Andy Griffith died recently. 86 years old. Heart attack. Best remembered for Matlock and The Andy Griffith Show. He also had a huge career on Broadway, including musicals. It's not as widely known that he released several albums of spirituals. What's probably least remembered is that he got his start as a stand-up comedian.
He performed this character monologue, which was released as a single in 1953.
A few things jump out at me about this.
1. It all proceeds from a good hook, like most any comic idea. What would a game of football look like to someone who'd never encountered it or heard of it? Simple concept. Brilliantly executed.
2. It actually does describe a football game pretty well! Two groups of men wanting to play with a ball so badly that they break out into a terrible fight over it...
3. The innocence of the narrator is completely endearing. When he misunderstands the man's injunction to "have a drink" and decides to have another big orange soda, it's hilarious, and there's no malice, no sneering at the character's naivete.
4. Griffith never overdoes the mannerisms he gives his character. He punctuates some statements with "…I did," but only a few times. He throws in some characteristic expressions ("be-settin' beside of me") but doesn't make them the punchline, or feel the need to make every statement wacky. With the conk-you-over-the-head style so many comedians and sketch players have employed since the advent of Saturday Night Live, this is a blessed relief.
5. Most of all, listening to this gets me thinking about how much wider the definition of stand-up comedy seems to have been then.
Lenny Bruce brought about a revolution in comedy, with a no-bullshit style. This is me, folks, this is what I think about these topics, and this is my life. And I'm a huge fan of his. George Carlin followed in his footsteps, as did Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Bill Hicks, Ellen Degeneres, David Cross, Louis CK and many others.
And there are certainly comedians who don't fit this mould: Steven Wright, Maria Bamford, Emo Philips, Mitch Hedberg.
But I find it hard to imagine Andy Griffith's monologue going over in a stand-up club nowadays, despite its hilarity. It's more than a minute before the first small laugh, and a good ways further before the audience is belly laughing. In any modern club he'd be heckled or ignored long before he got that far.
Perhaps with the growing burlesque culture, we'll see more cabaret and variety shows, which will widen the scope of what audiences are willing to pay attention to. There's room in a night's entertainment for funny songs, clowns, double-acts, sketches, monologues, one-liners, improvisation, short films, as well as what we've come to expect the term "stand-up comedy" to mean: autobiographical/observational/political/cultural commentary. As Steve Martin said he learned from getting a degree in philosophy: If you can pull it off, anything goes.
Let there be more colours on the palette, I say. Quality comedic ideas like Andy Griffith's football observer deserve to be heard, and laughed at.