Thursday, April 17, 2014

The GROUCHOVERTURE

Originally posted on May 9, 2012.

Sunday is the  was the fortieth anniversary of Groucho's 1972 Carnegie Hall concert, preserved on the bittersweet LP An Evening With Groucho. (Actually, the recording draws on two concerts, one at Iowa State University.) Dick Cavett, who introduced the great man at Carnegie Hall, has reflected on the anniversary in his Times online column (read it here) and on All Things Considered (listen to it here). I'm marking the occasion by sharing the first two pages of the book I've been working on. It's a preface entitled "Overture," and it deals with the medley Marvin Hamlisch played at Carnegie Hall before Dick Cavett introduced Groucho Marx. (An Evening With Groucho is out of print, but available at archive.org, or right here.)

 


THE1972 LP AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO – a sad and joyous document with which all Marxists have struggled – begins with an Overture, performed by Marvin Hamlisch at the piano. Backstage, waiting to be introduced, is an eighty-two-year-old man named Julius Henry Marx. He has been in show business for nearly seventy years, and now he has made it to Carnegie Hall.

Hamlisch, still a few years away from A Chorus Line and his Pulitzer, may be in awe of the venue. Julius is in awe of nothing. With a grand flourish, Hamlisch launches into Beethoven – Allegro con brio, the first movement of Piano Sonata No. 21, the Waldstein. He hammers the insistent opening chords before a momentarily disoriented audience.

The Waldstein twinkles along toward its first release. Through parting clouds emerges a melody so intrinsic to us that we can hear the unsung lyrics: Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer! Did someone call me schnorrer? Hooray hooray hooray! It takes a moment to register, and then sweet applause. Behind their glasses, eyebrows, and moustaches, people in the audience have begun to cry.

“Hooray for Captain Spaulding” fizzles back into the Waldstein, and then erupts into a second movement, “Alone” from A Night at the Opera. This, too, is lovingly received, even though we will sometimes fast-forward this number, later on, when we watch A Night at the Opera in our living rooms. We will never watch it to hear Allan Jones sing.

Hamlisch slides elegantly back to Kalmar and RubyAt last we are to meet him, the famous Captain Spaulding! Everyone says I love you.

Sitting in the audience is a very great man, thirty-seven years old, in some ways an heir to the legacy celebrated tonight. He will eventually make a film called Everyone Says I Love You, but that’s ages away. Tonight at Carnegie Hall he is sitting beside a radiant Diane Keaton.

We descend back into A Night at the Opera – “Cosi Cosa,” another lukewarm slab of Allan Jones. But then we catch on: “Cosi Cosa” is delivered this evening with a distinctive technical flourish, and the Carnegie Hall audience bursts into passionate applause, realizing what Hamlisch is doing here: He’s shooting the keys. At’sa fine.

He makes a triumphant return to Captain Spaulding by way of Beethoven, and then a coda: The unmistakable final spasm of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, to break our hearts, and to put the boys in company with the great art of the twentieth century.

The Marx Brothers are the Ghosts of Show Business Past, and some of us are haunted by them every day of our lives. To us, the jokes keep getting funnier, even though it’s been more than a hundred years since Minnie Schoenberg Marx gave birth to kings.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

MARXFEST and I'LL SAY SHE IS!

Hi, folks...remember me? I haven't been very prolific, as a blogger, in recent years -- but that's just because I've been busy with wonderful projects like these:

MARXFEST: I am delighted to be on the organizing committee for Marxfest, New York City's first Marx Brothers festival, to take place in all five boroughs of this town, throughout the month of May, 2014. There are many exciting Marx-minded events on the schedule, and we haven't even announced some of the most exciting ones yet! If you love the Marx Brothers, do whatever you can to be in the city of their birth this May! And whatever happens, don't let another minute go by without following Marxfest on Twitter and Facebook. Check the official Marxfest site every five or ten minutes!

I'LL SAY SHE IS: All of the Marxfest events are exciting, but this is the one closest to my heart. I've spent the last five years researching, reconstructing, and adapting I'll Say She Is, the 1924 Broadway debut of the Marx Brothers, and the only one of their three Broadway musicals never to be filmed or revived. This year, on the 90th anniversary of the original New York opening, I'll Say She Is returns to the stage -- first with a semi-produced reading, May 23 and 25, at Marxfest (tickets and details here); with a full production this fall. I'll Say She Is is produced and directed by the great Trav S.D.!

I'll Say She Is should be of interest not only to Marx Brothers and vintage comedy fans, but to devotees of American musical theatre -- it's a real 1920s plotted revue, highly characteristic of its era, and full of great stuff that hasn't been seen or heard for almost a century.

Below is a short essay I've written for the I'll Say She Is website. There's more there, and more details soon. I hope to see you in May!



I'LL SAY SHE IS, 2014: NOTES

For almost as long as I've loved the Marx Brothers, I've been intrigued by the legend of I'll Say She Is.

We think of the Brothers as figures of the 1930s, when they made their classic films. But they had been major cultural icons of the twenties, too. They began that decade as one of the biggest acts in vaudeville; achieved Broadway stardom with I'll Say She Is (1924), The Cocoanuts (1925), and Animal Crackers (1928); made films of the latter two -- and then went out to Hollywood and made all those Marx Brothers movies.

The Marx Brothers as Broadway stars in New York in the 1920s -- this is the stuff my dreams are made of. Harpo chumming around with Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker; Groucho writing for The New Yorker in its infancy; the boys performing Animal Crackers every night on Broadway at the 44th Street Theatre, then dragging themselves out to Queens every day to film Cocoanuts.

Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers exist. You can read the published librettos, and you can watch the film adaptations. Frequently, you can see them produced on stage. Those two musicals represent the earliest available Marx Brothers comedy. But I'll Say She Is has been just out of reach.

Over the years, my passion for the Marx Brothers has informed almost everything I've done. But I've thought that perhaps it was all in preparation for some big Marx Brothers project, something that served not only to express my love for them and my desire to keep their flame burning, but to contribute something significant to the catalogue, to give all Marx Brothers fans a great big present.

About five years ago, I began a period of intense research into I'll Say She Is. I wasn't entirely sure of my intentions, but I hoped that one way or another, this work could be willed back into existence, seen on stage again, and made to occupy its rightful space on the shelf next to Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.

My primary source was Will B. Johnstone's 1923 rehearsal typescript, which is housed at the Library of Congress. Assisted by Mikael Uhlin, I obtained a copy of this sacred document: thirty-two pages of rough dialogue, with song titles and cues, but no songs. The typescript is more an outline with dialogue than a working libretto. It was committed to paper in the spring of 1923, prior to the Philadelphia opening, a full year before the show reached Broadway. Undoubtedly, it was embellished in rehearsal and performance.

I interpolated material from other extant versions of certain scenes. I filled in moments and details culled from firsthand recollections of the show. I unearthed hundreds of news clippings related to the original production, some of which described scenes and quoted dialogue. I retrieved whatever ad-libs had been recorded, and filled in the gaps with surviving fragments of the Brothers' vaudeville repertoire, the earlier Johnstone revues, and the newspaper prose of Will B. Johnstone. I filled still more gaps with my own Marxist intuition, adding things out of necessity or desire or both.

The new score of I'll Say She Is is an amalgam. I managed to obtain sheet music and/or recordings of about half the songs from the original production. That left a handful of missing numbers, for which I had only the titles, narrative context, and, in some cases, descriptions. I recreated these songs by writing new lyrics to existing music from other Johnstone shows of the period, using phrases and ideas from the Johnstone typescript whenever possible.

In wrestling with the book and lyrics, I was aided invaluably by my great friend and collaborator West Hyler, and by Margaret Farrell, an ethnomusicologist who also happens to be the great-granddaughter of Will B. Johnstone, keeper of his diaries, and a singular source of information and inspiration.

The result is my adaptation of I'll Say She Is. I can't claim that it's a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original. That would be impossible. But when you see it, I hope you'll agree that it feels right, and that you relish as much as I do the thought of being able to say, "I've seen I'll Say She Is."

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Raised Eyebrows...Out Loud

I've rarely -- perhaps even never -- listened to audiobooks. I have no problem with them, and if they've helped expose more people to more books, I think that's great. Personally, though, I'd rather read a book than listen to it, and I think prose not intended for performance usually loses its impact when read aloud.

However, there are exceptions. I've just finished listening to the newly-released audio version of Steve Stoliar's excellent memoir Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

For my general opinions about the book, read my review; I won't reiterate them here except to say that Raised Eyebrows is well worth reading whether you're a Marx Brothers fanatic or not.

It's also worth listening to. In fact, the Raised Eyebrows experience is enhanced in the audio version, because of Stoliar's engaging and illuminating performance. To read Raised Eyebrows on paper (or on your mobile device, big shot) is to savor the "voices" of the many noteworthy figures who populate the story. For the audio version, Stoliar -- an accomplished performer whose resume includes cartoon voiceover work -- performs credible impersonations of all of them.

Figuring most prominently, of course, is Groucho himself. I've never heard a better impression of Groucho in his late period, which makes sense; as I wrote in my review of the book, Steve was there. He's not just a guy doing his Groucho Marx impression; he's repeating to us things that Groucho actually said to him. The palpable you-are-there quality of Raised Eyebrows is thereby expanded and intensified.

Over the course of the audiobook, Stoliar also renders the voices of Zeppo, George Burns, Bob Hope, S.J. Perelman, Milton Berle, Mae West, George Jessel, Peter Sellers, Dick Cavett, and others, as well as more obscure Marx associates like Nat Perrin, Morrie Ryskind, and Nunnally Johnson. The familiar voices assure us of Stoliar's gift for vocal mimicry; I don't think anyone else has done as convincing an impression of Cavett, for instance. And on that basis, we know we can trust the Stoliar ear when it comes to voices we're not used to hearing. For Marxists like me, it's fascinating to learn what Perrin or Ryskind sounded like in casual conversation. And for anyone at all, it's highly entertaining to hear these priceless showbiz anecdotes come to life.

Now that I've enjoyed Raised Eyebrows in two media, I'm hopeful that Steve Stoliar realizes his stated ambition to see the book adapted for film. It would present casting challenges, to be sure -- though if it were animated, Stoliar could play everybody! -- but it seems to me that the material stands an excellent chance of becoming a first-rate movie. Until then, get the audiobook!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Marc Maron's Conversation with Mel Brooks

I'm sure that you, like me, have read, watched, or listened to every interview Mel Brooks has ever given. Probably multiple times. And like me, you've probably noted a certain sameness setting in, especially during recent interviews, because people keep asking him the same questions, cueing three or four ubiquitous anecdotes. Here, however, Mark Maron has a touching, hilarious, intimate conversation with the great man, for over an hour. Listen to it twice.

WTF Podcast: Mel Brooks

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Woody Allen as Groucho, Julia Child as Dumont

Here at the Comedy Palace, we are not a fly-by-night operation. We fly during the day. What we do at night is our own business. Through our exclusive affiliation with Huxley College, we have a team of crack researchers. They research other things, too. The boys in the back room have recently dug up this 1996 Associated Press interview with Woody Allen, in which he discusses impersonating Groucho Marx in one scene in Everyone Says I Love You, and reveals plans for a startling project that never materialized -- starring Woody as Groucho and Julia Child as Margaret Dumont!


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Raised Eyebrows

It took me longer than it should have to catch up with the new edition of Steve Stoliar's 1996 memoir Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House, published late last year. But I've finally done it. Besides feeling moved to equal portions of laughter and tears, I wonder what took me so long.

In brief: Steve Stoliar, in 1974, was a nineteen-year-old devotee of vintage comedy, with a particular fondness for Our Brothers. Through a remarkable series of events, he became an employee and a friend of Groucho during the final years of the great man's life. In Raised Eyebrows, with eloquence and wit, he tells that story. The expanded edition includes an afterword, with updates and new reflections.

What makes Raised Eyebrows unique among Marx Brothers books is its fan's-eye-view of Groucho's final act. The fading star had numerous Boswells in the seventies, and some of their books are excellent, and others are not. But nobody has come close to Steve Stoliar in making us feel as though we were there, in making us understand the literal and emotional realities of Captain Spaulding's last adventures. Stoliar is one of us -- that is, a fan to whom the word fan does no justice. This is not about showbiz. This is about love.

If you know anything about Groucho's life in the seventies, you know that it was dominated by a woman named Erin Fleming. Marxists accord her some credit for reinvigorating his career, and a great deal of blame for the hysteria and abuse to which she subjected him. Other accounts of Fleming's influence (like the last chapters of Hector Arce's solid Groucho) have overwhelmed me with sadness, that my hero's autumn was contaminated by this crazed martinet. But Raised Eyebrows makes me feel better. We may regret that Groucho had Erin Fleming, but we can rejoice, for he also had Steve Stoliar. There was a young man in Groucho's house who genuinely loved him, who cared for him unselfishly, and who, with limited power, did everything possible to give Groucho the joy and peace he deserved. We who love Groucho can never thank him enough.

I did thank him, incidentally. As regular visitors to the Comedy Palace will know, one of the projects I've been working on over the last few years is a book about comedy -- or, more accurately, about my love of certain comedians. (I recently published a short excerpt, about Groucho's Carnegie Hall concert, here.) A couple of years ago, while working on the Marx Brothers section, I reread the entire Marx library, including Raised Eyebrows. Noticing that we had some mutual Facebook friends, I sent Steve a message to say thank you. We had a brief, pleasant correspondence, during which it occurred to me that by contacting him I was following his example. Raised Eyebrows documents his pursuit of autographs and mementos, but he never comes across as a standard celebrity-hound. His intentions are pure and noble, rooted in a genuine desire to simply say thank you to people whose work has enriched his life. How can you not love a twenty-year-old in 1975 who goes out of his way to meet S.J. Perelman?

And that's another aspect of Stoliar's contribution to the Marx mythos. In some of his media appearances promoting the book, he's told anecdotes about people like Perelman and Nat Perrin (who wrote for the Brothers in the thirties, and became temporary conservator of Groucho's estate toward the end), while offering, for example, "a dead-on Nat Perrin impression." The radio hosts laugh at the joke -- how's anyone going to know whether that's really a dead-on Nat Perrin impression? -- but for us, for ever-loving Marxists, it's a revelation. So that's what Nat Perrin sounded like! Steve knows. He was there.

For these reasons, and many others, I'm so glad that Steve Stoliar stepped out of his monochrome Kansas and into the Technicolor madness of 1083 Hillcrest Road, and that he's given us this precious record of what he found there.

And that is why we say: Hooray, hooray, hooray.

Raised Eyebrows is available, in both print and Kindle editions, at the Comedy Palace Gift Shop. Signed and inscribed copies are available through Steve's website.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The GROUCHOVERTURE

Sunday was the fortieth anniversary of Groucho's 1972 Carnegie Hall concert, preserved on the bittersweet LP An Evening With Groucho. (Actually, the recording draws on two concerts, one at Iowa State University.) Dick Cavett, who introduced the great man at Carnegie Hall, has reflected on the anniversary in his Times online column (read it here) and on All Things Considered (listen to it here). I'm marking the occasion by sharing the first two pages of the book I've been working on. It's a preface entitled "Overture," and it deals with the medley Marvin Hamlisch played at Carnegie Hall before Dick Cavett introduced Groucho Marx. (An Evening With Groucho is out of print, but available at archive.org, or right here.)

 


THE1972 LP AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO – a sad and joyous document with which all Marxists have struggled – begins with an Overture, performed by Marvin Hamlisch at the piano. Backstage, waiting to be introduced, is an eighty-two-year-old man named Julius Henry Marx. He has been in show business for nearly seventy years, and now he has made it to Carnegie Hall.

Hamlisch, still a few years away from A Chorus Line and his Pulitzer, may be in awe of the venue. Julius is in awe of nothing. With a grand flourish, Hamlisch launches into Beethoven – Allegro con brio, the first movement of Piano Sonata No. 21, the Waldstein. He hammers the insistent opening chords before a momentarily disoriented audience.

The Waldstein twinkles along toward its first release. Through parting clouds emerges a melody so intrinsic to us that we can hear the unsung lyrics: Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer! Did someone call me schnorrer? Hooray hooray hooray! It takes a moment to register, and then sweet applause. Behind their glasses, eyebrows, and moustaches, people in the audience have begun to cry.

“Hooray for Captain Spaulding” fizzles back into the Waldstein, and then erupts into a second movement, “Alone” from A Night at the Opera. This, too, is lovingly received, even though we will sometimes fast-forward this number, later on, when we watch A Night at the Opera in our living rooms. We will never watch it to hear Allan Jones sing.

Hamlisch slides elegantly back to Kalmar and RubyAt last we are to meet him, the famous Captain Spaulding! Everyone says I love you.

Sitting in the audience is a very great man, thirty-seven years old, in some ways an heir to the legacy celebrated tonight. He will eventually make a film called Everyone Says I Love You, but that’s ages away. Tonight at Carnegie Hall he is sitting beside a radiant Diane Keaton.

We descend back into A Night at the Opera – “Cosi Cosa,” another lukewarm slab of Allan Jones. But then we catch on: “Cosi Cosa” is delivered this evening with a distinctive technical flourish, and the Carnegie Hall audience bursts into passionate applause, realizing what Hamlisch is doing here: He’s shooting the keys. At’sa fine.

He makes a triumphant return to Captain Spaulding by way of Beethoven, and then a coda: The unmistakable final spasm of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, to break our hearts, and to put the boys in company with the great art of the twentieth century.

The Marx Brothers are the Ghosts of Show Business Past, and some of us are haunted by them every day of our lives. To us, the jokes keep getting funnier, even though it’s been more than a hundred years since Minnie Schoenberg Marx gave birth to kings.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Of Muppets and Marx Brothers

As I've written elsewhere, the Muppets were, in effect, the first comedians I ever loved. I just saw last year's The Muppets for the second time (on DVD), and was reminded of something Jason Segel repeatedly said during promotional appearances for that film: The Muppets were his "gateway drug for comedy." Exactly. And I think the Muppets are also part of the reason why, when I was ready to discover other comedians, I gravitated so strongly toward the Marx Brothers, whose work was an obvious influence on Henson, Oz, and company.

The whole spirit of the Marx Brothers -- anarchic, absurd, and, though I hate to use this word, zany -- is unmistakably with the Muppets, if you watch them and look for it. As if to acknowledge the debt, Jim Henson and his writers (principally Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns) frequently paid direct tribute to the Brothers.

First, a selection from the second episode of the first season of 
The Muppet Show. Connie Stevens was the guest star, and the show originally aired on February 28, 1977, when I was exactly three weeks old. So I must have seen it in reruns. What I know is that by the time I saw the Marx Brothers in At the Circus, and Groucho went into his immortal rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," I recognized it instantly as a Kermit the Frog number.



At the Circus, as you know, is not one of the Brothers' great films, but "Lydia" is a truffle in the mud. It was written for Groucho by two great songwriters, Harold Arlen (music) and Yip Harburg (lyrics). The rest of their score for At the Circus is well below par for them, but give them a break; they wrote the songs for The Wizard of Oz that same year. Arlen's music for "Lydia" is a lovely, bouncing waltz, but it's Harburg's song. The wordplay, puns, and fanciful lingual stretching exercises are all hallmarks of his best lyrics. Whimsy with an edge. According to most accounts, the songwriters intended "Lydia" as a pastiche of Gilbert and Sullivan, knowing of Groucho's fondness for the Savoy Operas.

Here's the original:



I definitely remember seeing the original broadcast of 
The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. It aired in November of 1990, six months after the heartbreaking, unexpected death of Jim Henson, and it was the first Muppet production of the post-Henson era. It was also the debut of Steve Whitmire's Kermit. In this clip, Rizzo (also Whitmire) touts a vaudeville act called the Merrill Lunch Hungerdunger McCormack All-Accountant Marching Society...



...which is a clear and loving tribute to the immortal Animal Crackers routine in which Groucho dictates a letter to his lawyers at the firm of Hungerdunger, 
Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, and McCormack. Did I leave out a Hungerdunger?



On the fourth episode of The Muppet Show's first season (the guest star was Ruth Buzzi), Kermit and a mechanical Kermit doppelganger performed a version of the classic mirror routine -- a bit used by countless comedians throughout history, but associated most with the Marxes, due to Groucho and Harpo's version in Duck Soup, still one of the high points in cinematic history. 



(The Muppet version of the mirror scene is not embeddable, but you can watch it by clicking the above image, or this link; it starts at around 5:53 in the clip.)



On The Muppet Show, season two, episode thirty-one (guest star: Edgar Bergen), Rolf performed "Show Me a Rose," in one of the delightful Rolf piano solos that were common the show's early seasons. 



"Show Me a Rose" was one of Groucho's signature numbers. It was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, the songwriting team most associated with the Marx Brothers. They wrote the songs for
Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup, and were principal screenwriters on the latter two; they also wrote a discarded musical number for A Day at the Races, a discarded early screenplay for Go West, and a good deal of specialty material that appeared variously in Groucho's repertoire.

In this late-sixties appearance from Dick Cavett's short-lived morning show, Groucho twice offers to sing a song, and Cavett requests "Show Me a Rose." In this rendition, Groucho manages to bungle the funniest line in the song, and get a bigger laugh than he would have with the real line. "Show me a rose and I'll show you a girl named Sam" has always been one of my favorite lyrics, and I wish I could tell you why. Partly it's just the sound of the words. It's enigmatic doggerel in a pining, romantic tone. But on this particular
Cavett episode, Groucho briefly goes up on the line, and blurts out, "Show me a rose and I'll show you a man named Sam." Which makes just as much sense, I suppose -- maybe even more.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

And Such Small Portions

Woody Allen: A Documentary, which premiered last week on the PBS series American Masters, can now be seen in its entirety on the series' website. Directed by the capable Bob Weide (previously responsible for excellent documentaries about the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, as well as numerous episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm), the two-part, three-and-a-half-hour survey of Mr. Allen's career was an unexpected treat. Unexpected because Woody rarely participates in this kind of thing, and a treat because he remains the greatest artist America has ever produced in any medium.

Part of what makes Woody Allen so special -- not necessarily better than other comedians, writers, and filmmakers, but simply in a class by himself -- is his very reluctance to be honored. You know what I mean: He's a record-setting Oscar winner who would never dream of showing up to accept an award, an astonishingly prolific filmmaker who works without any commercial considerations, a determinedly self-styled artist who for half a century has defined, rather than allowing himself to be defined by, our culture.

For his fans, it's always been a conflict: We admire his integrity, his seriousness, and his total lack of showbiz slickness; at the same time, it would be nice to see him on talk shows, and to explore deleted scenes and commentary tracks on his DVDs. The chief virtue of Weide's documentary is that it was produced with Woody's participation, and features plenty of new footage: Woody discussing his life and work, Woody directing and editing films, Woody walking around his old neighborhood in Brooklyn and reminiscing. His recent creative revival has given us some excellent films, but what we haven't seen in a while is Woody himself. (He still hasn't appeared in a film since 2006, though he is in the next one.) So watching Woody Allen: A Documentary is like getting to spend some time with a character we've missed.

But not just a character. Woody also comes across as a real person, and the effect is occasionally shocking. There he is, marching down the street on his way to an editing session! There he is, earnestly discussing blocking with Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin! If you were there, it would be hard not to just point at the man and say, "Oh my god, you're Woody Allen!" The film reminds us that there actually is a Woody Allen, who looks and talks a lot like all those characters he played in all those movies, still shuffling around Manhattan and Europe, maintaining a relationship with his iconic status which is just as ambivalent as the relationship he maintains with the rest of the world.

Woody's sister and producer, Letty Aronson, declares in the film that her brother is now happier than he's ever been, and his on-screen manner in the documentary seems to support this. Of course he's still glazed and gloomy -- he is Woody Allen -- but it's been a long time since I've seen him so ebullient, ingratiating, and funny. In the course of his recollections and conversations with Weide, he casually spouts a number of instant classics. On having to explain cloning in Sleeper: "Now, you know, everyone clones." On the Spanish dialogue improvised by Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona: "I don't know what they said. They could have been talking about building an atomic bomb or something." On what would have happened if he had been murdered as a child: "The world would be poorer a number of great one-liners."

Needless to say, for my tastes, the documentary could have been many times longer -- maybe five two-hour episodes, Bob Weide's answer to The Civil War. Weide does an admirable job of covering the saga in the allotted number of minutes, and certainly we should be thankful he got 210 minutes rather than 120 or 60. But by necessity, a number of interesting things were left out -- films unmentioned, chapters unexplored, questions unasked. Every fan will have a personal list of what could have been, and it would be tedious to catalogue mine here. But if you're among those who would have liked to see more early television and standup appearances, I offer this, this, this, and this.

Woody Allen: A Documentary is quite skillful in balancing the classic and the new. For viewers unfamiliar with Allen's work, it could serve as a highly entertaining primer, the perfect "way in" to a canon that is now so vast as to overwhelm newcomers. The standard outline of the Woody Allen story, best conveyed in Eric Lax's landmark Woody Allen: A Biography, is all there, along with a generous number of the immortal clips you'd expect to see: The illegible holdup note from Take the Money and Run, the 59th Street Bridge at dawn from Manhattan, Jeff Daniels' descent from the screen  in The Purple Rose of Cairo. At the same time, the documentary contains enough fresh perspective, minor revelations, and rare or unseen footage to satisfy those extremists who consider him the greatest artist America has ever produced in any medium. I'm telling you, they're out there.

*        *        *        *

I didn't get around to writing a planned Comedy Palace article a few weeks ago; it's title was going to be "Woody Allen's Next Movie is Called WHAT?" A while back, it was reported that Allen's Rome film was no longer going to be called The Bop Decameron, as not enough people know what The Decameron is. The new title is Nero Fiddled. I have been using that title for fifteen years! It was the title of an unproduced musical Sisk and I worked on for a long time, and then it became the name of our theatre company, under whose auspices we produce "the Nero Fiddled musicals," Moral Value Meal, Life After Bush, et al. Anyway -- I'm not expressing upset, just shock. Here's something with which I've identified myself for a long time, which has never had anything to do with Woody Allen, and now suddenly it does. Usually he does things first and then I do them. I am thrilled silly that if you Google "nero fiddled" now, the first three results you get are: 1) Nero, 2) Woody Allen, 3) me. Okay, time to go watch the documentary again.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Brooks and Cavett

I have some truly terrible news for you. Please sit down and prepare yourself for sorrow.

Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again, which features these two Modern Comic Heroes together in conversation before a live audience, and premieres on HBO on September 9, is only one hour long.

I'm trying to type through the tears. The question is, do we even want to see an hour of this, if we can't see at least ten?

At least we can see a couple of minutes of it right now.



Apparently the genesis of The 2,000-Year-Old Man will be discussed, along with a popup from Carl Reiner:



In this clip, Brooks shares an anecdote about George Burns and Jack Benny:



Interestingly, Brooks repeats Burns' joke, in almost the exact same situation, during his landmark 1975 Playboy interview with Brad Darrach. "Brooks looks up, startled," Darrach writes. "An actor wearing a Planet of the Apes mask is strolling down the corridor outside Brooks's office, as though there were nothing in the least unusual about his appearance. He glances casually into Brooks's office. Just as casually, Brooks gives him a nod. 'Hiya, kid. Workin'?'"

Cavett and Brooks have sparkled in conversation on many previous occasions. Here's one of my favorite examples, from a 1971 Dick Cavett Show. In this clip, Brooks discusses the filming of The Twelve Chairs, becomes the inept wine expert Pierre LeTongue, and responds to the attack on Pearl Harbor.



UPDATE (9/10): Cavett writes about Brooks, their history together, and the upcoming HBO special in his latest online column for the New York Times.