Social Commentary, Cultural Commentary, Political Commentary (a lot of commentary, huh?), Personal Reminiscences, Amusing Anecdotes, Flights of Fancy, Heartfelt Advice, Pet Peeves, Quips and Quotations, Audio-Visual, the Occasional Obituary, and Anything Else I Just Can't Seem to Keep to Myself.
(Copyright 2014 by Kirk Jusko)
"I'm supposed to end with a joke. But for the first time in my career, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to end by telling you that I learned tonight that if you can laugh, you can live. And that means we are going to get through this."
Brenner said the above to a half-empty room at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas on September 11, 2001. He got a standing ovation.
His comedic heyday, however, was the 1970s, as evidenced by the above picture.
A favorite of Johnny Carson, he appeared on The Tonight Show, both as guest and substitute host, over 150 times.
Did you ever notice David Brenner says "Did you ever notice" a lot? I think he may have popularized the phrase!
Comic actor, comic writer, comic director. Editor of Playboy's "Party Joke" feature. The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Second City onstage, and its television spin-off, SCTV. National Lampoon's Animal House. Meatballs. Caddyshack. Stripes. Ghostbusters. Back to School. Groundhog Day. As Good as It Gets. Analize This.
"My characters aren't losers. They're rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else's rules."
"In my heart, I felt I was a combination of Groucho and Harpo Marx, of Groucho using his wit as a weapon against the upper classes, and of Harpo’s antic charm and the fact that he was oddly sexy — he grabs women, pulls their skirts off, and
gets away with it."
For almost 40 years, Harold Ramis was in the vanguard of a new type of comedy that has at various times been called sick comedy, alternative comedy, anti-comedy, slash-and-burn comedy, cringe comedy, ironic comedy, and, most often these days, snarky comedy. It really goes all the way back to the 1950s with the emergence of such talents as Harvey Kurtzman, Jules Feiffer, Lenny Bruce and Nichols & May. What was so new about this comedy? Well, it was sick, alternative, antieverything, ironic, snarky, and made you cringe as it slashed and burned you. However, this kind of humor played second fiddle to more traditional forms of comedy--by "traditional" I mean everyone from the Keystone Cops to Johnny Carson--until the 1970s when it suddenly began to take over the mainstream. First you had National Lampoon, an acid-tipped tattoo needle rewrite of Mad magazine, then Saturday Night Live, which brought vitriol to the vaudeville sketch, and, finally, the somewhat gentler but sharply intelligent SCTV, of which Ramis (doing that bunny ears-fingers thing to Dave Thomas' head in the above picture) did double duty as cast member and head writer. As the '70s grew to a close, this new comedy had begun to take over the movies as well.
Another reason for its success is that the mainstream itself became more sick, alternative, antieverything, ironic, snarky, and able to make you cringe while slashing and burning you. Today's comedy simply reflects all that. In fact, taking the long view, I wonder if humor, even in its most benign form, hasn't always had those qualities, and what happened to comedy to comedy was less than abrupt break from the past and more simple evolution. To make my case, I'm going to present a bunch of movies Harold Ramis was involved in, either as an actor, writer, director, or combination thereof, and then some films as antecedents. Now, I'm not saying that Ramis copied, or was influenced, or even saw any of these films, only that they were part of a larger comedy continuum that he couldn't help but be part of.
Animal House(1978) Co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: A Night at the Opera, though it doesn't place atcollege. An earlier Marx Brothers movie, Horse Feathers, did in fact have a campus setting, but wasless a revenge comedy than Opera, and that's what matters here.
Many memorable scenes, including horse in the dean's office, the food fight, the toga party, the visit to the roadhouse, John Belushi chugging a fifth of Jack Daniels, and the ruined homecoming parade, but what sticks with me most is the plaintive cry at the heart of all rebellions, large and small:
"I know this may be an inopportune moment to ask, Dean Wormer, but could you see your way clear to give us one more chance?"
Meatballs (1979) Co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: Boy's Town. Angels Wash Their Faces. Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Going My Way. Hans Christian Anderson. Merry Andrew. Mary Poppins. The Sound of Music. Follow Me, Boys! OK, OK, most of thosemovies aren't comedies, but they all fall into the wise-adult-teaches-children-life-lessons genre. Meatballs itself wouldn't have been a comedy had not hip, irreverent Bill Murray been brilliantly castas the wise (and wisecracking) adult.
Memorable scene: Murray rallies the kids for an athletic meet with this curiously invigorating pep talk:
"...even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we win! Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days; even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man, woman, and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!"
There's gotta be a life lesson in there somewhere.
Caddyshack (1980) Directed and co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: Animal Crackers. City Lights. Trouble in Paradise. Design for Living. Dinner at Eight. It Happened One Night. The Gay Divorcee. The Thin Man. Top Hat. Twentieth Century. My Man Godfrey. The Awful Truth. Bringing Up Baby. The Philadelphia Story. Topper. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. Ninotchka. Midnight. The Lady Eve. The Devil and Miss Jones. The Palm Beach Story. In Society. Kind Hearts and Coronets. How to Marry a Millionaire. High Society. All in a Night's Work. You probably expected me to list sports comedies. Instead, I chose movies where rich people make fools of themselves, with proletarian onlookers getting caughtup in the action. That sums up Caddyshack for me.
Totally ruined that country club. Must be a Marxist.
Stripes (1981) Co-starring and co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: Shoulder Arms. Half-Shot at Sunrise. Pack Up Your Troubles. Bonnie Scotland. Flying Deuces. Great Guns. Born to Dance. Follow the Fleet. Caught in the Draft. You're in the Army Now. Buck Privates. In the Navy. Keep 'Em Flying. Up in Arms. See Here, Private Hargrove. What's Next, Corporal Hargrove? Up Front. At War with the Army. Sailor Beware. Jumping Jacks. No Time for Sergeants. Operation Mad Ball. Operation Petticoat. Mister Roberts. Ensign Pulver. The Wackiest Ship in the Navy. Sad Sack. The Geisha Boy. Don't Give Up the Ship. The Horizontal Lieutenant. What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Kelly's Heroes. Which Way to the Front? Several seasons of The Phil Silvers Show, McHale's Navy, Gomer Pyle USMC, and CPO Sharkey.
(No, not the film version of MASH. Oddly enough, that bore more of a resemblanceto Animal House!)
Ghostbusters (1984) Co-starring and co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: Habeas Corpus. The Old Dark House. The Cat and the Canary. A-Haunting We Will Go. Ghost Breakers. I Married a Witch. Spooks Run Wild. Hold That Ghost. The Boogie Man Will Get You. Scared Stiff (1945). Spook Busters. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Scared Stiff (1952). Bell, Book, and Candle. The Ghost of the Dragstrip Hollow. Little Shop of Horrors. The Comedy of Terrors. The Ghost and Mr Chicken. The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. The Fearless Vampire Killers. The Spirit is Willing. The Maltese Bippy. Young Frankenstein.
Admittedly, none of those films had a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Back to School (1986) Co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: The Freshman. College. Hold 'Em Jail. Horse Feathers. College Humor. College swing. Too Many Girls. A Yank at Oxford. A Yank at Eton. A Chump at Oxford. Girl Crazy. Here Comes the Co-Eds. That's My Boy. The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (unlike the TVshow, this took place in college.) She's Working Her Way Through College. The Absent-Minded Professor. The Nutty Professor. For Those Who Think Young. The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. The Monkey's Uncle. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Now You See Him, Now You Don't. The Strongest Man in the World.
As a longtime Kurt Vonnegut fan, I get a kick out of his cameo in Back to School. Here's what happens. Self-made millionaire Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) decides to go to college as a way of bonding with his estranged son, a fellow student. Unfortunately, he's more interested in partying (more than his son, actually) than studying, and so he pays other people to do his homework. Assigned by a teacher he's attracted to (Sally Kellerman) to do a report on Kurt Vonnegut, he hires the great man of letters himself to write it. She grades it an F. So it goes.
Analyze This(1999) Directed and co-written by Ramis. Monkey Business. Hook, Line and Sinker. Our Relations. One Night in the Tropics. A Slight Case of Murder. Great Balls of Fire. A Song is Born. Larceny, Inc. My Favorite Brunette. Sorrowful Jones. The Lemon Drop Kid. The Noose Hangs High. Money From Home. Robin and the 7 Hoods. The Big Mouth. The Busy Body.
In addition to being a mob/gangster comedy, the above film also has a psychological angle. Ramis actually did have some experience in that field. Psychology, that is, not mobsters. For about seven months after graduating from college, he worked at a mental institute in St. Louis.
"[working in such a place] prepared me well for when I went out to Hollywood to work with actors. People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It's knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that's connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors. But if I were a businessman, I’d probably be applying those same principles to that line of work."
I don't know if he applied those principles to Analyze This, but he did accomplish what many thought impossible. He turned Robert De Niro in a major comedy star.
OK, you may have noticed I've been doing this in chronological order. I'm stopping right now because I thought it best to save this next film for last...
Groundhog Day(1993) Director and co-writer Harold Ramis' masterpiece, and one for which I can't come up with a single antecedent. It's a Wonderful Life? PUH-LEEZE. Back to the Future II? Nice try, but no.
All the other films I mentioned, even the other two touchstone films from Ramis' career, National Lampoon's Animal House and Ghostbusters, may someday fade from the collective pop culture memory, but I have a feeling that, like its main character (played so well by Bill Murray), Groundhog Day is here for the ages.
...Johannes Gutenberg invented the Internet.
Well, of course he didn't! Look at the above picture. Think that's how do they do things at Google? Why, they're not even sitting on bean bags!
However, you could argue that the Bible that first came off Gutenberg's newly invented printing press on this day in 1455 (according to tradition, i.e., no one has a clue) inevitably led to the Internet. No, God did not say "Let there be http://www.light.com/gutenberg-bible.html!" That link doesn't even doesn't even you bring you to the right place. It's not so much that it was a bible but a book. The first mass produced book, which meant that for the first time reading material wasn't just available to the wealthy few but the public at large. Of course, the public at large first had to learn how to read. That took time. Several centuries in fact. The few poor that did know how to read took to pamphleteering, thus becoming the first bloggers. Some people burned books. They were the first trolls.
Newspapers cropped up. Here's one from September 10, 1666:
Hard to read, I know. So I'll just quote what a London paper boy said that day: "Extra! Extra! Read all about it! We're on fire!"
Just as important, school books popped up. Several centuries later, when the powerful elite finally said, "We better educate the masses or how else are they going to read their eviction notices?", report cards were mass produced for the very first time (some of us have never forgiven Gutenberg for that.)
The more people read, the more widely information was disseminated. Scientific principles were discovered and passed about. Inventions were invented: the steam engine, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, the internal-combustion engine, the airplane, radio (for some reason that doesn't sound right with a "the" in front of it), television (ditto), until, finally, and this I can qualify with a "the", the computer! Which of course led to Al Gore inven--proposing legislation signed into law creating the Internet. So popular has the Internet become we no longer need pamphlets, newspapers, or school books, finally freeing us to dismantle all those damn presses and sell the copper for top dollar, or bitcoin.
And just think, it all started with a Bible.
No word on when the first hotel room was invented, or whether Gutenberg ever stayed there.
Sid Caesar died this week at 91. If you read any of the various obituaries, I'm sure you came across the names Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbert, and Woody Allen, considered to be some of the greatest comedy writers of all time. If in that same obituary it said they all worked on Your Show of Shows, well, then, the obit writer didn't do their homework. Only Brooks and Simon wrote for Shows. Well, Reiner is said to have hung around the writers table, contributing ideas every now and then, but he was never credited on-screen for doing so. Most likely he just soaked up the atmosphere, which he then put to good use a decade later when he wrote and produced TheDick Van Dyke Show, whose main character was a comedy writer. Reiner did receive credit for that.
Though it's remembered today solely for its comedy sketches, Your Show of Shows was in fact a 90 minute variety show, with as many musical numbers as there were comedy bits, at least at the outset. When co-star Imogene Coco left to do her own show, the musical numbers were removed, and the whole thing was paired down to sixty minutes, becoming Caesar's Hour. That's when former Bob Hope gag writer Larry Gelbart came aboard. When that show ran its course, Caesar did a series of specials, and that's where Woody Allen finally comes in. It's much easier, though, to say all those fellows wrote for Your Show of Shows, resulting in the most sophisticated sketch comedy program of all time. But was it really? I wasn't around for its initial run, so I have to take a backwards look.
All the way back to 1976. That's when the local NBC affiliate here in Cleveland ran an edited (meaning no musical numbers) version of Your Show of Shows at 1:AM Sunday mornings, for all practical purposes Saturday night. Saturday night? If you know your networks, then, yes, it ran right after Saturday Night Live, back when it still had its original cast, though I believe Chevy Chase was about to be replaced by Bill Murray. At the time I was a huge fan of SNL and so was wide awake when the old Shows repeats came on. If they didn't quite make me forget Emily Litella, the Land Shark, the Samurai whatever, or the Coneheads, I did find the old black-and-white kinescopes funny enough, laughing at the antics of the multi-faux-lingual Caesar, straight man Carl Reiner, manic second (or perhaps third or fourth) banana Howard Morris, who would go on to immortalize the stammering hillbilly vandel Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show, and rubber-faced comedienne Imogene Coco, who, like Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner, could play comic characters that were either homely or attractive (sometime both at once!) A full night of sketch comedy, new and old.
Thirty-some years later, I happen to catch Ten from Your Show of Shows on some cable channel. As the title suggests, it was a collection of sketches from Shows. Other than snippets on documentaries about the Golden Age of Television, this was the first time I'd watch these sketches in more than three decades. Though I found them funny enough, and the talents of Coco and Morris still shown through, something seemed amiss . In the intervening years I had read whatever I could about the show--I read a lot about pop culture anyway--and words such as "sophisticated", "intellectual", "cerebral", and "highbrow" kept popping up. However, with the exception of one or two skits, I didn't find it any more sophisticated than the bits and pieces I'd seen from other sketch shows of that era, such as those starring the comparatively lowbrow Jackie Gleason or the-brow-so-low-it-might-as-well-be-an-eyelash Milton Berle. If Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen really are, or were, some of the greatest comedy writers of all time, and I do agree that they are, or were, it's more because of where they ended up (Blazing Saddles, The Odd Couple, The Dick VanDyke Show, MASH, Annie Hall) than where they got their start.
Where does this reputation for sophistication come from? One reason commonly cited is the many parodies of foreign films, which gave Sid Caesar a chance to talk in Italian-, French-, or Japanese-accented gibberish, making viewers believe he really could speak those languages (in reality, he only knew English.) Some have even speculated, without much supporting evidence, that these parodies alienated uncultured Midwesterners who never watched such movies, eventually driving Your Showof Shows off the air. I don't buy it. As an uncultured, Midwestern 14-year old in 1976, I laughed at those sketches without knowing what exactly was being spoofed. Or that anything beyond the foreign languages themselves was being spoofed. I got them without getting them.
The mere act of watching a foreign film doesn't make one sophisticated or intellectual. It's how one relates to such films that does. If the only reaction that Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner had to a Kurosawa film was, "Boy, won't Sid look funny in a kimono!" then, no, they weren't a couple of highbrows, at least not back then. Much of the satire on Your Show of Shows never went beyond the old vaudeville principle that Foreign is Funny. Certainly, an uncultured Midwesterner could get that, even if they hadn't seen the movie. Remember, the 1950s was a very xenophobic time. Your Show ofShows reflected the xenophobia of that era more than fans of the program would care to admit.
I don't wish to sound like a politically correct prig here. I have no problem with ethnic humor as long as it's not specifically designed to keep historically oppressed people in there place. That's why it's not a good idea for a comedian to wear blackface. But nothing like that ever occurred on Shows. Nobody was kept down when Sid Caesar talked in a German accent. He wasn't George S. Patton. I just think that Your Show of Shows has been oversold, and not by the people involved with it, as intellectual fare. And it needn't have. If you ever watch Shows on DVD or whatever, don't feel you have to break out the wine and cheese. It goes down just as well with Bud and Cheetos.
OK, enough with the nitpicking already. For some odd reason, I felt I had to bury Caesar before I could praise him. It was always the performers more than the writers--future resumes not withstanding--that put Your Show of Shows a couple of notches above similar fare offered by Jackie Gleason or Milton Berle. They were among the best in the business, and Sid Caesar was the best of the best. He was an extraordinarily talented comedian, and I think it's a shame that he's tied to just one particular TV era. If show biz was fair, we'd have decades of his work, in all kinds of media, to talk about and enjoy. It's not like his talent suddenly dried up. I always found him funny when he occasionally popped up on TV in the 1970s and '80s. When hosting Saturday Night Live during the Eddie Murphy era, he even received an award on stage making him an honorary cast member. Yet those appearances were sporadic. He was no longer in demand. Probably just as much our loss as his.
I can't do anything about that, so instead I'd like to show you something close to the era he's associated with, but a bit before Your Show of Shows. In 1949 he and Imogene Coco starred on a short-lived show called Admiral Broadway Revue. It was here that a nationwide audience saw for the first time "The Five Dollar Date." It didn't originate there, however. Caesar had done it in his nightclub act. So it wasn't written by Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, or Woody Allen. Sid Caesar came up with it all by himself.
BREAKING NEWS!!! I just got it from a reliable source that Shirley Temple was in actuality Herman Snipple, master of prebuscent female disguise, and J. Edgar Hoover's most trusted agent. Known and envied throughout the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his uncanny kneecap tap dancing skills, Snipple infiltrated the Hollywood movie industry in the 1930s and '40s, keeping a watchful eye on such possible threats to national security as Adolphe Menjou, Bill Robinson, Robert Young, Buddy Ebsen, Jack Oakie, Burt Lahr, Montey Woolley, and Ronald Reagan!
Only kidding, folks. I just happen to see the late Ms. Temple more in terms of film history--she brought a much-needed respite to the Great Depression and all that--than as a performer whose art remains timeless. Now, if you disagree with me, than she's obviously timeless for you. Feel free to say so.
I have to go now. I just got word from that same reliable source that Jane Withers may have been an enemy spy!