Wednesday, January 31, 2018

"Lost Playground"

I am not saying it was better.  I am just saying… well, you decide.

Google “Double-Talk” comedian Al Kelly’s appearance on the Ernie Kovaks Show.

Imagine – because I can’t find it on Google – a vaudeville “paper hanger” routine, where the beleaguered paper hanger gets increasingly ensnared in the gluey wallpaper he is desperately trying to put up.  

Google Abbott and Costello’s immortal (and, to me, incomparable) “Who’s On First” routine.

To pull three examples out of the air, which, if they were wallpaper, would be sticking infuriatingly to my fingers.

And speaking of fingers, Google ventriloquist Senor Wences, turning his hand into the talking head of an adorable puppet.

That was comedy.

Before comedy turned serious.

Clarifictional Explanations:

You begin with “Those were simpler times.”  You proceed to “People needed to laugh.”  (Google – I am really making you work today – the “prison ‘Movie Night’ scene” from Sullivan’s Travels.)  And you finish – considering the audiences of the past as not simpler but actually savvier – they overlooked its transparent frivolity, needing that comedy as a salving oasis from an everyday life that contradicted to the promise of justice, liberty and equality enshrined in the United States Constitution.

And then came Lenny Bruce.  Whose entire comedy career was what?

That the reality of people’s everyday lives contradicted the promise of justice, liberty and equality enshrined in the United States Constitution.

Which was precisely what they were trying to not think about.

“I came for the knockabout comedy.”

“We’ve got something better – a hilarious routine on the unlawful abridgement of free speech.”

‘umble Pomerantian Proposal:  People “got” the cultural hypocrisy.  They did not need comedy to remind them.  They needed comedy to cheer them up.

The monopoly of “comedy as commentary” is only concerning if you are sad that “Comedy for the sake of comedy” has (virtually) entirely disappeared.  (Google Seth Meyers’s opening monologue on The Golden Globes.  And virtually every comedian since Lenny Bruce.)

There is no longer a place for (Google) comedian Victor Borge’s “Inflationary Language” routine – where words, like escalating price tags, were incrementally inflated, yielding the immortal, if not conceptually accurate,

“Any two for eleven-is?”

(To be truly consistent, Borge should have said, “Any two five eleven-is?”  But that’s me, again at least somewhere “On The Spectrum”, a reference itself inappropriate to comedy.  Or not, if “Anything goes.”)

Let me repeat, this time not in italics.

I am not saying it was better when comedy was “strictly for laughs.”  I am saying, or at least asking, 

“Must comedy always be a probing search for “Ultimate Truth”?   Or is there a place to just roll down your suspenders – an allusion even before my time – and laugh.

How ‘bout a modern version of “comedy for comedy’s sake”?  Minus the rancid racial, gender or immigrant, et cetera, diminishing cheap shots.

Consider, if you will, a contemporary “Laff-Fest”, without residual anger or “pay-back”, a nurturing distraction from, say, a brutal presidential tenure that is barely twenty-five percent over.

I enjoy comedy that confronts things that matter.  At my best, maybe I have contributed that genre.  (A man in an ice cream emporium, persuading another patron to try something other than vanilla.)  But I also enjoy frivolous tomfoolery.  (Google:  {Though you probably won’t find it} “The Hanging – Part One” episode from Best of the West, whose silliest dialogue exchange begins, “If he hangs, you die.” – “If who hangs, who dies?” 

I like both kinds of comedy.

But right now, it appears only one kind is available.

What say ye, thoughtful readers?

Have we comedically “grown up”?  Or simply narrowed the alternatives in the opposite direction? 

For those who insist the mindless shenanigans of the past reflected a flagrant ignoring of painful reality, I have but one thing to ask in response:

“Vas you dehe, Sharlie?”

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"The Unparalleled Recipe"

I took a recess from life recently to enjoy the last minutes of the Jack Benny version of To Be Or Not To Be (1942), to be distinguished from Mel Brooks’s 1983 version, which I have not seen in its entirely because the “tirety” I have seen did not come close to equaling the taste, the “touch” or the hilarity of the glorious original. 

Jack Benny displays a smoldering dominance.  Mel Brooks, by meaningful contrast, is bombastic, but after a while you get exhausted and you can’t wait for him to either lose steam – which he apparently never does – or go home, a literal “non factor” if he is performing at his house.  Then you’d have to go home.

I stylistically prefer Mr. Benny, who, from my youngest recollections, was my comedic example.

Also – I am coining a phrase here, perhaps not a great phrase but at least it’s original – which is the following:

“Nobody does ‘Then’ better than ‘Then.’”   

Hold on.

Some clarifying context.

To Be Or Not To Be is a comedy/drama in which a troupe of itinerant Polish actors seeks to escape the Nazis during their ravaging occupation of its capital, Warsaw.

To produce such a movie during the height – actually, I think for the “Allies” it was during the depths – of the conflict took monumental courage and…

Forget the nightmarish reality a moment, as it is is beyond my ability to worthily encompass.  I shall just stick to the “movie” part.

A movie made when – or at least near – the time it actually depicts is suffused with the spirit, the ambiance and the sensitivity and of its era.  That’s what I meant by “Nobody does ‘Then’ better than ‘Then.’”  Forty years after the fact – as with the To Be Or Not To Be remakeyou are left with only imagination, research and “worshipful homage.” 

It’s not the same.

But as insightful as that observation is, that is not why I decided to write about this movie.

Maybe because of commercial marketing reasons – and what isn’t? – today’s movies are classified by “Type” – Comedy, Drama, “Horror” Film, Action-Adventure.  Et cetera.  Check out your cable TV listings.  That is exactly how they are categorized. 

Very few movies mix the potatoes with the peas.  They instead enforce impenetrable boundaries.  From a “Sales” standpoint – and perhaps an audience standpoint, as well – that is apparently what they prefer.

A movie like, say, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, you come out, you go, “They said it was a comedy” and you get angry.  You came to laugh and see a guy thrown out of a window.  

The post facto corrective – “They said it was a mordantly black comedy’” – is rarely like, “Sorry.  My mistake.”  You feel ripped off, your unmet expectations sending home full of suppressed “Ha-ha.”

Think:  “I drank my soda too fast.”  It feels annoyingly burpy.

But – and here’s what you miss, demanding unwavering “genre separation” –

You miss the weight, the depth and the resonance of a comedy set in a world of torturous calamity.

That’s the 1942 version of To Be Or Not To Be. 

Every joke and comedic “set-piece” lands like a shattering thunderbolt.

The TV series M*A*S*H?

Same thing.

The quippy one-liners come fast and furious, fully in sync with the perilous situation.  Everything’s “short and snappy.”  The “casualty” helicopters could arrive at any moment.

Every M*A*S*H joke came sheathed in the (spoken or subliminal) context:

“Hey!  There’s a war on!”

As compared to some of the sitcoms I worked on where the subtextural message was:

“Hey!  We are trying to get big laughs and make money!

Not that there is anything wrong with that.  But do you see how one show’s comic offerings would hit home more stunningly powerfully than the other’s?

I used to be jealous of M*A*S*H.  It almost felt like they were cheating, imagining, when they couldn’t think of a joke, they went to their rescuing mantra:

“There’s a war on!”

Now, watching the reruns, I see the ingenious “blend”, the impeccable recipe of laughter and lament.

The Big Sick recently tried that approach.  But its portrayed peril was familial rather than international – the bacteria threatened her body, not the entirely of western civilization.  The ultimate effect, therefore, becomes “smaller.” 

There is Mom on network TV – still my “go-to” destination, as it requires only one remote rather than three – but the jokes feel like substandard retreads of the sharper originals, unworthy of Mom’s significant underpinnings. 

It is easier confecting a recipe out of a single ingredient.  But, if you go for the more challenging “hybrid”, risking missing the mark in both arenas, the rewards for its successful execution are…

Creative immortality.

Or at least my undying respect.

Which, you will agree, is virtually the same thing.

Monday, January 29, 2018

"Deciphering The Message"

There are some things that permanently stick in your mind.  That sounds like they’re important.  Some moment of blinding insight where life’s mysteries and confusions become blindingly clear and then suddenly…  (“Oo-aah” Chorus)

… you know.

But sometimes, it’s something more trivial, something that, rather than being celestially illuminating, leaves you perplexingly scratching your head.

By the way, the first one is better.

But if you are, as I am, a person to whom accumulated oddities adhere to you like you’re “The Flypaper For The Bizarre” – and if you are still waiting for life’s mysteries and confusions to become blindingly clear to you – you get the following.  And feel grateful you got anything.

Without these cerebral visitors, your frazzled brain otherwise teams with endless “To Do” lists, replayed embarrassing conversations and where exactly they went wrong, and flurries of impending doctors’ appointments and thoughts of what they possibly might find.

My Personal Opinion:  You are better off with extraneous clutter.

Random Example:  This.

I am walking along singing a song, my bowed head facing the sidewalk – because sometimes I forget to walk straight – and I spot what looks like the face of a pirate, below which is the stenciled confession,

“I Sold Hemp.”

“Odd”, I silently remark, considering, both at once, this sidewalk pronouncement and thoughts of paying more assiduous attention to my posture.

“I Sold Hemp.”

… it says there.

And not just there.  But on subsequent blocks of pavement every fifty or so feet along the way.

“Hm”, I think next.

The “Hm” relating to my speculation that someone, late at night so as not to be impeded or even arrested for defacing public walkeries with pictures of pirates and retroactive hemp-selling confessions… I’m thinking, unless they deliberately stayed up to carry out this nefarious operation, they had to, imaginably, set their alarm clock to awaken them deep into the A.M. so they could get dressed, exit stealthily outside, make their way to the street I am currently perambulating, and stencil away, free of unwelcome public scrutiny.

Sounds like it was really important to them.

But why?

“I Sold Hemp”?

So what?

But that’s me.  Not only because it’s artsy littering – and I do not litter under any circumstances – or because I personally never sold hemp, or because I feared constabulary consequences for stenciling a lie. 

My thoughts beyond myself are why would anyone want to serially proclaim on blocks of concrete that sometime in the past they sold hemp? 

It’s not like a “Promotional Message.” 

“Get your hemp here!”

What it says is, they sold hemp.  That’s placing flyers on porches, advertising a business that has already closed down.  The proverbial – and practically unhelpful –   “past tense” announcement.

Nor is it a proud point of personal accomplishment.  If they had not made The Post, it might be conceivable to find Daniel Ellsberg out there on his hands and knees, reminding pedestrians on that particular thoroughfare

“I stole the Pentagon Papers.”

Not with an accompanying “pirate”, of course.  Maybe a stenciled Rand Corporation logo.

At least that’s something. 

I don’t even know if it was illegal to sell hemp. 

Nobody brags,

“I sold hair products.”

So what’s the big, chest-thumping deal about “I Sold Hemp”?

There’s the possibility they are promoting their exceptional salesmanship.

“I sold hemp!

Implication:  “I can sell anything.”

But for that message to connect would require passersby to get that, at the time, hemp was inordinately difficult to sell.  Like “Willy Loman” explaining, “The (whatever district he was assigned to be a salesman in) was recognizably the worst.”

For all I know, selling hemp was giving away candy.  Without the clarifying context, the public proclamation is meaningless.

Bringing us “full circle” to

“So what?”

It almost feels like some private declaration.  The guy’s out there, stenciling to himself.

“I'm not a nobody.  I sold hemp!"

The lesson for the rest of us, assuming there is one, or making one up to give meaningful purpose to this exercise, may perhaps lie in the area of acceptance. 

Maybe, it can be interpreted, what the pretend pirate was saying, in an oblique manner perhaps characteristic of former sellers of hemp (or perhaps not) is,

“As with countless other things in life – large and small – you will never understand this.”

If only he had said that.

Then I would easily have understood.