Laughing Matters — The Committee, “Soul Lessons”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

The Committee started in San Francisco in the early nineteen-sixties. Launched by a couple alums of Chicago’s Second City who suspected West Coast audiences might be more amenable to political and social commentary in their improv-developed comedy, the Committee was a local sensation, drawing crowds that lined up around the block. Eventually, the troupe got some national attention, appearing regularly on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and other television talk and variety shows.

Among their rounds was a stop on a 1969 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, where troupe members Mel Stewart and Howard Hesseman (then still going by the stage name Don Sturdy) performed a sketch about a Black man teaching a white friend how to pass for Black. The sketch is edgy and pointed. It’s reliant on stereotypes as the shorthand of comedy, but also knowing about the use of those stereotypes, slyly deconstructing them as a means of getting at more potent commentary. It’s more about white cluelessness, and the prejudice it breeds, than Black culture.

Maybe the most definitive proof of the sketch’s quality is that it was stolen by another comedy team. Well, let’s say adapted instead. Chicago performer Tim Reid saw the committee perform the sketch on television, maybe on this very episode of The Dick Cavett Show, and recognized it as perfect fodder for his own comedy team, Tim and Tom. Working with his partner in the act, Tom Dreesen, Reid modified it to a bit they called “47th and Drexel.” Flagrant borrowing of material was was hardly a rarity at that time, and the infraction likely would have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that Hesseman and Reid became coworkers a few years later, playing Dr. Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap, respectively, on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. According to Reid, the first thing he did upon meeting Hesseman on set was fess up to the complimentary pilfering.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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