Daily Archives: July 10, 2013

Funny People in the Funny Books? It’s Just Crazy Enough to Work.

13+ Famous Comedians Who Brought Their Own Brand of Zaniness to the Comics

1. Bob Hope
Celebrities hawking comics is something that’s almost as old as the comics themselves; there was a time when every self-respecting Western movie star (even their goddamn horses) had a comic to call his own. But the publishers didn’t limit themselves to big-name cowboys; when the superheroes fell out of fashion in the late 1940s, all manners of celebrities were tapped to fill the books. DC, for instance, went straight to the top of the Hollywood food chain and signed up comedian/USO fixture Bob Hope to star in The Adventures of Bob Hope, a title that ran for 109 issues from 1950 to 1968. Modern-day readers might have a hard time believing a title starring Hope could have lasted that long; not only was Hope well into middle age (and never the kind of star that had a lot of “kid appeal,” even during his younger days) by the time the book came out, every single one of his stories could be boiled down to one simple plot: A wise-cracking Bob gets into a zany predicament while lusting after buxom women who would have been more than half his age in real life. I’m totally not kidding; take any random issue and you’ve got the makings of a script for a seminar on workplace sexual harassment. My guess: the title was kept afloat by well-meaning grandparents who wanted to give children something wholesome to read, like a book about a sexagenarian who literally wagged his tongue at anything with hips. Later issues featured art by Gil Kane and a young Neal Adams, if you’re looking for an excuse to dig them up.

2. Jerry Lewis
Technically speaking, Jerry Lewis’s run as a DC comic character lasted longer than Bob Hope’s; The Adventures of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis ran for 40 issues (1952-57) until shortly after the comedy duo broke up, and Jerry Lewis continued as the solo star of the book for another 84 issues, finally calling it quits in 1971. Those who only know Lewis as the guy who hosted Labor Day telethons and inspired the voice of The Simpsons’ Professor Frink (and, er, has grown a bit too comfortable in his senior years expressing slightly controversial comments, like his low opinion of women and their talents as comedians) might be surprised to learn DC gave him a comic that lasted almost 20 years… even if giving a comic to a younger physical comedian like Lewis made a heckuva lot more sense than giving one to a stand-up comic like Hope, who was best known for his one-liners about Congress and golf. Even so, Lewis’s waning popularity in the late ’60s led to a lot of gimmick stories and guest appearances by DC’s superhero folks, like the Batman and Robin team-up issue seen here (which came out at the height of Batmania in late 1966). If there were any stories in which French citizens proclaimed his genius, I’ve yet to find them.

3. Milton Berle
The funnyman known as “Mister Television” during television’s early days was already 40 when NBC brought his Texaco Star Theater radio show to television in 1948, and his Borscht Belt style of vaudeville, slapstick and mother-in-law jokes wasn’t exactly the kind of humor that one might assume could be easily translated into a comic book. Whether it was that challenge or the fact his book was published by a small-time outfit that only lasted five years during one of the roughest times in the comic business’s history, Uncle Milty (The World’s Funniest Comic!) lasted only four issues. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy, digital or otherwise, but judging by the corny cover gags I’m guessing the world didn’t miss much.

4-5. Abbott & Costello
True story: in the small Canadian town where I grew up, one of the three American stations we could pick up on our TV sets showed classic black-and-white movies on Sunday mornings. For a few months, that meant a new Abbott and Costello movie every week, and that’s where I first encountered their classic “Who’s on First?” routine and first heard the Andrews Sisters sing “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” (and also learned there was once this thing called the Second World War). William “Bud” Abbott and Lou Costello were the highest-paid entertainers in the U.S. during the war years, so they were a natural choice for any comic publisher looking for a little stardust to pump up postwar sales. St. John Comics published 41 issues between 1948 and 1956 (the year before the duo dissolved their partnership), including a special 3-D issue in 1953; Charlton pumped out 22 issues of Abbott & Costello in the late ’60s when the duo starred in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon (Abbott provided his own voice; Stan Irwin played Costello, who died in 1959). The stories were pretty much what you’d expect — Costello getting into another crazy predicament with Abbott playing the straight man — but fans of Mad magazine might appreciate early work by ace caricaturist Mort Drucker (who also spent four years working on Bob Hope’s book) in the St. John series.

6. Allen Funt
Not a comedian as such, but Candid Camera host Allen Funt certainly brought plenty of laughs to fans of his show, which aired in one form of another from 1948 to 2004 (Funt himself died in 1999). In “The Day Candid Camera Unmasked Superman’s Identity” (Action Comics #345, 01/67), the genial host shows up in Metropolis to film a few harmless pranks at the expense of the Daily Planet’s Perry White and Clark Kent (because nothing says “ratings bonanza” more than putting flustered newspaper employees on TV). But not so harmless to Superman’s secret identity, as it turns out, as the fake phone booth intended to prank Kent ends up being the same booth he uses to change into Superman — and when Funt opens the door, 40 million live viewers see Superman standing in the same booth that they just saw Kent enter moments before. Ruh-oh! How does Superman get out of this one? Quite easy, actually; you see, first he… nah, that would be telling. Let’s just say this is your typical 1960s Superman comic, where you can be guaranteed Superman will get out of a sticky situation by opting for the most ridiculous and overly complicated solution. And doing it twice, if it means another chance to humiliate Lois in public.

7. Johnny Carson
The stand-up comic and host of NBC’s The Tonight Show was without a doubt the king of late-night television during his time on the air (1962-92), and his prominent place in the pop-culture pantheon was reflected in the many references to him and his show in other places. In the comics, for instance, it wasn’t unusual for Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon to make a brief appearance as a way of injecting a bit of real-world energy into the story, making the characters feel more “real” because they were interacting with one of the most famous TV personalities in our world. Look, there’s Daredevil appearing on Carson to draw out the Jester on live television! Hey, it’s the Vision choosing an impromptu Tonight Show appearance to introduce his newly rebuilt android body to the world!  And there’s Wonder Woman chatting with Carson about her message of peace! But Carson’s most significant comic appearance was probably the classic “Spider-Man No More!” story in Amazing Spider-Man #50 (07/67), a tale in which Peter Parker first decides to give up being Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson sits on Carson’s couch to discuss Spider-Man’s disappearance with Johnny and Ed. Carson’s comic-books appearances — quiet and dignified like the man himself — didn’t find him, say, swinging on webs or karate-chopping super-villains (see below), but they were always fun to see when they happened.

8. Woody Allen

“Who else but Woody Allen would mess with… THE MANIAKS?” Who else, indeed. Long before he was known for his cerebral style of filmmaking, the man born Allan Stewart Konigsberg started out as a comedy writer and stand-up comic who went heavier on the monologues than the one-liners; by the time this book came out (cover-dated 11-12/67), he was starting to make a name for himself as an actor and writer of screenplays like What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and What’s New Pussycat? The Maniaks were a (very) short-lived attempt by DC to cash in on the popularity of rock’n’roll/comedy vehicles like The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and NBC’s The Monkees.  The names of the band members — Flip, Jangle, Pack Rat and Silver — tells you all you need to know about how “mod” and “fab” and “gear” they were meant to be. They made three appearances in Showcase, the third one featuring a guest appearance by Allen, who was on hand to cast them in his latest play, a musical set during the Civil War that also starred “Jeannette Punchinello,” “Rock Hutsut” and “Twiggly” (parodies of actors Annette Funicello and Rock Hudson and British model Twiggy). How DC convinced Allen to lend his name and face to this attempt at madcap craziness is a mystery (at least, I haven’t found any reference that explains it) — but its existence means Scenes From a Mall is only the second most-embarrassing project Allen ever got himself involved in.

9. Don Rickles
It’s really hard to choose the most insane part of insult comedian Don Rickles’ guest appearances in DC’s Jimmy Olsen #139 (09/71) and #141 (no. 140 was a reprint issue). Clark Kent getting abducted by a spaceship and whisked away to an unknown dimension of photo negatives? Someone ingesting a meal laced with “pyro-granulate” that threatens to make them explode? The fact that “Goody Rickles” — who looks exactly like Don Rickles, except with glasses and a cape — gets laughs from subway passengers as he’s about to literally burst into flames? Singularly unique dialogue like “We’re ready, Guardian! The pastry’s gone! — But we’re servin’ plenty of ammo!”…? Don Rickles pretending to be a bomb and running around ticking and asking people to grab him? Don Rickles getting mobbed by crazed fans? The fact that a “Boom Tube” emanates from behind a chair just as Rickles is sitting down (probably after enjoying a good bean burrito)? Fans of Jack Kirby’s work on his Fourth World titles during the early ’70s were used to a little bit of insanity during the proceedings, but it’s anyone’s guess how DC thought adding a middle-aged comedian best known for hurling insults on The Tonight Show would be a hit with the youngsters tuning in for stories about Superman, gods and scrappy newsboys. Maybe it’s best if we just follow the King’s advice on the front cover: “Don’t ask!”

10+. The Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players

As the name suggests, every issue of the original Marvel Team-Up book featured stories that teamed up Spider-Man (and occasional guest host the Human Torch) with other Marvel heroes… with the sole exception of issue #74 (10/78), which co-starred the then-current cast of Saturday Night Live. In a nutshell: Peter Parker is pumped because he scored tickets to a taping of Saturday Night Live, but a man in the audience causes his spider-sense to tingle. Turns out the guy is noted Marvel baddie Silver Samurai, and he’s stalking the studios at NBC because John Belushi (who often played a samurai in his skits) received a mystical ring that supposedly belongs to the Silver Samurai. Ironically, the funniest part of the book isn’t anything said by either the usually wise-cracking Spider-Man or the SNL cast members; it’s the idea that a bunch of not-exactly-fit comedians could have defeated a deadly samurai warrior and his trained henchmen using nothing more than zany antics — with a live studio audience watching the whole battle and thinking it’s just part of the show. Almost certainly written on a bet by Chris Claremont, it remains the only Marvel Team-Up issue that hasn’t been reprinted because Marvel doesn’t have the rights to the SNL franchise. Or maybe they do now; can anyone confirm if Disney has bought Rockefeller Center yet?

11. David Letterman
In 1983, Marvel (back when the people working there still knew how to have fun) pulled a cute stunt called Assistant Editor’s Month, the idea being that the assistant editors finally had a chance to pull all kinds of wacky hi-jinks while their bosses were away (think stories where Aunt May briefly becomes a herald for Galactus). For The Avengers, that meant a story in which many of the team’s members appear on Late Night with David Letterman Show. But before any of them could jam with Paul Shaffer or help Letterman with another Stupid Pet Tricks segment, the Mechano-Marauder showed up to fill the studio with death traps and attack the Avengers. The craziest part was the ten-time loser who financed his first armored battlesuit with lottery winnings almost defeated the assembled heroes (yes, you may safely assume Thor, Iron Man and other heavy hitters were elsewhere). Then, in a brilliant display of pride/stupidity, he walked up on stage and told Letterman he was the one responsible for the multiple accounts of attempted murder on display… right before Letterman hits him over the head with a giant doorknob and calmly turns off the giant power pack running all his devices. The moral: Nobody messes with Letterman’s show. Nobody 

12. Jay Leno

Jay Leno & Spider-Man: One Night Only was a three-part story that popped up in various Marvel issues in 2002. It’s safe to assume Marvel published the story to capitalize on the release of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film that year (because Leno = Hollywood or something like that), but why they went with someone like Leno (given his audience of senior citizens and others fearful of edgy comedy are probably not likely to be huge Spider-Man fans) instead of, say, someone actually connected to the movie is one of those mysteries for the ages. Even odder still was the plot in which Leno and Spider-Man team up to film a car commercial, but get attacked by ninjas, but then it all turns out to be a publicity stunt. Or something. I confess, I’m experiencing PTSD symptoms just trying to remember all the details. Not even good in a “so unfunny it’s funny” kind of way.

13. Stephen Colbert
The fake political pundit and author of I Am America (And So Can You!) is an avid comic fan — see also: a certain Avenger’s shield displayed prominently on the set of his nightly show — so it was no surprise to find him in an eight-page team-up with Spidey in 2008’s Amazing Spider-Man #573. Adding to the goofiness: Colbert’s faux campaign for the presidency that year was mirrored in Marvel books as a genuine bid for the Marvel Universe’s White House. Come for the thrill of watching Colbert rub shoulders with Spidey, J. Jonah Jameson and the not-terribly-scary arch-nemesis known as the Grizzly (whose inclusion in the story is even funnier to fans familiar with Colbert’s work); stay for a peek at Colbert’s List of Things He’s Putting on Notice (among other items: the British Empire, Canada, Business Casual, Dr. Doom, Joe Quesada, Barbra Streisand, The Toronto Raptors).