Savoring the Original Pickle Brothers

Sad am I that I was only a toddler when The Pickle Brothers had their big moment; sadder still that the moment didn’t last longer.

The trio consisted of three Hofstra theatre alum Michael Mislove, Ron Prince, and Peter Lee. They attended during the heady days of the late ’50s and early 60s when their fellow students included Madeline Kahn, Charles Ludlam, Lainie Kazan, and Francis Ford Coppola. As a comedy trio (initially called The Uncalled for Three), they evoked the post-Zeppo Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and the Ritz Brothers, with an act that incorporated a non-stop barrage of sight gags, puns, and other wordplay, pantomime, prop comedy. one-liners, etc. All three of them seem influenced by Jerry Lewis, and I see a bunch of Milton Berle in there too.

Around 1964, 1965 they started getting prominent gigs at clubs and coffeehouses like the Improv and The Bitter End, and they were also popular on college campuses. So you can throw the Smothers Brothers in there as peers, and the threesome formation also evokes folk acts of the time like Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio. They opened for the Beach Boys on three national tours (h’m…I wonder what happened when Mike Love met Michael Mislove? Was it like matter and anti-matter? Did they cancel each other out?). Starting in 1966 you could see the Pickle Brothers on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, Kraft Music Hall, and, then, ever so briefly, their own show. Actually, they shot a pilot, penned by two writers from The Monkees, Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso, and directed by an early career William Friedkin, just before he directed the Sonny and Cher movie Good Times and two years before The Night They Raided Minsky’s. In light of this, the fact that he directed The Exorcist in 1973 makes a new kind of sense, for writer William Peter Blatty also had a weakness for this kind of Borscht Belt humor.

At any rate, the Pickle Brothers pilot was not picked up. According to Gardner’s son, it was the highest testing ABC pilot for 20 years; it got nixed because executives were skeptical that the writers could maintain quality at such a pace over an entire season. For another couple of years the Pickle Brothers continued to perform live, made some recordings and appeared on The Joey Bishop Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and Playboy After Dark. After this, the trio split up, pursuing separate careers. It’s a shame, because to my mind, they were a way more impressive neo-classic-comedy trio than the Hudson Brothers, or the guys in Brain Donors, who revived the concept in later decades with greater success.

After the breakup, Michael Mislove was the most successful of the three, going on to found Ace Trucking Company with Fred Willard, et al in 1969. With Neal Israel he co-wrote, co-produced and appeared in the movie Tunnel Vision (1976), on which he also worked with members of Second City, The Groundlings, Firesign Theatre, The Committee, and SNL (the cast includes Howard Hesseman, Phil Proctor, Pat Proft, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Laraine Newman, Franken and Davis, Bill Saluga, Betty Thomas, Roger Bowen, Ernie Anderson, William Schallert, Danny Goldman, Lynne Marie Stewart, Rick Hurst, and a zillion others.) The following year, he co-wrote and starred in Cracking Up, which also folded in members of The Credibility Gap, with a cast that included Willard, Proctor, Peter Bergman, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Dave L. Lander, and Edie McClurg. Then came Americathon (1979), also directed by Siegel, and cowritten by Mislove, Siegel and Firesign’s Proctor and Bergman, with an star cast that includes Willard, Hesseman, Harvey Korman, Peter Riegert (fresh off of Animal House), John Ritter, Richard Schaal, Alan Arbus, Chief Dan George, Jay Leno, Peter Marshall, Meat Loaf, George Carlin, Willie Tyler and Lester, Jerry Maren, etc etc. As an actor, you can see him in such movies as Jenny (1970) with Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda, Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold (1978) with Kim Bassinger, and numerous other credits.

Ron Prince has about 18 film and TV credits as a solo actor, mostly in bit parts (and three of them in projects with Mislove, Tunnel Vision, Cracking Up, and Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold). His last credit was in 1991.

Peter Lee, the most clownish, Harpo-esque member of the trio, became a magazine writer and penned a memoir in 2016 called Leave ’em Laughing: A Brief History of the Pickle Brothers Comedy Team. I would direct the curious to check it out; it’s only a couple of bucks for the Kindle version. And BEST of all, go to Youtube! The pilot of their sitcom is there (it’s terrific!), as well as a hilarious appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (though Ed doesn’t look too impressed), and several musical parodies and other songs they recorded, produced by Mike Love, which I found funny, though others seem to have felt the need to leave nasty comments.

I’ve titled this post “The ORIGINAL Pickle Brothers”, because they are not affiliated with the Pickle Family Circus, founded in San Francisco in 1974, or another Pickle Brothers, a circus duo that was active about a decade ago.

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For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; and for more on classic comedy, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.