Archive for the Jews/ Show Biz Category

Vaudeville vs. Wagner: The Genius of “Spaceballs”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by travsd

I write this post this morning at a time of stellar confluence, a constellational alignment — a harmonic convergence, if you will. Today is the birthday of Mel Brooks (b. 1926); Spaceballs just turned 30 years old; and Stars Wars, the film (among others), which Spaceball parodies, just turned 40.  An auspicious time, one thinks for a reconsideration of this cinematic last gasp.

Yes, “last gasp”. For we can agree, can’t we, I should hope, that Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) are all unambiguously terrible, symptoms of an exhausted talent, adrift in a culture that had progressed beyond his ability to connect. Yes, Brooks was to reinvent himself a few years later on the musical stage with great, even unprecedented, success, but his days of making perfect screen comedies were even then behind him, as long as a quarter century and more ago.

Candy as “Barf”

For years, I would have set the period of decline a decade earlier, marking the descent with The History of the World, Part One (1981), the unnecessary remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983), and Spaceballs (1987). I’ve since re-evaluated the first and last of these, and will talk about the former film on another occasion. But when Spaceballs was released…one rolled ones eyes. Brooks was passé. This movie was passé. For so many reasons. Among others, there’s the fact that in 1987, what could have been less relevant to anything than Star Wars? The last film in the series, Return of the Jedi had been released four years before. For all anyone knew at that time, the Star Wars franchise was dead, permanently a thing of the past. It was no longer in the zeitgeist. I was 21 when Spaceballs came out; a fifth of my life had passed since Star Wars was “over”; half my life had passed since it had begun. So there was that. But then there was the fact that a new generation of comic geniuses had pressed the re-set button, and basically Brooks had been bested and made obsolete on no less than two different fronts: on his left were the SNL-SCTV guys who were making edgier, more youth-oriented comedy (I found the fact that he cast two of the stars of this movement,  John Candy and Rick Moranis, in Spaceballs, embarrassing at the time, as though Brooks thought he could hire his way back to relevance). And to his right, Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker were beating him at his own game with dead-on, far more uncompromising and knowing parodies like Airplane! (1980) Police Squad! (1982), and Top Secret (1984). (ZAZ would lose their own advantage, at least from a critical perspective, soon enough, but for the moment in 1987 they had re-set the bar higher than Brooks himself was able to hit.)

Furthermore, though mainstream audiences and maybe even Brooks himself didn’t know it, there was already a perfect Star Wars parody, Hardware Wars, a comedy short released in 1978 which I wrote about here. I was an enormous fan of Hardware Wars; only a miracle would not make Brooks’ film suffer by comparison. And Hardware Wars had been made on a shoestring. It’s about vitality. (For an interesting parallel completely WITHIN Brooks’ body of work…Brooks’ 1975 Robin Hood tv series When Things Were Rotten is vastly superior to the $20 million stinker Robin Hood: Men in Tights.) Note the date of Hardware Wars. 1978! That was the year for a Star Wars parody! When it was topical, not when it was a decade-old fad already in pop culture’s rear-view mirror!

You know what we needed in 1987? A really devastating Top Gun parody. THAT would have been comedy doing its job. One finally arrived in the form of Jim Abrahams’ Hot Shots! (1991), which was a smash success, although not the biting satire I would have hoped for. But at least it had its finger on the pulse. Much more to the purpose was Alan Spencer’s Dirty Harry parody tv show that ran 1986-1888: Sledge Hammer! That one was right on time, and on the money.

And not least of which…Jesus, that title! “Spaceballs“?! Balls? Really? And dick jokes? Brooks had been brilliant on his own, and brilliant in collaboration with Gene Wilder. Now he was collaborating with this hacky dude Ronny Graham, and it seemed like the whole enterprise was reaching, down, down, to recapture the glory of farting cowboys in Blazing Saddles. The remainder of Brooks’ film career was to be at about this level, actually.

What did this exhausted 60 year old man know about what was going on in the world? What did he know about Star Wars? Ah! And now we come to our point. For time, I feel has vindicated and rehabilitated Spaceballs in all sorts of ways. Out of its own time, we can see it better, more objectively. It has many virtues we (or at least I) never could have spotted at the time. I watched it again not long ago, and found it to be highly rewarding.

To get an easy one out of the way: as we never could have known at the time, the Stars Wars franchise would return years later, much like Star Trek before it, to be a sort of apparently permanent, open ended phenomenon, with many more sequels, prequels, and outlying stories to follow. Rather than a fad of the past, it lives now in a sort of timeless place, allowing Spaceballs to live there, too, as part of its universe, much as High Anxiety lives alongside Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Young Frankenstein lives practically within Universal horror. That’s a relief, but a kind of accidental one. That’s  just time catching up to salvage Brooks’ movie. But Spaceballs (ugh, change the title, though!) has inherent, timely virtues of its own, and three decades later it is easy to see that its creator was vastly smarter, more insightful, and more prescient than I gave him credit for at the time.

To be au courant is important to success. but it also an element that is superficial. As I said, four years, ten years, were a big deal to me at age 21, but to a 60 year old man, they are nothing. Those years passed, and Brooks hadn’t noticed that Star Wars was no longer a thing. So he went ahead and made his parody. And I’m glad that he did. Because a 60 year old man SEES things. He has an objectivity that people who are immersed in the latest pop culture (young people, generally speaking) do not. A few years ago (a bunch of years now) I went to my kid’s junior high graduation. And I had a flashback. The TUMULT of applause and screams and cheers when the popular kids went up to get their certificates! I remember being in Junior High, and thinking that about the popular kids, and thinking they were significant somehow, that they were important in some way. Whether you loved them or hated them, they dominated your life somehow. But, now as a parent, and a parent who lived in a different city (for as you well know, parents too are often sucked into the school culture of popularity), I was looking at this phenomenon with total objectivity, coolly, from a height and distance. To me, it was all very amusing. “They’re cheering for these kids like they’re rock stars! But they’re just kids! They’re just some other kids!”

In other words, I was unmoved by whatever anyone thought was going on here. I wasn’t impressed. I’m not saying I was judging any of it or anyone harshly. I was just aloof, detached, not on board to scream for Jimmy like he was the Beatles, because I was out of it, and could see that he was just another kid. He might be good looking or charming or something, but the odds are pretty good that the next Bill Gates in the class wouldn’t be that kid, it would be some dork who probably didn’t even show up for the ceremony because everyone hates him and he hates them right back.

So Brooks SEES Star Wars, he sees it in a way that many of us can’t or couldn’t. He doesn’t have any particular animus against it, he just doesn’t feel any need to show it slavish respect and worship. As a matter of fact, his attitude towards it is very much like his attitude toward the western in Blazing Saddles. It is a different approach than the one he takes towards musicals or the horror of the 1930s as in The Producers or Young Frankenstein. Those parodies are loving and indeed a little worshipful. But the HEROIC, you see, he is outside that mindset, and that is the point of this essay.

What is the heroic mindset? As is well known, George Lucas was under the spell of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces when he laid out his masterwork. It obviously, baldly draws from well-known sources in its bid to set up an original mythology: the epic poetry of the Greeks and Vikings; the opera of Wagner; and Tolkien (with its own echoes of Celtic, Norse and Germanic mythology). The story has that shape. John Williams’ music draws overtly from Wagner. And to stretch the point to a place where it is unmistakable, in one famous scene, there are visual echoes of the 1937 Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally in Triumph of the Will:

George Lucas is not a Nazi, of course. He is a cinematic storyteller. As such, he is concerned with summoning powerful iconography and, according to certain conventions, a heroic ideal. He is not alone in this. We live, after all in the age of the superhero movie, where all of our protagonists must somehow be more than human and all our stories must be about the fate of the planet. Even our stories that are not overtly about those things now tack in that direction (see my earlier critique of Poseidon). mere people aren’t good enough; everybody’s got to be Superman! A term coined by Nietzsche, I might add!

This worship of the strong, the invincible, the independently acting vigilante hero who is answerable to nobody but himself and the voices in his head makes some of us — makes me — a little skittish. It feels like conditioning for Fascism. I have been moaning about the deleterious cultural effects of action movies for decades, and people tell you you’re a Cassandra, “It’s just movies!” Yet what do we get in 2o16? A Fascist President, complete with rallies, a stream of Orwellian doublespeak, and a program for stepping on the necks of certain groups of people in pursuit of a vague, ill-defined “greatness”. Look! Look at the asshole in this picture, look at his costume. What do you think inspired it?

Motherfucker thinks he’s a superhero, gonna save something. Like a Knight? A Dark Knight? Or perhaps a Knight of the Ku Klux Klan?

And what does a certain comedian think about that sort of thing? What has he always felt? What respect does he have for it? I’ll show ya:

All the sudden, Mel Brooks looks to me like the hippest, most relevant comedian on the planet, Look at that picture. It’s recent! 

And now a little history lesson, so you know where we are. For decades, Hollywood was a place were the stories were designed to generate sympathy for the little guy — to communicate his perspective, but also, yes, to draw him to the theatre. Chaplin, Capra, Hawks, John Ford. Yes, there were superhero serials, and yes sci-fi fantasy like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (another model for Star Wars) but that was considered entertainment for children. Grown-ups watched stories about people.

OR…they laughed. Deconstruction has been a major thread in America since the days of vaudeville, burlesque, and Weber and Fields. WASP newspaper critics often sneered at this kind of disrespectful low-brow comedy back in the day, but they did so from a place of willful ignorance. Aristophanes came out of the same culture that produced the tragedians. He was there to lampoon them, keep them humble, keep them “real”. The first democracy gave birth to the first spoofs. When American cinema was born, guys like Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel parodied the heroic movies of their day. TV sketch comedy, where Mel Brooks got his start, would do the same.

During the Vietnam Era, the only Batman game in town was a camp tv series that poked relentless fun at the idea of a Caped Crusader. In the 60s, there was a healthy and perceptive idea abroad in the land that people who went around calling themselves saviors and heroes just might be buffoons. The guys who show up to your village to save you from the scourge of communism just might burn down your hooch and shoot every man, woman, child and infant. In fact, it was against this backdrop that Mel Brooks had his first smash success, the tv series Get Smart, which ran from 1965 through 1970. Get Smart turned Cold War super spy James Bond on his head, turned him into an idiot. It’s not that Mel Brooks wasn’t/ isn’t a patriot. He served in World War Two — literally went to Germany to fight Nazis. But you have to keep your eye on the ball. Fascism isn’t just a uniform. It’s a mindset and a way of behaving. And it is to be fought WHEREVER it is, at home as much as abroad, even if it is sitting right across from you at Thanksgiving dinner.

Then something dreadful happened. As Ronald Reagan began to heat up the Cold War again, the culture decided (after a REALLY short time) that the era of apologizing for Vietnam was over. Carter had bungled the response to the Iran hostage crisis, and a few other things besides. The Reagan philosophy was “Let us no longer be crippled by doubt”. Which was fine, as far as it went. Who doesn’t want to destroy totalitarianism? (In fact, that is the point of this very essay). But what rapidly evolved was a cinema that glorified military violence for its own sake, and patriotism at any cost, including the loss of America’s democratic, compassionate soul. It was now okay to kill the enemy for no other reason than the fact that we are us. And where the 60s and 70s had been an age of anti-heroes, and self-examination, it now appeared paramount to re-establish HEROES. Not just heroes, but unquestioned, unquestionable demi-Gods, the kind of characters who destroy buildings and cities to save their girlfriend or something.

But, “Whoa! The laser gun is cool!”

Pizza the Hut: THAT’s puttin’ ’em in their place!

Mel Brooks looked at that mentality, and said, much to his credit, “I’m not so impressed.” Your proto-Fascism has no power over me. This crap you fetishize is immature. The names are hokey, the plot is stupid, your intentions are nakedly self-aggrandizing. It is cloaked in mysticism, but contains no wisdom. There is a level at which a jackass with a gun is childish… therefore a jackass with a gun who is wearing a comically large helmet and falling down and swearing all the time is actually much more mature for laughing at the folly of it all. I KNOW the Buddha and Jesus would agree with me here!

I had a great epiphany a few months back at the Coney Island USA spring gala, when Reverend Billy was there and gave his (usual) great speech about how Coney Island was a a kind of holy place, for being the birthplace and haven for every kind of freak. Not just the literal ones, the born different, but the spiritual ones, too. Outsiders. And New Burlesque, like the sideshow, is so much about embracing all bodies, and celebrating self-ownership by women, the LGBTQ community etc (at least the worthwhile shows are).

Brooks, to state the obvious, is from an outsider culture. He STATES it. At the end of The History of the World, Part One, he announces that his next movie will be Jews in Space. And he made Jews in Space and decided to call it Spaceballs instead. He gives us a “Druish Princess” whose servant is played by Joan Rivers, for God’s sake. And “May the Schwartz Be With You!” Brooks is in dialogue with the dominant culture, the Anglo-Saxon culture, which appears to be getting off on some weird Aryan worshiping mythos. The vaudeville spirit is about creating a unique whole out of a zillion diverse parts, allowing them to remain different, allowing them to remain themselves, not asking them to cleave to some “ideal”. Taking the beautiful and powerful down a few pegs, that’s the stuff for me. God bless you, Mel Brooks. We need a thousand more like you right at this very moment.

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her family’s house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Eddie White: “I Thank You”

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

Eddie White (Michael Weintraub, 1898-1983) was born on May 18.

White comes to the attention of modern buffs almost entirely from his 1928 Vitaphone short called I Thank You, after his oft-repeated (by him) catchphrase. When you’ve seen a whole mess of Vitaphones, you easily lump them into categories. Some, like Burns and Allen, and Rose Marie, are folks we already know. Some, maybe most, are folks we don’t know and leave little impression. And a discrete handful are folks we don’t know and make a huge impression: a great act, big talent, a vivid or eccentric personality, sheer weirdness, or whatever. Those are everybody’s favorite Vitaphones and I think those end up being the ones we see for a reason; the screenings are almost always curated by the savvy Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, who has the ears, eyes, nose, bones, brains, and guts of an old time vaudeville producer, which also means knowing what contemporary audiences will respond to.

At any rate, I Thank You is just such a short. Eddie White is one of the memorable ones. Tall, thin, and lanky, with a scrawny neck, enormous ears, and a high-pitched voice, you’d swear in watching the film that he was an adolescent, no more than about 15 years old. That was the impression I took away the first time I saw the film several years ago: that he was a precocious, talented teenager, probably from New York’s Lower East Side. The ethnic jokes and the crowd pleasing song set, featuring, “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella (on a Rainy Day)”, “Get Out and Get Under the Moon” and the show-stopping “Mammy”, probably planted that idea. But I was off.

As we see from his birthday year, the young man was actually 30 when this Vitaphone came out. Its national release was probably the high point of his long career, which was mostly East Coast based, concentrated in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York. Born in South Philly, he debuted as a young man at the Old Norris Theatre in Norris, Pennsylvania and was using the stage handle “Eddie White” by 1920.

In the 20s he seemed an up-and-comer. He was a big time Keith’s act by mid-decade, one sees references to him playing important big time houses like New York’s Hippodrome.

He became associated with the famous 1932 song “Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long”, though Milton Berle had written the parody lyrics and Joe E. Lewis had the 1933 hit record. Vaudeville was dying around this time and the path of White’s career is hugely instructive about what the hustling performer did to fill the time with bookings. A small announcement in a 1936 issue of Billboard seems pivotal. The item describes White as a vaud vet who would now be officially turning his attention to night cubs. And thereafter he seemed to work pretty steadily as an m.c. and entertainer at night clubs and resorts, most especially the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, although one continues to find references to him playing dates farther afield in places like Pittsburgh and Ohio. Part of White’s legend is that he became a figure in the career of the Jersey-based burlesque comedians Abbott and Costello, when he saw them performing and put them on at the Steel Pier, where they first began to attract more widespread notice.

White produced and hosted a variety revue called The Zanities of 1943 in Philadelphia that got good notices. He headlined in the Palace Theatre revival in 1955. He retied from show biz in 1959.

I had the thrill of talking to White’s only child Jay Weintraub (b. 1933) the other day, and he helped add texture for White’s later years. He said the family moved to Chicago for three years, where White had a steady gig at a night club. He said his famous friends included Berle (who’d given him “Sam” to sing), Judy Garland, Red Buttons, Henny Youngman, and of course Abbott and Costello (Weintraub recounted an anecdote where Costello flew the family out to spend a few days with him in Hollywood). And he said the William Morris Agency tried unsuccessfully to book Eddie for the Ed Sullivan Show, but he was rejected for being too “ethnic” — he did a lot of Jewish dialect humor, which might not come across to wider audiences (and might have offended some others).

But mostly, says Weintraub, “He was a family man. His main interests were his brothers and my mother and me. He would go off and do his dates for a few days but then he would always come home.”

Most intriguingly, Mr. Weintraub mentions an enormous scrapbook of clippings in his possession and THIS would be the great resource of information on Eddie White. Hopefully some day an intrepid researcher will gain access to it and convey its contents to the wider public.

Special thanks to the one and only Mr. Chuck Prentiss for connecting me with Jay Weintraub!

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Milberger on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by travsd

We enjoyed the pilot of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a great deal — in fact, enough to write our own review. But we knew someone who could write a better one: multi-talented actress, comedienne, screenwriter/playwright, podcast host, comedy scholar and Gracie Allen expert Lauren Milberger.  Her Gracie Allen guest post here five years ago is in our all-time top 25! I just knew she’d have great things to say about the new show, and she did. I turn you now over to her:

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: A Woman in Redux

Many people would consider the modern Golden Age of Comedy to be the 1950s and 60s, when what we know today as stand-up became all the rage and television was in its infancy. When the comedy from vaudeville finally had its eyes back again (after years of being in the dark with radio) and was able to take its experience to mint legends for the ages. Television turned night club raconteurs into instant celebrities, thanks to the likes of Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan and soon – the king of them all – Johnny Carson. But except for Lucille Ball, how many women from this era have seen their strengths and struggles dramatized, their stories told? For all the plays, films and TV based on Neil Simon, Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner’s fond memories of the 1950’s classic sketch show Your Show of Shows (and later Caesar’s Hour), sporting a writing staff that included most of the comedy legends for the latter part of 20th century (Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, etc.), where are the stories solely about Lucille Kallen or Selma Diamond? Where are the lavish odes to Madelyn Pugg, who wrote most of I Love Lucy’s classic episodes and who was given the moniker of “Girl Writer” because of the oddity of such a thing at the time?  Because for every Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Alan King, Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor, there was a Joan Rivers, a Moms Mabley and an Elaine May. Today, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are household names, but the female narrative of comedy they came from seems mostly forgotten or glossed over. That was until Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino gave us the new Amazon pilot The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells the story of Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), whom we first meet at her wedding reception, doing stand-up (unbeknownst to herself) and regaling her family and friends with the cleaned up version of her 1950’s teen life at Bryn Mawr College. Four years later, Midge has two kids and the seemingly perfect New York Upper-West Side Jewish life of 1958, and one would assume to find her spending her nights in Greenwich Village trying her hand at stand-up comedy. However, this is 1958 after all, and Midge is just a “housewife” making brisket, worried about keeping her figure and beauty for her husband – all while having time to prepare the perfect Yom Kippur break -fast for the Rabbi and for her family. It’s only when a family crisis (which I won’t give away) sends Midge’s “happy life” into upheaval that she finally discovers that she is the talented stand-up in the family, not her wannabe husband. A talent that, based on the synopsis, will take Midge all the way to Johnny Carson’s couch – the pinnacle and seminal moment for stand-ups of her generations.

Within the short pilot, Sherman-Palladino is able to establish Midge as a smart, confident and funny female who knows what she wants, even if it took her 26 years to know that she, as a woman, could achieve it. Midge belongs in the company of other Sherman-Palladino heroines: a witty, fast-talking brunette you want to root for. What the pilot also does well is establish the obstacles Midge will be up against in her upward rise to fame. The fact that Midge didn’t even expect herself to go into comedy, that it was her husband’s job, is a red flag on its own; but what the pilot does best for a layman of this era is to establish this pre-feminist environment Midge will have to push against to succeed. Midge, for example, keeps a journal of all of her measurements, something she has done since she was a child, and even goes so far as to hide her night beauty regiments from her husband to make him believe she wakes up with perfect hair and make-up – behavior that appears to have been passed down from her own mother who in the pilot worries her baby granddaughter has too big of a head and bemuses that her daughter is officially done wearing sleeveless dresses. Even Midge’s own father blames her for her husband’s failings – something that even shocks Midge. Sherman-Palladino’s music choices, as with Gilmore Girls, do a wonderful job to establish mood, tone, and style of the time period. Paired with the vibrant colors and sets of 1958 New York City, it all makes the audience feel like they’ve stepped back in time.  What you ultimately get with Mrs. Maisel is the fast, witty dialogue of Gilmore Girls mixed with the epic scope and social commentary of Mad Men, and a comedy history lesson to boot.

Along the way Midge meets Gilmore Girls alum Alex Borstein who plays a hardened (West) Village bartender Susie at the comedy club “The Gaslight Cafe “ – which appears to be a fictitious stand-in for “The Bitter End”. Susie sees the rare comic talent in Midge, comparing her to Mort Sahl (an icon in his day). Finally at one point Susie tells an unsure Midge, “I don’t mind being alone. I just do not want to be insignificant. Do you? Don’t you want to do something no one else can do? Be remembered  as something other than a wife… a housewife…” – a universal question women, hell, humans ask themselves. It resonates with Midge as it did me and it pushes Midge to take the first steps to go after her own dreams with as much gusto as she put into making a brisket or we can only imagine she put into getting back in her Rabbi’s good graces. It’s fitting that what will one day became one of most important day in Midge’s life takes place on Yom Kippur. It is a day of atonement of sins, yes, but is also a day of starting over. Of re-birth. Of having your sins forgiven and wiping the slate. (In fact, she literally ends the day wearing wearing someone else’s shoes)

Also making an appearance are The Kingston Trio and, in a more substantial role, Lenny Bruce himself (played wonderfully by Luke Kirby), establishing that there are rules to this world (which includes being arrested for indecency) and that being innovative means sometimes you have to break these rules.  Every actor in the pilot is a knockout, led by the adorably charming Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, and (as Sherman-Palladino always does) casting stalwart actors such as Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge’s parents.

For me, what really struck home this piece in my heart was not just that it was about a woman who will pioneer comedy, but that this is the story of a Jewish woman in comedy. See, a short time ago I had a revelation. And hear me out, here. It may sound crazy… but… as a Jewish woman I feel unrepresented within the comic Jewish narrative. No seriously I do. Think about it… 99.9% of what we know as the traditional comic Jewish persona is male driven. And I don’t just mean this in the sense that this narrative is mostly populated by men. What I talking about is the ideas or tropes that are usually identified as the classic heritage of Jewish comedy, or voice, comes from the point of view of a strictly male narrative. The style, the attributes, what consolidates a comic Jewish stereotype – from Alan King to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld. And yes, this is a history that stems all the way from the ethnic comedy of vaudeville to the dining rooms of the Catskills “Borscht Belt,” so of course it comes from a male dominated society.  But for me it was a persona I had adopted as my own, that I thought I was a part of. It wasn’t until I saw more of myself in the works of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh-McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) writing actual Jewish women that I started to notice it more: I wasn’t represented. Where I had previously thought I saw myself in the worlds of Allen and Seinfeld, and even Aaron Sorkin to a degree, I only had to take a step back to see that alongside their “Jewish avatars” were mostly goyisha women.  And that when any token Jewish women actually appeared, they were nags or annoying stereotypes with funny voices for laughs.  And yes, to a non-New Yorker, Midge has a funny voice, but what her voice is in so many ways authentic. Here is a familiar, confident, Jewish woman I recognize. And this is a good thing not just for seeing myself represented in the narrative, but also for what it does to the public at large. To show that we aren’t just jokes and nagging mothers in a punch-line. Or bad dates their mother sets them up with. We are also part of this heritage of comedy. And I think there is no better person than Amy Sherman-Palladino (whose own father was a comedian during this era) to use her own Jewish voice to tell us all about Mrs. Maisel and how she made it to the top of comedy. So I recommend you watch this pilot and vote for it to be picked up for series (or else it won’t, that’s how Amazon works) And if the male in your life or the ones reading this still aren’t sold on  “Mad Men/ PunchLine for chicks” … just tell ‘em there are also tits in it. 😉

 

Zero Mostel: The High Brow’s Low Brow

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Zero Mostel (1915-1977).

It would be par for the course that such an eccentric actor and performer as Mostel would also have a highly idiosyncratic career in the bargain. He is best known his hot streak in the 1960s, encompassing the original Broadway production and film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, and the original film version of Mel Brooks The Producers. These iconic star turns, combined with one of his last roles, as a blacklisted comedian in The Front (1976) helped, I think, to cement a false if welcome image of Mostel as the traditional Jewish-American show biz creature, perhaps someone who had been in vaudeville and burlesque, and then later worked as a Catskills comedian. As it happened, Mostel had the right background for that: Jewish immigrant parents, and a childhood in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. And he was just that kind of a broad, physical comedian, with such a sure-fire repertoire of schtick, that one could be forgiven for thinking he had developed in those time honored schools of show biz. He certainly would have thrived there, with his uninhibited, scenery-chewing mania, his hilarious comic mask with those flashing, popping eyes, and his populist, earthy appeal.

But if you look at his birth year, he was just a little bit too young for vaudeville and burlesque. Technically, he could have performed there as a child or teenager, but as it happens, he didn’t. A precocious, intellectual child, he drifted into show business in the most unlikely way possible — as an art instructor. An accomplished painter himself, he gave gallery talks at New York City museums as part of a New Deal works program in the mid to late 1930s. He was so funny and entertaining, he began to be hired for private parties and other functions. This led to performances at cabarets and night clubs. By the early 40s, he was getting roles on Broadway and in Hollywood films (Dubarry Was a Lady).

Service in the army during World War II, and anti-Communist blacklisting in the early to mid ’50s were speed bumps in his career. A local tv show with Joey Faye in 1948 may have been the closest he ever got to real burlesque. In reality he was drawn to high-brow theatrical roles and Absurdism, including Brecht (The Good Woman of Setzuan on Broadway, 1957), Joyce (Ulysses in Nighttown, off-Broadway 1957-58, Broadway 1974), Beckett (Waiting for Godot, television, 1961), and Ionesco (Rhinoceros, Broadway, 1961, and film, 1974). These critically acclaimed turns helped catapult him into the comic tour de forces he is best known for.

It goes without saying to anyone familiar with his work that Mostel was a bundle of insane, animated energy, a performer of genius, but one of a particular type. He shone best as the untrammeled star of whatever he appeared in. But parts for his special talents — a mercurial Jewish zany in his late 50s — don’t come along every day. Many of his roles in the ’70s tended to hide his light under a bushel, shoehorning him into films in more conventional character parts. He died of an aortic aneurysm following a crash diet at the relatively young age of 62.

For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

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It undoubtedly speaks to my present state of mind that I wasn’t crazy about Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer. Someone recommended it to me online just knowing I’d love it, and the title certainly sounds like the kind of thing I’d really go for, for a multiplicity of reasons. But the title mis-sells it. I was expecting and hoping for a real-life story perhaps mixing elements of To Be or Not to Be, I am a Camera, and Schindler’s List, featuring real-life derring-do and heroism by a cabaret performer deep in the heart of the Third Reich…

Instead, the book’s subject turns out to be an American flim-flam artist, vaudeville manager and impresario from Troy, New York named Freeman Bernstein. His “hustle” of Hitler consisted of selling him a few tons of scrap metal under the premise that it was a shipment of nickel, much in demand as Germany was preparing for war. Even as a swindle this strikes me as rather contemptible, lacking whimsy or creativity, just kind of a bottom-feeding theft. I’m glad it happened to Nazis, but if it happened to anyone else I’d say, “Clap that dude in irons and bring him bad food.” Further, the book, in the tradition of its subject, keeps you on the hook for over 300 pages before finally delivering its underwhelming story. It is preceded by pages of lore about the guy’s show biz career running amusement parks and small time vaudeville houses, and crossing paths with the occasional person of note, such as Mae West, to whom he once tried to sell some fake jewels. (It’s not so easy to sell fake diamonds to Diamond Lil).

The book is a labor of love by Bernstein’s great-nephew Walter Shapiro and has the flavor of family anecdote, a long, winding bar-room story at long last set down on paper. I’m going to hang on to it for awhile and perhaps mine it later for vaudeville lore. But at the moment I am much less interested in vaudevillians per se than in VAUDEVILLIANS WHO TOPPLE NAZIS, know’m sayin’?

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”.

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