Comic geniuses

Tim Conway died this week; he was eighty-five years old. Tim performed on many occasions over the years, but he is best-remembered and best-loved for his comic antics on the Carol Burnett show. Along with Carol and Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway would play parts in comedy sketches. Each episode of Carol’s show was taped twice, on consecutive nights, and then the producers would edit the best performances of each night into one broadcast show. After having followed the script on the first night, Tim Conway would often improvise on the second night; his unexpected antics frequently forced his acting partners to burst into laughter on stage. The producers generally chose to broadcast the second-night version, making Tim Conway famous for his ability to take his fellow performers by surprise with his comic wit.

Andy Kaufman died thirty-five years ago today; he was thirty-five years old. Andy may have been best-known for playing Latka on Taxi, but he was best-loved for the material he created on his own. Latka was an adaptation of one of Andy’s inventions, Foreign Man, who would attempt stand-up comedy and fail miserably. He would finally resort to celebrity imitations, from which he would suddenly emerge with an Elvis Presley imitation, one so brilliant that even Presley admired his work. Andy appeared on Saturday Night Live more than a dozen times, including its very first episode. He also had two television specials that are still available—one made-for-TV special and one live performance at Carnegie Hall. Many of his other performances can be found by searching the Internet.

Tim Conway and Andy Kaufman never performed together, so far as I know. Their styles would not have meshed, given Conway’s slapstick and improvisation skills and Kaufman’s performance art and characterization skills. Both comics flourished in the same format, that of the variety show. This kind of television peaked in the 1970s, with some weekly shows like Carol Burnett’s and some seasonal shows like the Bob Hope Christmas Special. Variety shows focused on one or two famous performers, a company of stock performers, and special guests, usually a mixture of musical performers, comedians, and other celebrities (serious actors, sports figures, and politicians, for example). Carol Burnett’s show was one of the best of the genre. Countless bits of hilarity still come to mind when her show is mentioned, but the musical ability of Carol’s team and their guests also rises above much of what was done for entertainment at that time.

In 1976, Dick Van Dyke assembled a short-running variety show; Andy Kaufman appeared on more than half the episodes that were shown. Van Dyke and Company was, in a sense, a parody of variety shows. Van Dyke feuded with the producers of the show, disdaining their suggestions or openly regretting their refusal to let him do what he pleased. He responded to letter-writers who claimed that his musical guests were merely a means to gain viewers and had no relationship with Van Dyke; following his denial of the charge, Dick Van Dyke immediately mangled the name of his next musical guest. When Andy Kaufman appeared on the show, he was generally Foreign Man, interrupting Van Dyke to the elder comedian’s apparent annoyance. Van Dyke actually thought Andy was brilliant and was delighted to have him on the show. Andy got to perform with other celebrities, including Carl Reiner and John Denver. The recording of his transformation into Elvis on Van Dyke and Company is special because the audience is not prepared for the routine, as they are in other recordings of that act.

Another comic genius, Bob Einstein, worked on Van Dyke and Company. Einstein died in January of this year; he was seventy-six years old. Einstein was a writer and producer of the show; he also appeared in several episodes. In one episode, Einstein walks onto the stage during the closing monologue after Dick Van Dyke has fumbled a line; like a baseball manager, Einstein calls for a relief comedian (who turns out to be Tommy Smothers). Einstein also introduced his Super Dave character on Van Dyke and Company; as Super Dave he would later appear on many television talk shows, including those of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

In the 1970s, many comedians drew laughter from their audiences by shocking them with vulgar language and taboo topics. That trend has continued to the present. Tim Conway, Andy Kaufman, and Bob Einstein were able to amuse and entertain without descending to the depths of human depravity. Their humor surprised people, but the surprise was generally one of delight, not one of repugnance. It’s a good thing that so much of their material was recorded and saved, so we can remind ourselves and show others how genuine comedy looks and sounds. J.

23 Odd Facts about Man on the Moon

In 1999 the film Man on the Moon was released as a bio-pic of entertainer Andy Kaufman. Because today is the 67th birthday of Andy Kaufman, I plan to watch that film tonight. Even before I do so, though, here are some interesting facts about Man on the Moon.

  • The title of the movie comes from a 1992 song by R.E.M., portions of which are heard several times during the movie; it is heard in full during the closing credits.
  • Jim Carrey, who portrays Andy Kaufman in the movie, was born on January 17, 1962, Andy’s thirteenth birthday.
  • Andy Kaufman’s granddaughter plays Andy’s sister Carol in the movie.
  • The real Andy Kaufman can be heard in the movie, singing the song “Rose Marie.”
  • The opening monologue of the movie, in which “Andy” tells the audience that there is no movie, is based on the opening of Andy’s TV special, in which he tells the audience that there is no special.
  • In the opening monologue, “Andy” tells the audience that “all the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes.” The most significant change is that Andy’s Carnegie Hall performance took place several years before he was diagnosed with cancer.
  • The film presents Andy’s TV special as a condition for him to play a character in Taxi, but the special was actually filmed before Andy was invited to be part of the Taxi cast.
  • Jerry Lawler, David Letterman, and Wendy Polland are among about a dozen people in the film who play themselves.
  • Paul Giamatti plays Andy’s friend and co-conspirator, Bob Zmuda, and Bob Zmuda plays Jack Burns, the director of Fridays, who fights with Andy during the live show.
  • Danny DeVito plays Andy’s agent, George Shapiro (DeVito’s character in Taxi is ignored), and George Shapiro appears in the film as a nightclub owner who tells Andy that his act is not funny.
  • Courtney Love plays Lynn Marguiles, who was Andy’s girlfriend from 1982 to 1984, and Lynn Marguiles is briefly seen during the funeral at the end of the movie.
  • The movie shows “Andy” wrestling Lynn on the Merv Griffin show, but the two did not meet until long after Andy began wresting women as part of his act, and the two never wrestled each other in public.
  • The movie only mentions Lynn’s last name once, when Andy answers the telephone in the house they are sharing.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reads the entire novel The Great Gatsby, to an audience. Actually, Andy never read more than the first lines of the book to an audience. That skit ended with the recording of Andy reading the book after the audience has been asked to choose between hearing Andy read the novel or hearing a recording. However, when this skit was part of Andy’s act, his associates successfully spread the rumor that Andy had read the entire novel in his previous performance, making the audience’s reaction to his reading more genuine.
  • In the movie, “Andy” has already apologized for wresting women as part of his act and apparently has ceased doing so before the Carnegie Hall performance, but Andy actually did wrestle a woman as part of the Carnegie Hall performance.
  • The filmed version of the Carnegie Hall performance omits showing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the New York City Rockettes, probably because the real Choir and Rockettes did not appear in the show; their names were used by a different choir and group of dancers. As a result, Santa Claus is seen only in the background while Andy invites the audience out for milk and cookies.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reveals Eleanor Cody Gould’s age, but in the Carnegie Hall performance Eleanor Cody Gould refuses to reveal her age.
  • In the Carnegie Hall performance, Eleanor Cody Gould claims that the short movie “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” was made in 1931, but the copyright date of 1946 can be seen in the film itself.
  • As shown in the movie, Andy Kaufman was voted off Saturday Night Live in January 1983, by a vote of 195,544 to 169,186; Andy’s career was considered a flop at that time, not because of the difference of 25,000 votes, but because nearly half a million people had participated in a similar stunt the previous October, in which the question was whether to cook or release a lobster. Having more people care about the lobster than about Andy made a larger impression than the results of the vote.
  • When he imitated Tony Clifton, Andy never broke character; the movie’s scene set in a restaurant kitchen (in which “Andy” allows “George Shapiro” to recognize him) never would have happened.
  • As of this movie, five performers have imitated Tony Clifton: Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Michael Kaufman (Andy’s brother, at the end of the Carnegie Hall performance), Jim Carrey, and Paul Giamatti. Zmuda has probably imitated Clifton more often than the other four combined.
  • While filming Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey demanded that he always be addressed as Andy, both on and off the set.

Ten more situation comedies

I wrote this pair of posts some weeks ago, but I was reluctant to publish them because of one show on the list. The reputation of Bill Cosby has taken a strong hit this summer, with many women accusing him of reprehensible behavior. On the one hand, an American is presumed innocent until proven guilty. On the other hand, I feared that just by mentioning his show, I might be considered approving (or at least caring) of the things he is accused of doing. Finally I decided to include his show on the list, not as any endorsement of sinful behavior, but because the man and his stories have entertained generations of Americans, regardless of what we may continue to learn about his personal life.

With that qualification, my list continues.

Happy Days (1974-1984): I was tempted to leave this show off the list so I could include Welcome Back, Kotter, or maybe even ALF. Happy Days, though, was the most popular show of its time, reveling in nostalgia for the 1950s in the middle and end of the 1970s. When I was in high school, I saw it every week. Opie Taylor from Mayberry was now Richie Cunningham—the actor, Ron Howard, went on to be a successful director.

When Things Were Rotten (1975): Another sparkling Mel Brooks creation, this show was canceled after only thirteen episodes. I didn’t miss a single one, and I wish more had been made. The story of Robin Hood is skillfully and comically played. Mel Brooks would later make a feature film of the same theme: Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

One Day at a Time (1975-1984): A single mother is raising two teen-aged daughters, and I thought all three of them were beautiful. Though the focus of the show was usually on the mother, both the daughters were central to the story in most episodes.

WKRP (1978-1982): Another terrific show with a cast of characters supporting one another, this time at a radio station in Cincinnati. Everyone probably had his or her favorite character, but mine was newsman Les Nessman. Among other foibles, Les always had a bandage on some part of his body—a different location every week.

Mork and Mindy (1978-1982): Robin Williams played Mork, a visitor from outer space trying to understand life among humans on Earth. Robin Williams was at his best in this show, that gave him enough script to sustain a plot and enough freedom for his extemporaneous comedy.

Family Ties (1982-1989): One of the shows that would establish NBC’s Must-See TV on Thursday nights, the premise of Family Ties was that liberals from the 1960s are trying to raise a family in the 1980s. Their oldest son Alex, played by Michael J. Fox, has the conservative values of the Reagan era, while Mallory is a material girl. The younger children are not as memorable, I find.

Cheers (1982-1993): Another part of Must-See TV, and in my opinion the best of the group. Ted Danson is Sam Malone, a retired baseball player who owns a bar in Boston; Shelley Long is Dianne, a graduate student who takes a job working in the bar. As in many other sit-coms, the supporting cast added greatly to the show, particularly barflies Norm and Cliff. While I have always wanted to be the informed and reasonable voice of Spock, I have always feared that I am really Cliff Claybourne.

Newhart (1982-1990): The best comedy of this time period not on NBC, Bob Newhart now owns an inn in Vermont. Bob is even more ordinary, and the characters surrounding him are even more eccentric. Who can forget, “This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl”? After a splendid run, the show ended in 1990 with the best farewell show ever.

Bill Cosby (1984-1992): Bill Cosby is an incredibly talented storyteller. In this show, which became the anchor of Must-See TV, Cosby’s stories are expanded into a story of an American family which happens to be black, but the humor is not racial humor; it simply is family humor.

Night Court (1984-1992): The last and weakest comedy member of Must-See TV (which also included the drama Hill Street Blues), the judge and his assistants in a night court must handle a running series of odd people moving through the court. Maybe I should have dropped this show in favor of Welcome Back, Kotter, but I did watch it every week while waiting for Hill Street Blues to start.


American television situation comedies (sit-coms)

When television was new, it drew inspiration from two sources: radio programs and stage productions. In addition to operas, musicals, and plays, stages used to be filled with variety routines in an art form called vaudeville. Early Marx Brothers movies were largely developed from their vaudeville routine, with music and song and dance blended into a thin plot written around many comic lines. From a blend of vaudeville and radio drama, the situation-comedy, or sit-com, developed.

Today and tomorrow I will share a list of American sit-coms I enjoyed at the time and remember fondly. None of these are recent shows, although reruns of most of these shows can still be found on various television channels. Note that these are all American shows, so Monty Python’s Flying Circus will not be included. Also, these are sit-coms, not variety shows, so Laugh-In and Carol Burnett also are not included. I make no claim that these shows were the best of their genre. I am only listing the ones I remember watching faithfully.

This is not a wish list—I would not want to receive these shows on DVD for my birthday. I don’t have the time to watch the DVDs I already own. I’m sure most of these shows would seem less entertaining now than in their own time. Some classics stand the test of time, while others live better in memory than in repetition.

Andy Griffith (1960-1968): I watched this in syndication on weekday afternoons after school. The antics of Sheriff Andy Taylor, his son Opie, Aunt Bea, Barney Fife, and even Floyd the barber remain fresh in my mind after all these years. Even the theme music is still vivid in my head. Mayberry feels almost like a second home-town, even though those home-town memories are in black and white.

Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967): For some reason, this comedy became the paradigm of mindless entertainment on television. Actually, it contained some skillful writing for a set cast of seven characters (a number which seems ideal both for television comedy and television drama) with frequent guest appearances by other characters. Alright, maybe too many brief characters for a remote island. The theme song is also a paradigm for ear-worms—music that runs through the head again and again and won’t go away. Like the majority of male viewers, I favored MaryAnn over Ginger.

Bewitched (1964-1972): I don’t know how this show escaped the scolding of the Moral Majority of the 1960s, as it depicts a beautiful witch using her magic while trying to fit into an ordinary American home and neighborhood with her every-man husband Darren (played by two different actors in the course of the show). For me, the show paled in comparison to my next feature, even though the following show was begun a year later and was considered a rip-off of Bewitched, rather than the other way around.

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970): An astronaut finds a genii and sets her free, but she falls in love with him and stays with him. The astronaut and his friends were more interesting than Darren and his friends, and Barbara Eden was my first television idol, far ahead of MaryAnn or Ginger. Of all the shows on late afternoon TV weekdays after school, this is the only show I ever objected to missing.

Get Smart (1965-1970): An incredibly funny show about an American spy; this show was my first exposure to the wit of Mel Brooks. Don Adams was perfect as the bumbling Maxwell Smart, and he was surrounded by splendidly entertaining teammates and villains. Leonard Nimoy plays a bad guy in one first-season episode, shortly before he became famous as Mr. Spock.

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971): A prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War becomes the base for behind-the-scenes spy and sabotage work by the Allies, including Americans, French, and British prisoners. The German Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz make Maxwell Smart seem brilliant by comparison, and life in a prison camp doesn’t seem so terrible as portrayed in this odd comedy.

Mary Tyler Moore (1970-1977): This show is the first on this list that I remember original episodes rather than reruns after school. Admittedly, though, I don’t remember it well, since I keep confusing it with the Dick Van Dyke show, in which Mary Tyler Moore played his wife. The apartment sets, I think, were similar. In this show, Mary is a single woman working for a television station—Lou Grant and Ted Baxter are more memorable than Mary and her other friends.

All in the Family (1971-1979): Created by Norman Lear and starring Caroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, this is one of the first television show to address the topic of bigotry through caricature.  Somehow Archie Bunker remains likeable in spite of his abusive language toward his wife, their daughter, her husband, and pretty much every other person in Archie’s life. All in the Family was considered a brave show in the 1970s; its success makes me wonder how many reputedly conservative political commenters in the United States today are inspired more by Archie Bunker than by true conservative beliefs.

The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978): Bob Newhart plays a psychologist working and living in Chicago, surrounded by a cast of odd characters that allow Bob to portray his dry humor as the ordinary man surrounded by strangeness. Although in the opening credits Bob takes an odd route between his office and his apartment (crossing the Chicago River three times!), much of the portrayal of life in Chicago is true to form. His work as a counselor is also exceptional.

M*A*S*H (1972-1983): A mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War is depicted, showing the lives of doctors and nurses trying to heal in the midst of war. The war lasted three years; the show about the war lasted eleven years. My memories of this show are shaped by the fact that I often watched reruns after the nighttime news while living in places where I did not want to be. As a result, I always felt drawn to those characters who hated being in Korea and wanted the war to end so they could go home.