Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"School"

I never studied comedy formally, but I studied it informally all my life. I always noticed the funny things going on around me. When I was around eight, I noticed something unusual about a waiter at a restaurant our family frequented. As a result of always delivering his orders on a tray balanced on his left shoulder, the man’s head remained permanently tilted to the right.

Even without the tray, his head was angled at a forty-five degree trajectory. He’d be taking our order, and the head would be “over there.” Like he’s thinking, “The tray’s coming back; why should I bother straightening up?” Realistically, it was likely a work-related situation. A carpal tunnel of the neck.

Whatever the reason, the “tilted head” waiter was funny, and I caught it. These observational sensibilities seemed to set me apart. It’s like there’s this comedy dog whistle that not everybody could hear, but I could. (So, by the way, could my brother and my mother. They laughed at the “tilted head” too. Though I was the one who pointed it out.)

(Another by the way: In order to respond as we did to “tilted head”, you had to be aware that, one: the condition was not serious, and two: it was therefore okay to laugh. You have to be careful about that. A blind waiter, for example…well…hm. It’s tricky. It’s fine to be entertained by your surroundings, but you don’t want to cross over into, “Who cares? It’s funny.” At least, I don’t. Which could explain why I’m not working in comedy anymore.)

Real life offers a limitless opportunity for observed comedy. I recently spent an entire plane ride from Chicago to Los Angeles cackling over a nearby passenger’s “funny sneeze.” You have to do something to take your mind off the crippling lack of legroom in “coach”, especially when you’re in the middle seat. The “sneeze” handled that quite nicely.

Of course, there’s more to life than life, especially when you’re hungry for comedy. For me, growing up, there was radio, offering hilarious prototypes of beloved sitcoms to come. There were comic books, where I discovered the character I hoped I would one day become – “Uncle Scrooge.” There were movies – The Bowery Boys, Ma and Pa Kettle

“I think there’s a hole in the roof.”

“How do you know?”

“I finished my soup three times.”

Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Francis, the Talking Mule, and highlighted by my still favorite comedy of all time, The Court Jester.

In later years, there were influential plays (A Thousand Clowns) and books (The stories of Bruce J. Friedman and Catch-22.) But without question, the greatest influence on me, by far, was television.

Living in Toronto, we received our American “feeds” from TV stations in Buffalo. There was also Canadian TV, but it was pretty much restricted to hockey telecasts and National Film Board documentaries on the migratory habits of the Canada Goose. Not caring that much about geese, I gravitated the American stuff.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my greatest TV show influences growing up – The Jack Benny Program, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which I ended up working on). Though I sensed that these shows were somehow superior, it wasn’t like I was that discriminating in my viewing habits. How would I describe my viewing habits? I’d watched anything that was on the air. From Singalong Jubilee to John Nagy’s Learn to Draw.

I did, however, draw the line at French Canadian bowling. That was the “red flag” for me – finding myself in front of the television on a bright, sunshiny day, watching a bowling program emanating from Montreal, hosted by French-speaking-only announcers. That was the sign that I really needed help.

I didn’t, however, pick up the phone and call a Teleholics Anonymous support group, though perhaps I should have. Instead, I performed what, for me, was an equally courageous act.

I turned off the television and I went outside.

Hey, Earl, which TV show would you say influenced you the most?

Thanks for asking, Italics Man. If any program inspired me to consider a career in comedy – which I actually never considered, because to consider something means imagining you can do it, and I never imagined I could do anything.

Let me start that sentence again; it kind of ran away from me. If any program unconsciously planted the seed that people were doing something that I kinda knew how to do too, it was the weekly series that ran for twenty-three years on CBS. I refer, of course, to the incomparable Ed Sullivan Show.

For me, The Ed Sullivan Show was “school.” Ironically, The Ed Sullivan Show also meant school. The show was broadcast on Sunday nights, and no matter how much you were caught up in the entertainment, you could still feel Monday, coming at you like a runaway train. There was no getting around it. The sequence was inevitable.

Ed Sullivan.

Bedtime.

School.

For my family, Sundays at eight, there was nothing else on the air. I had heard whispers of The Steve Allen Show and MaverickNBC and ABC’s competing programming – but I never once saw them. In our house, you had two choices. You could watch Ed Sullivan or you could go to bed. If you dared touch the dial to change the channel, it was like in those bible movies where they touched the Ark of the Covenant.

You died.

In its day, The Ed Sullivan Show was by far the most influential show on the air. “Doing the Sullivan Show” meant you were “made.” You could coast on that credit for decades. Advertisements for local performances trumpeted, “Direct from The Ed Sullivan Show” years after the performer’s, possibly, single appearance on the show. There is no counterpart to the Sullivan Show on the airwaves today.

You getting the picture? This was a really important show.

The Ed Sullivan Show was a variety show in the truest sense of the word. It presented every type of performer imaginable. Singers – from The Beatles to the Metropolitan Opera – dancers – from tap to ballroom to ballet. There were jugglers, magicians, acrobats, bicyclists, plate spinners, animal acts, excerpts from current Broadway shows – the most fabulous performers from around the world. And, of course, there were my favorites, the people I’d wait patiently through the dancing elephants and opera singers to see –

The comedians.

Ed Sullivan, who introduced the acts, was not funny at all. In fact, he was kind of scary-looking. Sullivan was a syndicated entertainment columnist who had no performing ability whatsoever. What he had was a quirkily frozen body, whose parts, especially his stone-chiseled face, seemed incapable of making a natural, non-jerky movement. Ed Sullivan was a disturbing-looking robot in a suit.

Sullivan’s chief duty was to select the talent for the show. At that, he was incomparable.

As with all the acts, the comedians on The Ed Sullivan Show were top of the line. There were comedians from every imaginable genre. The array of talent was breathtaking. Especially to an unconscious student of comedy.

Where to start?

The older comedians. (And this is just a sampler.)

There was the incongruous “Mr. Pastry”, whose solemn “Passing-Out Ceremony” involved this dignified English gentleman, in elegant tie and tails, leaping manically around on chairs.

There was the homespun Sam Levenson who told stories about his “Mama” who once, when he dropped a cooked chicken on the floor in front of “the company”, instructed her son to return the dropped chicken to the kitchen and come back with the “other” chicken.

There were ethnic comedians, like the shiny-bald Myron Cohen who tells the story of Mrs. Shapiro and Mrs. Schwartz, who were perambulating the thoroughfare in Miami Beach, Florida, (that’s the way he talked), each trying to one-up the other.

Mrs. Schwartz proclaims, (Cohen suddenly speaking to a thick Yiddish accent):

“You know, Mrs. Shapiro, I’ve been to Europe three times.”

To which Mrs. Shapiro coolly replies,

“That’s nothing. I was born there.”

There was the Danish comedian Victor Borge who admits, “When I came to this country, there was a point, after I’d been here for a while, where I’d forgotten all my Danish but hadn’t learned any English.”

And there was the yodel-voiced hayseed, Pat Buttram who reports about a couple: “He was so bowlegged and she was so knock-kneed, when they walked down the street together they spelled “Ox.”

You don’t have to like all those jokes – or any of them – but you have to admit they’re different styles. (An unembarrassed confession: I like them all.)

Later, a new crop of comedians arrived on the scene. Educated people. People who’d heard of Kierkegaard. People who’d undergone psychoanalysis. People who’d engaged in sex, or at least wanted to.

The new comedy focused on male-female relationships, social institutions, the slights and irritations of everyday life. I can’t reproduce their material as easily as I could with the earlier comedians, because their performances involved extended vignettes rather than isolated jokes.

A couple, played by Ben Stiller’s parents, Jerry Stiller, Jewish, and Ann Meara, Irish, meet and discover that they grew up on the exact same street. However, due to their differing ethnic affiliations, it turns out they have no common experiences whatsoever.

Shelly Berman, playing an increasingly desperate caller struggling to report that a man’s about to jump from a building across the street from his office, is repeatedly placed on “Hold.”

Bob Newhart, portrayed a recipient of a phone call from Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s explaining to Newhart how you use his exciting new discovery – tobacco.

NEWHART: (LISTENING ON AN IMAGINARY TELEPHONE) “…You shred it up…and put it in a piece of paper…roll it up…don’t tell me, Walt, don’t tell me, you stick it in your ear, right?”

I can’t possibly do justice to the dozens of wonderful comedians who taught and entertained me those Sunday nights, the Jackie Masons, the Jackie Vernons, the Jackie Kahanes. And those are just the Jackies. (At which point, you flip up your tie and go, “Whoo hoo.”)

My initial viewing of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” caused my mother to seriously consider calling the paramedics, fearful, because my uncontrollable laughter was making it scarily difficult for me to breathe. I sensed I was dying, but I didn’t care. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.

As I watched all these magnificent entertainers, somewhere deep down where I wasn’t aware it was happening, there’s a chance I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could make people laugh like that?”

Or maybe just one person.

Sorry, I don’t mean to pull an emotional “one-eighty” on you. It’s just this thought that came to mind. Someone once said the reason they went into comedy was because they wanted to make their mother laugh. To me, that’s not such an alien concept.

There’s something to that. My mother had a tough life. Putting a smile on her face would have been pretty great.

I knew she loved comedy. I had seen her watching Ed Sullivan.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lovely! Thanks.

Max Clarke said...

The observation about the waiter reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes stories, in which he would scan somebody and know everything. The small details, where there hands were the roughest and where the shoes wore out the most, would reveal their occupation and station in life.

diane said...

I'm right back at home watching the same show, surrounded by my sisters and parents and feeling safe and happy. You are the most wonderful storyteller. Thank you for always reminding me of the wonderful things in this life.

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