Little-Known Comedians Who Made a Huge Impact on Today’s Comedy
Somebody explain to me why some comedy legends — Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Joan Rivers — continue to hold our esteem while others, like the comics discussed below, fade into obscurity. Each of the comedic minds on this list contributed mightily to the humor landscape, but their names haven’t stayed on the tips of our tongues. Here are four comic acts that were as influential as they were funny…
A king of recorded comedy, Freberg created clever parodies of both pop culture and politics, often accompanied by a bebop jazz soundtrack. During the 1950s, when most comedians were playing it safe, Freberg was poking fun at McCarthyism and the Cold War. He was even early on the dangers of censorship and political correctness, altering an old spiritual to become the less offensive “Elderly Man River.”
Freberg’s influence can still be felt in the work of funny narrative podcasts and anyone doing song parodies, but advertising is the arena in which the Freberg touch still resonates the most. His ads were crazy effective but controversial for two elements he introduced to the medium: humor and the actual truth. Man, advertising guys back then hated that.
Moms Mabley was one of those overnight successes that were decades in the making. After years of playing the predominately Black clubs of the Chitlin’ Circuit, the boom in recorded comedy in the late 1950s turned Mabley into a star. The language she used became the de facto vocabulary for generations of comics. “My best audiences are youngsters,” Mabley insisted to the Pittsburgh Courier, as related in In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy. “They understand me. They dig me. I’m too fast for the old folks, but the young ones, I adore them because, believe me, I understand them. There ain’t nothing dirty in what I say to them. I just speak facts.”
Mabley’s brand of no-bullshit storytelling peppered with sex and alcohol references caught on with the counterculture generation tired of comics who refused to tell it like it was. “The time to hip a child is the minute that it’s born into this world,” she explained. “The first words you say to that child — it’s like a blank record, ready to be hip or be a square for the rest of its natural life.”
Second City gets most of the glory when it comes to the sketch comedians of the 1960s, but The Committee deserves its share of love, too. Founded in San Francisco in 1963, the troupe’s name was an ironic nod to the House Un-American Activities Committee. According to the group’s Peter Bonerz, “The Committee had a political nature that was different from Second City. Because it was in San Francisco, it reflected the changes in America culturally, musically, narcotically.” Sketches about the Vietnam War and hippies could lead to walkouts and even fistfights mid-show, “which was exactly what we wanted,” Bonerz explained.
Odds are you aren’t familiar with Steinberg’s work as a stand-up in the 1960s and 1970s, despite being one of the medium’s biggest stars at the time. His satirical sermons as a preacher character on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour may have led to the show’s cancelation since they were “considered the last straw by many,” according to Steinberg in his memoir, Inside Comedy.
Outside of Bob Hope, no comic made more appearances on The Tonight Show than Steinberg, telling jokes that made him the only comic on Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list. But Steinberg’s biggest influence came later as a director of TV comedy. Check out the man’s resume: Friends, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Norm Macdonald specials, Golden Girls, Weeds, Newhart and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, among others. How many others have left that kind of comedy thumbprint?