Jack Lemmon once complained that the term "having a sense of humor" was misused. He felt it should apply to people with the talent to create humor, not those who merely appreciate it.
Three entertainment luminaries who died last week, Milton Berle, Dudley Moore and Billy Wilder, certainly lived up to Lemmon's definition of the term. But that was about all they had in common.
Comedian Milton Berle was primed and ready in 1948 when he was offered his own television variety show. He was a seasoned performer in movies, the theater, radio and nightclubs, and eager to tackle a fresh challenge. Television in those infant days was raw, tentative and largely unknown to the public, most of whom didn't even own a TV set.
Berle changed all that. With his wildly excessive, in-your-face comedy, Berle virtually took over the new medium, becoming an overnight superstar. He would try anything, including prancing around in drag, and millions of astonished Americans bought televisions simply because they had to see what he'd do next. It is safe to say the TV industry owes more of its success to Berle than any other individual.
British-born actor-comedian Dudley Moore was as frightened and insecure as Berle was supremely confident. Mercilessly teased as a child because of his lack of height and a club foot, Moore became a class clown as a defense mechanism. Although he attained great success in TV and movies, Moore's insecurity never left him, and was at the root of his comic personality.
This trait was very evident in his two most popular movies. In "10," (1979) he played a songwriter, traumatized by encroaching middle age, who obsessively pursues what he believes to be the perfect woman. In "Arthur," (1981) he was a rich, drunken playboy who stayed soused because life seemed too ridiculous and daunting to be faced sober.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Billy Wilder's humor was laced with bitterness. An Austrian Jew who fled to the U.S. to escape Nazi persecution, he created laughter out of a cynical contempt for all of the world's vices.
He made his name as a director with the stinging dramas "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "The Lost Weekend" (1945). But more true to his nature were the later hit comedies "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "The Apartment" (1960), basically sordid, tawdry stories made hilarious by the absurdities he exposed in human nature.
Wilder, Berle and Moore will be remembered for their unique "senses of humor," which sprang from radically different sources within their personalities but were similar in the entertainment value they created.
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