Alakazam! A Look at Several Comedy Genies and Genie Comedies

The idea for this post came to me after writing my Barbara Eden/ I Dream of Jeannie post a month ago. But news that tonight TCM will be showing several genie themed movies tonight (September 21, 2018) pushed it to the top of the queue. TCM is only showing a couple of these films, but it couldn’t be a more resonant bit of synchronicity!

The word “genie” is an Anglicization of “jinn” or “djinn”, supernatural beings from Arabian culture, later absorbed into Islam. They undoubtedly make their way to American pop culture by way of the 1001 Arabian Nights. They thus figure in adaptations of children’s stories or adventure tales, and this inevitable made its way into comedy. Over time, the source has gotten disrespected somewhat to put it mildly — I’d bet money about one person in a hundred has any definite idea about it beyond the fact that the concept is vaguely Middle Eastern. And of course, in comedy, it gets the most cartoonish of treatment, sometimes literally, to wit:

Jim Backus, A-Lad-In His Lamp (1948)

This hilarious (though racially insensitive) Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon features the voice of an early career Jim Backus as a genie, whom Bugs dubs “Smokey”, who emerges after the Wascally Wabbit finds an old lamp and starts to clean it (isn’t that always the way). Our delight as kids when we recognized the voice was immense. This is definitely a dry run at “Mr. Howell”, as opposed to “Mr. Magoo” and several of Backus’s line-readings are downright quotable. The gag here is an affirmation of the stereotype by humorously violating it — a concept you could get a whole book out of.  It’s done a lot in genie comedies, although in recent years, people of color have been playing the roles with increasing frequency.

Eric Blore, From Bowery to Bagdad (1955)

This Bowery Boys comedy famously contains character actor Eric Blore’s last role, released posthumously. Predictably, it is Sach (Huntz Hall) who stumbles across the lamp containing the lamp containing the very British genie. I love the photo above, for what WOULD Sach wish for but several ice cream floats?

Burl Ives, The Brass Bottle (1964)

Apart from being Anglo, Burl Ives is closer in physical type to the traditional conception of a genie than many on this list. In The Brass Bottle he is inadvertently freed by Tony Randall, then ironically tries to do all many of favors for him, all of which go awry. Barbara Eden played Randall’s girlfriend in the movie. Both the concept — and Eden — were then snatched up by Sidney Sheldon in I Dream of Jeannie, launched the following year.

Barbara Eden, I Dream of Jeanie (1965-1970)

We wrote about this popular sitcom, which gives us the unusual spectacle of a blonde female genie, here. 

Lennie Weinrib, Magic Mongo (1976-78)

Magic Mongo was a regular feature on The Krofft Supershow. Lennie Weinrib (best remembered as the voice of H.R. Pufnstuf) on this Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning children’s show. Though it’s from the late 1970s, it may be least racially sensitive portrayal of the bunch. In this one, the milieu is the beaches of Southern California, where the genie’s lamp is discovered by a bunch of teenagers.

John Paragon, Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986-1990)

John Paragon started playing Jambi the Genie as early as 1980 in Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman stage show.  He was naturally made part of the cast of regulars when the production became a CBS Saturday morning children’s show in 1986. We’d call the green-faced, heavily lipsticked and eye-shadowed Jambi “light in the loafers” but for the fact that he is just a head in a box. He always appeared with the words “Wish? Did someone say wish?” and his magic words were “Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho; Mecca lecca hi, mecca chiney ho” Of course!

Lenny Henry, Bernard and the Genie (1991)

This BBC TV movie is interesting for many reasons. First a starred a very young Alan Cumming, as a hapless dude who accidentally encounters a genie named Josephus. Second, the genie is played by comedian Lenny Henry, whom I first knew through his 1991 film True Identity, an attempt (by Disney) to import the black British comedian’s success to the U.S. True Identity was directed by Charles Lane, who also directed Sidewalk Stories, which I wrote about here as well as in my book Chain of Fools. I went to see True Identity at the time, and was apparently one of the few people who did so! As for Bernard and the Genie, it’s up on Youtube if you want to check it out.

Robin Williams, Aladdin (1992)

The genie in Aladdin is easily Robin Williams’ greatest screen role; the late comedian seldom seemed to get (or take) roles appropriate for his unique skill set. Yes, it was a voice-over job, so I won’t even say it in a veiled way: that’s probably what he should have been doing ALL THE TIME. Animation is the only visual approach that could truly match his mercurial, stream-of-consciousness verbal style. One of the delights of his performance in this, is that a certain point he channels Jim Backus’ performance in A-Lad-In His Lamp, mentioned above. Williams was one of the few people who could have and would have pulled off such a feat and the effect was magical.

Shaquille O’Neal, Kazaam (1996)

Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal played a rapping genie named Kazaam who comes out of a magical boombox in this latter day, inner city story. If that’s not eyebrow raising enough, the project was the baby of Starsky and Hutch’s Paul Michael Glaser, who produced, directed and wrote the original treatment. Despite the fact that Shaq rapped the theme-song “We Genie”, the film’s budget never got out of the red at the box office, and only enjoys a 6% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes. But Kazaam may be the key to a strange urban legend. Apparently a few years ago, a rumor started going around the internet that in the late ’90s comedian Sinbad had starred in a genie comedy called Shazam. According to several articles, many people are adamant that they saw this film, which in any case never existed. Why on earth anyone would think that there was a conspiracy to disappear a Sinbad comedy, as opposed to they got mixed up and misremembered Kazaam, is a hilarious head-scratcher. But on second thought…