Sunday, September 17, 2017

Monologists And The Movies

Writing about Eddie "The Old Philosopher" Lawrence brought up the topic of monologists who also acted in movies. First and foremost, there's monologist/satirist, movie actor, cowboy and star of The Ropin' Fool (among numerous films in silents and talkies), the great Will Rogers.

Will Rogers' monologues about The Great Depression - a time of 30% unemployment in significant swaths of the United States - have weathered the test of time and resonate all these decades later.

His commentary on hubris and politics still rings true.

Rogers would star in a remarkably successful series of feature films, many directed by John Ford or Frank Borzage. He projected warmth and likability onscreen that transcends the era and certain dated aspects of the storylines.

Without a doubt, humorist Robert Benchley, of Algonquin Round Table fame, considered himself first and foremost a writer, but ended up in movies as a lark.

To amuse his friends at parties, Benchley used to do sendups of stodgy "after-dinner speakers" and less-than-dynamic academic orators. Several were filmed in 1928 and theatrically released among William Fox' first sound-on-film Movietone short subjects.

The 1-reelers Benchley starred in for William Fox eventually led to his headlining his own short subject series for MGM and Paramount.


Sometimes Benchley ventured into the same current events territory as Rogers, as he does in the following wry and satiric clip, courtesy of the British Pathe Collection.

In between his writings, Robert Benchley ended up appearing in 92 films, including Sir Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent.

We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are particularly fond of Mr. Benchley's role in the Hope & Crosby vehicle The Road To Utopia.

Three who changed the comedy world in no uncertain terms were Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory.

Jonathan Winters very likely did not consider himself a thespian in any way, shape or form, but played a character part in Tony Richardson's 1965 satire The Loved One quite well.

Mort Sahl occasionally acted in television programs (including an episode of the Gothic-noir-suspense series Thriller), while his fellow standup philosopher, political and social commentator, the recently passed Dick Gregory, starred in the movie Sweet Love, Bitter. Gregory excelled in this drama, as he had as an activist and monologist.

Contemporaneous with this trio and, along with them, key among those who expanded standup comedy beyond the joke-punchline format, the edgy and quick-witted Lenny Bruce only appeared in a couple of films, including one, very early in his standup career, Dance Hall Racket, a tawdry and terrible movie directed by Phil "Robot Monster" Tucker. Was there a director worse than Edward D. Wood, Junior? Yes - Phil Tucker!

There aren't all that many uncut Lenny Bruce monologues available - after all, his preferred performing venue was strip joints - but here's a breathless one, including references to Jack Durant, Alice B. Toklas, Liberace and Julian Eltinge, from the Palladium. The audio element only tells a minimal fraction of the story. Just hearing his use of his voice and dynamics, one concludes that if Lenny Bruce had been interested in pursuing acting, he may well have been able to make the transition from standup comedy successfully.

Richard Pryor, along with George Carlin, could be considered among those who carried on the standup comedy approach of Lenny Bruce, while extending it into uncharted political and social territory. Richard Pryor's brilliant monologues became movies - Live In Concert, Live On The Sunset Strip, Here And Now - but he was also an actor who co-starred in Paul Schrader's Blue Collar and both starred in and directed the biographical drama Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. Pryor's abilities as a storyteller and actor distinguish him from his contemporaries and subsequent political comedians. One envisions that Mr. Pryor could have spun off into further writing, directing and acting in indie films, not just doing comedies.

Best known of all the monologists who transitioned into movies would be the late, great Robin Williams, capable of playing rather darn and menacing characters adeptly, in a departure from his standup comedy persona.

Williams starred in World's Greatest Dad, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, still occasionally a standup comedian, but primarily a filmmaker - and a quite original and provocative writer/director at that.

Speaking of dark and provocative movies, the latest monologist to go into filmmaking is Louis CK, who, after his brilliant yet gritty and ever-uneasy television show Louie, is now writing and directing disturbing indie films.

This does not seem a stretch to this writer, as Louis CK's standup performances frequently focus on finding humor in the dark side of human behavior - and especially his own behavior. And that recalls another brilliant monologist who ultimately made movies.

Woody Allen would be the most famous/infamous and prolific among the monologists who also wrote and directed movies - and the very best of his films are, indeed, dark and disturbing. . . not far afield from those written by Bobcat Goldthwait and Louis CK.

Whether Jon Stewart, who has produced the Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez documentary After Spring, or current standups Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Lewis Black opt to ultimately move behind the camera as well - that remains to be seen. The more provocative and original films, the better.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

And This Blog Loves "The Old Philosopher"

There are many philosophers of the standup variety this blogger loves - Will Rogers, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and George Carlin - as well as satiric writers Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift, and illustrators William Hogarth and Honoré Daumier. None of them will be the topics of today's post! For the September 9, 2017 post, this jet-lagged but undaunted Blogmeister tips the cap to actor, playwright, comedian, recording artist, singer and cartoon voice ace Eddie Lawrence (1919-2014).

A bit of background: Your Blogmeister's mom, an accomplished professional woman who, off-work, possessed a delightfully goofy sense of humor, would ask her at times sad, isolated and discouraged son, "Is That What's Bothering You, Bunkie?" Only later did I realize that mi madre was referring to Eddie Lawrence, the Old Philosopher, A.K.A. monologist/comic Lawrence Eisler - and, most importantly, attempting to steer me in the direction of LAUGHS. It was her way of trying to cheer me up and help.

Eddie Lawrence, it turned out, was not just The Old Philosopher, as funny and iconic as that character was.

As much as that "theme with many variations" was key to Mr. Lawrence's fame, as the obituary in the New York Times duly noted, he was also a multi-talented director-writer-actor (onstage and in movies) and a musician.

There were numerous versions of The Old Philosopher, all funny.

Lawrence even carried The Old Philosopher persona to radio ads.

A couple of decades after the records were first released, Eddie's Old Philosopher recordings received frequent airplay on the Dr. Demento radio show. When the radio host presented the performers of the program's most requested records in a concert, Eddie, of course, was invited. He did not disappoint.

Still later, I realized that Eddie Lawrence wrote and provided voices for many Paramount cartoons and often wrote the stories as well. It turned out they were animated versions of his routines.

The following Famous Studios cartoon visualizes one of Eddie's records, Abner The Baseball.

A few of these non-prototypical Famous Studios efforts found their way to television's New Casper Cartoon Show, but this writer, much more a fan of Warner Brothers and Tex Avery MGM cartoons than of Casper The Friendly Ghost as a child, did not see any of Eddie Lawrence's cartoons back then. This is for a good reason: most of the Eddie Lawrence cartoons and other mid-1960's Paramount/Famous cartoons had not been produced yet when the six year old version of Your Correspondent was watching The New Casper Cartoon Show on TV.

The Eddie Lawrence cartoons, including the Swifty & Shorty series which re-imagined many of his routines, were in movie theaters at the time; unfortunately, I did not get the pleasure of seeing them on the big screen before a Jerry Lewis flick.

It was not until even later, the early 1990's, when this animation buff actually saw Famous Studios cartoons from this period, courtesy of a Nickelodeon program titled Cartoon Kablooey. Surprise - the 1964-1967 Paramount/Famous cartoons, directed by Howard Post, Shamus Culhane and Ralph Bakshi, in this writer's opinion, are more often than not fresh, original and funny in an unorthodox way. Unlike the 1950's Harveytoons, they do not come across as repetitive and formulaic, even though the animation and design is more minimalist.

For more information on The Old Philosopher, check out the wonderful tribute to Eddie Lawrence posted by Mark Evanier on his News From Me blog, as well as the superb interview conducted by Kliph Nesteroff, author of The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy and posted on his Classic Television Showbiz page.