Following World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a “balance of powers” exercise that was termed the Cold War. The rules were simple: each country had to accumulate more nuclear weapons to keep the other in check. Consequently, there was a massive arms build-up on both sides as the public at large was gripped with the fear of total annihilation. As “Eve of Destruction,” that great Cold War ditty from the sixties so succinctly put it, “When the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.” It seemed hardly the time for laughing it up. Throughout history, though, we’ve had a habit of cutting our opponents down to size with humor. If you could laugh at them, then perhaps it could lessen some of the fear.
Our parents had done so in World War II. It is said that each generation develops their own sense of what is funny, and surely they had the likes of radio broadcasts and Spike Jones laughing “right in der Füehrer’s face.” When you think about it, they surely didn’t have much to laugh about. Yet they grew up through more than a decade of the Great Depression, which was followed by a World War. Once the war was over, they still couldn’t relax as they were always on guard for potential enemies… and they found one in Communism. Perhaps this set up our generation to be uniquely poised for a comedy explosion?
The first set of baby boomers were only five years old when the U.S. Department of Civil Defense produced that classic comedy of the Cold War era, “Duck and Cover,” in 1951. Not that they intended it to be a comedy, mind you. There is the very real likelihood that in the preceding years before Mister Boomer’s class was shown the film, it was taken all too seriously. Yet Mister B recalls that film, like so many others that were projected onto the portable tripod screen in the basement below the church. Lessons on school safety and proper bike riding would surely help us to be better citizens, so why not inject some civil defense knowledge, for our own protection? In Mister B’s class, however, the reaction was probably not what was expected. The lights went out and the familiar sound of the clicking projector could be heard, cutting the silence. Then it began, in glorious black and white, with that likeable turtle cartoon and memorable jingle. OK — so far, so good. Once the live action began, though, snickers started rolling through the assembled pre-pubescent crowd. Muffled at first, it could be contained no more when the scene of The Typical American Family enjoying a picnic saw “the flash” and grabbed the picnic blanket to duck and cover. A raucous laughter erupted that left the teachers aghast. The film clicked on as we children laughed and laughed at the silly scene of plates and food flying, the screen children’s heads ducking under the cover of their picnic “shelter.” We couldn’t possibly understand the ramifications of a nuclear attack. We just knew funny when we saw it. They finally quieted us down and we watched the remainder of the film in mandated silence.
Ike was our President and Commander in Chief at the time. He successfully saw the country through D-Day, and now he was protecting us from the evils of Communism, especially as represented by the Soviet Union. The visible Soviet leader during boomer time was Nikita Khruschev. In the spirit of détente, Eisnehower had invited him to visit the U.S. in 1959 following Richard Nixon’s participation in the Kitchen Debate. Khruschev came with his wife and children, and although it didn’t further Ike’s agenda the way he had hoped, it did provide fodder for satirists and comedians. Of the many spots the Soviet Premier visited on his 13-day trip, he was impressed with the agricultural education from the University of Iowa, and the self-serve cafeteria at IBM headquarters. Comedy gold! Like the reaction of Mister B’s class, all sorts of jokes about Ike, Khruschev, their unlikely meetings at Camp David and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) became fodder for the laugh machine. By 1960, the jokes were flying on TV and in the nightclubs. One such seminal star that weighed in on the subject was Bob Newhart. The young upstart would release “The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart” that year, based on his stand-up routines. In an interview years later, he recalled that they needed an extra track for the album, so he tossed in “Kruschev (sic) Landing Rehearsal,” a re-imagined scene of the Soviet Premier being greeted at the airport. Bob envisioned it as the concept for a new TV show (can anyone say, “Green Acres”?), which never materialized.
Most boomers, however, are going to recall the unbelievably great Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (1959-61). The Cold War characters Boris Badenov and his sidekick, Natasha Fatale, and their Fearless Leader, were an integral part of the show. As Boris himself would put it, “It’s good to be bad.” In print media, Mad Magazine also got into the act with its long-running “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon series.
A few years later, we were still making fun of our stalemate situation. After years of depicting bumbling Russian spies, we now turned to creating bumbling idiots on our own side. On TV, “Get Smart” (1965-70), saw the likes of Maxwell Smart as Secret Agent 86. Clueing us in on the joke, the writers gave him the “86” moniker. The term “eighty-sixed” in common parlance means to throw or kick out. Somehow, Max always saved the day, with the help of his ultra-sexy partner, Barbara Feldon, as Agent 99 (one would presume out of a hundred).
The top of the heap of Cold War comedies for Mister Boomer is “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” In 2009, the 45th anniversary of this Stanley Kubrick movie was celebrated. The movie starred Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and the phenomenal Peter Sellars playing three distinct roles. It described a “what if” situation where a U.S. military general started the process that triggered full nuclear response from both sides, and the possible planning for the rebuilding of civilization the remaining leaders would need to accomplish with the survivors. If you haven’t seen it in a while, run to your nearest online movie ordering site and buy it or put it on your list immediately! Viewing it as an adult, in our post-Cold War era, has made the dark humor all the more poignant. Go forth and laugh it up, boomers!
What made you laugh at the Cold War?