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The Death of the American Wise Ass

By John "Calling For 'The New Sincerity' Since 1979" Saleeby
October, 1st, 2001

Vaughn Meader
"They put two graves in Arlington -- one for John Kennedy and one for Vaughn Meader." - Lenny Bruce

One of Conan O'Brien's guests on his first show after the September 11 terrorist attacks was Sarah Vowell, a commentator on National Public Radio and author of a humor collection that I can't remember the name of. Just like me and every other humor writin' fool in America, Conan and Sarah were discussing the sudden difficulty of making people laugh in this unhappy time that has been the weeks right after the destruction of The World Trade Center. Just back in town from performing on the college lecture circuit, Sarah was shaken by how complicated it had become. For example, she couldn't do her bit about what a pain it is to spend time with your family anymore because all of a sudden, spending time with their family was all anybody wanted to do. Damn!

"So you're going to give up being a wise ass?" wondered Conan.

"I would SO starve!" confessed Sarah in Twenty First Century Girlspeak. "I don't have any skills!"

Sarah will certainly be all right, but a lot of people around here who have been raking it in playing the Comedy Game are in serious danger of getting The Vaughn Meader Treatment. "Who's Vaughn Meader?" you ask. Well, once upon a time, Vaughn Meader was one of the biggest stars in comedy. The fact that he has been a total nobody for more than thirty-five years is a particularly frightening example of what havoc history's tragic surprises can wreak on a comedian who relies to heavily on political or topical humor.

Vaughn Meader was an impressionist whose John F. Kennedy imitation in the early sixties was so freakishly accurate the Kennedys could have sent him off to the Pacific to command the PT-109 while Jack stayed in New York to chase girls. He looked EXACTLY like JFK and it was all natural - no make up! Meader was a small time nightclub comic until Kennedy's election to the White House in 1960 made him an instant sensation.

Meadermania hit its peak when "The First Family", a comedy album starring Meader as JFK in Camelot, became a massive multi million seller. I came across a copy of "The First Family" while poking through my Dad's record collection in the late seventies. I was looking for that Herb Albert album with the naked girl covered with shaving cream on the cover but I found "The First Family" to be a very funny and entertaining work. I'd play it for my giggling stoner buddies and it held up against Monty Python, Cheech And Chong, and The Firesign Theater just fine. I'm sure it's available on CD somewhere - Look it up! (And if you're sitting there right now going "The Firesign Theater? What the hell is The Firesign Theater?" look that up too while you're at it. )

Oh yeah, in 1963 Vaughn Meader had it Made In De Shade! Bookings in all the best clubs, the top TV shows, and all the hottest chicks putting on platinum blonde wigs and really tight white dresses to sing "Happy Birthday, Mister Guy Who Looks Like The President." Vaughn had a follow up to "The First Family" already in the can and, with a second term for JFK a surefire thing, the money would be coming in for years and years and years!

That got blown out the hole on Nov. 22 1963 when JFK was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. The night after Kennedy was killed, Lenny Bruce had a big show in New York and spent the whole time between the President's death and going onstage with Terry Southern, the author of "Candy", "The Magic Christian" and the screenplays to "Easy Rider" and "Doctor Strangelove." The two of them were smoking pot and trying to brainstorm an appropriate comic response to the nation's loss. When Lenny finally took the stage that night, everybody in the crowd was totally silent wondering, "What...? What would Lenny Bruce have to say that could capture the confusion and uncertainty in the aftermath of this incredible disaster?" Lenny stepped pensively up to the microphone and sadly mused, "Man . . . Vaughn Meader! Whew! Ouch!"

Lee Harvey Oswald could have had a better comedy career after the assassination than Vaughn Meader did. If people liked him while Kennedy was alive they positively HATED Meader once Kennedy was dead. Meader was so washed up the only booking he got was for Richard Nixon's birthday party - And that involved working with a burro for a partner. Even Richard Greico makes jokes about Vaughn Meader's career. Hell, I'M making jokes about Meader's career! The last I heard of Vaughn Meader was in '94 when the New York Improv put on a one-man show with Meader, who now had long white hair and a white beard, as Uncle Sam. The show bombed and The Improv lost so much money it went temporarily outta business! Ha ha!! Serves ya right for jerkin' John Saleeby around every time he went over for an audition, ya dumb monkeys!

But in the long run the joke was also on Lenny Bruce. After Kennedy was shot, the American comedy audience, who had been so happy to listen to hipster comics' political material, now didn't want to hear about politics and the news of the day from anyone but Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid, and Katie Couric. (Yeah, kids - She was around back then. Who can forget Katie The Wonder Girl a'splashin' through the swamps of Southeast Asia in her little red rubber rain boots?) Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Shelley Berman couldn't get arrested. (Well, Lenny could arrested. HAW HAW HAW!!! World Trade Center or no World Trade Center, I've still got it, Baby! I've still got it!) Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, the only early sixties comedians who remain household names today, made a deliberate choice to stay away from politics and did material based on their personal experiences and problems. Listen to a Cosby or Allen album from the sixties and it's like the Vietnam war and various mass tantrums on the domestic front weren't going on at all. People just didn't wanna hear it. Woody Allen has a Warren Report joke on one of his albums and it's as out of place as a funny joke on a Jeff Foxworthy album. By the late sixties, of course, the counterculture made it possible for George Carlin, Robert Klein, and The Committee to revive political humor, but that's hippie shit and hippie shit sucks - Right, kids? Huh? You're not gonna be hippies, right? Right? You're all gonna register for the draft like you're supposed to, right? Right? Aw, you little faggots!!

And now we are faced with the same question the weisenheimer political jokers of the early sixties were faced with after Kennedy was killed - How much of this stuff can we tell jokes about without getting subpoenaed by the House Unamusing Activities Committee? Since The Late Night Talk Show resides fat n' sassy at the center of The Political Humor Universe these days, our story sadly goes from the wild n' woolly frontier days of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Vaughn Meader, and Terry Southern to . . . I can feel the energy draining from my body as if I have been stricken by pneumonia or someone has put on a Paul Simon record . . . Jay Leno, David Letterman, Bill Maher, and Conan O'Brien.

We still aren't sure exactly how many people lost their lives on September 11, but one definite casualty was The George W. Bush Joke. That's no big loss because all the jokes about George W. Bush we've been pummeled with in the past year and a half were actually recycled Dan Quayle Jokes. And quite a few of them were Ronald Reagan jokes before that, so it's good to see 'em go. What we really need is a Republican President who'll give us a chance to recycle all the Richard Nixon jokes we've got cluttering up the place. Tommy Smothers needs to clear out some space for a pool table. Are there any old Eisenhower jokes funny enough to make electing that John McCain asshole worthwhile? Nah.

After the terrorist attacks all the late night talk shows went temporarily off the air for a few days and returned with a New Ritual -The Five Minute Teary Eyed "It's So Hard To Go On And Do A Show But We've Gotta Do It Cause If We Don't The Terrorists Will Have Won And Our Sponsors Won't Make Any Money" Monologue. Letterman did it first and was so effective it wasn't necessary for anybody else to do it. But, you know show business - God forbid anybody should pass up a chance to do a five-minute teary-eyed monologue! Jay Leno's spiel was so utterly false and phony it could have been a professional politician up there. And since his very first guest was that darn John McCain, an utterly false and phoney politician, what was the point? And anyway, Jay Leno is such a soulless mechanical robot, he could have gone on the air the night of September 11 without feeling in the least uncomfortable. We could cut his parent's legs off with hacksaws and feed 'em to alligators and Leno would be able to go onstage and tell his little jokes within fifteen minutes. He wouldn't be very funny but since when has that been an issue?

Conan O'Brian
A nice Irish boy

Conan O'Brien, who I admire more than any American comedian since Bill Murray in the eighties, was particularly impressive in his opening when he held up the ceramic Dwight D. Eisenhower mug which has always sat on his desk and told us with genuine George W. Bush steeliness that it sat there for a REASON. Just keep your mouth shut if you don't understand what Conan meant by that. I'm serious. Just be quiet and you won't get hurt. Whatta Man! Conan's the best, Jerry! The BEST!! I Have Seen the Future Of Silly Little Skits and its name Is Conan.

Jon Stewart . . . Who gives a shit.

Craig Kilborn? I'm sorry, there's no one here by that name. Are you sure you have the right number? Bye!

Dragging "Politically Incorrect" back onto the air, Bill Maher (Sound effect of the World Trade Center crashing to the ground) seemed totally oblivious to any difference between the terrorist attacks and , oh, Gary Condit's interview with Connie Chung or Mariah Cary's checking into the hospital. Maher began babbling away about usual his obsessions like the Clinton Impeachment, the Drug War, and - I Swear To God - Aaron Sorkin's arrest for hallucinogenic mushrooms. Jesus, the President was talking about War, they were calling up the Reserves, people were worried about what was going to happen to their kids, and this screaming meemie was getting all pissy about Aaron Freakin' Sorkin?!? I was so amazed by that when Maher said whatever he said about our military being cowardly for using missiles and what courage it takes to hijack a plane and crash it into a building I was still going "Aaron Sorkin? Sorkin? What? Huh? Huh?"

Bill Maher
Talk show host or force for evil?

It is important to note that Maher's Big Mouth has been hocking up five or six big smelly loogies of this kind of stuff every time he has ever hosted an episode of "Politically Incorrect" in the past and no one but my cranky ass has ever gotten in the least bit bothered by it. It's very nice to live in a country where even shitheads have freedom of speech, but where a shithead like Maher ever got the right to his own network television show is a mystery. He isn't funny or very well informed, the whole appeal of his show is to watch a man take the most astoundingly wrong position on an issue and then throw effeminate hissy fits at his guests when they disagree with him. If it was 1941 and he had a radio show he would be screaming at Jack Benny, Hedda Hopper, and Lash LaRue about what a good thing the Bataan Death March was. So he goes right ahead and does his usual act right after September 11 and suddenly millions of people all over American hate him even more than I do. Sponsors pulling out, ABC affiliates refusing to air the show, AM phone in talk show hosts (Maher's spiritual brethren if anybody is ) begin calling for his head - Wow! As of now Maher's future seems to be up in the air and I say it's Skeet Shootin' Time!

(So now I'm dyin' to call my Dad on the phone and ask him "Dad, that ol' 'First Family' record you bought when I was little . . . The guy who made it . . . Before the assassination . . . Did you really hate that guys guts?")

Which brings us back to The Million Dollar Question as spoken by Conan to Sarah Vowell - "So are you going to give up being a wise ass?" If you plan on continuing to make the big bucks on big time network television, you probably are. For guys like Letterman, O'Brien, and even that Leno simp - No problem (No problem as long as I don't have to watch Leno, that is) But Bill Maher and Jon Stewart? I think they are going to have a big problem. Giving up being a wise ass means giving us a break from The Attitude. The Attitude was a strictly twentieth century phenomenon. In the twenty first century, The Attitude is just going to get your ass kicked. And from what I've seen The Attitude is pretty much all Maher and Stewart have going for them. Those boys would be well advised to just get out of television while the going is good and open up a little cabaret one or two blocks off of Berkeley University for the next few years.

Here is an example of Pre Terror War Comic Attitude that I swear I will never forget for as long as I live and breath - Just after the Presidential Election I saw an NBC comedy show called "Late Night" hosted by a four-eyed fruitcake named Greg Proops. Greg is the kind of white guy who says "Peace Out!" instead of "Good night". And he makes a cool hand gesture while he says it because Greg is Down With The Brothers. If this cum guzzler was ever within half a mile of The Brothers he'd shit a brick. That night Greggikins performed an astonishing little comedy routine that had Vaughn Meader written all over it: "Remember the Election Night map with The Blue States and The Red States? The Blue States, where we read and think and discuss the issues, and The Red States, where you get drunk and rape your sister because your team didn't make the playoffs."

Granted, that's a pretty funny joke if you are one of the people Proops has written it for. If not, well . . . Shit, Greg - I assume since you've scammed your way up to the point where you're doing your act on TV you're probably meeting with agents and producers all over LA and NY trying to put together all kinda TV and movie deals and, hey, good luck. But I know I won't watch anything with you on it anymore than I can stand to watch anything with Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. Those guys don't make jokes about people who support their local sheriff, go to Church every Sunday, and don't give a Rat's Ass about Tina Brown because they think those people are funny - They make jokes about those people because they believe those people are The Scum Of The Earth. Jon Stewart will emit one of his weak little gags about Bob Jones University or the NRA and then glare ALL PISSED OFF into the camera for a moment like he's Joe Strummer belting out "White Riot" in 1977. Oooohh, don't mess with him, boys - He's a SATIRIST! There is nothing silly or light hearted about this humor, it seems to have more to do with Joan Baez and some rap record than Bugs Bunny and The Marx Brothers. "Damn Right!!" they'd probably declare with their fists in the air.

I'm not saying these guys are going to disappear off of the face of the earth - They are competent craftsmen and shrewd businessmen who know how to work the room. But try to cover up just a little bit how superior you are to most of the people in the crowd, okay? Cause we're not as easy going as we were a few weeks ago and if the people you work for catch on that we're starting to squirm in our seats wondering what's on the other channels there is no shortage of people they can replace you with. Arsenio Hall's show was ten times as big as anything you dopes will ever have and if he can get yanked off of the air anyone can.

Oh, and Dennis Miller - Give up on the stand up and hold on to that Monday Night Football gig for as long as you can. If you slip up and let the palookas who love pro football catch on to the kind of scumbag you really are they'll have you Drawn And Quartered for The Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Oh, hey - Look! My man Greg Proops has his very own TV show - " Rendez - View", a dating game show! Yeah, Greg - That's where Bill Hicks would be if he was alive today, man, - Dating game shows! Uh oh, here comes the end of the show -
"Peace Out!"
(Greg makes hand gesture)
"Good night, Greg."
(Saleeby makes a hand gesture of his own.)

John Saleeby wrote for The National Lampoon while he was in high school, was a stand up comic in New York, and has contributed to the net humor zines, Campaign Central, and the legendary American Jerk. He's on medication now so he's probably a little nicer now than he was when you met him earlier.
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