A while back, I wrote the first post ever that I couldn’t finish, and I asked for suggestions from the readership. I got a response from “Keith”, which I adjudged to be a skillfully executed. And I acknowledged it the following day, classifying Keith’s contribution as being, “First Class work.”
This situation sent me back to a time when a similar acknowledgment was directed towards me.
I am in my late twenties (this is in the early seventies) in Toronto, working under a Senior Staffer named David, helping to write four hour-long comedy specials a year for the legendary, professional and exceptional comedy team of “(Johnny) Wayne and (Frank) Shuster”, a duo who had been entertaining Canadians since the early forties.
(An Ancillary Sidelight: After partnering for half a century, Wayne and Shuster’s relationship took on a “Virginia Woolf”-like connubiality. I would not be surprised if the next cultural minority demanding the right to marry are longstanding comedy teams.)
Wayne and Shuster – who made a record-setting 67 appearances (one more than “Topo Gigio”, the Italian mouse puppet) on CBS’’s The Ed Sullivan Show – specialized in extended sketches (often parodies) that offered clever comedy including literary allusions peppered with every day colloquialisms. In their spoof of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar’s wife recounts her last conversation with the emperor before he left for the Senate, saying,
“I told him – ‘Julie – Don’t go!’”
It was like that.
(An Interrupting Note: Before writing for “Wayne and Shuster”, I wrote for “Hart and Lorne” – Hart being my older brother and Lorne being Lorne Michaels – the presumptive heirs apparent to the Canadian comedy-team mantle, but whose own series of four-per-year “Terrific Hours” ended after three seasons on the air. We now return you to our regular storytelling.)
Our assignment is to take a first pass at a sketch parodying old-time boxing movies but set instead in the cutthroat world of professional ping-pong, and thus aptly entitled, “The Harder They Serve.” (Playing off Humphrey Bogart’s 1956 boxing movie, The Harder They Fall.) It was understood that after our first draft was completed, it would be handed over to “the boys” (then, in their sixties, though that’s not as funny as it used to be), and they would completely rewrite it. It was rare indeed when an “outside” writer had a single joke that survived.
We were working on the classic scene where the innocent ping-pong “phenom” first encounters the mob boss who manipulates the tournaments (to his financial advantage) at a party. When the Crime Lord walks in the door, an exchange takes place between the phenom and his manager.
PHENOM: “Who’s that?”
MANAGER: “That’s Johnny Trombone. And that spells trouble.”
PHENOM: ”And it’s pronounced ‘Trombone’?”
The “setup” is standard. The last line was mine.
And it stayed in the script.
A while later, I was hanging out with Frank when, apropos of “I no longer remember what”, he asked me who had written the “Trombone” joke. Being who I am, I replied that it was a team effort between David and myself. But Frank wasn’t buying it. He was certain it was me. Finally, Frank abandoned his probing, buttoning our chat with a terse but shimmering compliment:
“First Class joke.”
It was all I needed.
Years later – let’s say about thirty – I am toiling as a one-day-a-week consultant on According To Jim, a position I held for two seasons, pitching story fixes and the occasional joke. By then in my fifties and seen as “over the hill”, the show runners did not expect much from me. (I had gotten the job at my – who was also their – agent’s insistence.)
According To Jim’s rewrite process involved dividing the writing staff into two groups, each repairing to a separate room to rewrite one act of a two-act script. I can recall a handful of occasions when I would spontaneously suggest a line that would make my rewrite room rock with laughter. And it lasted quite a while.
Invariably on those occasions, a writer from the other rewrite room would race in to find out what the new joke was and ask who had come up with it.
Still being who I am, I remained silent. Someone else would say “It was Earl.” But it didn’t matter to me. Because inside, I could hear Frank Shuster’s voice saying,
“First Class joke.”
And it was all I needed.