Tag Archives: Steve Allen

Heeeeeere’s Johnny!

Nineteen years ago today, Johnny Carson said goodbye.

Retiring after thirty years at the age of 66, Carson walked away from a show that became part of the fabric of American pop culture. Much like Ed Sullivan’s variety show, unknown performers could become instant superstars just by nailing a single appearance. Carson didn’t start the Tonight Show (Steve Allen and Jack Paar preceded him), nor would he finish it, but his impact upon it and the late-night talk show design will forever be paramount.

Other talk shows of the day were warm and fuzzy (Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas) or a bit cerebral (Dick Cavett); Carson blended both with a parade of incredible guests and a willingness to be as serious or silly as the situation required. He let people be themselves. During his reign, the show’s title became secondary to the man; artists simply referred to “being on Carson“.

On his final night, Carson went out with grace and class:

And so it has come to this: I, uh… am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the gentlemen who’ve shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like and come back that you’ll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”

Video: Excerpts from the final show

Although he never came back into the public eye, his legacy lives on through everyone who speaks into a microphone from behind a desk, and the advent of cable television has allowed many students to co-exist in the form. While initially his replacement Jay Leno and his protegé David Letterman split the bulk of the audience, a flood of worthy children now occupy the night-time hours and will be worthy successors to their aging mentors.

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher have taken the political end of the spectrum to new heights; Stewart is often singled out as the most trusted source of news on television, despite his consistent disclaimer that his is a comedy show. (Speaks volumes about the networks, doesn’t it?).

After holding slots previously occupied by both Leno and Letterman, Conan O’Brien’s new TBS effort proved that people will follow the man, not the show. The embarrassing NBC debacle was followed by the guerilla Team Coco movement, and Conan remains a strong brand and a unique personality.

After shaky starts, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and especially Jimmy Fallon have proven to have solid and consistent programs that attract first-rate guests and feature brilliant writing. Along with smaller network show hosts (Chelsea Handler, George Lopez, Mo’Nique, Graham Norton), the comedy/music/chat formula is in good hands.

But to a person, each will point a finger back at the master, Johnny Carson.

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Remembering Lenny Bruce

Forty-four years after his death his influence still towers.

You may or may not like Lenny Bruce; if you discovered him towards the tail end of his career sometimes his appearances were little more than anti-establishment rants about the persecution he was being subjected to. He was losing his career, his freedom, and towards the end, his sanity. Who wouldn’t?

But his belief in personal freedom, the right for anyone to speak their mind, the drive to question authority – you know, fundamental human rights – made him a trailblazer in the world of comedy. His jazzy, free-flowing style blurred the line between storytelling and joke-telling; his subject matter risqué for the times; his intelligence and subtlety a reward for those who were really paying attention.

Jazz musicians in the pocket are capable of taking a solo at any moment; so too Bruce was able to run off on a tangent and weave his way back in almost invisibly. When they make lists of the greatest and most influential comedians ever to walk the planet, Bruce is always in the very top cluster, if not the apex.

When the movie Lenny first came out I was sure I wouldn’t like Dustin Hoffman in the lead, but I liked the film and thought he did great work. The film we really need to see is the documentary Swear To Tell The Truth, narrated by Robert DeNiro.

Read more about Swear To Tell The Truth.

But while it’s nice to read about him and hear about him, your first move should be to listen to him. I highly recommend that you get your hands on Let The Buyer Beware, the boxed set collection of his albums. Also Lenny Bruce Without Tears (a DVD with some of his TV performances) and The Lenny Bruce Performance Film, most copies of which include Thank You Masked Man.

Rest in Peace,  Lenny. Finally, peace.

Lenny Bruce official website.

Lenny on Wikipedia.

Nice collection of links to Lenny related material.

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Happy Birthday, Mel Brooks!

 

He’s given us (among other things) Get Smart, The Critic, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers. He helped get The Elephant Man and My Favorite Year brought to the screen. He made his bones in a writer’s pit with Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar

As an actor, director, producer, screenwriter, lyricist, singer and playwright he has helped introduce satire and parody to the last three generations…and his timeless work will continue to entertain the planet (and whatever life-forms visit in the future) for eternity. 

He’s won an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and an Oscar

 

He is, without a doubt, a comic genius

He is Melvin KaminskyMel Brooks to us – and he’s 83 years old today

I’m sure I’m not the only person who can recite lines from Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein by heart – I might, if pressed, spill out the whole movie. When The American Film Institute (AFI) released their recent poll of the funniest movies ever made, Brooks scored three of the top thirteen: Blazing Saddles (#6), The Producers (#11), and Young Frankenstein (#13). That is astounding

As an Alfred Hitchcock fan, I have a soft spot in my heart for High Anxiety, which skewers several Hitchcock films perfectly while maintaining a suspenseful (but hilarious) plot of its own. It’s a funny film if you’ve never seen a Hitchcock film, but if you know the master, it’s priceless. And who but Brooks would float a silent movie – called Silent Movie, of course – where the one spoken word came from the mouth of the world’s most famous mime? 

I realized recently that there were a lot of people who were very familiar with Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (film and Broadway versions) but were unaware of Mel’s iconic “2000 Year Old Man” character, a routine played to perfection with the great Carl Reiner. A few months ago Shout Factory released a box set collecting all the albums and cartoons, adding some commentary and rare footage. It’s a first-rate package and a must-own for comedy fans. 

 Here is my review from earlier this year… 

 

Reiner recalls that the genesis for the 2000 Year Old Man occurred when he approached Brooks with “Here’s a man who actually knew Jesus” and Brooks deadpanned “Oh, boy”. But although they would continue the routine in private for years as parlor entertainment for themselves and their friends, it wasn’t until they were finally prodded by Steve Allen to record it in his studio. (Or perhaps it was George Burns asking if the routine had been recorded, playfully insinuating that he’d swipe it if it wasn’t.) Reiner had gotten in the habit of bringing a tape recorder to these parties because Brooks never said the same thing twice, and he was astute enough not to let this comedic gold slip away. 

  

Over the years the pair released five albums: 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (1961), 2000 and One Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (1961), Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks at the Cannes Film Festival (1962), 2000 and Thirteen (1973) and The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 (1998). The 1998 album won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Comedy Album, besting fellow nominees Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy and The Firesign Theatre.  

The structure of featuring the title character as one among many was continued on the second and third albums, but the fourth and fifth albums were dedicated solely to the man who survived modern history. Reiner continued to play the voice of the audience, asking questions and challenging answers. “He was like a District Attorney” claimed Brooks, who felt that Reiner’s real-life knowledge of history and important events raised the bar on the exchanges. “I knew the questions” quipped Reiner, “but I didn’t know the answers”. 

Read the rest of my review at PopMatters

Mrs. Robinson, I think you DID seduce me!

Mel Brooks wiki 

Get this incredible collection of Mel’s films for a pittance! 

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Happy Birthday, Tom Lehrer

Man could tickle those ivories, too.

Man could tickle those ivories, too.

Tom Lehrer is a ripe old 81 today, although that mind is probably still whip-crack smart. One of the first and most popular musical satirists, along with contemporaries like Mort Sahl he was among the new wave of intellectual comedians, although Tom did it best with song rather than story. It would be tough to draw a line back from any satirist, whether a political pundit (i.e. Bill Maher) or ribald songman (Stephen Lynch) without intersecting Lehrer somewhere along the way. Mark Russell might have been more political, Steve Allen more broad; Tom Lehrer was probably your ideal bridge between Mad Magazine and adulthood.

Tom Lehrer’s website.

For those old enough to remember, I’m preaching to the choir, of course. But a generation (or two?) who have grown up laughing at SNL’s Weekend Update (or the latest incarnation, Best Week Ever) might want to check out That Was The Week That Was, featuring a brilliant cast and group of writers (including Monty Python members and even writer Roald Dahl!). As always, an American version was adopted and the names involved are stunners – everyone from Woody Allen and Nichols & May to Gene HackmanBuck Henry and Alan Alda. Lehrer wrote satirical songs for the show, and a collection of them were released after the show left the air. That’s about when I discovered him and realized he was much funnier than the Allan Shermans of the world (no slight on Sherman – Lehrer is sharper than most). Literate and witty – imagine that – a deadly combination.

Happy Birthday, sir!

...and not a bad time to be getting on board, either.

Poisoning Pigeons In The Park

The Masochism Tango

The Vatican Rag

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