Friday, September 20, 2013

"A Tale Of Two Yiddies" *

* Winner of the prestigious Marginally-Clever, Semi-Tasteful Award For A Title Only Partially Descriptive To The Situation At Hand.

True, our “Guests of Honor” today are both Jewish.

But more importantly, they are both revered and respected Masters of Comedy.
And even more importantly – for this writing – their views on a fundamental comedic issue are in diametrical disagreement.

I am rubbing my hands together in eager anticipation, aren’t you?

I just finished reading a biography of the English writer/comedian Marty Feldman, written by Robert Ross.  Marty Feldman was a pioneer in off-the-wall absurdist comedy that flowered particularly in the late 1960’s.  Feldman inspired, most notably, the Pythons, a number of whose members he collaborated with on earlier projects.  Along with The Goons’ Spike Milligan, Feldman could easily be considered A Really Important Person In That Particular Movement.


My introduction to Marty Feldman came in 1967 when, while living in London, I watched and was delighted by the already successful writer Marty Feldman’s debut as a series performer, in a program enigmatically entitled, At Last The 1948 Show.

I recall one comedy sketch in which Feldman, dressed appropriately scruffily, accosts a stock brokerish type waiting at a bus stop and says,

“Gimme a pound or I’ll take off my clothes!”
American comedy icon Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman fortuitously crossed paths on Young Frankenstein (1974), in which Feldman arguably stole the show playing Igor (pretentiously pronounced Eye-gor), the Doctor’s hunchbacked assistant. 
Brooks’ career endured (peaking with his Broadway success in The Producers.) Feldman’s flamed out, and he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances at the age of 48.  (Wow! It just came to me.  At Last The 1948 Show, and he died at forty-eight.  I’ll bet if he’d been aware of the connection, he’d have at least called it At Last The 1965 Show.)

The differences between Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman are numerous.  Feldman, both because of his idolizing of Buster Keaton and because he was blessed with a natural comedic physiognomy (featuring bugged-out eyes, the result of a thyroid condition) became a gifted performing clown.  Mel Brooks was a brash, Catskills Resorts-era “tummler”, an energetic and irrepressible funmeister.  These are admittedly summaries and by their natures, overly stereotypy.  But I’m trying to get someplace here. 

Which is this.

In the book, Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman both address the issue of how they know something is funny.  And they both come out with opposite conclusions. 

MEL BROOKS:  (on the issue of why he kept the ancient and cheap – meaning an easy laugh – “Walk this way” sequence in Young Frankenstein.) 

“I like cheap jokes.  If they made me laugh, then I would keep them in.  For me there is never really an audience.  I don’t know what will make them laugh.  I have an audi-I.  That’s just me, folks.  If I laugh I hope other people will too.” 

(What does “audi-I” mean.  It means that, to Mel Brooks, Mel Brooks is the only audience that matters.  If he laughs, it’s funny.)

And now, Marty Feldman on the exact same subject.

Marty may never have come to terms with why he was funny.  He just was.  The only reaction he could judge by was: “because I can hear people laughing.  I can’t tell you why they laugh…. {I only know} if they don’t laugh, it wasn’t funny.”

So there you have it.  One gifted comedy person believes something’s funny when he laughs, the other says it’s only funny if the audience laughs.  However, though claiming not to understand what’s funny, Feldman sagaciously adds:  “But you can’t say that to somebody who’s going to hire you to make a comedy.  You have to say, ‘Of course I know why people laugh.’”  

Feldman understood it was always necessary to reassure your benefactors, (so they don’t become fleeing ex-benefactors) even though, in your heart, you have no idea if you can deliver.

Here’s where I come down on the matter.

It seems to me that both of these comic greats are not being entirely truthful.  (Except for the part about lying to your employers.)

If you went exclusively by what you thought was funny and the audience didn’t, on substantial occasions, back you up by laughing, you would not be quoted in many books concerning the enigmatic mysteries of the comedic genre.  You’d be a homeless person, cackling incongruously in the street.

On the other hand, if you needed the audience to tell you what was funny because you did not know what was funny yourself, how could you possibly put anything down on paper?

Every writer is inevitably their first audience to their comedic imaginings, and their initial reaction is determinative:  If you laugh, it goes in; if you don’t, it doesn’t. 

So to that extent, Mel Brooks was correct.

However, the defining and only meaningful test of “It’s funny” is if disinterested strangers go “Ha!” 

To me, both of these men’s points of view reflect the insecurity of the comedy practitioner.  And who wouldn’t be insecure, trolling in such precarious waters.  Their contrast is simply a matter of opposing strategies.  One group of “Funny Folk” hide their insecurity in bravado:

Mel  (in effect):  “If I laugh, it’s funny.” 

Others display their insecurity prominently on their sleeve:

Marty:  “I won’t take bets I can make you laugh.”

Still, check this out.  Just before Mel Brooks is quoted as proclaiming, “I am the audience”, the book tells us he was ready to edit the “Walk this way” sequence out of Young Frankenstein.  It was only the test audience’s laughter that convinced him to leave it in.

On the other side, a man who claimed not to know what was funny is responsible for writing (or co-writing) hundreds of hilarious comedy scripts.  If he did not know what was funny, how did he so correctly decide what to put down on the page?

Do you see the contradictions there that they don’t even realize? 

Maybe that, in the end, is what makes them so funny.

1 comment:

Mac said...

Very interesting. I don't think they're both being not-entirely-truthful, I think they're both right and both wrong, and there's a bit of truth in what they each say. I think they're mostly, as you say toward the end, trying to define something that defies definition. As Armando Iannuci said "analyzing comedy is like nailing jelly to the wall."

The "walk this way" joke is staggeringly audacious, because it's so old and hack, but in the film it's brilliant - totally in keeping with the daftness of it. Mel Brooks was also big enough to admit that he fought against the "putting on the ritz" sequence, but Gene Wilder convinced him to do it. He now says it's his favourite scene ion the film.