The Rube

This country boy humorist, tipping back in a cane bottom rocker on the front porch of the general store with a hound dog at his feet, is a consistent hit with rural audiences. They feel comfortable laughing at some yokel less intelligent than they are. There have been few costume changes in a hundred years, except that the wide-brimmed farm hat has been replaced by a tractor cap and the fiddle's been replaced by a harmonica.

Patricia Leimbach, at sixty, is to the farm belt what Joan Rivers is to the borscht belt. She wears grandma spectacles and a "Hogs are beautiful" button. Her audiences are farm conferences and her material is strictly outhouse: "What's the difference between a pigeon and a farmer? Well, a pigeon can always make a small deposit on a tractor." She plays to the insecurity of her audience by making them feel farm smart.

City slicker to Farmer Brown, "You must be a farmer. I saw the manure on your boots." "Yup. And you must be from Harvard. I saw your ring when you picked your nose."

The Amish character plays up to the Pennsylvania Dutch faithful with this kind of material:

Amish farmer to stubborn mule: "Mule, thou realize that because of my religion I cannot beat thee, or curse thee, or abuse thee in any way. But, mule, what thou do not realize is that I can sell thee to a Southern Baptist."

In advertising, the two most successful commercial spokespersons are two comedians with distinctive characters. Bill Cosby is well-known for his national spots for Coca-Cola and Jell-0 pudding. But in hundreds of local markets, with three thousand different TV spots for over 200 different sponsors, the most famous and, paradoxically, the most obnoxious character on commercial TV is Ernest P. Worrel, a gangly redneck with a cavern mouth created by actor Jim Varney. Ernest utters an overbearing fountain of unsolicited advice. He looks like the consummate Appalachian rube intrusively advising you how to fix the world. Ernie gives his advice to his unseen friend ("Hey, Vern"), but then to give the viewer superiority and revenge, he reduces his "Know what I mean, Vern" smugness to self-ridicule by going berserk and doing something incredibly stupid, like slamming a tailgate on his hand or electrocuting himself: "Shall I carve, Vern? What'll it be, light or dark?" Then, he takes a chainsaw from behind his back and, giblets flying in all directions, saws through the turkey, the plate, and the table.

9. The Old Timer

When he was ninety years old, George Burns said, "At my age, I don't even buy green bananas." Consistently deprecating his physical functions, this easygoing, hesitant style plays to the sympathy of the audience.

The only time I have a sexual experience now is when I get frisked at airports.

It's the most honest character in humor. "You've got to be your age in humor. You can't be any younger than you're supposed to be, nor any older," said George Burns, a man who gets a standing ovation just for standing. Asked what he thought of younger comedians, Burns said, "You mean Milton Berle and Danny Thomas? They'll make it one day." But Berle and Thomas aren't waiting; a high percentage of their material is based upon age and impotency:

The only time I get a laugh from my wife is when we're in bed. I don't think it's fair of her to laugh and point at the same time.

10. The Ethnic Type

One step up from the gag is the ethnic and folk anecdote. This material is a collection of rambling tales—short, short stories that end with a raunchy one-line climax. The performer spins the story in dialect; Irish, Scotch, Italian, and Jewish have always been favorite caricature stereotypes. Today, the dialects are often black or Hispanic.

Jewish visual humor has its model in Chaplin's tolerant tramp—the sweet smile of a person "longing for belonging," who accepts failure with a shrug of resignation, then disappears down the road.

According to Barry Gross, Jewish performers have played characters which made Gentile audiences feel safe: self-deprecating, self-effacing, nervous, neurotic, timid, and awkward. Verbally, traditional Jewish humor emerges from an outsider's poverty and pain. Its strength is its intellect, generating laughter at the expense of less-educated authority figures: religious zealots and goyim in general. A goyisher kop is synonomous with stupidity. The Jewish comedian's philosophy is pervasive skepticism against the status quo and what Theodore Reik called "explosive truths," or what Joseph Dorinson called "the two-sided weapon of gallows humor." With wit, Jews try to keep the bullies at bay. "If they're laughing," asked Mel Brooks, "how can they bludgeon you to death?"

Unlike Jewish humor, which is based upon life on earth, Irish humor is based upon fear of purgatory, an almost preordained condition of devout Catholic upbringing. Their humor evaluates sin—drinking, carousing, and political deviousness. They claim the three-day wake just makes sure the corpse is dead, not dead drunk.

An Irishman lies in his coffin with a big smile on his face. "I didn't dare wipe it off," the widow said. "You see, he died in his sleep, dreaming about something he was doing while he was alive. I'm afraid, if he wakes up and finds out he's dead, the shock will kill him."

11. The Immigrant

To make the audience feel comfortable, performers from foreign countries, from their opening sentence, denigrate their own nationality by playing off positive American stereotypes of life.

I'm a comedian from Russia. I like American women. They do things sexually Russian girls would never dream of doing—like showering. —Yakov Smirnoff

I'm a comedian from Korea. Actually, I'm half Korean, half Japanese. I'm known as Kojap. —Johnny Yune

American men always want to take you right back to their apartment and make love. They don't even want to buy you a cup of tea. In Australia, where I come from, making love is something rich and beautiful. It's worth a cup of tea.

—Maureen Murphy

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