Thursday, October 31, 2019

"Comedy Tonight"

Which I am practicing on the piano.  Come back in a year.  I may have it by then.

Summer of 1962.

A friend named “Chuckie” and I are visiting New York, catching the latest Broadway shows.

We have procured Saturday matinee tickets to the musical we most wanted to see, Little Me, starring Syd Caesar (playing seven parts.)  Now we need something for Saturday night.  Knowing nothing about it, we select A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

As it turned out, this obscure – to us – show was not only better than Little Me, it was one of my most exhilarating experiences in the theater of all time.

And to think, that show almost closed in out of town.

After two dispiriting tryouts (in New Haven and Washington) there were thoughts of terminating production.  As co-writer Larry Gelbart ruefully remarked,

“The audience laughed at the show but they didn’t like it.”

The struggling Forum’s venerable director, George Abbott, often summoned to savingly “doctor” ailing productions, advised – probably equally ruefully:

“They need to bring in George Abbott.”

Since Abbott was already there, the producers sent for director Jerome Robbins – West Side Story and later, Fiddler on the Roof.  (Who’d “named names” at the “Un-American Activities” hearing, confirming the show biz dictum:  “He’s unwelcome until we need him.”)

Assessing the difficulties, Robbins suggested that the audience would laugh and like the show if there was an “Opening Number” clearly signaling what they were in for –  a bawdy (for that era), low comedy, vaudevillian-style romp. 

By the way, it just occurred to me, Robbins provided a similar suggestion for the then floundering Fiddler on the Roof, whose team then devised the clarifying “Tradition.” 

(Proving, you have one great idea – you’re a genius!)


With the “Comedy Tonight” opening sequence, Stephen Sondheim composed the quintessential; “It’s a comedy!” indicator.  Forum proceeded to triumph on Broadway, garnering numerous Tonys, and running almost a thousand performances.

All because the show told the audience what it was.

Is there a comparable counterpart to that story in television?

Yeah, the signaling “Laugh Track.”

And we hate it.

The “Laugh Track” is prerecorded laughter added to shows where laughter is not naturally forthcoming.  They call it “Sweetening.”  Though they might easily call it,

“Write funnier!”

During the 70’s, CBS required the classic sitcom M*A*S*H to append a “Laugh Track”, causing the nagging difficulty of determining who exactly was laughing.  (It is hard to believe the surrounding Koreans would appreciate the intricate wordplay.) 

Still, who knows?  (Watch me, tentatively easing toward “The Opposite Side.”)

Today’s comedies filmed with no audience appear without a signaling “Laugh Track.”

Is it possible that’s why they appear to feel less funny?   

I’m just pondering here, but could there, in fact, be a psychological element at play with these new shows?  As in,

“No one’s laughing, so neither will I”?

I know this is blasphemy, but maybe, in revisionist retrospect, M*A*S*H needed a “Laugh Track”, telling the audience at home,

“It’s war.  But it’s funny.”

Color me, “Seriously Confused” on this matter.  (If you happen to have that color.)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum required the nudging “Comedy Tonight.”

Maybe audiences need help.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"How Now?"

Note:  This post is not about westerns.  Though it starts out looking that way.

(In case you hate westerns.)

(If you don’t, read yesterday’s post again.)

I have said that nothing calms me more than a horse ambling across the screen.

Well, in fact, one thing does.  (Which I recently noticed watching a western and going, “That is definitely better.”  Sorry if I misled you.  And you misled others, passing it along.)

What is, in fact, more calming than a horse ambling across the screen?

A herd of cattle, lowing contentedly on the prairie.

Now that really does it for me.

I mean, I’d settle for a horse, ambling across the screen.  But set them up side by side – ambling horse, lowing cattle – my eyes go straight to the cattle.

Call it “The Meditative Herd.”

Lowing cattle appear viscerally relaxed.  Watching them, you can savor the “vibe”, and become viscerally relaxed yourself.

Of course, why shouldn’t they be relaxed.  Everything’s there for those cattle.

Lowing cattle have nothing concerning on their minds.  They’ve got grass.  They have protection from rustlers – who’ll make them run; lowing cattle do not like to run – as well as from predatory hyenas and such-like, who will go “Circle of Life” on them if they are not rigorously patrolled.

Lowing cattle are the Bing Crosby of four-legged animals – coolly casual, not a care in the world.  Even after they get branded, they return to the herd, and it’s like,

“How was that?’’

“How was what?

And we’re talking “hot poker to the skin!”

Sure, there’s the slaughterhouse, but carefree cud-chewers know nothing about that.  Day-to-day, lowing cattle are the Disneyland of creatures.

They are “The Happiest Animals on Earth!”

I mean, what more contented sound is there than ”Moo”?

But you know what?  (And here comes the “turn”?)

I am worried that all that bovine contentment may soon end. 


Because of the greatest threat to lowing cattle’s spectacular lifesyle.  By which I, of course, mean…


Short but meaningful digression…

At camp, we once had a riding instructor named Fred Quebec, who, when he saw a camper mistreating their animal would say,

“Treat that horse right!  He’s only human!”

That’s Vegans and cattle.  (Perhaps all animals.  And possibly fish.)

“They’re only human.”

In terms of consideration and treatment.

Which I “get”, at least theoretically.  I mean, flip it around. 

Imagine treating people like cattle?

“Excuse me.  Do you mind if we eat one of your children?  Too rough?  How ‘bout we turn part of your exterior into a belt?”

We don’t do that with people, because they are actual people.  The thing is, if Vegans carry the day, it will be “Ditto” all the way down the line with cattle.  Creating the new inter-species “Golden Rule”:

“Thee shalt do unto cattle as thee would have cattle unto you.”

Which, again, conceptually makes sense, although cattle eat grass, and have no interest in belts.

The next question, however – rarely if ever confronted – is if we treat cattle “humanely”,

Then what?”

What happens to cattle when you have to treat them as decently as people?

“Leave them alone”?  Fine.  But if there is no way of profiting from them – meat, milk, moccasins –

What happen to the cattle?

With no monetizing incentive, nobody feeds them.  No one protects them.

HYENAS:  “Yay!”

Who’ll take liberated cattle to the Veterinarian when they get anthrax?”

“Here’s the bill.”

             “Give it to the cattle”?

And you can forget about “pets.”  A cow, maybe.  But a pet herd?

Minus financial underpinning, how will cattle ever survive?  Giving rides?  Or is that also unfair?

“Would you like cows to ride you?”

Okay, so no rides.  But what exactly is left for them?  Vagabond cattle, ringing  our doorbells, begging for a cookie?

A cow’s life is not perfect.  But If there is no money in cattle, there will eventually and inevitably be…

No cattle.

Which, of course, is a problem.

What am I going to watch, lowing on the prairie?
 “You mean ‘Who?, don’t you?

Okay, “Who?

But it’s over.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

"Harrowing 'Hoppy'"

It was the scariest Hopalong Cassidy movie of all time.

A little background...

Back in the 50’s, Hopalong Cassidy was most of our’s favorite onscreen cowboy.

Even though Hopalong Cassidy was the only cowboy with white hair.  (Well earned, as William Boyd, the actor who played Hoppy, was born in 1895.)

I watched all the “Hoppy” movies and the subsequent TV series, filled with ripsnortin’ adventure and Bad Guys gettin’ shot in the hand. 

Here’s the thing, making what I am about to tell you so memorable.

In all his rip-snortin’ adventures, Hopalong Cassidy never got hurt.

Well, he did, but he never acted like he was hurt.  Hoppy’d get “winged” in the shoulder, and his sidekick “Windy” would come racin’ up, “Hoppy!  You hurt bad?” and he’d calmly answer, “I’m fine!” and just keep on a-fightin’!

Except one time, he didn’t.

(Which brings a shiver to me even today.)   

In a tense one-on-one sequence, Hoppy blasts his way into a “line shack”, facing a dangerous owlhoot whom he ultimately subdues.  The thing is, during the fiery gunfight,

Hopalong Cassidy gets shot.

(In the upper left leg, for “B-Movie” scorekeepers.)   

I am, like, nine years old. 

Watching alone.  

And here’s my all-time hero,

Shot in the leg.

And he’s not casually shrugging it off.

The guy really looks bad!

I remember the blood.

Copiously oozing through Cassidy’s wound-staunching fingers.

The times Hoppy got shot in the shoulder, they didn’t even show blood.  They rarely showed damage to his shirt! 

But now, there’s all of this blood!

‘Movie blood” experts – please weigh in.  It seems to me black-and-white “movie blood” – which appears black on the screen – is the most authentic-looking “movie blood” there is.  

It looks like actual blood!

(As compared to the ludicrous “melted crayon” blood used in 50’s Technicolor movies.)

Imagine this.  A nine year-old kid, watching his hero’s “actual blood” trickling inexorably down his leg as he drifts ever increasingly towards “unconscious.”  
And you know what that means.  The cornered Bad Guy “turns the tables” and that’s it!

“Oh, Hoppy!  Don’t fall asleep!”

Who’s ridin’ to the rescue?  Not me.  I’m in Toronto – you should pardon the expression – sweating bullets in my pajamas.  Some of Hoppy’s pals are, indeed, on their way.  The question is,

Will they get there on time!

For what feels like forever, we see Hoppy, trying desperately to stay awake, the grinning Bad Guy he’s ‘”covering” simply “bidin’ his time.”

Behold petrified nine year-old Earlo,

Watching in dread.

That is the memory I have kept with me, throughout all of this time.

Then, sixty-five years later, I turn on “Hoppy” on The Westerns Channel

And there it is. 

(File that under “… if a persons lives long enough…”)

There on Spectrum Cable Channel 607 is a televised rerun of that outlier “Hoppy” containing the darkest and direst sequence in its long and glorious oeuvre.

I am reluctant to watch it.  But because, you know, I am older, I do.

And you know what?

It wasn’t that bad.

(Though there was still that black blood.)

Instead of what I recall as virtually an entire movie involving Hopalong Cassidy coming “this close” to “bleeding out” in a “line shack”, the harrowing “shot-in-the-leg” sequence runs less than a minute. 

The actual footage involved three “cutaways” between a recedingly conscious Hopalong Cassidy clutching his blood-soaked wound, and a posse of compadres, ridin’ to the rescue. 

And – anyone surprised? – they arrive there on time.

Was I disappointed by this startling contrast? 


But I was also relieved.

A harbored scary moment in my brain?

And it turns out,

Hoppy was fine.

Monday, October 28, 2019

"Mr. Smarty Pants"

I don’t know why I write these.  They only seal my fate as a curmudgeonly “Grumpy Head.”  

I say I’m just curious.  But though you seal it up tight, the whiff of condescension and judgment inevitably seeps through the cracks.

I just can’t seem to help it.

I had dinner with a friend who praised Rene Zellwellger’s performance as Judy Garland to the heavens. And I could not stop myself.

“You know who’s a better Judy Garland than Rene Zellwegger?” I asked.


“Judy Garland.”

I didn’t needto say that.  I could simply have said,

“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

And hoped it did not sound like,

(WITH STEVE MARTIN-LIKE SARCASM)  “Well I’m gla-adyou enjoyyyed it.”

I do not meanto behave that way. 

At least, I don’t thinkI mean to. 

But I am always worried it’s there.

With good reason.  

Like sometimes, someone telling me it is.

Here’s one that’s been eating me half a century.

I was trying standup comedy in Toronto, my first “Open Mic Night” effort earnring the memorable heckle,

“You’re not funny!”

For those “Sensitive of Nature:, that one’s tattooed right onto your marrow.  Though you try “standup” again, your “True Self’s” going,

“You’re finished.”

Anyway, I come outside, and I bump into the comedian who preceded me onstage, whom my older brother told me got his material from Reader’s Digest.

We said hello.   And I mentioned – because I was curious, not because I felt superior writing my own material, which had recently stunk up Metropolitan Toronto and nearby Niagara Frontier – 

“I hear you get your material from Reader’s Digest.”

To which he said, “Yes.” 

To which Isaid,   

“Hm!”  (Meaning a neutral “That’s interesting.”)

To which he angrily replied,

“You know your brother made fun of me for taking my act fromReader’s Digest.  But at least he was honest about it!”

You see how that works?

The man had taken my “Hm!” personally.  


I just wanted to understand.

Though I could easily have said nothing.  

And now… here I go again.

Following a recent post in which I said people who write network sitcoms today work hard and do the best that they know how – which itselfcarries hints of studied evasion – I risk a similar gaffe, when I again, probably ought to say nothing.

Except I’m curious, and I want to find out.

Okay – and I know there are now numerous otheroutlets for new writers can excitedly imagine working for – but my interest exclusively in this:

Network television.

Half-hour comedies.

Preambling “In my day…” sentence.

In my day, watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I was genuinely inspired.

New writers, harboring secret or maybe notso secret dreams of working in television, watching network sitcoms today:

Are they equally inspired?

Did you see that?

The easily inferred “How couldthey be?”

I can’t help it!

I ask a curious question. 

And it just subtly sneaks in.

I’m not trying to be critical.

I’m just trying to understand.


Aren’t I?