“When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, ‘Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The president is lying to you,’” recalled longtime Mad editor Al Feldstein in 2007.
I’m biased, of course. I was one of the many sucked in by Mad, starting officially with the July 1975 issue with “Airport 1975” on the cover (though there’s a picture of me as an infant reading, or staring at, the September 1965 issue) and continuing for … well, though I stopped buying the magazine as a teenager, I still dip into it from time to time, courtesy the CD-ROM collection Broderbund put out in 1999. (Cheap!)
It definitely deserves a few honors, particularly one for Brown, who grabbed the screen every time he appeared as Reggie, manager of Johnny Mathis-style singer Shy Baldwin. But I thought Season 3, overall, was uneven — mainly because the main character, Miriam “Midge” Maisel herself, hasn’t really grown much since Season 1.
In fact, I would say she’s become the least interesting character on the show.
Just before the 2016 election, “The Daily Show” ran an episode purportedly from October 31, 2020. After images of cities in ruins, Trevor Noah comes on to the “Daily Show” set — equally wrecked — and starts recapping Trump’s first term.
Well, I liked “Support the Girls,” but let’s not confuse it with an out-and-out comedy. It’s more like a meditation on the generic working-class American workplace — symbolized by a crumbling Hooters wannabe, Double Whammies, located alongside some nowhere freeway in suburban Houston or Dallas — with a glazing of jokes and, fortunately, a ton of heart at the center.
I don’t know why they don’t get really crazy, though. Many years ago, “Saturday Night Live” had a recurring sketch called “What If?” in which a panel of somber experts gravely debated silly suggestions such as, “What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?”
So how about these possibilities for the remainder of 2020:
What if Joe Biden turns into a Transformer? I don’t know if Transformers are resistant to Covid-19, but being one would certainly allow Biden to travel from place to place with ease. However, not everyone thinks his martial arts expertise would help him beat the president.
Seems like a bit of a cheat, if you ask me.
What if Donald Trump became a rhinoceros? That tie would sure look funny, but the effect on national politics would be the same. Expect a lot of broken crockery in the White House, and the horn dyed a funny shade of orange-blond.
What if the Washington Monument attacks the Empire State Building? The Empire State has the size and that antenna, but let’s not discount 555 feet of solid marble, granite and gneiss. Also, can you imagine the destruction on Fifth Avenue? Zach Snyder would have an orgasm.
Years ago, when I first started editing CNN’s Entertainment section, I was sent to Los Angeles to see how the local bureau handled things in the showbiz capital.
I couldn’t help but notice a kind and funny thank-you note from Larry Gelbart tacked above one staffer’s desk. I was in awe; Gelbart was one of Sid Caesar’s staff of writers (for “Caesar’s Hour,” which followed “Your Show of Shows”), an all-star lineup of comedy greats: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond, Joe Stein, Lucille Kallen, and Carl Reiner among them. (Woody Allen, too, for some late-’50s specials.)
All of them went on to even greater things, including Broadway, movies, and television, creating classics such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Odd Couple,” “Blazing Saddles,” ad infinitum. I don’t know if more talent has ever been concentrated together on a writing staff in such a short time, and I’m including “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons” and the MTM shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Anyway, I was envious. Would I get a chance to interview Larry Gelbart? Mel Brooks? Carl Reiner? I could listen to them for hours.
Reiner — the versatile, generous, amazing beating heart of so much comedy over the last 70 (!) years, died Monday night. He was 98.
I don’t have much to add to allthe tributes that have appeared since his death was announced this morning. (I do like that NPR worked “mensch” into its headline.) He created one of the best TV sitcoms ever, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He was an enviable straight man to Brooks’ 2000-Year-Old Man. He directed Steve Martin in four films, each one allowing Martin to show a wider range while Reiner, typically, provided low-key support. He was active right up until the end: Here he is as a guest on “Dispatches from Quarantine.” This was released eight days ago.
He was part of a generation of influential Jewish comedy writers and performers who are almost all gone now. Gelbart died a few years after I saw his note; Stein, Tolkin, Simon, Caesar himself — they passed after long, rich lives. Comedy was obviously good for their health.
There’s an old Jewish phrase: May his (or her) memory be as a blessing. Carl Reiner, mensch to the end, truly blessed us all.
I didn’t expect much from “Riding the Elephant,” a collection of short essays by comedian/former talk show host/Secretariat pal Craig Ferguson. These books tend to be entertaining and jokey, but rather forgettable, a 250-page substitute for hanging around with your celebrity author.
Not so in Ferguson’s case. Entertaining and jokey, yes – but oftentimes thoughtful, and occasionally transcendent.
I should have known Ferguson was capable of so much more than I expected. After all, this is a guy who very publicly talked about his alcoholism on his show; whose monologues were genuine monologues – personal storytelling adventures – not a list of strung-together jokes; who called himself “TV’s Craig Ferguson,” sending himself up in a phrase; who confessed sympathy for various celebrities – seeing them as people – while they were usually the butt of dark jokes everywhere else.
He also created a manic character named Bing Hitler, a name that always makes me laugh with its absurdity. (If I believe Wiki, the name was suggested by actor and friend Peter Capaldi, then the lead singer of Ferguson’s band Dreamboys. Hats off to you, Peter Capaldi, and please don’t curse at me like my beloved Malcolm Tucker.)
“Riding the Elephant” roams widely through Ferguson’s life. He talks about his childhood in the planned city of Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, one that was full of fights, with Ferguson usually on the losing end. It skips through his punk-rock days and his boozing days and his marriage days. Every unknown woman is named Margaret; every bit of navel-gazing is couched in embarrassment. What sets the book apart are the nuggets of truth and empathy that make you stop and think (and, occasionally, laugh):
“When I hear people today saying the latest cat meme or Super Bowl commercial gives them ‘the feels,’ I want to vomit and then punch them.”
“It was a tiny apartment, even by New York standards. It had a stove and a shower, no air conditioner, and a shockingly vulgar green shag carpet. There was enough room for two people if they liked each other and had only hand luggage.”
“Old age was a gift Alison never got. I never saw her again. She died almost a year later. Gillian and I were thinking about getting engaged, but we never did. We made the choice to move on in different directions, but Alison didn’t move on; she stopped right there in that shitty town.”
This isn’t celebrity essay writing. This is storytelling, with well-chosen words and shape and color. I could usually hear the essays in Ferguson’s voice, that wonderful Scottish burr that casually swooped around the curves in his monologues, but there’s a deliberateness, too, that shows he pays attention to language. I’m sure he always did; it’s just that you forget about it when you’re watching a TV talk show at 12:30 a.m. (or, more commonly, catching clips on YouTube).
Best of all is the penultimate essay, “Millport.” Millport is a resort town on a small Scottish coastal island that Ferguson visited as a child and where he got his first job, overseeing a swingboat ride (essentially an oblong swing with a person on either end). Ferguson was 14; he worked a 10-hour day for a pound sixty-five. He loved it unreservedly.
Years later, he’s fresh out of rehab and visiting Millport with a fellow comedian. He decides to go for a run. Headphones on, focused on the Brian Eno in his head, he nearly runs into a oystercatcher’s nest and is soon swatted – hard – by the mother bird. (“I don’t know if it was with her beak or the billy club she kept hidden under her feathers,” he writes.) His Discman (this is 1992) and Eno CD are damaged beyond repair, so after depositing them in the trash, he runs on, now very much in the world. And what he feels is: gratitude.
I won’t give away the last paragraph, but it makes a sudden swerve into the present day, and I was carried along with the same wonder and joy he was trying to convey.
If I had to put together a chronological list of my humor influences, I could probably begin with Bugs Bunny or one of the more absurd “Electric Company” sketches. It would continue to “Saturday Night Live,” the late-‘70s National Lampoon (bought, admittedly, as much for the photographs of naked women as the humor), Monty Python, and David Letterman.
But the gateway to it all, the world changer, was MAD. I may have been 10 when I bought my first issue (#176, July ’75), but even at that age I knew it wasn’t really for kids. It made references to Nixon and gas lines and the Middle East. It had those long Frank Jacobs parodies of Broadway musicals (none of which I got). It was genuine satire.
I actually had a subscription. It would arrive in a brown wrapper, like a porno magazine.
And my favorite member of the Usual Gang of Idiots was Mort Drucker.
Oh, I liked the others. Bob Clarke’s advertising parodies were brilliant. Al Jaffee’s Fold-Ins were ingenious, and his Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions were hilarious. The writers were less distinct in my memory, though I think I preferred Dick DeBartolo to Stan Hart or Larry Siegel.
But the premier selling point of the magazine, in my early fan days, was the movie parodies – I first started buying MAD because I couldn’t wait for them to take on “The Towering Inferno,” which I’d loved – and nobody did them better than Drucker. Angelo Torres (who usually did TV shows anyway) was too prissy; Jack Davis was too messy; Jack Rickard’s line just seemed smeary; George Woodbridge was kind of galumphing.
Only Drucker could do justice to “Inferno” or “Jaws,” or all those movies I wasn’t allowed to see, like “Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Shootist” or the Streisand “Star Is Born,” or – when I started getting the paperback collections – “2001,” “Joe” (has anyone watched “Joe” recently? I’ve only ever read the MAD version), “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Cool Hand Luke.” Though he arrived at MAD after it had gone from a comic-book format to a larger, pulp magazine, his work seems to be a key dividing line between one version of MAD and another – the one best captured by Richard Reeves in a 1973 issue of New York magazine. (The same issue – October 1, 1973 – also had a long article on Wacky Packages, another gateway to my sensibility. Finding that issue at some rummage sale was a highlight of my youth. Yeah, I was a strange kid.)
It wasn’t just Drucker’s talent for caricature that appealed to me. It was his impish marginalia. He worked little signs and strange characters into his splash pages. (Sometimes they weren’t so marginal, like the Willie and Joe in this frame from the “Patton” parody. ) You could spend hours poring over them, long after you’d laughed at the dialogue. (Perhaps some artist could confirm, but it also appeared he ever-so-slightly changed his look sometime in the late ‘70s. His prior work appears to have a sharper line. A different kind of pen, perhaps?)
His work, and that of MAD as a whole, was inspirational. I sought out MAD histories and compendiums – Maria Reidelbach’s “Completely MAD” being the best of the bunch – and branched out to other magazine histories, of Esquire and The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Thinking about it now, MAD probably had a huge role in making me a writer, and wanting to work for a magazine. Drucker and the Gang always seemed to be having such fun. Wasn’t that the way of every magazine?
Several years ago, I convinced my editor at CNN to send me to a gathering of MAD artists in Savannah. The ostensible reason was to do a profile of Al Jaffee, who was as generous and wonderful as I’d hoped. I also got to laugh with Nick Meglin – forever cracking jokes – heard a ton of William M. Gaines stories, and got to see Sergio Aragones do a sketch in real time.
But, starstruck MAD fanboy I was, I really wanted to meet Mort Drucker. He couldn’t come. I believe he had been ill, or maybe just not well enough to travel. He’d already retired from MAD, and I got the feeling that he was already fading. After all, he was in his early 80s at the time, and nobody of that classic Gang was getting any younger. (Davis died in 2016; Meglin in 2018. Fortunately, Jaffee, Aragones and Paul Coker are still with us.)
Mort Drucker will always be one of my heroes. Some writers wish to be immortalized by Martin Schoeller or Marion Ettlinger. I always wanted to be sketched by Mort Drucker. I’m happy so many others got the opportunity, because it helped make my life a little happier.
George Harrison once observed that the spirit of the Beatles was passed on to the Monty Python troupe, which was premiering “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” around the time the Fabs were disintegrating in 1969.
But if there’s a bridge between the two, it’s probably in the soul of Neil Innes, a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (which had its biggest hit record co-produced by one Apollo C. Vermouth, aka Paul McCartney), adjunct member of the Pythons (he played Robin’s Minstrel in “Holy Grail” and contributed music and routines throughout the years) and, above all, member and chief composer of the Rutles, still — more than 40 years later — the best Beatles parody.
I’m often shocked and stunned by the absurd ways so much of this world, especially the pop culture world, is connected. From my earliest memories, I loved the Beatles, spinning my aunt’s left-behind 45s when I was 5 or 6 years old. A few years later, starting to dig into the history of the group, I read Nicholas Schaffner’s neglected “The Beatles Forever,” which noted that its members had done some extracurricular production in the early Apple days, including McCartney’s work on the Bonzos’ “I’m the Urban Spaceman.” (Edit, 9:03 p.m.: I should mention that the Bonzos already had a Beatles connection — they performed “Death Cab for Cutie” in “Magical Mystery Tour.”)
Perhaps a year later, “All You Need Is Cash,” the mockumentary about the Rutles, premiered on NBC. I still remember the date clearly — March 22, 1978 — because it was the Wednesday before my bar mitzvah and half my family had come to visit. I spent the evening running back and forth from the TV, where I watched the film, to the living room, where I spent commercial breaks schmoozing with my aunts and uncles. Sorry that my attention was divided, aunts and uncles, but I was right to be concerned: In those days before we owned a VCR, I had no idea if I’d ever see the Rutles again, and the film finished dead last in the ratings.
Newsweek (or was it Time?) had done a story, however, and I knew there was a soundtrack album, which I dutifully purchased at full retail price. My family had a recordable 8-track player, and I bought a blank 8-track tape to make a Rutles-Beatles comparison record, since losts to the mists of history and crappy technology.
Perhaps a year after that, I was perusing the first “Rolling Stone Record Buyers’ Guide” in a mall bookstore and noticed that the double-LP collection, “The History of the Bonzos,” earned the maximum five stars. I found a copy at the long-departed New Orleans record store Leisure Landing and started immersing myself in “Spaceman,” “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe,” “You Done My Brain In,” and “King of Scurf.”
And, so, Neil Innes — creative, funny, whimsical — became one of my musical heroes.
There were other connections, it turned out. Ricky Fataar, who played Harrison parody Stig O’Hara in the Rutles, was a member of the Flames, a South African band produced by Beach Boy Carl Wilson, who sang lead on “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney has called his favorite Beach Boys song. Like the Beatles, the Rutles lost a member young: Ollie Halsall, a session man who did much of the McCartney-esque work. And, to bring the story full circle, Harrison appeared in “All You Need Is Cash” and mortgaged his house so Python could make “Life of Brian.”
I followed Innes’ career intermittently; I saw he attended the occasional Beatles convention, and would be the subject of an interview every so often. I took advantage of my time as CNN’s Entertainment section producer to interview two Pythons, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, and one very ex-Beatle, Pete Best, but never got a chance to talk to Innes. I don’t know what I would have asked him, anyway: “Do you know how happy your music has made me over the years?”
Not very journalistically insightful of me.
I’m sad today, but Innes — who was characterized by John Cleese as “a very sweet man, much too nice for his own good” — had the right perspective on posterity. In the Rutles song “Back in ’64,” he tells of trying to describe the excitement of the ’60s to a grandchild, only to be ignored:
But as you’ve gone on and on Your audience has flown And as you find yourself all on your own
Still, he adds: “You may wistfully recall / How Benjamin Disraeli said that / Life is too short to be small / Or maybe like some old time song / Over all it’s long so, so long, it’s all over …”
Good night, Neil. Your life was anything but small.
First, it should be said that only the top four are etched in stone, and probably in those positions. “Blazing Saddles” is my favorite comedy, an anarchic engine of wackiness that never lets up and sometimes (most of the time?) foregoes logic in favor of jokes. I don’t argue with people who prefer “Young Frankenstein” among Mel Brooks films; it’s definitely a better film. But nothing makes me laugh like “Blazing Saddles,” except maybe “Airplane!” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – both of which also put chaos ahead of sense.
“Network” becomes more prescient with each passing year; in fact, it’s probably – finally — even less crazy than the media world we live in, which means it plays more as ancient history than a vision of the future. I wish more people would watch it and do more than shrug “whaddya gonna do,” but the days when actual dialogue was important in movies passed sometime in the early ‘90s.
I still can’t make sense of some of “The Third Man.” I blame Alida Valli’s accent, the shadowy black-and-white visuals and Carol Reed’s deliberate copying of Orson Welles’ fondness for overlapping dialogue. (Welles is, of course, the main attraction of the movie as the villainous Harry Lime, and his first appearance remains a heart-stopping thrill.) But in its uncertain atmosphere – anything-goes postwar Vienna, complete with the real-life rubble left behind from World War II – and amazing set pieces, the film is more than the sum of its parts. The final scene, a wordless long take, remains one of my favorites of any film.
And “2001”? I’ve seen it in three-projector Cinerama, in the 2018 big-screen re-release and on 19-inch cathode-ray tubes, and it never fails to fill me with awe. As I said in my Facebook post, I know some people find it boring and tedious. I’m not one of them. Maybe I wish the “Dawn of Man” sequence would run a little faster, but I always lose myself in any number of other scenes – the exhilarating ballet of the “Blue Danube” dance between shuttle and space station, the sickening, chilling death of HAL, the scary/heightened trip into the Infinite. I’ve devoured any number of books about space travel, and though I’m sure “First Man” gets the quotidian correct, “2001” is the only space-set film that manages to capture that internal “wow” that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, while at the same time being brilliant cinema. (Which reminds me – I really have to watch “Apollo 11.” Thanks to my old employer for helping produce it!)
But what of the rest? The other six films, with maybe the
exception of “Raiders,” could have easily been replaced by others. I didn’t
find room for “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Airplane!”, “Citizen Kane,” “My Fair Lady,”
“Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Godfather.” I considered “The Social Network”
(probably my favorite film of the last 10 years) and “Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid” (though, among Newman-Redford films, I go back and forth between
it and “The Sting”).
The most obscure film on my list is probably 1990’s “Europa, Europa,” which is there because it’s so emotionally frank and touched me so deeply. (I defy anyone to not gasp at some of the close calls for the protagonist, a Jewish boy who finds himself accepted as Aryan in WWII Europe – or cry at the conclusion.)
But even that could have been replaced by “All Is Lost,” the underrated 2013 film with Robert Redford as a solo sailor lost at sea, which is equally understated and also has an affecting ending.
Catch me on another day, and you’d have another list.
But, to get back to my friend’s question, is there a
Maybe not a pattern, but I do see some themes:
I like messiness. Nobody would confuse Mel Brooks with the bloodless, late-era Stanley Kubrick, but a more capable director would have killed “Saddles’ ” comedy. “The French Connection” has that verite 1970s New York going for it; “Network” puts Paddy Chayefsky’s sprawling monologues at center stage. Even the “careful” directors – Kubrick, “Raiders’ ” Steven Spielberg, and “Northwest’s” Alfred Hitchcock – leave room for serendipity. “Raiders” moves as precisely as a well-made watch, but it breathes, too. Rock critic Ed Ward once noted he preferred the “Beggars Banquet”-era Rolling Stones to the “Abbey Road”-era Beatles because you could “hear little Stones in the speakers” — in other words, the music sounded like it was made by humans, not machines. I disagree with his opinion of “Abbey Road,” but I get it, and the same goes for the movies on this list. All you CGI-loving directors, take note. (Or even directors who usually forsake CGI: I think Christopher Nolan is a wonderful director, but damn, he can seem as bloodless as Kubrick. And I liked “Dunkirk.”)
Give me a good script. Chayefsky hit a home run with “Network.” Ernest Lehman wrote “North by Northwest.” “Goldfinger” crackles, courtesy of Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn. (The Daniel Craig Bond films have their moments, but they’re all too flabby.) “Quiz Show” is elevated by Paul Attanasio’s screenplay, even as Rob Morrow mangles a Boston accent. Even “2001,” which has minimal dialogue – and what it has is often deliberately banal – has a strong storytelling sweep, and Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood find depth in their clipped sentences. (Douglas Rain, as HAL, is simply perfect casting.) Contrast those films with, say, “Titanic.” James Cameron’s award-winner may think of itself as epic, but his terrible script sinks the whole thing. The only scene with any grandeur – when you get a sense that this is a human tragedy, not some kind of connect-the-dots extravaganza — is the wide, pull-back shot of the ship starting to go down with its hapless passengers.
It’s got some movie magic. With Chayefsky’s theatrical screenplay, you’d think “Network” would make a good play, right? But I saw it on Broadway and it was just OK, even with (and perhaps because of) Ivo van Hove’s busy direction. Score one for Sidney Lumet. Carol Reed walks a fine line with “The Third Man,” finding uneasy laughter amid what could have been straight tragedy. (Graham Greene and Welles helped.) And many films have tried to copy the popcorn brilliance of “Raiders” – including its sequels – but the original is simply out-and-out great, perhaps even Spielberg’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.
That last one seems obvious, I know, but gets back to the medium itself. For me, the movie experience remains a singular ritual, starting with buying the ticket and then sitting in the dark, among other supplicants, facing a big screen. Sure, you can see movies on a smaller screen – and these days, that may mean a phone – but that makes “movie magic” all the more necessary, because otherwise it may as well be a 1972 episode of “Mannix.” I didn’t grow up in the age when movies were programmed like television, so for me they’ve always been the equivalent of what used to be called roadshow releases. Maybe that’s for the best, and maybe it’s the reason so few films of recent years have moved me the way the ones mentioned above have. They may as well be big-screen video games.