In his classic 1973 book Groucho Harpo Chico & Sometimes Zeppo, Joe
Adamson coined the phrase "The Age Of Heroic Comedy" to describe the
era of great film comedians who followed Chaplin, comedians whose larger-than-life characters were bigger and more important than the stories in which they appeared. For Adamson this era lasted roughly from The Kid in 1920 to The Bank Dick in 1940 (intriguingly, it overlaps with the so-called "Golden Age of Sports", the 1920s, in which athletes like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and
Bill Tilden were "bigger than the games they played"). The AOHC ended due to a number of factors, among them the rise of screwball comedy (where attractive romantic leads took the roles previously played by comedians), but perhaps mostly because of the evolution toward screen naturalism (which the advent of sound quickened), in which story took precedence over all, resulting in characters being scaled down from the operatic levels of before.
Television comedy had its own sort of Heroic Age, in which star comedians were bigger than their sketches. Now-legendary figures like Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, and Sid Caesar had their own shows and dominated early television.
By the end of the decade, they were all off the air.
I recently unearthed a Life Magazine cover story on Ernie Kovacs from April
1957. The most interesting part is not specifically about Kovacs, but the
epilogue, an overview of TV comedy at the time, which is considered to
be in decline.
The tone is pessimistic. Gleason and Caesar were about to leave the air; Berle already had the year before. None of the comedians interviewed knows what the answer is, or even exactly what the question is.
A few months later Bob Hope was a guest on the Steve Allen show. Allen said
something about a cowboy burying an Indian, and Hope replied "I didn't
know cowboys buried Indians. I thought they just buried comedians".
True, westerns bore some responsibility for the comedy crisis. The "Adult
Western" era had begun in 1955 with the premieres of Gunsmoke and Cheyenne,
although oaters would not truly start to dominate prime time until
that fall, when Wagon Train, Maverick, and Have Gun Will Travel would all make their debuts. I think there were other reasons for comedy's fall from grace. One was the rise of the sitcom. A format invented on radio, though even there it was dominated by star comedians like Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, all of whom showed they were bigger than the silly stories by frequently breaking the fourth wall or making jokes about their real-life personalities.
With the success of I Love Lucy in 1951 this format began to be modified. No
matter how wacky the situation, it was always "Lucy Ricardo" being zany, never "Lucille Ball". There was no wall breaking, no winking at the audience, no smirking references to her home life with Desi Arnaz. The plot was all.
Even a comic as over the top as burlesque vet Phil Silvers respected the new
dynamic, with his personality never allowed to trump the intricately-detailed
farces of Sgt. Bilko.
You can watch every Honeymooners sketch/episode and never see Jackie
Gleason break character. He very, very occasionally did with other
characters, but never Ralph Kramden. It's very tempting to cite The Honeymooners going from a sketch on a live TV variety show to a filmed sitcom as a metaphor for the entire era.
It's sometimes claimed that what ended this golden age of TV comedy was the
increased viewership outside the major cities, as television spread
out into the unsophisticated hinterlands (Sid Caesar was driven off the air by Lawrence Welk!). Again, there is some truth in this. Early TV comedy was written and performed at the speeded-up tempo of city life, and as television made its way to where the pace of life was slower, its own pace slowed down.
But I think there was another reason. As more people moved from the bustling
cities to whitebread suburbs, television itself became suburbanized. Family
sitcoms Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show
increased in popularity as the decade progressed. You can actually see
this process onscreen with Sid Caesar. A comparatively unremarkable sketch called The Commuters became an increasingly important part of the Caesar show, until eventually it was taking up a half hour or more per episode.
Fascinatingly enough, this also took place with TV comedy's rival, the
western. The first "Adult Western" heroes were either outright drifters (Cheyenne) or gunslingers with a badge (Matt Dillon, Wyatt Earp). But 1957 brought Wagon Train, essentially a ranch on wheels, and then 1958 provided a key link in the Rifleman, a gunslinger tied down to his homestead. And 1959 sealed the deal with the ultimate ranch western, Bonanza.
With so much domesticity taking place on and off the range, how could "Heroic
Comedy" survive? By the dawn of the '60s Caesar, Berle, Silvers, Gleason, and
George Gobel were off the air, and Kovacs was reduced to monthly specials on
little-watched ABC -- which only got on the air at all because they were
subsidized by his sponsor, Dutch Masters cigars. Only the near-forgotten Red
Skelton -- significantly, more popular in the sticks than the cities
-- still had a weekly showcase.