Ben Schwartz

  • The Audacity of Hope

    During a 1969 Christmas show from Vietnam, Bob Hope failed, for once, to heed his own advice for entertaining troops. He got sentimental. He got preachy. At the time, Citizen Hope was a well-known flag-waving hawk. But Comedian Hope was something else. He had spent nearly forty years playing the coward’s coward, an icon of irresponsibility, showbiz egomania, and skirt-chasing self-absorption, preferring whenever possible to let his fellow Americans do his part for him. Now he told ten thousand GIs that he had just been to the White House—and added in dead earnest that President Nixon had assured

  • Battle Lines

    WAR HAS consistently sparked cartoonists to do the most inspired work in their medium. By 1939, when newspaper comics were still primarily known as “the funnies,” Milton Caniff used his Terry and the Pirates kids’ adventure strip to depict the Japanese invasion of Manchuria with unprecedented—and not at all funny—savagery. Caniff reached his creative-peak period during the ensuing World War II years. In 1941, the comics also created one of that conflict’s more enduring propaganda figures—Captain America. From war and its aftermath we have Maus, Palestine, Safe Area Goražde, Bill Mauldin’s Willie

  • The Absurdist Insurgency

    Who gets to be funny and who gets made fun of? Americans never get tired of that question. At least, we Americans in the think-piece-writing business don’t. Are women funny? Are fat jokes cruel playground humor or legitimate satire in an increasingly unfit culture? Did that comic you’ve never heard of before go too far on that talk show you never watch? Is that black comic who puts on a dress funny, or a demeaning Jim Crow minstrel? Is there such a thing as a man telling a funny rape joke, and if so, why hasn’t it been written yet?

    Judging by most late-night talk shows, sitcoms, and stand-up

  • Fancy Footwork

    In All That Jazz, director Bob Fosse’s sort-of-autobiography, Fosse cast Roy Scheider as sort-of-himself: a philandering, bearded, black-clad, hairy-chested satyr of the ’70s, a Penthouse personal ad come to life. Relating his life story to Death (Jessica Lange), he finds she’s the one woman he can’t bamboozle. That’s a bamboozle, too, because as we learn in Sam Wasson’s new biography, Fosse, even when this moment of truth arrives, it’s just more show business.

    Fosse’s remarkable body of work onstage and on-screen as choreographer and director includes Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Pippin, Chicago

  • Myth America

    It’s been forty years since John Ford passed away, but filmmakers continue to wrestle with his legacy. The directors of three recent Oscar contenders—Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty—are a case in point. Quentin Tarantino, accused of gross insensitivity by Spike Lee in portraying slavery as material for a spaghetti western, deflected Lee’s charge by damning Ford’s westerns (still the genre standard) as true racism. “Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies,” said Tarantino. “It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to

  • Children of the Cornpone

    In late 1948, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip introduced, innocently enough, its merchandising gold mine, the shmoo. The strip’s hero, teenager Abner Yokum, brings the lovable creature back to his hillbilly village of Dogpatch, and nearly ends the United States as we know it. Shmoos, which look like marshmallow quail, are miracle creatures. They lay edible eggs, give milk, taste like chicken when fried and pork when roasted. They provide for every need. Industrialist J. Roaringham Fatback, “the pork king,” sees the national economy plummet, as no one needs any longer to buy or sell anything.

  • Nancy with the Laughing Face

    Fifty-one years ago, Andy Warhol co-opted a panel of Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy. Ever since, the strip’s squat, spike-haired protagonist has beguiled artists, theorists, pranksters, essayists, and cartoonists as a patron saint of dorky innocence. But despite decades of meta-Nancy secondary texts, this month marks the initial installment of the first-ever comprehensive reprinting of Bushmiller’s peak period (1943–59), with Nancy Is Happy (Fantagraphics, $25).

    In this, the reading public has a rare opportunity. No, make that a rare challenge—to read Bushmiller without the benefit

  • In the Belly of the Python

    By the early 1970s, American television comedy from Los Angeles had finally caught up to the ’60s, with hit shows like MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Norman Lear’s slew of liberal social-realist comedies—All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, and One Day at a Time, to name a few—which turned America’s sitcoms into a panorama of political, gender, and racial humor. Then in 1972, a PBS station from culturally conservative Dallas became the first American outlet to broadcast the highbrow silliness of Britain’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If the Pythons had little to say about topical issues,

  • Beatty and the Beasts

    In March 1974, Warren Beatty and director Hal Ashby filmed Shampoo. Set on Election Day 1968, it’s a sex farce about a Beverly Hills hairdresser, George (Beatty), bedding his client list while trying to get investment money to open his own salon from a husband he’s cuckolding, Lester (Jack Warden). While Shampoo was in postproduction, Watergate undid Richard Nixon, and Ashby made sure to feature him prominently on televisions and radios—though no character even thinks of voting—to comment on the newly chastened era in which the film’s audience was living. Sending up not only Nixon, the easy

  • Lady and The Tramp

    In a particularly funny moment in Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside, set during World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II thumbs through a captured copy of Photoplay in his imperial water closet. His Highness learns that starlet Mary Miles Minter associates people she meets with pretty colors. Mary Pickford, for example, is marigold with a narrow stripe of violet. Why someone would pay twenty cents to learn this eludes him. Then he wonders, if he met her, “What color [would she] think he was?” Disgusted with himself, he tosses the magazine across the room. But, sheepishly, he retrieves it to finish the article.

  • A Mad, Mad World

    In his introduction to The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, Harry Shearer leads off, naturally enough, with a joke: “Without Harvey Kurtzman, there would have been no Saturday Night Live. What a horrible thing to say about him, but it’s true. . . . OK, this might be better. Without Harvey Kurtzman, there would have been no Simpsons.”

    Shearer, who voices many Simpsons characters, isn’t the only one who’s acknowledged a major debt to Kurtzman’s work. When Kurtzman, the creator of Mad magazine, died in 1993, the baby boom lost a treasured icon—and baby boomers, in trademark fashion, dilated richly on its

  • Little Ideological Annie

    In the 1982 movie Annie, billion-aire munitions industrialist Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks arrives in Washington to meet the Roosevelts, whose calls he usually refuses to take. They want his help organizing the New Deal, which he thinks a preposterous scheme with no hope of success. But Warbucks goes for the sake of his ward, Annie—it’s her first chance to see the White House. A musical being a musical, all it takes to melt his heart is Annie’s singing of “Tomorrow,” that anthem of stagestruck preteen girls everywhere, with Franklin and Eleanor.

    FDR was certainly on the mind of Little Orphan Annie