Happy Birthday, Unknown Comic

In the mid 1970s if you asked me who my favorite comedians were I would have said Steve Martin and the Unknown Comic. The latter’s identity at the time was a well kept secret. I didn’t realize that I had already seen him countless times in his other guise, comedian Murray Langston, on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, The Sonny and Cher Show, The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show and The Bobby Vinton ShowLangston developed the Unknown Comic because he was desperate for cash and he had to disguise his professional standing in order to compete on The Gong Show (also one of my favorite shows).

Essentially, the Unknown Comic is a hack comic with a paper bag over his head. Doesn’t sound like much…but Langston happens to be brilliant. He realized (or discovered) that this character was a VEHICLE for jokes second to none. Certain comic characters have this, some simple hook that allows you to riff endlessly around it. I have a short list of great joke-vehicle-character-comedians: Chico Marx, Steven Wright, Rodney Dangerfield — any good gag writer knows instantly how to write a joke for those guys. The Unknown Comic was this way. (For example, the time he did a ventriloquist routine — using a  lunch bag). It wasn’t all bag humor. Sometimes it was just a parody of a hack comic. But Langston put so much ENERGY into it, he completely sold it. And this was the 70s…the airwaves were still chock full of horrible hack Las Vegas comedians in polyester tuxedos for him to make fun of. And the beauty part was, no one could take it too personally. The guy had a bag over his head!

Anyway, I salute you today, Murray. You were a big influence on me. (Also, thanks for making it so easy to get together a Halloween costume in the late 70s!)

To find out more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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