View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Sunday, May 16, 2004

Alan King 

Just to show you how far my head has been into my books this last week, it was through the Intermountain Jewish News that I found out that Alan King had died. He was relatively young, 76. King got his start in the Catskills, but was part of the great stand-up era of the 60s and 70s. He had been talking about comedy as much as actually doing it in recent years, but was still one of the funniest guys around.

I remember seeing him debate, in 1986, at the Oxford Union, the question: "Resolved: the British are Funnier than the Americans." He and Steve Allen showed up for the Americans; Jasper Carrot and John Wells defended the Brits.

For some bizarre reason, PBS chose Bud Collins to do the superfluous color commentary. It must have been his association with Wimbledon. Both Oxford and Wimbledon are British and snooty, and Collins had had plenty of practice saying nothing in-between the real action, so he was the obvious choice.

Steve Allen strolled out, and did about 10 minutes of the dry humor, his best, that had the Brits in paroxysms of chuckles. But King stole the show. Not only did explain the difference between "funny" and "witty," he demonstrated it brilliantly. When he said, "funny," emphasizing the "f" and holding his hands out, you knew the American humor was something visceral rather than intellectual. You also knew you were in for 10-15 minutes of the funniest stuff you'd ever heard, and that you'd find out just how well the Brits could laugh at themselves. (Not well enough; the proposition carried handily.)

I hadn't laughed so hard in years. King said (among many other things), "The British are not only not funny, they're carriers. Because Canada isn't funny, Australia isn't funny, and South Africa certainly isn't funny."

From the New York Times, from the days when it wouldn't reflexively have taken the other side:

Mr. King's best example of the English lack of a sense of humor was an incident that he said truly happened when he met the Queen, and she said, ''How do you do, Mr. King?'' Mr. King, of course, replied: ''Fine. How do you do, Mrs. Queen?'' She did not laugh, and the English are not funny, he declared resolutely, waving an unlit cigar at the crowd as though it were stick.

''Other nations are not funny, like England, but they don't sit around like this all night making an issue of it,'' he continued.

King tried to do serious stuff now and again, and had the face to pull it off, as in Casino, but that wasn't really his style.

We've been losing a lot of these guys in the last few years. Enjoy them while they're around.

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