the door blasts open]

“to russell, my brother, whom i slept with,” earned a Grammy for Best Comedy Album that year, the fifth of six straight wins for Bill Cosby.

And that brings us, unfortunately, to the present day. For a post about a funny bit, this is about to turn decidedly, unavoidable unfunny.

***

Don’t get me wrong. That album, I think, is still hilarious. I laughed out loud several times while writing about it. Listen to it below.

Few standups have ever done it like Cosby did at his zenith. He’s credited by a lot of modern-day comics for his storytelling skills. He was credited then for being a clean comic, too. Which, given what we know now, is kind of cringe-y.

Now, we have to consider Bill Cosby the man. He’s a criminal, we know now, a predator of the worst kind, and he has been for decades. He’s been a major-league hypocrite, too, milking his image as “America’s Dad” while drugging and raping women.

And now his bill has come due. Now, he’s fallen. Hard. Few are shedding tears.

We’re forced, often, to reconcile the stage persona of a man (or a woman) with real life, to weigh the public against the private, the show vs. the reality. That’s where we are with Cosby.

This happens a lot. Barry Bonds was a hero on the field to millions and a complete dick off of it. Bill Clinton was a popular president in office and a perfect horndog in private (in that same Oval Office). Kevin Spacey is, by all accounts, an awful man despite his many fine movies.

Woody Allen, anyone?

I always found it really easy to root against somebody like Bonds, who I knew was cheating (and I knew was a dick). But was I outraged by President Clinton? I don’t think so. Am I outraged by the current narcissistic, pants-grabbing Commander in Chief? I am. Would I go out of my way to avoid a Spacey show? I don’t know.

And I can’t lie: Woody Allen’s films — “particularly the early funny ones” — make me laugh.  (That’s a funny clip, BTW, from Stardust Memories. Worth the click.)

This is the old Love the Art, Hate the Artist argument. Is it possible to do both? If you hate the man and what he stands for, do you have to detest the art, too?

To me, “to russell, my brother, whom i slept with” remains, despite its despicable creator, a comic work of art, worth remembering for the time it evokes, the scenes it paints and the relationships it celebrates. I can’t forget those two brothers bouncing on that little bed in that dark room any more than I can forget laughing at their escapades with my own brothers, my sister, my own thundering father. I don’t want to forget them.

The artist? It might take some time, but if he ends up in the same forgettable historic dustbin as Cal Stewart, he’ll get what he deserves.

 

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