Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

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.


Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

In 1987 the novel Postcards From The Edge came out and I thought, I’d like to read that, even though at the time all I was reading was science fiction and a semi-autobiographical story of a recovering drug addict was about as far from that as I could get. Except it was by Carrie Fisher, and that intrigued me. Sure, in my mind she was and would always be Princess Leia, but it was fascinating to think of her as a real person, independent of the part she played. Unfortunately I didn’t read it then; maybe I should now.

Like a lot of my generation I was a Star Wars fan. Like a lot of my friends I had, among other things, all the action figures, including Princess Leia. Most of my friends were boys and while in those days it might have seemed a little strange for a boy to have a female action figure in his collection Princess Leia was cool. Part of that was the way she was written George Lucas is a director who’s known for not giving his actors a lot of direction at least part of it is what Carrie Fisher herself brought to the role.

In fact one of the most disappointing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is the gradual decline of Princess Leia. She starts off a sharp, sarcastic, laser-shooting warrior princess, but by Return Of The Jedi, even though it’s revealed she’s got as much Jedi potential as her brother Luke, her personality diminishes even as her outfits multiply. The irony of Star Wars is that a light fantasy film about the defeat of an empire would become a sprawling empire of its own, and the tough, witty, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” Princess Leia would be one of the first casualties.

I think I missed that partly because I was a guy and partly because I was such a Star Wars fan, but it hit me many years ago when one of the cable channels was running a marathon of what were, at the time, the only three Star Wars films. This was post-VHS, pre-DVD, and very definitely pre-Phantom. Between commercials there were segments of Carrie Fisher offering up comments. During a Jedi-break, just as Luke, Han, and Chewie were about to be tossed into the Saarlac pit, Fisher said on set she’d improvised a line: “Don’t worry about me guys! I’ll be fine!” She then smiled and said, “I’m really glad to see George left it in.”

That’s when I realized Carrie Fisher was funny. I should have realized it earlier. I remember staying up late to see her host Saturday Night Live–the only member of the main cast to do so. And I’d be reminded of how funny she could be when I heard about non-Star Wars things she was doing, like her one-woman show Wishful Drinking. The strong, independent, and funny Princess Leia from the first film seemed to be the closest to Carrie Fisher herself, and that would be the character who’d influence strong, independent, and funny women who followed, like Tina Fey who wrote a great tribute.

Even now I kind of have mixed feelings about it, and I wonder how she herself felt. She was extremely talented but nothing else she did ever matched that first success. And yet that amazing success is more than most actors will ever know. Princess Leia helped bring down an empire, but the woman who played her helped build one.

Hail and farewell Carrie Fisher.


Traveler’s Rest.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

The life of a character actor seems like it would be hard but also rewarding. If you can accept the uncertainty and frustration, if you can accept rarely, if ever, being recognized, if you truly believe the saying that there are no small parts, or at least that having a part is its own reward, and if you love acting then being a character actor must be a pretty amazing job. Some character actors get around a lot–they get to travel from role to role, covering a wide range.

I thought about that when I heard about the passing of Bernard Fox, an actor who brought a big personality to small roles on the big screen and some big roles on small screens. Most remembrances refer to his recurring role of Dr. Bombay on Bewitched. He also had a recurring role as Colonel Crittendon on Hogan’s Heroes.

I was never much of a fan of either of those shows–I had no idea he had roles on them–but I remember him from two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show I first saw as a kid and which immediately became my favorites. I think I’ve always been an Anglophile but when the character Malcom Merriweather rolled into Mayberry he gave me an early impression of what British people were like. Okay, he was mostly a stereotype, but in his first episode he takes a job as Andy’s valet. Decades before Downton Abbey he gave a glimpse of what life downstairs, and upstairs, might be like as he tried to treat Sheriff Taylor like an English lord.

Yeah, it was pretty cheesy, and so was his return visit a year later when he steps up to assist Aunt Bea, but Fox was so charming he made it almost believable.

And what made the stories even more memorable to me is that Merriweather always arrived by bicycle, a freewheeling traveler seeing the United States and making money by picking up odd jobs in small towns–not unlike the job of a character actor.

It was an idea that made an impression on me too. I never did it but I always thought it would be a fun way to see the world–and get to know people, to go around taking up odd jobs. I sometimes rode a Greyhound bus between Nashville and Evansville and for some reason the bus took a lot of back roads, passing through the edges of small towns–what was normally a two hour trip by car took more than four hours by bus because of its strange route. And there were times I remembered Malcolm Merriweather, even though he was a fictional character whose travels were decades earlier, and I didn’t have a bicycle. Still I was sometimes tempted to step off in the middle of a small town and see if I could get a small job–and maybe move across the country that way.

Bernard Fox is also fondly remembered for his role in 1999‘s The Mummy as British RAF pilot Captain Winston Havlock, stranded and bored in Cairo, wishing for one more chance to fly, one more big adventure–also like any dedicated character actor, always in search of that next role, that next adventure, always moving to some new part of the world.

Hail and farewell Bernard Fox.

Update: Here’s “Valet”, the episode of The Andy Griffith Show that introduced Malcolm Merriweather.


Looking Glass.

I’m old enough that I watched Barney Miller when it first ran, although young enough that I didn’t quite get all the jokes. A decade or so it ran in late night syndication I watched it again and enjoyed it even more, but one thing remained the same throughout: Detective Harris, played by Ron Glass, was one of the coolest people ever. He was a dedicated cop but what stood out to me was he was also a writer. I have a lot of literary models but even before I knew I wanted to be a writer Detective Harris was my model for the kind of person a writer could be. He balanced his day job and his artistic ambitions–or sometimes didn’t always balance them. Barney Miller‘s opening credits for at least one season show him banging away at a precinct typewriter, using office supplies for his own personal pursuit. And in one episode he used an office phone to have a lengthy argument with his publisher. The lurid cover of his novel Blood On The Badge, which he described as “hemorrhaging”, made it look like a cheap thriller, not the serious work of fiction he’d written. It was the first time I understood the writer as more than just a storyteller. Detective Harris was passionate and thoughtful, an artist.

A few years later I was majoring in English at the University of Evansville with hopes of being a writer myself and learned that Ron Glass had also been a student there a few decades earlier. The irony was not lost on me, although it wasn’t really funny. It was more a feeling that he and I really did share something.

Others will of course remember Ron Glass from the tragically short-lived Firefly. I loved it too. Even though he was a very different character, gentler and more avuncular, I still felt like his playing a scholarly priest named “Book” was a nod to Detective Harris.

And in between he made an appearance on an ’80’s reboot of The Twilight Zone with the also amazing Sherman Helmsley that I’ve never forgotten. He played a very different character, showing his range, but still as cool as always.

Hail and farewell Ron Glass.


So Right, So Long.


I learned about Kevin Meaney from Dr. Katz Professional Therapist where he was a “patient” so it’s fittingly ironic that I would learn about his passing from a bona fide therapist, the amazing Ann Koplow, who mentioned Meaney’s sudden loss on her blog The Year(s) of Living Non-Judgmentally. She’s also a regular visitor her which tickles me because she’s been lucky enough to know and work with some amazingly funny people, but that’s another story.

For many comedians of Kevin Meaney’s generation–he was born April 23rd, 1956–there was a distinct career trajectory: develop six good minutes of material, do Carson (later Letterman), get a sitcom. Movies and more fame would inevitably follow, but the idea seemed to be to get off the stage, out of the small dark clubs.

Was that Meaney’s ambition? Maybe. On his album That’s Not Right–which I was very lucky to find a copy of a few years ago in a music store–he impersonates his wife and mother, imagining both of them responding to some of his jokes with “That’s not right!” and his wife worrying that some of his jokes will alienate so many people “We’re going to lose the house!” He also talks about his hilarious and edgy Aunt Rose who I think was his inspiration for going into comedy. It seems like the stuff of a sitcom, but I prefer to think Meaney didn’t want to go that route. I hope he enjoyed working the clubs, alternately winning and alienating audiences.

He did briefly play the lead on the sitcom Uncle Buck which was panned and quickly canceled as well as working for several TV shows. He also did a really funny promo for Comedy Central, impersonating his mother saying, “Why do you have to do commercials for Comedy Central? Your brothers don’t do commercials for Comedy Central!” The promo ended with the tagline, “We’ve got every comedian and their mother.”

He also had a complicated personal life, openly admitting he was gay after he and his wife had been married for ten years and had a daughter.

I used to have That’s Not Right loaded on my iPhone and it would tickle me to play music on shuffle, to go from a song to Kevin Meaney yelling “I’m a dirty boy!” During some upgrade it slipped off and it’s been too long since I listened to it.

That’s not right.

Hail and farewell, Kevin Meaney.


No More Mr. Tough Guy.

Source: IndependentThere’s something special about character actors. Whether they’re deep background, doing cameos, or in supporting roles they add depth and color. And some of them stand out, like Jon Polito. Chances are you’re like me and don’t recognize Polito’s name but recognize his face. When I saw his picture I said, “Hey, it’s that guy who was in…that thing.” Lots of things, actually. He was a favorite of the Coen Brothers, appearing in Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski as well as appearances on Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show, and Modern Family. He also lent his voice–his distinctive voice–to several animated works.
And I was sorry to hear of his passing. I didn’t even know his name, I just knew him as that guy. Known for mostly playing tough guy roles, whether as a cop or gangster, the characters Polito played weren’t exactly people I’d like to know but there was something about him I did like. Like any great actor he inhabited every role completely, and even when he was only playing a cameo role, supporting the main cast, he was always more than just background.
Hail and farewell Jon Polito.


No Escaping Destiny.

Source: Wikipedia

Are we born the person we become or are we made by the events that follow? I know that “a little of both” is waffling on the nature versus nurture question, but who really thinks waffles are a bad thing? Excuse me. There’s something I want to discuss but I’m trying to avoid it at the same time. Let me start over.

In different interviews, such as one he gave on Inside The Actors’ Studio or this one for PBS Gene Wilder credited his mother with turning him into an actor, although indirectly. She had a heart attack when he was seven or eight and her doctor told Gene that if he got angry with his mother it could kill her, “but try to make her laugh.”

Maybe that’s why he was so perfect for roles ranging from The Frisco Kid to The Waco Kid, and more than one generation grew up with Wilder as Willy Wonka. In his roles he was so often a man tap dancing on the edge, and sometimes he kept dancing even as he toppled over and went spinning into empty space. Then there were his collaborations with Richard Pryor, where the two played off each others’ weaknesses, turning them into strengths. But was Wilder made into an actor by the trauma he shared with his mother or was it simply the spark that ignited something that was already there?

No actor, especially one whose played such diverse roles as Gene Wilder, can be summed up by a single role, but in addition to being one of my favorite movies–one that always makes me laugh–Young Frankenstein, which was originally Wilder’s idea and co-written with Mel Brooks, seems to me the most personal of Wilder’s films. Frederick Frankenstein is born into an infamous family, seemingly fated by his decision to become a doctor to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, and yet fate isn’t enough–a whole series of events and characters push or drag him to his destiny. And Gene Wilder runs the whole range, playing straight in one scene and funny in the next, going from morose to manic and around again, always terrified but focused on giving life.

Hail and farewell Gene Wilder.

Him & His Shadow.

Source: The Guardian

Another kid and I were arguing about Star Wars. This was the late ‘70’s and we were both kids so of course Star Wars was on our minds. If we weren’t talking about it we were acting out scenes and making up our own stories, and if we weren’t doing that we were arguing about it. I was telling him about an article I’d read about the special effects in Star Wars and how they were done. He was shocked that C-3PO and R2-D2 were played by people, that they weren’t real robots. He got pretty upset about it too and finally went off in a huff saying, “Well the spaceships didn’t have people in ‘em! They were real!”

I feel kind of bad for spoiling the illusion for him but for me, as much as I would have liked to be in a world of real robots and spaceships, there was something just as cool about knowing the robots were real people.

Kenny Baker, the very real person who played R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, passed away recently.

The funny thing is when I heard the news I didn’t think about Star Wars. My first thought was Terry Gilliam’s movie Time Bandits, which came out between the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I saw it in the theater and while there was a lot about it that stuck with me—I was just discovering Monty Python at the time—the main thing was Kenny Baker was in the main cast. I purposely looked for him in the film, always thinking, That’s the guy who plays R2-D2.

That seems strangely poignant now considering that Time Bandits is about a young boy who gets dragged into a fantastic adventure by a quintet of time travelers—one of whom is Kenny Baker. Fantasy in Time Bandits isn’t an illusion; it’s simply another layer of reality. And he helped make it real.

Hail and farewell Kenny Baker.

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