Monday, March 23, 2015
Moon Laughs: Comedians in Space [Guest Post]
Comedians in the '40s and '50s had comic books. They were good publicity, plus you didn't have to do any of the work. Other people wrote and drew them, trying to capture the essence of the stars, using their wisecracks and typical jokes. What was different was that the writers quickly ran out of regular stuff to do and had to find a new gimmick for each issue. This lead to Western scenarios, Northern scenarios, Foreign Legion scenarios, jungle scenarios, etc. Eventually they got to the space stuff.
Before October 4, 1957 stories about space were considered "that Buck Rogers stuff." So it shouldn't be any surprise to see the comedians with comics using space travel for laughs. This was not cutting edge science fiction but retreads of pulps and worse, comic strip and serial science fiction. Silver underwear, beautiful alien women, that kind of thing. You can almost see the strings on the spaceship models. The writers knew Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon but hadn't even heard of Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov.
Unlike some comedians to follow, Abbott and Costello actually made a film with a space setting. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars appeared in 1953. Oddly, the duo don't end up on Mars but Venus where everyone is played by a contestant from the Miss America pageant. Robert A Heinlein had written a treatment called "Abbott and Costello Move to the Moon" in 1950 and this may have inspired the script. If so, it is the only example of a real SF writer having anything to do with comedian space humor.
This was followed by DC's The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis #34 (January 1957), again drawn by Owen Fitzgerald. Jerry, who is a member of the local boys' Junior Rocket Scouts runs into a beautiful woman professor (and her cute assistant) who is designing a flying saucer. After bailing Jerry out of jail, Dean manages to secure the job of guarding the saucer on its trip to Washington. During a test flight, Dean, Jerry, and the girls have an accident that sends them into space. After some lame jokes about the Milky Way and paper moons, the ship crashes back in DC. The professor is heart-broken, but the test is a success and the military funds her work. The story contains very little real science and few good jokes. Nine months later Sputnik would fly through the ether and America couldn't quite be as blithe about the possibilities of space flight.
The 1960s would bring changes to science fiction as well as science. Star Trek would premiere on September 8, 1966. Much of the humor that followed was sarcastic parody of this classic series such as Mad Magazine, November 1966 with "Star Bleeech," and "Star Tracks" in Cracked, September 1975. On July 20, 1969, the first lunar landing would have as much impact as Sputnik had back in 1957. The old comedians and their comics belong to a time locked by the events of history. Humor about space travel would never be the same flight of fancy, but anchored in the reality of the nightly news.