Friday, August 22, 2008

"Big Brother"

You can’t do it justice on paper – or whatever this is – but I’ll do what I can.

I have seen my brother make people – me included – laugh until tears streamed down our faces, and we thought we were going to die. It wouldn’t have been bad.

I can’t explain it. Primal comedy, maybe. The kind that catches you totally off guard, shatters your defenses and makes you surrender – no, “surrender” implies giving up control – this is more like a tidal wave. You are simply swept away.

An uncle of ours described my brother as having a “quicksilver” mind – lightning fast, moving in unexpected directions. Hart views himself as an endangered rabbit, always one perilous step from disaster. And ingeniously fashioning an escape. It’s not a logical process. It’s something deeper, more primitive. The “Survival Instinct” at its purest level.

Think of Eli Manning, eluding the pass rush at the end of the Superbowl. Your eyes pop, like, “What?” “How did he do that?” That’s my brother. Only funny.

He was eating a steak at a restaurant and he didn’t like how it tasted. He was concerned that if he complained, the waiter would taste the steak himself and pronounce it delicious, so he decided to take another tack. He called the waiter over, and announced, in total seriousness,

“My steak is making noises.”

How do you respond to that? Do you lower your ear and try and hear something? No. You’d look ridiculous. Your only option is to take the steak back – without argument – and return with a quiet one.

Hand in hand with an original way of thinking is a willingness to say whatever comes to your mind. In retrospect, the good taste may be “gray area”, but in the moment, even the “target” is too convulsed with laughter to complain.

As I’ve mentioned, my brother was partners with Lorne Michaels. They wrote for variety shows in the States, such as the highly successful, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. They then returned to Canada where they wrote, produced and starred in comedy “specials” of their own, known as The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour.

My brother took pride in his name coming first. Once, during the taping, I heard the Studio Director “marking” the scene:

“Lorne and Hart. Take Twenty-Eight.”

My brother immediately jumped in:

“Hart and Lorne. Take Twenty-Nine.”

Years later, their partnership ended though they remained cordial, Lorne hosted a “pilot” for a late night talk show. I attended the taping. The show was excruciatingly dull. Until my brother, the evening’s final guest, joined the panel.

For reasons I can’t remember the conversation meandered onto the subject of the “kosher” rules, specifically the ritual slaughter of “kosher” animals. Nobody quite had a handle on what was involved.

“I know they try and kill them as painlessly as possible,” opined Lorne, “but I’m not sure exactly what they do.”

My brother shot out:

“They bring them on talk shows and bore them to death.”

One final story, at the risk of my brother’s complaining that I’ve hijacked three of his best jokes. Those who know him are already familiar with these anecdotes. To those he’ll never meet, I recount them as a sincere tribute to an original comic mind. I hope that’s a good enough excuse. Otherwise, I’m in trouble.

Family and friends are gathered at a synagogue luncheon, celebrating my nephew, Bill’s, Bar Mitzvah. My brother’s the Master of Ceremonies, and extremely funny. Finally, he calls up Cantor Soberman, to lead the guests in the singing of the Birkat Ha-Mazon, a blessing of thanks, chanted after the meal.

Cantor Soberman was a longstanding member of the synagogue team, not “First String”, but a reliable “back-up.” He had a very distinctive voice. Not operatic, like the headliner, Cantor Cooper, but rather a hoarse – though not unpleasant when you’re familiar with it – rasp.

As the cantor reaches the Head Table to lead the singing, my brother ad-libbed:

“You’ll have to forgive Cantor Soberman. He’s had a cold for the past twenty-five years.”

I wasn’t present for the atomic testing at Los Alamos, but the thunderclap of the detonation could not have been any louder than our family and friends’ reaction to that joke. The response was cataclysmic. You imagined a crack in the synagogue ceiling, the roof flying off, the walls collapsing, and the Torahs toppling to the ground and unscrolling themselves down the aisles.

My mother, abandoning all semblance of parental judgmentalism, sat doubled over with hysterics. I was coughing up brisket. And my brother’s wife, Nancy, seeking separation from the incident, appeared to be easing herself under the table.

To truly appreciate these stories, you needed to be present to experience their electrifying effect. Like the best of Mel Brooks and Jonathan Winters, my brother’s on-the-spot inspirations literally generate heat. A chronicling of events can’t come close to duplicating the excitement.

Aside from being a comedic force of Nature, my brother is also a lawyer, a writer of essays and aphorisms, a sculptor (specializing in busts of old, Jewish men), an accomplished photographer, and, judging by the way he taught my daughter, Anna, to play ping-pong, the most patient and effective teacher I’ve ever seen.

Hart and Nancy – they met as teenagers at Camp Ogama – are the parents of three warm and inviting children, who’ve gone on to produce some children of their own. I can’t imagine a more satisfying legacy.

Today’s Hart’s birthday.

And I wish him the best.


Anonymous said...

So when do we get to see Hart's bust of you, Earl?

Anonymous said...

I am always in awe of your ability to tell a story and to involve your readers in the emotions of the narrative. What a wonderful tribute to your brother. I wish I could do the same for my sisters, but I do not believe that I have the same ability. Thanks for sharing.

Max Clarke said...

Great stories, nice tribute. Norman Mailer wrote once about somebody's quick intellect, saying it was like watching sunlight on the water. Your brother sounds like that.

Anonymous said...

I remember him on This is the Law, with Austin Willis and Larry Solway. He is one of those half-legendary, half-figmentary figures of Canadian broadcasting -- which I suppose is a fate inherent in the endeavour. I hope he is well; he was damned amusing.