David Brenner

(2014)
Tonight show, 1981, and David Brenner just did a whole string of jokes about cancer. Funny routine, too. Crowd loved it. All I could think of was, damn, man, if there was something you don’t joke about. Somebody must have said that, you don’t make jokes about cancer. So he did, with that ridiculous delivery and goofy smile, schlemieling his way though a great five minutes of jokes about what was going to eventually kill him.
Rest In Peace.
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Love That Bob

Avoiding Trump, I was going through one of those vast Mill Creek box sets–this one has every old tv show on it ever–seeking out things I’m missed. Not deliberately missed–I wouldn’t watch Petticoat Junction even if Trump were elected–but things I had skipped somehow. Like Love That Bob, aka The Bob Cummings Show. It’s from the late 50’s. There are only five episodes in the set (as opposed to nineteen thousand various Lucille Ball things) and all are really funny and at least two of them flat out hysterical. I’d always thought the funniest fifties sitcoms I knew of were The Jack Benny Program, The George Burns and Gracie Allen ShowThe Phil Silvers Show  (aka You’ll Never Get Rich) and The Honeymooners.(which at the time was not its own show but a segment of the hour long Jackie Gleason Show.) There are other situation comedies of te era that are very funny and well written but longer on story development and less on a plot devised merely to hold jokes together–e.g. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Danny Thomas’ Make Room for Daddy, even Bachelor Father, but for pure yucks the big four I’ve found were Jack Benny (the fifties shows, which were much like the radio show; it got weaker as television grew stupider in the early 60’s), George and Gracie (the most surreal of the bunch), the Honeymooners (sort of a TV version of the Duffy’s Tavern radio show, actually) and The Phil Silvers Show, which was written at a vaudeville comic’s tempo only Phil Silvers could deliver. Those were my big four. I loved them all, can recite entire bits, and study the writing well beyond the point of fandom, since I think that great comedy writing is as perfect as the use of the English language can get. It has to be perfect to work. For me, the few brilliant sitcoms that have ever been are Shakespeare. I could probably rattle them off and still have a finger or two left for another. And the fifties sitcoms, the Ur-shows, those are the rarest. I’d found only four.
Then I saw The Bob Cummings Show and it is as funny as those four. Jokes flying like Sonny Liston punches. The pacing was so fast that Don Knotts’ speed freak schtick dragged in the dust in the episode he guested on (he was funny anyway but I never realized how leisurely a pace you had to set his nervous man routine in, too fast a pace and it didn’t really work). The jokes on the Bob Cummings Show could also get really weird. Like way weird. “I want to pour molasses in your hair and photograph you with a halo of flies!”, for instance. His timing and delivery are brilliant (he also directed a lot of the shows), the dialog crisp and not a word wasted. His Bob Collins, a professional photographer, is also an incredible horndog, horny beyond the bounds of Leave It to Beaver decency. We forget that side of the 1950’s, that it was not all Ike and Mamie and Ozzie and Harriet. True, John Forsythe’s Bentley Gregg in Bachelor Father was also a horndog, but then he never wanted to pour molasses on their hair and photograph them with a halo of flies. It’s a subtle difference.
Alas, there were but five episodes of the Bob Cummings Show on this Mill Creek twenty three disc box set. But there were nearly 200 episodes, I know. Perhaps Mill Creek has a mess of them on another of these box sets. Perhaps scattered across several box sets. And perhaps there are old geezers cramming episodes of The Bob Cummings Show onto homemade DVDs the way the last of the old time radio fans put zillions of their favorite radio shows on a single disc and sell them for a couple bucks on Ebay (I once got 800 Jack Benny Radio shows for $3.) They feel the cold wind of oblivion at their backs, knowing that when they die their whole universe dies, all those shows, their favorite entertainment idiom, forgotten. They know now how their vaudeville loving dads and uncles felt as the theaters closed down one by one. Of course, digital cable with its constant need for serial content–keep the people watching, but don’t spend any money doing it–keeps the memory of these shows alive. That never happened with vaudeville or Old Time Radio. And sixty years after it was on TV, when every single cast member is long dead, we can watch these shows on television and yuck it up like it was 1956 all over again and I was not even born yet.
They certainly do show a lot of old situation comedies on cable. At any one time I can find half a dozen shows running, all of them at least forty years old, and many of them going back almost to the Ur days of television sitcoms, the fifties. Television comedy goes back to the 1940’s, of course, but those were sketch comedies, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and like that, often as extraordinary as comedy has ever been, but that’s another essay. The first US sitcom, May Kay and Johnny, ran from 1947-1950, of which all but a single episode was lost for all time when the entire Dumont Network library was dumped in the East River. The first ever sitcom was on BBC, Pinwright’s Progress, beginning in 1946. It was broadcast live, unrecorded, and only photographs remain. So our history of situation comedies begins in 1950 when Jack Benny adopted his radio show (and that show’s writers) for television in 1950. (I believe the second show was Amos and Andy, which no one talks about anymore. I Love Lucy began in 1951.)
Amid the fluff and unfunniness and sometimes flat out stupidity of so much of the syndicated sitcoms shown over and over on cable, the Gilligans Islands and F-Troops and Brady Bunches and Leave it to Beavers, are some brilliant funny series, when you can find them, though at inane hours (invariably well past midnight, or even well nigh dawn). Hopefully someone at Cozy or Antenna or ME-TV or whatever, in their eternal quest for public domain entertainment, will start running the Bob Cummings shows. I’ve seen all the Jack Bennys and Honeymooners so many times I catch myself reciting the lines ahead of the beat, and I’m getting there with George and Gracie and Phil Silvers. I need something I’ve never seen before. I need that first time rush of seeing incredibly funny comedy for the first time ever, jokes I don’t know the punchline of, sketches I can watch just like they were watched first run, and not like a writer seeing them for the umpteenth time and stealing the bits uncredited for his own essays. I need some new old comedy in my life, something brilliant, something on every day. Something that makes me laugh outloud at 4 am and wake the cat, if we had a cat. Anything to keep me from having to watch the news.

Joan Marshall

Fyl decided her husband is still too sick to be life of the party on a wet, cold night and so we’re sitting home on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t argue. Besides, there’s a Jack Benny marathon on Antenna TV. When the pizza came It was guest star Frankie Avalon singing, so I joined Fyl in front of her TV watching old Sid Caesar shows and munching on a Palermo’s special, thin crust, crispy, anchovies on half. Taking my empty plate into the kitchen later the Benny marathon was still on in the living room and I could hear Robert Goulet. Even an hour apart the difference in timbre, phrasing, range–hell, in sheer quality of everything–with Frankie Avalon was beyond glaring. Plus Goulet was much, much funnier in the follow up bit, a natural. Funniest of all, though, was Joan Marshall, the woman in the sketch and one of the great undiscovered comic talents of the sixties. Alas, she was gorgeous, and in that decade gorgeous and funny were not allowed to mix. In the thirties she might have been a screwball superstar, another Carole Lombard; in the fifties she could have been the female lead in a sophisticated comedy. But in the sixties only Jack Benny recognized how funny she was and let her run riot in a couple sketches. They said it really bothered Joan that she never got choice comedy roles, and she never seemed happy in her career being beautiful. Hollywood is full of beautiful women. It’s not full of naturally funny people. But sometimes what you are really good at and the times you live in don’t coincide. If only you’d been born twenty years earlier.

Edie Adams

Man, Edie Adam’s did a devastating Marilyn Monroe parody. If Marilyn hadn’t been so fucked up she might have sued. It surpassed even SCTV’s Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin at their cruelest. I saw it on the Edie Adam’s box set, I imagine some one has put it on YouTube as well. Also, among the many long buried treasures revealed in this collection is a solid dozen minutes of the Woody Herman Big Band c.1963, and what a blazing aggregation that was. You could hear that music in a club now and it would still sound state of the art. Were I Scott Yanow I could rattle off the soloists, but alas I ain’t. A smoking young bunch they were however. And in that very same program the daring Edie gave Jack Sheldon six or seven minutes to go a surreal monologue about falconry that was as hysterical as it was weird. Clean, though. She must have warned him.

I met Edie Adam’s several times. Had a few extended conversations. Wonderful stories, wonderful lady. 

Hellzapoppin’

I have one of those Mill Creek comedy collections, full of mostly completely forgotten comedies from the 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s, mostly B flicks, some lousy, some with moments, and some really funny. They range from sophisticated–the nearly completely forgotten Animal Kingdom, a Noel Coward thing from 1932 written by the same guy who did Philadelphia Story and a real gem–to virtually plotless Hal Roach things that are excuses to pull out every slapstick bit he ever used in a silent short. I’d never actually seen Olsen and Johnson and gotta admit in their couple films in this monstrous box set (fifty movies!) they completely break me up, much funnier than Abbott and Costello, and their physical comedy bits are really similar to the Marx Brothers, you can certainly get the feel of the vaudeville both came from. In fact, that led me to Hellzapoppin’ on YouTube (a beautiful print), which was the Universal Studios version of Olsen and Johnson’s huge Broadway hit Hellzapoppin (Universal’s grammar nazis insisted on the apostrophe). The Broadway show was, by all accounts, the most anarchic thing in the history of American entertainment, utter madness, script be damned, incredibly loud, with action on the stage, behind the stage, in the audience, in the aisles, and in the lobby as people left. None of its 1,404 performances were alike. Skits could be dropped, or stopped midway, or completely altered, or destroyed by manic improvisation. Musical numbers rarely made it uninterrupted. Shills planted in the audience would start yelling or weirding out or heckling or loudly announce, over and over, they were going to the bathroom. Things were dropped from the rafters onto the audience, and buzzers jolted them out of their seats. The fourth wall was not just broken through, it was shredded, it was inverted, it was drawn on, it was pulled inside out, it had its own fourth wall (would that be a fifth wall?) Critics hated it. Audiences loved it. It was vaudeville’s last crazy act, really. That was our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ world, vaudeville, this sort of unapologetic cornball Yiddish and yokel and music hall madness. It’s the anarchy you see in the early Marx Brothers flicks, in Duck Soup and Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, before MGM tamed them. Universal tamed Hellzapoppin, too, or tried to, with an inane love story and too many uninterrupted musical numbers (though Martha Raye was no comic slouch, and there’s a killer jazz and lindy hop bit, just perfect, perhaps the best swing dance movie scene ever). But Olsen and Johnson (and screenwriter Nat Perrin, who also wrote Monkey Business as well as conceived and wrote the original Addams Family) manage to keep the anarchy going, with the fourth wall shattered in a zillion pieces. The first fifteen minutes apparently come closest to the dementia of the live show, and it is probably the most intensely manic comedy I have ever seen on film including the Marx Brothers. It’s more low brow than the Marx Brothers, with none of their intellectual cachet, and I imagine neither Olsen nor Johnson ever sat around the Algonquin Round Table, but it is absolutely insane. Wonderful stuff. If you’re a fan of screwball comedy in its purest and most uncompromising form, or just want to see what it was that died when vaudeville died, I imagine Hellzapoppin’ (apostrophe’d) is essential. Besides, it has the hippest Citizen Kane reference ever: “I thought they burned that thing.”

Joan Marshall

(New Year’s Eve, 2016)

Fyl decided her husband is still too sick to be life of the party on a wet, cold night and so we’re sitting home on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t argue. Besides, there’s a Jack Benny marathon on Antenna TV. When the pizza came It was guest star Frankie Avalon singing, so I joined Fyl in front of her TV watching old Sid Caesar shows and munching on a Palermo’s special, thin crust, crispy, anchovies on half. Taking my empty plate into the kitchen later the Benny marathon was still on in the living room and I could hear Robert Goulet. Even an hour apart the difference in timbre, phrasing, range–hell, in sheer quality of everything–with Frankie Avalon was beyond glaring. Plus Goulet was much, much funnier in the follow up bit, a natural. Funniest of all, though, was Joan Marshall, the woman in the sketch and one of the great undiscovered comic talents of the sixties. Alas, she was gorgeous, and in that decade gorgeous and funny were not allowed to mix. In the thirties she might have been a screwball superstar, another Carole Lombard; in the fifties she could have been the female lead in a sophisticated comedy. But in the sixties only Jack Benny recognized how funny she was and let her run riot in a couple sketches. They said it really bothered Joan that she never got choice comedy roles, and she never seemed happy in her career being beautiful. Hollywood is full of beautiful women. It’s not full of naturally funny people. But sometimes what you are really good at and the times you live in don’t coincide. If only you’d been born twenty years earlier.