Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Prod The Batrachian

It's April Fool's Day, so I thought I'd look at a book about humor.  However, there's not much to say about Poking A Dead Frog by Mike Sacks.  It's a collection of interviews and pieces of advice from comedy writers. (The title comes from E. B. White's famous line "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.")

But what a cast.  In fact, there are so many names--including Mel Brooks, Stephen Merchant, Terry Jones, Henry Beard, James Downey, Patton Oswalt, Bill Hader, Bruce Jay Friedman, James L. Brooks, Roz Chast and Paul Fieg--that it's a bit bewildering.  You'll note this isn't one particular discipline they're discussing, but every kind of comic construction--movies, sitcoms, late night shows, standup, cartoons, magazine pieces, novels and so on.

On top of which, the advice is often contradictory.  Some say do what you think is funny and don't listen to others, while some say learn to work with others and take their advice.  Some say put in your politics, some say just be funny regardless.  Some say worry it to death until each word is right, some so go with your instincts.  The only thing they all agree on is it's a lot of hard work.

But the reason to read the book is to hear their stories, often inside stuff that you can't get elsewhere.  The interviews are well done and many of the subjects, as you'd expect, are raconteurs. You may not learn how to be funny, but at least you'll have a good time.

Speaking of funny, yesterday was Gabriel Kaplan's 70th birthday, no foolin'.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A College Widow Stands For Plenty

One of the friends of this blog is Matthew Coniam, who has his own blog on the Marx Brothers.  He spent much of 2014 writing a book on the team, and it's available on Amazon today.  Entitled The Annotated Marx Brothers, it'll be a fine addition to any comedy collection.

He goes through each film, explaining obscure references--lines that may have been clear in the 1930s, but baffle today's crowd.  And if I know Matthew, he'll do it in his inimitable and quite humorous style. (Also, I sent in some comments to his blog and I hope he's used some of my suggestions.)

It's never too early to buy Christmas gifts, so get on it.  I've already ordered my copy.

Dead Done

I didn't like the idea of a TV show about zombies.  Zombies in a movie with an ending I get, but the relentlessness week after week would get tiresome.  So at first I didn't watch The Walking Dead which nevertheless managed to become TV's biggest phenomenon.

Eventually I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so I started watching and caught up during the fourth season.  The fifth season, which just ended, was the only one I watched as it was being aired.  I haven't changed my view much: it's not a bad show, but is far from great. It tries for some psychological depth, but generally fails, and much of the action is repetitive.

Still, the fifth season was maybe the best since the first.  It had a somewhat different plot from the usual--normally the main group has to fight nasty people (along with the zombies), but this season they had to live with people who were nicer than they were.  I especially liked Carol.  She started as a weak, abused woman who had to learn how to be tough.  This season allowed her to pretend to be a quiet homemaker to cover just how tough she's become.

But really, how much longer can this show go on?  Do the math.  Even if humans are outnumbered 100-1 by zombies, at the rate our heroes are killing them, they'd be pretty much gone by now.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Martin O'Malley smirked?

But when asked when he would announce his campaign, Mr. O’Malley smirked, saying: “I will make a decision this spring.

Smirked? Doesn't sound like a reporting verb. Of course it's the New York Times and they gave up on reporting long, long ago.

I do like it, though. Reminds me of Smurf. Now I can see O'Malley only in deep blue. I wonder which one he is?

EC Listening

Today would have been the 60th birthday of Randy VanWarmer.  You've forgotten already?  He's the guy who did "Just When I Needed You Most."

Okay, forget it, we'll do a tribute to Eric Clapton, who turns 70 today.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Today's comedy

Speaking of art house films, we saw "Wild Tales" yesterday at the best of our local art houses, and boy was that brutally funny. It has the ColumbusGuy household stamp of approval, for sure.


I just watched the original Heartbreak Kid, released in 1972.  Starring Charles Grodin, it's directed by Elaine May and written by Neil Simon.  I haven't seen it in at least twenty years, and this time around, certain things stuck out.

First, this was a mainstream hit comedy back then, but it's practically an art film by today's standards.  The film has some scope--set in New York, Miami and Minnesota--but most scenes are just two people talking for fairly long periods of time.  Comedies today require more action, and more editing.

Second, though Jeannie Berlin is quite memorable as Grodin's first wife--she deserved her Oscar nomination--I didn't know Elaine May's work so well last time I saw it.  Now that I do, I couldn't help but notice, as May's daughter, how similar her voice sounded.  Since Elaine May is a gifted comic actress, it actually made me wish she was playing the part.  I guess she was too old, though just the year before she played, in essence, the ingénue role in A New Leaf, also directed by May.  And she did a great job in that underappreciated gem.

Third, this is a rare Neil Simon screenplay that doesn't seem like a Neil Simon screenplay.  He wrote a ton of movies and most feature his wisecracking style.  This time the story, though comic, gets most of its laughs from the characters simply being their outrageous selves.  This could be because he's adapting a Bruce Jay Friedman story (which I've never read) and, as opposed to most of his films, which are either adaptations of his own work or original ideas, he wanted to remain true to his source.  Or perhaps it's the hand of May, who was a fine comic writer herself

Fourth, there's the acting.  There are really only four full characters in the film--Lenny (Grodin), his wife Lila (Berlin), Kelly whom he chases after (Cybill Shepherd) and Kelly's father Mr. Corcoran (Eddie Albert).  They may all be giving their best movie performances ever, probably thanks to May. They play something close to caricatures--Albert as the stern father (another Oscar nomination) and Shepherd as the vacuous blonde--but they play them all so straight and serious that the film seems to take place in something mirroring the real world, but not quite.

Fifth, I've been told that the filmmakers may have changed the meaning of the original story by making the first wife so Jewish and the second so Waspy.  Lenny can come across as a Jewish kid on the make who dumps his first wife on their honeymoon when he's got a shot at a shiksa goddess.  Apparently the women weren't quite so different in Friedman's original.  In any case, I think that misses the point.  Lenny is a voracious but empty man who always wants, and when he gets something, wants something else.  He becomes obsessed with whatever's in front of him, but he can never be fulfilled.  Sounds like a fun comedy, doesn't it?

By the way, the Farrelly Brothers remade The Heartbreak Kid with Ben Stiller in 2007, but aside from keeping the basic plot, changed it so much that it's a different thing.  Too bad it doesn't work.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tour De Farce

Don't ask my why, but I was reading a review of an old Washington, D.C. production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Forum.  It's by Sophie Gilbert, a Londoner who's written for Slate among other places. A couple of excerpts:

Ignore the hoary old plot, so dated even Pliny the Elder might turn up his distinctly Roman nose, and focus on the [Stephen Sondheim] songs, which are [...] just lovely.

In the season of festive frivolity, you could do worse than snigger at [Burt] Shevelove and [Larry] Gelbart’s gags, even if they’re older than Rome itself.

So the writing is old and tired?  Shevelove and Gelbert don't try to hide the inspiration of Plautus, and they take basic characters and situations from Roman farce, but the gags are theirs and the plot is far more involved than any ancient (and most modern) farce. If the show is so tired, why was it a big hit on Broadway and why has it been such a popular show since? (And how many revivals of Plautus has Gilbert seen?)

She does praise the songs.  After all, it's Sondheim and critics know what they're supposed to say. But there was a time they didn't know they had to love Sondheim--this was his first full score whent he show opened. Originally the critics were drawn to Forum's hilarious libretto, but generally didn't think much of the music.  In fact, at the 1963 Tony Awards, the show won Best Musical, Best Producer, Best Script, Best Lead Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Direction.  Not only didn't it win best score, Sondheim wasn't even nominated.  How the tables have turned.

PS  Pliny the Elder lived two centuries after Plautus, so maybe Plautus was old hat to him. I still think he'd have liked this show.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lee Way

Like many people of her era and political temperament, Lee Grant had an interrupted career.  In the late 1940s, in her early 20s, she got a part on Broadway in Detective Story (she was offered the ingénue role but wisely asked for a smaller but better character part) and got to repeat it in the hit film version, earning an Oscar nomination.  She was on her way up when she got blacklisted.  The prime years where she might have been a leading actress in Hollywood were lost.

In her memoir I Said Yes To Everything, Grant discusses the inner turmoil she went through in great detail.  In fact, much of the book is inner-directed.  Much of it is about troubled personal relationships with her friends, lovers and children.  Often I wish she spent more time talking about her projects.

She was born Lyova Rosenthal in 1927, growing up a fairly pampered only child on the Upper West Side.  She tried a lot of different arts--singing, dancing, etc.--before recognizing her talent lay in acting. Blossoming into a beautiful young woman, she soon got work.  She also trained at the Actors Studio, learning from one of the main exponents of the Method, Sanford Meisner.

Grant had never been particularly political, but working in New York theatre at the time, she naturally fell in with those on the Left, often agreeing with their viewpoints.  When the government started investigating communists, and the blacklist started, Grant was caught up in the net.

She kept working in theatre and TV shot in New York, but Hollywood was out until the mid-1960s.  Grant was now looking at 40--a dangerous age for movie actresses.  She got a facelift and was careful about makeup, but really it was her talent that kept her in the game.  She ended up doing a lot of fascinating projects, appearing in movies such as In The Heat Of The Night, The Landlord, Plaza Suite, Shampoo, Voyage Of The Damned and Defending Your Life.  She won as Oscar for Shampoo.  She also played the lead on Broadway in Neil Simon's hit The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, appeared in numerous TV shows and had a fairly successful career as a TV director.

Though much of the book is about her inner life, there are a fair number of interesting stories about her work.  There was the time she had her period on stage while appearing in Arms And The Man.  Or her trouble with Two For The Seesaw--a play she turned down that became a hit.  She was replacing Anne Bancroft but wasn't ready, so co-star Henry Fonda essentially had to carry her through the second act. On the other hand, late in the run of Prisoner Of Second Avenue, she went up on her lines and co-star Peter Falk looked at the audience and gestured to her--it was traumatic enough that she never went on stage again.  And even in movies and TV she worried about remembering her lines.

Interrupted or not, it's been quite a career.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


People enjoy Downton Abbey partly because it's a romanticized view of the past--an elegant lifestyle where everyone had a place.  Of course, if you were downstairs, your place was drudgery and poverty, but never mind.  Still, even as the audience is fascinated by the class system, no one beleives in it any more.  Which is why so many of the plots are built around people attacking these distinctions, and those who try to uphold such traditions generally look foolish.

What fascinates me is how people could believe in something that seems so artificial--even ridiculous--today, building their society around it.  And how did attitudes change?  The play Pygmalion, which deals with the class system, was first performed in 1912--the same year the story of Downton Abbey starts--and was set in the present.  The successful 1938 film adaptation was also set in its present.  You barely notice, but when Higgins is out on the street dodging cars of the day, it takes you out of it a bit. But My Fair Lady, the musical version, first performed in 1956 and made into a movie in 1964, moves the action back to the original's date.  I'm guessing the creators decided all this class stuff, while not entirely dead, just doesn't play in the 1950s.  Back in the 1910s, the West had conquered the world and was full of itself.  But two world wars, a Depression, the threats of communism and fascism, and growing opposition to imperialism, made the West question itself. (We're still in this phase.)

Which brings me to The Admirable Crichton, J. M. Barrie's play from 1902, which I read recently,  It was a big hit in its day and has a story that's been adapted into film several times.

The plot, as you may know, is about a British Lord, his family, and his servants, especially Crichton, the butler.  They're shipwrecked on an island and nature takes over.  The classes do separate, but not as expected--Crichton is soon running things and all others serve him.  Then they're rescued and things return to the way they were.

The play isn't revived too often--certainly not as much as Pygmalion  Much of this is because Barrie, though talented, is no Shaw.  But also, it's a plot that's hard to believe these days.  It was always a fantasy, but to make it work, you have to believe enough in the class system for it to make a difference when its upended.

In the final act, the upper classes pretend they were the heroes on the island, and Crichton, who could spill the beans, decides instead to leave service.  On the island, he and the Lord's eldest daughter Mary (Lady Mary--where have we heard that before?) were to be married, and she was delighted.  But back in England--"The Other Island," as Barrie calls it--she will marry Lord Brocklehurst, not half the man Crichton is, but a suitable partner socially.  While the play has a bittersweet ending, I'm not sure if it works any more.  If it had to end this way, in a modern writing it'd probably be played as something more tragic.  But more likely we'd have seen the lovers get together despite society's opposition.  Allegedly, Barrie considered this ending, but he realized his audience--especially the ones in the expensive boxes--wouldn't stand for it.

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