Sub-genre of humor
made popular in the 1950's
by such comedians
as Shelly Berman
, Bob Newhart
(yes, really!), Jonathan Winters
, and Lenny Bruce
, as well as illustrators Edward Gorey
and Charles Addams
, singer/songwriter Tom Lehrer
, spoken word artist Ken Nordine
, and writer Terry Southern
. Related to, and overlapping the Beat Generation
, the theater of the absurd
, some F/SF
such as Shirley Jackson
, Harlan Ellison
, and Ray Bradbury
and mainstream writers such as Vladimir Nabokov
and Sylvia Plath
The zeitgeist of the Fifties was a curious one. On one hand, everyone wanted to put the world of the Depression and war years behind them -- happiness was a station wagon in the garage, an undemanding, but well-paid job with a large, stable firm in the city, and a brand-new tract house that the missus could take care of by herself, while Junior and Sis went to school, and Termite played in the sandbox. The goal was to be "well-adjusted" -- friendly, cheerful, a team player, without any strong opinions, preferences, or ambitions beyond getting through the day, rooting for the home team, and wanting the best for the family -- in short a good citizen in a world increasingly safe, well-planned, and healthy. Comedy, in this world, was still firmly rooted in burlesque and vaudeville -- jokes about drinking, dumb blondes, and people with funny accents prevailed, along with slapstick and other mindless entertainment.
On the other, there was more than a hint that the harsh past was only the beginning of a bleak future. America was engaged in a "cold war", with its threat of nuclear annihilation on one hand and totalitarian horror on the other. In between there was the threat of corruption: this was the age when foreign and domestic espionage, racial unrest, youth gangs, and even such trivialities as comic books and flying saucers loomed as threats to the sunny world portrayed above, which seemed, even then, to be more of an illusion than a certainty. In reality, Freudian psychoanalysis stated, Termite lusted after his mother, while Sis's tomboy bookishness was most certainly latent lesbianism in the making. Junior secretly wanted to kill the old man, while old Dad tried to forget the time that he and his army buddy once climaxed a night of drinking by getting done in a men's room after engaging in a "cock fight" to see who got to go first. Meanwhile, Mom chafed at being "just a housewife", and indulged in Madame Bovary fantasies and Miltowns to stave off her identity crisis.
Little wonder, therefore, that another kind of humor began to well up that took as its wellspring the hidden cruelty, madness, and paranoia of the time, together with notions taken from modern art and existentialist literature. Jokes and stories about insanity, death, and morbid subjects abounded, where innocence cloaked sexual perversion and homicide, junkies prowled the village green, grossness played off sophistication, self-depreciation mocked showbiz puffery, and Everyman languished in a straitjacket.
For at least some of the worthies listed above, this last was not an empty metaphor: being committed to the psycho ward for six months or more (for conditions as varied as homosexuality, drug addiction, and simple maladjustment, as well as more serious ones) was fairly common in the days before diagnose-dose-and-discharge became the rule. There were many other ways to become marginalized in the Fifties, of course -- Tom Lehrer, for example, worked for the NSA. Be that as it may, a certain kind of survival humor was necessary to cope, and what could be funnier than throwing back at your critics that you were, yes indeed, anti-social, unpopular, hostile, and sick, sick, sick?
Sick humor remained a staple of coffee house entertainment and college life through to the mid-Sixties, when it became superseded by that of the counterculture. It's still provoking nervous laughter even today.