Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

Answering The Call.

Source: NPR

The clock radio in our bedroom wakes up my wife and I. It’s set to NPR and for years most weekday mornings we’d be stirred out of sleep by the gentle baritone of Carl Kasell reading the morning headlines. There was something comforting about his voice, even when it was bad news, and he was as much a part of my morning routine as taking a shower, brewing coffee, taking the dogs out, and flossing my toes. Then he went away and while his successors were fine it was never quite the same. Then an odd little comedy news quiz called Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! started up, hosted by the guy who wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, Peter Sagal. Every fool has to have his straight man and it was Carl Kasell who stepped in. He was as somber and professional as the show’s scorekeeper as he was when reading the headlines, although every once in a while it I’d hear a strange, low rumbling. It took a while before I could get used to the sound of Kasell laughing. Now he didn’t wake us up in the mornings but he accompanied us on errands around town and on road trips, for an hour, anyway, or until we drove out of broadcasting range.
Kasell was always honest that in its early days Wait! Wait! just wasn’t that good but, to their credit, the powers that be at NPR allowed some tweaks to the show, including the addition of a live audience, that made it great. They recognized that it had potential, or maybe they just liked the prize: lucky listeners would get Carl Kasell to record the outgoing message on their home answering machine.
Several years ago when Wait! Wait! came to Nashville and was recorded at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center my wife surprised me with tickets and we got to go. It was fun seeing the panel banter back and forth with Peter and talk to the “Not My Job” guest Vince Gill, but what made it really special was that, off to one side of the stage at his own podium, was Carl Kasell. No offense to his successor who does a fine job, but I was so glad to finally get a good look at the man who joined us in our car and came into our bedroom every morning for so many years.
Hail and farewell Carl Kasell.

 

Hat Trick.

Source: NBC.com

In one episode of the TV show Night Court Judge Harry Stone meets a younger version of himself: a kid in a three-piece suit and a fedora who does magic tricks. Faced with this window into his past the judge moans, “Oh God, I was a geek!” And I said, what? No! Judge Harry Stone is cool!

For some of us who grew up with Night Court’s original run from early 1984 to May of 1993—because it was strategically placed right after Cheers I watched it from the very beginning—the show is part of, and even represents, a cultural change that happened during that time. The 1970’s preached non-conformity but it was really the ‘80’s that embraced it. Night Court started off more or less grounded in reality but its throwaway lines and then whole plots became increasingly surreal. Night Court made it hip to be square, or polygonal, and at its heart its stabilizing influence was the barely stable Judge Harry Stone, prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan, played by the prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan Harry Anderson.

While his Judge Stone character was squeaky clean it tickled me when Anderson showed up occasionally on Cheers as the grifter Harry The Hat, and when he hosted Saturday Night Live and stuffed a guinea pig in his mouth and shot magician Doug Henning in the back. I liked it that he had a dark side, and that it was just as weird as his light side.

I know he did more TV after Night Court finished, but it wasn’t until I heard about his untimely passing that I thought about how much Night Court and Harry Anderson warped my adolescent mind. In 2006 he moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I have cousins there who take pride in that city being known for its weirdness and openness and being labelled a “cesspool of sin”. It seems fitting that Harry Anderson, who helped some of us embrace our own weirdness, would live in a place that embraced it right back.

Hail and farewell Harry Anderson.

 

 

Looking Outward.

Source: Wikipedia

In 2010 Stephen Hawking said that humans should stop sending signals out into space because we run the risk of letting aliens know we’re here. According to Hawking it could be very bad if aliens find us, and he compared it to Europeans discovering Native Americans. The Europeans did bring syphilis and smallpox, but they also brought horses, so aliens could potentially do something similar.

I really do respect Stephen Hawking and I don’t think he offered up his opinion lightly. He has a history of carefully thinking things through. When he was at Oxford-–this is absolutely true-–he was a lazy and unmotivated student but told his professors that if they gave him a first he’d leave to go study at Cambridge and if they gave him a second he’d stay at Oxford. So naturally they gave him a first.

I once did something similar: I managed to pass sixth grade math by telling the teacher that if she flunked me I’d just come back the next year, but that’s another story. Sometimes I imagine his old Oxford professors getting sloppy drunk. One of them says, “Dude, we let Stephen Hawking go.” And the other one says, “He was such a slacker then. How could we know he was gonna write bestselling books and play poker with Data and Einstein on the Enterprise holodeck? And stop calling me ‘dude’. We’re both in our nineties.”

If I could ask Stephen Hawking one question, though, it would be, “What led you to the conclusion that aliens are a threat? And show your work.” I have to include “show your work” because, even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t just leap to this conclusion I would like to know how he arrived at it. I think Hawking may be completely wrong about aliens, but it’s an interesting question to debate, and I credit Hawking with making me think about my own position.

The problem I have with the assumption that aliens are going to come and put an interstellar smackdown on us if we let them know we’re here is that, as far as I know, we really don’t know what aliens are like or what their interests are. I think Hawking was right when he said the universe is likely teeming with life, and given how diverse life is just on this planet whatever forms that life takes are likely very strange, even unrecognizable. If he’s smart enough to have figured that out, though, he should be smart enough to realize that if aliens are capable of advanced interstellar travel they’re probably already aware of us. And if they’re not aware of us they’ve probably already scanned this solar system and discovered that there’s a nice rocky little planet full of water and silicon and heavy metals and Viagra and whatever else they might need to continue their galactic cruise. And if their technology is that advanced then everything we have is theirs for the taking whether we advertise our sentience or not. That’s also why I admit that Hawking may be right. I hope someday we’ll meet aliens on friendly terms, but the universe is a cold, hostile place. Some nights when I look out and see the moon cut into pieces by the spreading branches of a tree I wonder what is out there and I am afraid.

Hail and farewell Stephen Hawking.

Magic Man.

Source: Chicago Tribune

Any time I get hooked on a show it’s because of the characters. I’m not naïve enough to think they’re real people or even that the actors are anything like the characters they play, although I do always kind of hope they are because the reason I’m devoting half an hour to a sitcom is because I think, if these people were real I’d enjoy hanging out with them. Take, for instance, Frasier. Yes, I could definitely see myself attending the theater or an art gallery with Frasier and Niles, but I also thought I’d be just as happy having a beer at Duke’s with Martin. Again I know they’re not real people but Martin was wonderfully brought to life by John Mahoney. Take, for instance, my favorite exchange from the whole series, from the season 3 episode Chess Pains:

Frasier: Oh, hi, Dad. Did you see my new chess set?
Martin: Oh yeah, it’s nice.
Frasier: “Nice?” Well, the inlay was made from the same Travertine marble they used at the Emperor Hadrian’s palace outside Tivoli!
Martin: Really? Well, I’m gonna celebrate with a beverage brewed from the crystal-clear waters of the majestic Colorado Rockies!
Frasier: Good one, Dad. Say, how about a game?
Martin: Nah, I don’t think so.
Frasier: Oh, come on, Dad. You know how to play, don’t you?
Martin: Well, Daphne showed me once. But really, checkers is more my speed.
Frasier: Oh, come on, checkers is a kid’s game. Come on, Dad! I just got it! Please? Nobody will play with me!
Martin: All right, I’ll give it another shot. Those guys at the park make it look great-eating baloney sandwiches, smoking cigars, sometimes a fist-fight even breaks out!
Frasier: Well, let’s just start with name-calling and see where it goes, all right?

It’s a funny bit but it’s really the way Mahoney and Grammer, especially Mahoney, commit to it and play off each other that makes it. Then after I got hooked on Frasier it was a real treat to go back and rewatch Moonstruck, Say Anything, and The American President, and to watch The Broken Hearts Club just to see the different characters he could be–always charming, always distinctively John Mahoney, and yet so different from role to role.

He started acting at the age of thirty-seven but Mahoney was serious and dedicated to the craft. As brilliant as he was on TV and in movies he preferred the theater, working live before an audience. In a 2014 interview he said, “The audience has a job and the actors have a job and when you both do your job and meet the result is just magical.”

He really brought the magic. Hail and farewell John Mahoney.

A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose.

There’s a longstanding misconception in standup comedy that women aren’t funny. It still hangs around a few dark corners and I’m not sure why because as long as there have been women there have been funny women, and even in standup’s earliest days, when the prejudice was most prominent, there were a few real women who could be at least as funny as, if not funnier than, their male counterparts. And there was at least one fictional one: Sally Rogers, part of the trio of writers for the fictional Alan Brady Show, which was the backdrop of the real Dick Van Dyke Show. Let me make that a little clearer: at a time when it was popularly believed women weren’t funny a woman played the role of a TV comedy writer. And that woman was, of course, Rose Marie.

It’s probably too much of a stretch but I like to think Rose Marie’s very funny, and also very charming, portrayal of Sally Rogers, helped pave the way for other women, including cast member Mary Tyler Moore who was just as funny and who’d go on to be a fictional TV news show producer at a time when it was still widely believed that was a job a woman couldn’t do. Unfortunately we also lost Moore in 2017.

Of course it was an occasional joke on The Dick Van Dyke Show that Sally’s co-workers didn’t see her as a woman. This is emphasized in a season one episode, “Sally Is A Girl”, in which Rob, Buddy, and Mel get together a poker game. They won’t let Laura play because they all insist they don’t play poker with women, but are happy to have Sally join. After all she bowls, drinks brandy, and smokes cigars just like the guys. At least this was supposed to be a joke. Even as a kid, watching daily reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, I thought Sally was great as she was, and, in an earlier episode, “Sally And The Lab Technician”, while Rob and Laura worry she’s not being feminine enough it was no surprise to me that Sally’s date, Thomas, thinks she’s great. It’s telling that the writers and producers thought this would be a surprise, and reflects just how deeply rooted sexism was at the time. Now we can, or at least should, accept that Sally could be both one of the guys and one of the gals and that all she really had to be was happy with who she was, although there’s still progress to be made.

My real subject, though, is Rose Marie, who brought Sally to life, and who was just as sharp and fearless as the characters she played. This fearlessness went all the way back to when she first sang on stage at the age of three and almost immediately became a star. In her autobiography Hold The Roses she shares stories of other showbiz stars she met, including, early in her career, Al Jolson.

“Oh, Mr. Jolson, you were so great, you made me cry!”

He looked at me and said, “You were great too, ya little runt.”

Nice man! However every time we would appear together at benefits, like the Milk Fund at Madison Square Garden, he would spot me with my father, come over and say, “Hi, ya little runt. You gonna go out and kill the people?”

I would look up at him and say, “I hope so.”

No need to hope, Rose Marie. You killed ’em. You were smart, talented, and, most of all, funny. Hail and farewell.

He Was Grrreat!

Source: Wikipedia

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,

You really are a heeeeellll….

If you’ve seen the 1966 animated classic Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! you’re probably hearing that song in your head now, but do you know who sang it? Now, before you went to Google and looked it up did you know who sang it? The narration was done by Boris Karloff, but the song “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft whose name was accidentally left out of the credits, which is extraordinary because I can’t imagine a copywriter passing up the chance to type out the name Thurl Ravenscroft. It’s not as though we’re talking about Howard Keel. How could you forget the name Thurl Ravenscroft? There may even be bloggers who write posts about the song just as an excuse to write out the name Thurl Ravenscroft, but that’s another story.

So, aside from the man with a fantastic name and a voice that registers on seismographs who was Thurl Ravenscroft? Born February 6th, 1922, he was a voice actor and singer who lent his voice to several animated productions, many of them Disney films beginning with 1941’s Dumbo. He was also a founding member of a singing quartet called The Mellomen who also recorded under the name Big John and The Buzzards, and sang backup for several singers, including Elvis Presley. A devout Christian he also recorded albums of hymns and wanted to be the voice of an audio version of the entire Bible but James Earl Jones was selected instead. Even though James Earl Jones is an excellent actor with a great voice, though, he doesn’t have a name like Thurl Ravenscroft. Thurl Ravenscroft did, however, provide the voice of Darth Vader for a Donny and Marie Osmond Star Wars sketch, although the less said about that the better.

For more than fifty years Thurl Ravenscroft also provided the voice of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes mascot Tony The Tiger. In a 2004 interview originally published in Hogan’s Alley: The Magazine Of The Cartoon Arts Ravenscroft mentioned that he’d been doing the voice of Tony for fifty-three years. It would be his last interview before his death in May 2005.

And now that you know you’re unlikely to forget Thurl Ravenscroft.

The Confessor.

Source: shelleyberman.com

“My whole act is confession.”

-Shelley Berman, February 3, 1925 – September 1, 2017

Maybe the name Shelley Berman doesn’t sound familiar to you even though his first comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman, sold over a million copies and he was the first comedian to perform at Carnegie Hall, but even if you think you haven’t heard of him you have heard his influence in every whining, complaining comedian who turns anthills into Everests. He turned confession into comedy at a time when most other comedians were doing character monologues. He was obsessed with himself, but in a good way, because he portrayed himself as deeply insecure, worried about everything, so you felt sorry for him. He played, and could have even inspired, a ludicrously misanthropic character in the Twilight Zone episode “The Mind And The Matter” as a man who discovers he hates all of humanity but discovers he hates himself even more. As historian Gerald Nachmann says, “Something about Shelley Berman made you want to throw your arm around the guy and tell him that everything was going to be all right.” He was described as “everymanic”, and when Time did its infamous piece on the new generation of “sick comics” it’s surprising he wasn’t singled out as the sickest. Maybe it all started at the Chicago improv group The Compass Players, where Berman brought plenty of neurotic baggage and doing improv learned to unpack it. The Compass produced several other notable comics—in fact at one point Berman almost formed a trio with his fellow players Nichols & May, but they realized they worked better as a duo and he was too much of an individual to share the stage. And yet he also credits others for his success. Night after night he worked on a bit that came from an audience suggestion: a man waking up with a hangover from a party the night before. He kept repeating a line about throwing the host’s lamp out the window until one night a fellow cast member offstage whispered “Make it his cat”. “The Morning After The Night Before” became one of his funniest and most successful pieces and has a hilarious opening line: “My tongue is asleep and my teeth itch.” There’s also a prologue in which he assures the audience no cats were harmed, long before such disclaimers became standard.

He was such an intense individual he even did standup his own way—sitting down.

The tragedy of Berman is that the nervous, irritable, insecure character on stage was a nervous, irritable, insecure man in real life. He was an obsessive worker for whom every detail had to be just right, which earned him a bad reputation and cost him work. A 1963 documentary that showed him screaming backstage because a phone had rung during one of his routines almost destroyed his career, forcing him to take smaller and lower paying gigs. In fact it was the second time a phone had interrupted him that night, but the documentary was edited to show him melting down after just one. Some think the producers also had the phone ring deliberately to set him off, making him an early victim of “reality” television. Such obsessiveness might have been forgiven from a well-known actor interrupted in the middle of Hamlet’s soliloquy, but audiences and critics were surprised and turned off by a nightclub comic who took being funny so seriously. Maybe success—which, no matter how hard he worked, some who knew him said he didn’t feel he deserved—magnified his own personality, but it also magnified how others perceived him. Years later he’d say, “people are still surprised when I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and that I don’t have saber teeth.”

Yet he never entirely dropped out of the limelight. He would also turn his attention to writing books and teaching, and while he’d still do some comedy performances he focused on acting, which is what drew him to The Compass Players in the first place. A quick glance at his IMDB page shows him working steadily, and in his influence he may never be forgotten.

Hail and farewell Shelley Berman.

 

 

 

Death Of A Clown.

Source: Wikipedia

When I was a kid the local UHF station would show a Jerry Lewis movie every Sunday afternoon, and I loved them. Every weekday after school there was the Three Stooges marathon, but I realized Lewis’s humor was a much more mature, sophisticated slapstick, and getting the jokes made me feel grown up. He could also somehow take a punchline you’d see coming a mile away, like the setting up of chairs In The Bellboy, and make it hilarious. Some of his films, including Three Ring Circus and The Nutty Professor, could also get pretty dark, and I liked it that he could balance comedy and drama, that he wasn’t restricting himself to one or the other. I think I was also dimly aware that there was a connection between Lewis and the contemporary comedians I also saw, although it would be years later before I’d realize he was kind of a transitional figure between the old vaudeville comedians and the ones for whom a big break meant television or, if they were really lucky, film. Jerry Lewis, who wrote a serious book called The Total Film-Maker, really did appreciate film as a medium few comedians before him had. Unlike others he understood that comedy on film meant more than doing or saying something funny in-frame. He understood the value of the close-up, the cutaway, the edit. That he could also act while keeping every detail of the scene in mind is extraordinary.

I get that he was also a difficult person to work with, demanding, sometimes outright cruel, but people who worked with or knew him also described him as generous, kind, and understanding. He famously never won an Oscar but in 2009 the Academy did give him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Go read Chuck Baudelaire’s very poignant post about that.

While I loved Jerry Lewis’s comedies as a kid the film of his I enjoyed, and still enjoy, most as an adult is The King of Comedy. Granted it’s not really one of his films, but working with the tag team duo of Scorcese and DeNiro he really shows his full range and depth as a dramatic actor. In an early scene when he talks to DeNiro, who plays an ambitious comic who wants to jump straight to the top, about the business Lewis has a faraway look in his eyes as though he’s lecturing a classroom. It’s powerful in its subtlety and says so much about his character. Even in the back of a dark limo in front of an audience of one he’s still a performer. In other scenes with DeNiro he’s more direct and personal. These moments the fantasies of a possibly psychotic mind, but Lewis has no trouble playing them as completely real.

A short time later, after telling DeNiro he’s having dinner with “some people”, we see him sitting alone at a table eating. He’s not reading or watching TV or doing anything except eating. His posture and expression, though, still exude confidence and dignity. Even when he’s alone he can’t drop the mask.

Maybe there was still a lingering miasma from his “comeback film”, Hardly Working, released three years earlier, or a shadow from what would be his last film, Smorgasbord, which had a limited U.S. release in 1983, but Jerry Lewis deserved an Oscar for his performance in The King Of Comedy. Of course, it’s DeNiro’s character in the film who calls himself “the king of comedy”, but the irony is we all know who really wore the crown.

Hail to the King. Hail and farewell Jerry Lewis.

 

 

Home Run.

Baseball was desegregated in 1947, and on January 13th, 1961, a growing American pastime–standup comedy–would be too. Dick Gregory stepped to the plate at Chicago’s Playboy Club and hit it out of the park. It wasn’t exactly a planned moment. Gregory was still working a day job at a car wash when he was brought in as a last-minute replacement for that night’s scheduled performer. He then broke other barriers, refusing to go on The Tonight Show unless he could sit down and talk to host Jack Paar. This was something other guests routinely did, but only if they were white. Gregory was uncompromising but also simply asking to be treated equally. As comedian and actor Dr. George Wallace, who shared memories of Gregory on NPR tells it,

He’s going, hey, my jokes are just as good as theirs. Why can’t I get attention? Why can’t they treat me like they treat the white – equally. Bring me to sit on the sofa. I’ve got a few words to say. He first hung up on Jack Parr. That was NBC at the time. That’s what you call groundbreaking material right there, hung up on NBC.

And he was funny and his jokes were just as good as those of other comedians, and while he told some conventional jokes–like one about how he’d read so much about smoking and cancer he quit reading–his personal perspective as an African American gave greater depth to some of his jokes, like,

I sat at a lunch counter for nine months. When they finally integrated they didn’t have what I wanted.

While Lenny Bruce was doing a bit about how amazing it was that performers get paid so much while teachers get paid so little Gregory offered a more pointed perspective, saying,

I love America. Where else can I ride in the back of the bus, have a choice of the worst schools, the worst restaurants, the worst neighborhoods–and average five thousand dollars a week just talking about it?

He didn’t just talk about it either. He would drop a club appearance to attend a civil rights rally, although he’d always make it up later. As the sixties went on too he dropped the genial tone that originally made him a success and became a sharper, more caustic comedian, and not just a comedian. He ran for mayor of Chicago, getting 22,000 votes, then for president. He was shot in the leg during the Watts riots. He committed himself to working for the civil rights movement and while racism is an issue of moral health his concerns extended globally and he also became an advocate for physical health. In 1984 he founded Health Enterprises, Inc. and specifically addressed the health of African Americans which he felt was impaired by alcohol and drug abuse and also poor nutrition because of poverty. Although he continued working as a comedian his lifelong passion was making the world better through more than just laughter.

Hail and farwell Dick Gregory.

 

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