Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

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.

 

Made To Happen.

We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.

Huckleberry Finn

Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue has, for reasons I don’t understand, long been home to numerous car dealerships. Maybe this is because it runs more or less parallel to some of the city’s main thoroughfares—West End, Broadway—but Charlotte is also on the edge of the city and parts of it are still a little seedy in spite of rapid gentrification. Venture out that far and you’ll want to make sure you have a way to get back. The railroad also crosses Charlotte at one point, so whether it’s the right or wrong side of the tracks might depend on where you stand, although it’s increasingly becoming mixed. Pricey hipster restaurants rub elbows with Bobby’s Dairy Dip, a ‘50’s era remnant that still serves the best milkshakes in town.

The funny thing is the biggest dealerships, the ones that dealt in late model luxury cars, that have fared the worst while independently owned dealers of used cars—let’s face it, they’re not classy enough to get away with calling their flivvers and jalopies “pre-owned”—have stuck it out through thin and thinner.

Some areas around Charlotte Avenue are also thick with graffiti. The fence in front of one of the car dealerships is especially popular. I don’t know why this is or, for that matter, why the dealership has put up white plastic slats behind the chain-link fence. They might as well put up a sign that says “TAGGERS WELCOME!” Sometimes the tags get painted over but they come right back, as unstoppable as the trumpet vine that climbs over the fence.

Maybe there is no clear explanation for any of this. Maybe the way all these things were made just happened.

 

Bright Knight.

 

Source: SpongeBob Wiki

There were nearly twenty of us packed into a a small hotel room, crowded around a television set. All of us held our breath. The drama unfolding on screen had us tightly gripped. There was deathly silence and then Batman said, “Some days you just can’t rid of a bomb!”

The room exploded with laughter and cheers.

This was of course the 1966 movie Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward, even more atrociously over the top than the TV series, although it lacked the BIFF!s and ZOCK!s the TV version splayed across the screen.

When I first started watching the Batman TV series as a kid, catching daily after-school reruns, I took it very seriously–too seriously, really. I had a very stunted sense of irony so I thought Batman and Robin really were climbing up walls, and I wasn’t educated enough for the celebrity cameos to mean anything to me.

As I got older I started to see the Batman TV series as idiotic, a show for toddlers that still insulted the intelligence of its target audience, not realizing that I still had a stunted sense of irony.

And then as I got older and better educated and read things like Susan Sontag’s Notes On Camp, I started to appreciate the 1960’s Batman, and especially how smart, funny, and even underappreciated Adam West really was. He was a leading man whose deadpan delivery could make almost anything funny, and heightened the humor of funny lines. By the time he and Burt Ward lent their voices to an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, playing younger, fitter versions of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (normally voiced by Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway), well, that was a celebrity cameo that I didn’t just appreciate. It had me literally rolling on the floor laughing.

Hail and farewell, Adam West.

 

Self-Made Stand-Up.

Source: WorldCat

A few years ago Charlie Murphy did a gig at Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville and I wanted to go. I don’t remember why I didn’t—it might have been that I was out of town, or it might have been that I only read about it after he’d come and gone. That still happens to me. I’ll pick up last week’s copy of The Nashville Scene and read about some event and think, hey, I’d like to go to that, oh, wait, it was yesterday, but that’s another story.

This was a few years after Chappelle’s Show and especially the Rick James episode made Charlie Murphy famous, and I wanted to see him do standup because as funny as I thought he was on the show I wanted to get past that. I wanted to know what else Charlie Murphy could do.

What else he could do included writing a memoir, The Making Of A Stand-Up Guy, that opens with this haunting statement:

Anyone who has given up will

never know just how close they

came to winning the game

And then in his introduction he talks about the challenges that came with his own fame, and says,

In order to steer clear of trouble in these new situations, I had to learn to ask myself, What would Rick James do? Then, if I knew what was good for me, I would just do the opposite.

Having a famous brother he must have also gotten some sense of both the benefits and pitfalls of fame, but he was determined to make his own way. And that’s what strikes me about Charlie Murphy: having a famous brother might have been a gateway to comedy, but he didn’t start doing stand-up until he was forty-two, and he was determined to make his own way. He was determined to find his own voice. In 2011, five years after the end of Chappelle’s Show and still working hard as a stand-up comic, Murphy did an interview for The Breakfast Club podcast. He talked about being booed recently at a small venue and said,

Every comedian does get booed and whenever it happens, you know, it’s your fault. Okay, you can never blame it on the audience. It’s your fault because as a comedian you’re supposed to be able to read what the situation is. And sometimes when you get booed even though it’s your fault that’s as far as it goes because you didn’t read it. It doesn’t mean that you wasn’t funny, it means that you didn’t read the situation and come with the right medication for the situation.

Unfortunately there was no medication that could beat back the leukemia that claimed his life at the age of fifty-seven, just fifteen years after he started in stand-up comedy, and I think about how I came so close to seeing him live.

Hail and farewell Charlie Murphy.

Goodbye, Dummy.

In an episode of Tales From The Crypt, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, Don Rickles plays a successful ventriloquist whose career was cut short by a terrible tragedy. After years out of the spotlight an aspiring ventriloquist, played by Bobcat Goldthwaite, asks him to come to a performance. After bombing Rickles tells him, “It wasn’t terrible. Okay, it was terrible. You had no technique, no material, no concentration, and you had no idea how to work the audience.” He then suggests that the younger performer consider another line of work. He seems genuinely pained as he says this, as though he really is speaking to an aspiring performer. Watching it I wonder if his performance came out of experience, if Rickles had to be so brutally honest to younger performers or if, when he was young, he’d been told he’d never make it as a comedian. If it were the latter maybe it would explain the origins of his act. Most comedians try to win audiences over. As the original insult comic Rickles was determined to make audiences hate him, and they loved him for it.

It helped that he so often punched up, going after the rich and famous–in particular Frank Sinatra, but other members of the Rat Pack too. When I was a kid I think my introduction to Rickles was hearing him say, “I don’t hate Sammy Davis Jr. because he’s black. I hate him because he’s a Jew.” He also punched down, too, going after minorities and calling out faults of audience members–he was an equal opportunity offender. It started as an accident, as he would say in interviews. One night, doing badly with prepared jokes, he insulted a man in the audience and got big laughs. And yet the insults were never meant to be real, never meant to hurt. As he says at the end of his album Hello Dummy,

“Will Rogers once said, ‘I never picked on a little guy, only big people.’ May I say to this entire audience, on a hectic night, you are pretty big and I do thank each and every one of you.”

And sometimes Rickles was on the receiving end which could be just as funny. Bob Newhart said they hung out together because “Someone has to be his friend.”

A lot has been written about the rise of stand-up comedy in the latter half of the 20th century, but where many of its innovators–Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce–and members of the generation before–Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Red Skelton–get a lot of attention Don Rickles has barely rated a mention. Gerald Nachmann’s Seriously Funny: Rebel Comedians Of The Fifties And Sixties only describes Rickles as “professionally obnoxious”.

Now that he’s gone I hope he’ll get a fuller, fairer assessment as a comedian and a performer, someone who had technique, material, concentration, and knew how to work an audience, even when he wasn’t in front of an audience, acting on TV shows and in movies ranging from Kelly’s Heroes to the Toy Story films. To simply forget him would be an insult.

Hail and farewell Don Rickles, ya old hockey puck.

 

Learning From History.

Source: Wikipedia

A few years ago I was having lunch with my parents and my father mentioned that in his college days he booked a lot of acts, including standup comedians, to come and perform on campus. I asked him which ones he remembered and started rattling off names of standup comics I knew from that time.

“How do you know all these names?” he asked.

It’s because I’ve always loved standup comedy and a lot of the comedians who’d been rising stars in my father’s time were shining even brighter by the time I came along. And also I’m a geek who’s studied the history of standup because, hey, comedy is a serious thing. I’ve delved deep into it and I’m familiar with performers from the button-down to the wild and crazy and some pretty obscure ones. In fact I’m more fascinated by the obscure in part because fame is such a capricious thing but I also feel a lot of them lay the groundwork for the success of others. Comedians riff off each other which is why the overlooked often deserve to be looked.

So how is it I’ve never heard of Irwin Corey until I learned of his passing? Or maybe he’s one I overlooked.

Corey lived to be 102. He called himself “the World’s Foremost Authority” as a joke but let’s face it: some of us study history but he’d lived through most of it. You don’t get to be that old without learning some pretty important things, such as how to tell the Grim Reaper he wants the house next door.

It’s impossible to learn from history without the means to preserve records of the past and fortunately there are plenty of records of Corey’s work. Now if you’ll excuse me I have some studying to do.

Hail and farewell Irwin Corey.

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