Archive for the Comedy Category

Keeping Up Appearances: The Comic Genius of Patricia Routledge

Posted in Comedy, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , on February 17, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the brilliant British comic actress Dame Patricia Routledge (b. 1929). What a testament to the importance of luck in the creation of performance magic is Routledge’s career. Her resume is stuffed with substantial credits: a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, winner of an Olivier Award and a Tony. I’d previously seen her in films many a time without particularly noting her.  She’s in To Sir With Love (1967), Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) and If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969). Her list of credits is much much longer than this, and she is much better known to British audiences to American ones, through tv, film and theatre.

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But talent and experience are only part of what makes for greatness. Sometimes the right actor gets the right part at the right time and alchemy occurs. Such is the case with Routledge’s role as the ever-striving (upward) housewife Hyacinth Bucket (“It’s pronounced “Bouquet’!”) on Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995). I was instantly smitten with this comic creation the first time I saw it. Hyacinth is a middle class provincial woman  who makes life hell for everyone around her with her insufferable pretensions.

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Meanwhile, reality is always giving the lie to her schemes. Her origins are in the lower classes. Her crass relatives are always showing up to her embarrass her. She’s always being appalled, chagrined, exasperated.  And she herself is never quite up to what she attempts. She mispronounces words. Her attempts at a posh accent and manners are transparently silly. Her efforts to claim her modest home and surroundings are somehow grand are at once heroic, sad, and obvious. In her denial of the world around her, she is definitely a spiritual heiress to Don Quixote. And Routledge has the prodigious talent, skill and intelligence to play it that way. She has the range to give us the pretentious elocution and rolled “R”s, but at the same time she’ll go for broke and rob the character of ALL dignity, and just go into utter slapstick in her desperate attempts to keep her subterfuges going. She pulls funny faces, and falls into the mud. She’s constantly peeking from behind things to see how her plans are playing out — and not liking what she sees.

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Along for the ride is her long suffering husband Richard (Clive Swift), a minor local official whom she is forever trying to turn into a big shot. If Hyacinth is Quixote, Richard is less like her Sancho than her Rocinante, the pathetic, elderly horse who passively accepts his miserable lot in life. He grumbles but he doesn’t fight Hyacinth’s plots and schemes. He just does what she tells him, always with full knowledge of impending disaster. Her constant cycle of failure gives the show a poignancy, and elevates Hyacinth to one of the great modern comic creations.

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Credit must be given to the show’s writer/creator Roy Clarke (obviously not the country singer) who conceived and built this perfect comic engine. Not only does it contain everything Routledge needed to give full-on broadly comical performances, but there’s something inherently, timeless, eloquently English about the theme of class-jumping and the clash between reality and fantasy in Hyacinth’s head. She wants to be “somebody”. She is not to content to be herself. The theme is also modern and universal, which is why Keeping Up Appearances has proven to be the BBC’s biggest export. It certainly resonates here in America. It struck an enormous chord with this correspondent.

A few months ago, the BBC launched a prequel series called Young Hyacinth, without Routledge’s participation. She’s 87 today; she’s earned a rest. Happy birthday Dame Patricia. How glad Hyacinth would be to know that she’s being portrayed by one of the nobility!

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Stars of Vaudeville #1032: Pepito and Joanne

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jose Escobar “Pepito” Perez (1896-1975). Originally from Barcelona, Pepito got his start as a clown in Spain in 1914. He came to the U.S. in 1922 and performed on the Keith and Orpheum circuits.

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In 1928 he met dancer and contortionist Margaret Janet Zetteler (or Zettler, 1908-2004) at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, when both were booked to perform before screenings of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. They teamed up, both onstage and off, and Zetteler’s name became Joanne Perez.

As vaudeville dried up they began performing at night clubs in the late 1930s an 1940s. Over the years, Pepito got various small roles on film and television, including several shots on I Love Lucy. They opened the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance, which Joanne continued to run for decades after Pepito passed away. Pepito also ran a charter fishing business.

The keep of all things Pepito and Joanne is Melani Carty, who runs the Pepito and Joanna tribute website. The photos above are from that site. Check it out here.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stuart Erwin: Lummox, Lover and Bumpkin

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of actor Stuart Erwin (1903-1967). Originally from Squaw Valley, California, Erwin had a little stage experience before being cast in a small role in his feature feature film, Fox’s first talkie Mother Knows Best (1928). His second film was a Hal Roach comedy short A Pair of Tights (1929) with Anita Garvin, Marion “Peanuts” Byron, and Edgar Kennedy. Throughout the 30s he was frequently cast a goofy juvenile or romantic lead in comedies, usually with a kind of wide-eyed naif quality. He appeared in the original Big Broadcast film (1932), co-starred with Susan Fleming in He Learned About Women (1932), was in the ensemble of International House (1933), and stars in Judy Garland’s first film Pigskin Parade (1936), for which he was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He continued to appear in pictures throughout the 1940s, in films like Our Town (1940) and Blondie for Victory (1942). Then he launched his television show The Stu Erwin Show a.k.a Trouble with Father (1950-55), on which his wife, actress June Collyer also appeared (they had married in 1931.) In later years he appeared in Disney films such as Son of Flubber (1963).

For more on comedy film history please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Why SNL of Late is NOT All That

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd
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“I’ll get back to you later”, indeed

Sometimes the difference between comedy and satire can seem slight, but when the latter is properly done, you can drive a truck through the gulf. Satire is comedy made by an angry moralist. The greatest of satirists, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglican clergyman. You see something that is wrong, you take aim, you shoot at it, hopefully you hit it, but you MUST DRAW BLOOD.

So I’m worried about SNL. It succeeds as I would hope sometimes, but only sometimes, and what’s worse, more often, its aims seem ambiguous. They make the administration figures of fun, which is fine, but too often I feel the fun is too much fun, or their fun is beside the point. The danger in doing that is in normalizing these monstrous figures. The mere presence of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer was more than enough last week — it was a hilarious stunt, audacious and shocking, and hit those insecure pigs right where they live by having it rubbed in their face by a woman. But that was last week. Now we’re used to her — she’s cute and lovable, even when she’s angry, she can’t help herself. So there must be something else, something pointed. It can’t be about gum-chewing or whatever. That’s a mere wacky foible and the message it sends is that Spicer is like any other SNL targeted pol, Jimmy Carter, for example. For the most part I felt there was a real danger of Spicer being the HERO of that sketch, that it’s now becoming exciting and lovable to watch him tear it up. The only part of that sketch that I felt had any real impact was the end…it felt quite powerful when he was herding the reporters around the room like a sheepdog. That is a comic, satirical image with a point: funny but also scary. I had the same criticism about the Kellyanne Conway sketch, it was glamorizing, not a take-down. The sketches with Baldwin as Trump are usually much more on point, although there is a danger there as well, about it being about funny faces or something.

Lorne Michaels is mercenary. He’ll triangulate if he can. If he thinks he can get Trump viewers as well as anti-Trump viewers by steering some toothless middle ground he will do it. But you can’t just do it to do it, you must DRAW BLOOD. If you do not, as when Kate McKinnon appeared for a brief second as Jeff Sessions, it becomes business as usual. Sessions becomes that hilarious guy we laugh at on Saturday nights who deprives blacks of voting rights. It’s worse than nothing not to go for the jugular vein in political satire. It can never be a case of “Hey, isn’t what’s going on in America right now kinda offbeat and FUNNY?” This is a life or death situation. The only legitimate goal is to END THIS ADMINISTRATION. There is no “wacky” here. Some Mexican mom just got yanked from her kids last night, maybe next door to your house. I’m obviously not saying the sketches shouldn’t be funny, but they must be on point, and they must reduce the target to ashes or we are doing the administration’s work for them. 

R.I.P. Professor Irwin Corey: Dead at 102

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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There’s been lots of chatter on social media since last night and I finally got definitive word from Bob Greenberg: Professor Irwin Corey has passed away at age 102.  Those old enough to remember him from tv, may justifiably ask, “Professor Irwin Corey is still alive???” But here in New York he remained very much present and visible in at least two of the circles I run with. The subset of the comedy community that respects its old timers knows him well, of course. As does the progressive activist community. Irwin was very active well past the century mark, still going out, still being “public” amongst those two groups, attending their dinners and functions and parties and meetings, interacting with people, cherishing the limelight. And, as always happens when you approach and then pass 100, he’s gotten more press than usual in the local papers in recent years.

Irwin’s schtick was very vaudeville: he affected the distracted, disheveled look of the academic intellectual much popularized by Einstein: ill fitting clothes and long, messy hair. He was a kook who would spout nonsense, confusing the convulsed audience while purporting to enlighten them. He started this bit at night clubs and cabarets in the ’40s. In the ’60s, he caught on with the counterculture and tv. By the ’70s, since he was so well recognized, he got lots of bit parts in movies.

At the same time, he was extremely left wing, a radical of the type that had become quite rare in America by the turn of the 21st century. He surely must have been flipping out these last few weeks.

Bob Greenberg, who was his good friend, posted this message last night:

“Irwin passed away at 6:27 PM tonight in his home. He had just eaten Vanilla Ice Cream Swirl followed by Egg Drop Soup. (The Ice Cream didn’t satisfy him so he sent his son out to get the soup.) After the soup he complained that the covers were too heavy on his feet. (This was odd since he usually complained that there wasn’t enough covering him.) His Nurse adjusted them and when she looked up he was gone. “

Farewell to the “World’s Foremost Authority”.

Stars of Vaudeville #1025: Jack Waldron

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Stand Up, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Brooklyn’s own Jack Waldron (Jack Kestenbaum, 1893-1969). In vaudeville days, he was a comic, singer and dancer with a team called Lockett and Waldron; he later worked with a succession of others partners including Betty Winslow, Myrtle Young, Emma Haig, and Harry Carroll; and was also briefly teamed with Shemp Howard in 1925.

Waldron had spots in four Broadway shows in the twenties: Flossie (1924), The Great Temptations (1926), Hello, Daddy (1928), and Woof Woof (1929-1930). He made two Vitaphone picture shorts: A Breath of Broadway (1928), and Radio and Relatives (1940). Throughout the 30s and 40s, he was mostly a night club comic and m.c., prized for his one-liners. As such he was highly influential; some have gone so far as to claim him as the first stand-up comedian, although the same claim has also been made about many earlier performers. Jack E. Leonard claimed to have patterned his rapid-fire insult style after Waldron, quoting him as saying to a heckler, “Let’s play horse. I’ll be the front end, and you just be yourself!”

In 1948 Waldron did The Ed Sullivan Show, his one tv spot. and then three Broadway shows in the 50s: Pal Joey (1952-53), The Pajama Game (1954-56), and The Vamp (1955). In 1961, the Sobels included him in their A Pictorial History of Vaudeville. And in 1969 he became Shepherd (president) of the Lambs, a post he held until he died.

You can see him in action in his Vitaphone A Breath of Broadway here.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals

Posted in African American Interest, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Child Stars, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd

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I hoped to love Julia Lee’s Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals (2015) because the subject is right up my alley: the social and cultural impact of a classic American film comedy series. But for an academic book I found it curiously half-baked, possessing at once too much and too little of several key aspects of the story it wants to tell.

As is well known, Hal Roach’s Our Gang series of comedy shorts was groundbreaking in its integration of African American actors into its all-kid casts. Since the series ran for 20 years, the kids were periodically replaced as they aged out. Over the life of the series there were four key African American kids in the series, each taking his turn as the star, almost like a relay race. The first two, Sunshine Sammy and Farina were the undisputed stars of the series during their stints. The second two, Stymie and Buckwheat, were among the most popular and best known in the films, but appeared during the years when Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla held center stage. The tag team element suggests a structure in four sections, each focusing on each of the young actors. It’s latently there; Lee’s own book suggests it. The strongest element in the book is the biographical material on these four child actors.

The problem is that in her attempts to broaden the scope of the book and make it more ambitious, Lee doesn’t go nearly far enough. There is some commendable background on blackface minstrelsy and stereotypical stock characters like the pickaninny and zip coon, but not nearly enough to justify the title of the book. There was at least a century of backstory leading up to Sunshine Sammy’s screen debut; it didn’t happen in a minute. Likewise, the author’s familiarity with the films themselves strikes me as superficial, or at least there is scant evidence of any deep engagement with the films in the writing here. There is some description of a very few films, but surprisingly little and without much insight. In that respect, this is not a book I would recommend to film or comedy buffs, most of whom will be light years ahead of the author in terms of their familiarity with the material. Also, there is virtually nothing about what was happening in OTHER films of the same period. Other child stars, other African American stars, other comedy stars. She reveals a lack of breadth in her familiarity with the scope of her subject when she trots out The Jazz Singer for the millionth time, as though that were some sort of key blackface movie, when its only landmark aspect was sound. I find an emphasis on that movie in this context dilettantish. Blackface was ubiquitous in 1927. And what was happening on stage at the time? In comic strips? It’s necessary to compare and contrast all this material for any kind of true picture to emerge and it’s just not here. Some of the backstage interactions she quotes from primary source material are clearly studio press release fluff, to be regarded with a grain of salt at best, but the author communicates little awareness of this. And while it is appropriate for the other (white) actors in the series to be backgrounded in this book, perhaps not as much as has been done here, as one gets no sense of their personalities, or how the white kids and black kids compared in terms of screen time, and so forth.

Lee’s book does give a nice sense of the inherent contradiction of the racial aspects of Our Gang. It broke much new ground, by having an integrated cast, by humanizing its African American actors…even while it perpetuated muted iterations of traditional stereotypes now distasteful to us. During the TV era, Lee tells us, whites in the South protested the broadcast of the films because they were too sympathetic to blacks, then a few years later groups like the NAACP protested the showings because of the stereotypes! Ya can’t win for losing. But from the perspective of 2017 they make wonderful teaching tools, and charming ones too. So from that angle, I’d recommend Lee’s book, especially to young people and newbies. Its heart is in the right place even if it needs a lot more elbow grease to transform it into the book the subject deserves.

 

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