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Jim Henson with Muppets

Arts Days: September 24, 1936: TV’s Muppet Man
Perhaps the most famous puppeteer of all, Jim Henson turned the piles of fabric and fur known as Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, and Ernie (as in Bert and Ernie) into loveable characters. In Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Henson’s wonderful, wisecracking animal and people puppets educated and entertained children.

It was important to Henson to create work that would appeal to people of every age. His puppets might have been teaching youngsters to count, but he also made sure they threw out a few asides to amuse their parents, too. Nothing gave the modest Mississippi native more pleasure than making people laugh and enjoying the magic of puppetry.
Puppets, Television, Innovators & Pioneers, Comedy, America, Popular Culture

The Cocoanuts film announcement

Arts Days: August 03, 1929: A Bunch of Mixed Nuts
The first surviving Marx Brothers film showcases the quartet’s zany acts and brand of comedy. Audiences loved the rapid-fire patter and slapstick antics of these hilarious brothers—Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, and Groucho, who with his greasepaint mustache is probably the best known of the bunch.

Each brother had his own “schtick:” Groucho is famous for his one-liners and wiggling cigar; Harpo for his never speaking, blond wig, and harp playing; Chico for his girl chasing; and Zeppo for his straight man routine.

In this musical comedy, the four run a Florida hotel, where they scheme against and con their guests, filling the screen with comedic chaos. The Cocoanuts and numerous other Marx Brothers’ movies kept audiences laughing through the Great Depression and continue to crack us up even today.
Comedy, Movies & Movie Stars

Steve Martin

Arts Days: August 14, 1945: A Wild and Crazy Guy
Perhaps “zany” is the perfect word to describe this funny Renaissance man who juggles like a pro, dances with happy feet, and plays a mean banjo like no ordinary country star. Steve Martin’s goofy comedy stunts—from wearing a fake arrow through his head to twisting together balloon animals during his show—have endeared him to countless fans.

Even with a white-hot standup career propelled to new heights by his work on “Saturday Night Live,” Martin tried acting, with lead roles in hilarious films like The Jerk, Roxanne, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, among others. In recent years, he’s branched out: writing short stories and plays and appearing regularly with the bluegrass band, Steep Canyon Rangers.
Comedy, America, Musical Instruments, Movies & Movie Stars

MAD magazine

Arts Days: August 12, 1952: It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World
Funny, the debut issue of MAD magazine—which was really a comic book back then—came out in August with a cover date of October/November. A man named Harvey Kurtzman wrote almost the entire issue himself, also providing some of the drawings. When MAD later flipped to its magazine format, that’s when its brand of irreverent humor started making fun of all aspects of our culture: movies, politicians, advertising, and celebrity itself.

It spoofed Sports Illustrated as Sports Ill-Stated. It turned Star Wars into Star Roars. It was said you knew a book, movie, or TV show was a success if MAD parodied it. The scathing wit of its illustrators and writers would later influence everybody from the Monty Python gang to today’s satirical news source, The Onion.
Comedy, Popular Culture

It's a Wonderful Life

Arts Days: December 20, 1946: The Richest Man in Town
Jimmy Stewart, a 1983 Kennedy Center Honoree, was a very popular actor when he was cast as the likeable George Bailey, the lead role in It’s a Wonderful Life. Director Frank Capra tells the story of a small-town fellow who, through no fault of his own, comes to the end of his rope on Christmas Eve. As he considers suicide, Heaven sends a gentle guardian angel named Clarence to convince him what a good life he really has.

Told mostly through flashbacks, the movie has become essential viewing for many at Christmastime. Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and the other cast members bring Bedford Falls to life year after year, reminding us all that “no man is a failure who has friends.”
Movies & Movie Stars, Popular Culture, America, Comedy, Family

The Simpsons

Arts Days: December 17, 1989: Springfield Shenanigans
Isn’t it cool that the longest-running American sitcom features an animated mom with a mountain of blue hair? Yes, Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and the rest of their gang of neighbors and co-workers in Springfield just happen to be cartoon characters. And they happen to be hilarious, too, as they—helped by the show’s extensive staff of writers—poke fun at American culture and spoof sitcom conventions.

As created by Matt Groening, beer-swilling Homer, sax-playing Lisa and the others muddle through work and school, comment on everything from environmentalism to pop music, and love one another, just like any other normal American family. Blue hair and all.
Cartoons, Comics, & Animation, Comedy, Television, America, Popular Culture, Controversial

“The Howdy Doody Show”

Arts Days: December 27, 1947: Say Kids, What Time Is It?
The freckle-faced marionette Howdy Doody was the star puppet in this early children’s TV show, the very first regular network series to be broadcast in color. Set in the imaginary town of Doodyville, the show also featured human characters like Clarabell the Clown, who communicated with beeps of a horn on his belt and did not speak a word until the final episode of the show.

Then there were the characters that started as puppets but were later performed by people, like Princess Summerfall Winterspring, played by Judy Tyler. Buffalo Bob Smith provided the voice for Howdy, and he would also speak directly to the kids in the on-set “peanut gallery,” and he sang the show’s theme song in every episode.
Comedy, Innovators & Pioneers, Television, Puppets, Popular Culture, Young Artists

Mark Twain

Arts Days: November 30, 1835: America’s Good Humor Man
The author of one of the great American novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, wasn’t named Mark Twain at birth. He was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, taking Mark Twain as his pen name later in life. While he’s probably best known for creating characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Twain also wrote travel stories, social commentaries, essays, and lots of other kinds of things, all characterized by his signature satirical humor.

All of his work was informed by his rich array of distinctly American adventures, from his time as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi to his reporting for newspapers across the U.S. Without a doubt, Twain’s humor has remained timeless and relevant. So much so that each year, the Kennedy Center awards the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to individuals who, like Twain, are social commentators, satirists, creators of characters, and fearless critics of society.
Comedy, Innovators & Pioneers, Literature, America, Controversial

Viola Spolin

Arts Days: November 07, 1906: Play Acting
As an actress, director, and drama teacher, Viola Spolin used simple skits and other exercises to train actors to perform in believable ways. Her methodology formed the core of what we call “improv” today. Improv wasn’t originally focused on comedy, but evolved over time and today is generally defined as comic skits made up on the spur of the moment.

Watch a performance by acclaimed Chicago-based theater group, Second City, and see improv in rapid-fire action. Spolin, the “Grandmother of Improv,” helped devise ways for actors to warm up, focus, play, and make the connections needed to be spontaneous and hilarious.
Comedy, Innovators & Pioneers, Theater, America

Jon Stewart hosting the Daily Show

Arts Days: July 22, 1996: Breaking News
Comedy Central’s The Daily Show unites host Jon Stewart’s sardonic brand of comedy with the topical news of the day. Every night, Stewart and his merry band of “reporters” relate the news, freely mixing in factual information with hilarious asides. All the while, these comedians mock common news conventions, like the suit-clad “talking head” behind a desk.

But wouldn’t you know, the “infotainment” program is viewed by many devoted fans as their main source of actual news. They even rely on The Daily Show for their news more than a newspaper or traditional news show. Yet as the lines blur between comedy and news, Stewart and company say they only want to be funny—not to replace traditional news.
Television, Innovators & Pioneers, Comedy

Bert Lahr after being hit in the face with pie

Arts Days: July 17, 1913: Banana or Coconut Cream?
The practice of “pieing” in film got its start in the 1913 movie A Noise from the Deep. Actress Mabel Normand hit co-star Fatty Arbuckle in the face with a pie—no word on what flavor it was.

Throwing a pie in someone’s face was just a physical stunt done to get audience laughs. Actually, it became something of a cliché in the days before talkies because it was done so often. But over the years, the act has sometimes taken on political overtones, with pies being tossed in the face of some politicians, corporate executives, and others perceived by the pie-thrower as being wrong about an issue and in need of a public humiliation.
Comedy, Movies & Movie Stars, Stunts & Special Effects, Innovators & Pioneers

Neil Simon

Arts Days: July 04, 1927: Simon Says, “Laugh”
Playwright Neil Simon is perhaps the person most responsible for celebrating the comic craziness of New York City with his entertaining stories of human trials, tribulations, and, of course, neuroses. In plays such as Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues, and more, Simon invented characters you simply can’t forget—whether they’re caught in hilarious situations or heartbreaking ones.

His valentine to New York aside, Simon is also the writer who has done the most to capture on the page and on the stage what it’s like to be a 20th century Jewish American, like himself. A nominee for 17 Tony Awards® and the recipient of three, Simon was also a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1995.

Oh, and one more thing. In 1966, Simon is the only playwright to have four productions on Broadway running simultaneously.
Theater, Playwrights & Plays, Broadway, Comedy

Bill Cosby

Arts Days: July 12, 1937: Just Be Cos
Most standup comedians wish they could be just like Cos. That’s because Bill Cosby entertains millions of fans with his unique brand of family-style humor.

Cosby’s standup comedy career kicked off in the 1960s, leading him to guest host The Tonight Show and star in his own situation comedies. Cosby made television history when he was cast as the first African American actor in a dramatic lead role.

Later, The Cosby Show proved to be the most successful sitcom ever. It ran for eight years and cemented his image as Cliff Huxtable, a loving husband and father to five charismatic children. According to Coretta Scott King, the show was “the most positive portrayal of black family life… ever broadcast.”

Cosby received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1998 and was named the 2009 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize, an award that recognizes humorists (like Twain) who serve as social commentators and satirists.
Comedy, Television, Movies & Movie Stars

Vaudeville Theatre

Arts Days: February 28, 1883: Make ’em Laugh, Make ’em Cry
Vaudeville was a type of variety show with a bunch of back-to-back quick skits: A singing, tap-dancing man up first, then a dog riding a bike, then a few folks doing a comedy routine. And on and on for hours. If you could spin plates, sing well, or imitate various animal sounds, you, too, might have wanted to jump up on stage!

At its peak, thousands and thousands of performers worked the vaudeville circuit—a series of shows held at venues around North America. With everything from Yiddish theater to minstrel shows and contortionists to jugglers on the bill, vaudeville showcased the cultural diversity of 20th century America.

But vaudeville could not compete with the “moving picture show”—the form of entertainment we now call movies. Vaudeville shows went into a steep decline as movies became more popular.
America, Art Venues, Musicals, Theater, Comedy

Porky Pig and Daffy Duck

Arts Days: January 06, 1936: Be-Be-Be-Before the Bunny
Moviegoers were introduced to an adorable pink, pudgy, stuttering, Porky Pig in the Warner Brothers cartoon Gold Diggers of '49. Porky was the first animated character created by the studio and was featured in numerous cartoons and shorts, including regular roles in both the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series. He is best known for his signature line that closes all of his cartoons, "Th-th-th-that’s all folks!"
Cartoons, Comics, & Animation, Comedy, Movies & Movie Stars, Popular Culture

Molière

Arts Days: January 15, 1622: The Prince of French Farce
French playwright and actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière, is considered one of the greatest masters of Western comedy.

He studied acting and writing at the Collège de Clermont, a prestigious school in the heart of Paris. After graduating, he worked as an actor and playwright, dedicated to exploring new comedic ideas.

Molière wrote farces that exposed the hypocrisies and follies of French society. His fresh comedic style caught attention and praise from the French aristocracy, including King Louis XIV, who dubbed Molière's acting troupe "Troupe du Roi" (The King’s Troupe) and commissioned him to be the official author of court entertainments.
Comedy, Innovators & Pioneers, Playwrights & Plays, Europe

Mel Brooks

Arts Days: June 28, 1926: Blazing Laughter
He acts. He directs. He writes movies and songs. And he makes us laugh!

Mel Brooks is one of the funniest, most versatile fellows ever to grace a movie screen or write a tune. The shows he’s created, like The Producers and TV’s Get Smart series parodies everything from Adolf Hitler—yes, Hitler—to TV detective shows to scary movies. Brooks’s longtime creative partnership with actor Gene Wilder paved the way for some of his most popular comedies including Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

Most importantly, Brooks used satire to push comedy a little bit further than anybody had before, sometimes leaving audiences a little bit shocked—but always laughing.
Broadway, Comedy, Musicals, Movies & Movie Stars

Elvis Presley

Arts Days: June 05, 1956: A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On
Oh boy, did people go nuts when Elvis Presley appeared on this variety show hosted by “Uncle Miltie” (a.k.a. comedian Milton Berle). Performing his hit “Hound Dog,” Presley gyrated his hips, swung his arms, and caused kids in the studio audience to scream with delight. However, many parents and press members were scandalized by Presley’s performance; news reports the next day complained that his moves were “obscene.”

Overnight, the rising star earned the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis.” Other TV hosts capitalized on the brouhaha Presley’s appearance had caused by booking him on their shows. Allen, who promised a “cleaned-up” version of Presley’s act, had him singing “Hound Dog” to an actual dog, which Presley went along with in a good-natured way.
Comedy, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll, Television

Jester Sommers

Arts Days: June 15, 1560 : A Motley Fool
When you’re the guy charged with making the King of England laugh, you’d better bring your A-game to work every day (the king was known for ordering jail time or even execution for pals, servants, and wives who displeased him).

Jester William Sommers evidently knew how to tickle the king’s funny bone by entertaining him with jokes, stunts, and gossip. The court jester’s role was part stand-up comedian, part confidante; a good “fool” could also share bad news with the monarch that no one dared to for fear of being punished. It’s believed that Sommers had, by royal decree, a lot of leeway with Henry VIII. You see, he might be performing a skit for the king, but would tuck in a useful tidbit, sometimes in the form of a riddle, about something going on behind the king’s back.
Comedy, History

Bob Hope

Arts Days: May 29, 1903: You Gotta Have Hope
The man with the famous ski-jump nose knew how to make them laugh. British-born Leslie Townes Hope—whose stage name was Bob—was one of the first stand-up comedians, mastering the art of writing and delivering jokes with impeccable timing. Nobody had more one-liners at the ready; nobody was better at poking fun at himself to get a laugh.

Over the course of his career, Hope, a 1985 Kennedy Center Honoree, would find fame on the vaudeville circuit, the radio waves, the stage, the silver screen, and on TV. He made more than 50 films, many with close friend Bing Crosby. Bob Hope died at the ripe old age of 100.
Comedy, Movies & Movie Stars

Charlie Chaplin

Arts Days: April 16, 1889: The Little Tramp
Charles Spencer Chaplin was only 14 when he got his first role in a play, and he liked it so much that he soon hit the vaudeville circuit as a comedian. In 1913, he started making silent movies, developing instantly recognizable characters like “the Little Tramp.” He starred in early cinematic masterpieces like City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin combined humor with pointed commentary against the politics of Adolf Hitler, who was rising to power as the film was made.

Chaplin formed United Artists with other stars of the day to secure more control over their work. He wrote scripts and soundtracks, directed himself and others, and generally worked in most every aspect during those early days of film. Charlie Chaplin was one of the world’s first real movie stars and is considered one of the greatest creative talents of 20th century film.
Comedy, Innovators & Pioneers, Movies & Movie Stars

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