Friday, April 30, 2021
In need of laughs as April ends, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog today pays tribute to 20th century standup comedy.
Spotlighted the hilarious Billy Crystal in the Easter 2021 post. . . why stop there? Here's Billy's pal and frequent collaborator Robin Williams, with a routine that should be played in its entirety prior to The Masters every year without fail.
The historical record of mid-20th century standup comedy performances begins with The Ed Sullivan Show; fortunately for us comedy and pop culture vultures, a slew of Sullivan Show excerpts have been recently downloaded to YouTube.
Stand-up comediennes have received at best short shrift, but The Ed Sullivan Show often featured one who broke ground, combining elegance and élan with Rodney Dangerfield-style intensity and rapid fire precision, the very funny Jean Carroll.
Of the many comics who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, I especially enjoyed "sad sack standup" Jackie Vernon.
While standup comedians and The Tonight Show tend to be associated with Johnny Carson, the previous incarnation of Tonight hosted by Jack Parr provided a showcase for comics as well.
Have seen few episodes of the first version of The Tonight Show, hosted by Steve Allen, but understand that he often featured stand-up comics - most famously a cleaned-up Lenny Bruce.
Mostly recall Steve Allen's Tonight for an episode in which Ernie Kovacs was the guest host and turned the show upside down, sometimes literally (note: it's on this DVD box set).
Parr's Tonight offered free rein to comedians. The one, the only Jonathan Winters was a regular.
Not to be outdone, Johnny Carson made a point of booking stand-up comedy legends on The Tonight Show.
Carson would revel both in his role of King Of Late Night and in bringing combinations of comedy stalwarts on his shows, sometimes simultaneously (note - a longer clip from the following show can be found here).
A few years before the episode featuring Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters, arguably the very best ever to hit The Comedy Store stage were on The Tonight Show together.
Johnny was no fool. Richard Pryor, a one of a kind talent, was on often.
As a comedian who manages to be a storyteller, satirist, actor and social commentator simultaneously, Richard Pryor is still unsurpassed, 15 years after his passing.
David Letterman offered a showcase through his runs on both NBC and CBS. Dave's love of and respect for comedy and comedians is clear.
The best of the best were featured on both Dave's short-lived daytime show and his innovative late night program (note: by all means, consult the Late Night With David Letterman playlist on YouTube for mass quantities of comedy goodness).
Of the comics who appeared on Letterman, this blogger is particularly fond of the late, lamented, highly original and wildly imaginative Mitch Hedberg.
Saturday Night Live has had a complex and at times unfathomable relationship with stand-up comedians and comediennes, partly due to the show's genesis in Second City/Groundlings style improv.
Many Saturday Night Live cast members first made their name as stand-ups, with some enjoying breakthrough success and others having their difficulties withstanding the backstage politics and unrelenting pressure cooker of live television. Everyone from Stephen Wright to Sam Kinison appeared on the show. George Carlin hosted the premiere episode and Richard Pryor hosted the seventh one in 1975.
After the first five SNL seasons, quite a few luminaries from the world of stand-up comedy would become cast members, with varying results. The fearless, unorthodox and delightfully brutal Gilbert Gottfried, the most surreal of stand-up comedians and to this day the only comic to do a dead-on impersonation of Jackie Vernon, was mis-cast and mis-used on the infamous (but not entirely terrible - the musical guests are consistently top-notch) season 6, which also featured an inexplicably under-utilized Eddie Murphy.
There was a stretch, mostly during the early 1980's years when Dick Ebersol produced the show, in which Saturday Night Live frequently booked stand-up comics as guest performers and gave them the spotlight. Some, such as Stephen Wright, were several steps and universes ahead of the (by comparison) earthbound comedy sketches.
The show also featured such wonderful vaudeville-style acts as magicians Harry Anderson, Michael Davis and Penn & Teller back in those days. These creative performers were a welcome addition and it's too bad this practice ended as the 1980's did.
There are cases where things don't work out for even the most talented comedy performers, actors and actresses in the grinder that is television, when the cast blends like oil and water. When it comes to live TV, this sort of thing happens, even with a terrific cast, imaginative writers and the best of intentions. It's never due to lack of talent, creativity or enthusiasm; even the incomparable Your Show Of Shows cast and writers periodically produced sketches that were clunkers.
For reasons unknown to all who were not in the SNL writers' room in 1994-1995, season 20 was arguably the worst in the series' history, or at least tied with the infamous seasons 6 and 11, as well as the less infamous but equally lackluster season 30.
Lots went wrong, very wrong in the 1994-1995 season, even given the blazing comedy talent working on the show, in front of and behind the cameras. Season 20 would be a prolonged last gasp for stalwart SNL cast members Kevin Nealon and Mike Myers, both affected by departures from the cast in a profound way. These departures also shifted the comedy load emphatically to Adam Sandler, David Spade and larger-than-life physical comedian and Second City Chicago star Chris Farley. This limited opportunities for new additions to the cast; only Molly Shannon and Norm Macdonald returned for subsequent seasons.
As had been emphatically the case with the entire doomed Saturday Night Live '80 troupe, the 20th season had difficulty figuring out way to do with new cast members. British actress and animation voice artist Morewenna Banks was a featured player for four episodes, but only appeared in a couple of sketches and then was unceremoniously fired by NBC. In her one-year stint as a cast member, filmmaker and comedienne Laura Kightlinger, later a writer and performer on Will & Grace, was seen less than The Invisible Man.
The powers that were at SNL, still reeling from the aforementioned departures of two of the greatest cast members in the show's history, the irreplaceable Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman, as well as key writers who left to join the Late Night with Conan O'Brien staff, could not figure out how to incorporate the new additions to the show into the mix. Established comedians were added instead of young unknowns from Second City and The Groundlings. Actress/stand-up comedienne Janeane Garofolo and frequently hilarious Late Night With David Letterman comic Chris Elliott were among the new additions, but repeatedly mis-cast and mis-used on SNL season 20. Go figure!
The unsuccessful efforts to incorporate Late Night with David Letterman's distinctive style of comedy into the Saturday Night Live mix brings to mind that Janeane Garapolo hosted Late Show with David Letterman when Dave was recovering from heart surgery in March 2000; in contrast to her extremely unhappy experience in a half season as an SNL cast member, she excelled and had fun in the process. Had she wanted the job, Janeane could have shined as a new kind of late-night host.
As the 1980s and early 1990s progressed, the Saturday Night Live cast increasingly would be chock full of standup comedians, including Adam Sandler, David Spade and Rob Schneider. Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock and Norm Macdonald - brilliant stand-up comedians all - were indeed SNL cast members.
Other outstanding comedy performers auditioned but didn't make the cut; as the old saying goes, that's show business. The list includes some formidable talents: Kevin Hart, Jennifer Aniston, Marc Maron, Jim Carrey, Lisa Kudrow, John Goodman, Zach Galifianakis, Kathy Griffin and Michael McDonald (of Mad TV - not the pop singer/songwriter).
Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell also auditioned to be Saturday Night Live cast members, but ultimately found their way in as cartoon voice-overs on Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse, which originated on The Dana Carvey Show.
It has been extended tough sledding at this blogger's household, as we have lost two beloved pets in a short time, but after much quality time spent with the iconic comedians of silent movies (a.k.a. The Old Masters - Chaplin, Keaton, Chase, Langdon, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy) and a deep dive into both favorite stand-up philosophers and the mid and late 20th century television programs that spotlighted them (many of which can now been seen on YouTube, Archive.org and Vimeo), hints of sunlight are visible on the horizon.
In closing, we extend big thank yous and several respectful tips of top hats worn by John Belushi, Bill Murray and Elliott Gould in the infamous (but funny) "Castration Rag" sketch to websites that have been reviewing Saturday Night Live in detail. These would include the One SNL A Day Project, the SNL Review index on Existentialist Weightlifting and My Saturday Night Life. Dove into both websites for research and screen caps in this post. In addition, there are now numerous Saturday Night Live shows of past decades on Archive.org - and many interviews with Saturday Night Live cast and writers conducted by Marc Maron for his podcast.
Monday, April 19, 2021
Today, we spotlight the great Harold Lloyd, born on April 20, 1893. Mr. Lloyd is considered one of silent film comedy's Big Three (along with Chaplin and Keaton - and, if it's a Big Four, Harry Langdon) and the Harold Lloyd films are still unequaled in their blend of comedy and thrills with the action hero ethos exemplified by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Turns out Harold Lloyd is among several stalwarts from silver screen comedy with birthdays at this time of year.
That guy responsible for the first 20th century British Invasion and the international popularity of both going out to the movies and buying home movies (on 8mm, 9.5mm, 16mm, 28mm, etc.), Charles Spencer Chaplin, was born on April 16, 1889.
The lesser-known but wonderful Fay Tincher, a very reluctant but inspired comedienne - she aspired to move behind the camera and make dramas as a director/writer - but easily one of the funniest of her day, was born on April 17, 1884.
We respectfully tip a battered top hat Chaplin got from his friend Max Linder and wore in One A.M. to his colleague and fellow comedy great Harold Lloyd. All three were responsible for a million laughs.
A preeminent silver screen presence through much of his career, Harold Lloyd is best known for his ascent up a very tall building in Safety Last.
The plucky comedian with the horn-rimmed glasses dangling from the clock remains one of the images most frequently selected to represent silent movies and the 1920's. If my viewing of it before an enthusiastic capacity crowd at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival a few years ago is any indication, Safety Last still kills with 21st century audiences! This is because Harold worked to became an unsurpassed master of comedy construction, especially in his 1923-1928 feature films.
Safety Last had been preceded by several daredevil Harold Lloyd pictures which got big laughs from scenarios involving imminent danger on tall buildings.
Harold's college football epic The Freshman may be his second best known feature after Safety Last. It influenced all football comedies - live-action and animated - that followed. Have a difficult time imagining the football sequences in Horse Feathers, Three Little Pigskins, Pigskin Palooka and Disney's How To Play Football without the precedent established by this classic Harold Lloyd comedy.
It's the epitome of big screen fun at the movies to see one of Harold's best features - Why Worry, Girl Shy, Hot Water, For Heaven's Sake, The Kid Brother, Speedy - with a packed audience and stirring orchestral accompaniment. While lots of Harold Lloyd flicks are up on YouTube, they were not designed to be seen on cell phones in 2021 - and yes, we're well aware that's exactly how people watch movies these days.
As is also the case with the Fairbanks swashbucklers (Robin Hood, Thief Of Bagdad, The Black Pirate) and Keaton's The General, the films are designed to be seen on the big screen, with orchestral accompaniment and an SRO theatrical audience.
Harold differs from the others in the Big 3 or 4 in that his characterization evolved in movies, while Chaplin (as a member of Fred Karno's troupe), Keaton and Langdon honed their comic personas in stage and vaudeville.
After a brief stint working as a supporting player in Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies, Harold began his career as a silver screen headliner as the first star of producer Hal Roach's new Rolin Studio in 1915. He starred in 67 comedy short subjects as an ever-obstreperous guy in too-tight clothes known as Lonesome Luke.
The Lonesome Luke comedies are much more in the Keystone Comedies and L-Ko (Lehrman Knock-out) slapstick school than in the later, more sophisticated signature style of Harold and Hal Roach Studios, but do feature a fine stock company of star-to-be Bebe Daniels, goofball supporting comedian Snub Pollard and all-purpose heavy Bud Jamison.
While Luke was definitely in the thick of what at least one film historian termed "the mustache brigade," his surviving early films show glimpses of the far less over-the-top and more naturalistic "glasses" character Lloyd would subsequently develop.
In 1917, Harold retired the less-than-memorable Luke and replaced him with the "glasses" character. While the supporting casts, scenarios, comedy routines and slapstick gags at first stayed much the same, this change did wonders for Harold Lloyd's comedy.
Harold rode the handsome, likable and energetic "glasses" character to great success, first in featurettes, then in full-length features. From these fairly humble beginnings, Harold made himself an expert on feature film comedy, story and screenplay structure.
Lloyd carefully studied what works or doesn't work with theatrical audiences and determined exactly where the laughs come.
The can-do sensibility of WW1 era light comedian turned 1920's action hero Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. is clearly a strong influence even in such early Harold Lloyd featurettes as Grandma's Boy, Dr. Jack and A Sailor-Made Man. Throughout these Hal Roach Studio featurettes, Harold remains the most swashbuckling and dashing of movie comedians. Harold very likely talked shop with Doug!
The transition to sound appears to have thrown Harold off his game. Lloyd had shot half of his 1928 vehicle Welcome Danger as a silent feature, then, noting the popularity of the new sound films, re-tooled it as a talkie. Artistically, the sound version of Welcome Danger represents the first misfire by Lloyd in a decade, but, due to the public's fascination with the new talkies, it was a box-office hit. Difficult to say what is weirder, seeing the patented Harold Lloyd routines slowed down for a sound movie or hearing perennial bad guy Noah Young's voice sound like Walt Disney's Goofy.
Harold's 1930 feature Feet First attempts to bring the daredevil thrill comedy seen in High & Dizzy, Ask Father and Safety Last into the sound era.
Notably, hearing a scenario in which sound emphatically emphasizes the extent to which Harold's life is in danger, as seen in these clips from Feet First, alters the comedy dramatically.
Harold's struggles, screams and cries make the high and dizzy sequence in Feet First more than a tad too real - and a lot less funny than similar hair-raising sequences in the Lloyd silents. There are also spectacularly unfunny bits involving an unrelentingly unfunny black stereotype character played by Willie Best.
Of Harold's 1930's films, Movie Crazy is by far the most successful at bringing 1920's style Harold Lloyd comedy into sound. Writer Clyde Bruckman, who had a penchant for reusing gags from his previous work, remade parts of the following "magician's coat" sequence with The Three Stooges - and Columbia Pictures was sued for it (author, journalist and Bruckman biographer Matthew Dessem elaborates further here).
His last silver screen transformation, which produced The Cat's Paw, The Milky Way (directed by Leo McCarey) and Professor Beware, all significant departures from his earlier work, did not lead to a subsequent series of original story-driven Harold Lloyd comedies with dramatic overtones. This transformation might have been successful, but would have required Harold to abandon everything that had made him a box-office sensation and also cast himself in character parts as a middle-aged gentleman well into his forties. The Cat's Paw in particular points the way to how he could have adapted his characterization from the 1920's to the different requirements of the 1930's-1940's.
The Cat's Paw, directed by Sam Taylor, constitutes a worthy attempt to modernize a Harold Lloyd comedy with a storyline more like a LaCava or Capra film and ends up closer to Gabriel Over The White House than The Bitter Tea Of General Yen.
Present-day viewers will find the Asian stereotypes throughout The Cat's Paw very problematic, especially as none are portrayed by top Asian screen actors of the day (such as Anna May Wong), but in a twist counter to 1930's movies in general, they act as the mentors, teachers and inspirations to Harold's protagonist and are by far the most sympathetic characters in the movie.
On one hand, perhaps deferring to the directors - Hawks, Lubitsch, LaCava, Capra, Wilder, Cukor etc. - who would have brought the Harold Lloyd persona into the late 1930's and 1940's simply would not have suited Harold. On the other hand, Harold did collaborate quite successfully with former Hal Roach Studios director Leo McCarey on the 1936 film The Milky Way.
It's also quite possible that by the time he made Professor Beware, Harold concluded he'd worked his tail off long enough and was ready to call it a day in showbiz.
After leaving movies in 1938, he did emerge from retirement to star in one more movie and collaborate with one of those directors: legendary stage and screen wunderkind Preston Sturges: The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock.
The last Harold Lloyd feature has its share of excellent comedy, but is a tug-of-war between the visions of Lloyd and Sturges - and the central premise that the indefatigable go-getter Harold Lamb from The Freshman would give up, fold and become a dreary office nebbish strikes this writer as 100% counter to the essential Harold Lloyd characterization. Although the Harold Diddlebock character lost his savings in the Great Depression, his complete and utter defeat still rings false from the git-go. There are, however, many very funny scenes featuring the perennial and hilarious Sturges stock company players (Jimmy Conlin, Edgar Kennedy), as well as the irrepressible Jackie the lion.
Unfortunately, it would be an understatement that Lloyd and Sturges were not on the same page; as brilliant, inventive and original as Preston Sturges was, the very specific parameters of 1925 style silver screen comedy definitely did not number among his strong suits. The guy who Harold Diddlebock becomes in the movie, as he transitions from doormat to flashy dresser, high-rollin' high stakes gambler and overall wild and crazy guy, could be seen as the flamboyant Sturges himself.
A severely truncated version of The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock that circulated under the title Mad Wednesday was released in 1950.
In closing, we suggest that if one is not well-versed in the films of Harold Lloyd, a fine way to become familiar with the dapper and clever comedian is to go to the Harold Lloyd YouTube channel and binge-watch 28 of his classic movies on the Harold Lloyd - Short Films (HD 1080) playlist. In addition, many of his silent and sound feature films are up on the Harold Lloyd YouTube channel in their entirety.
Even better: follow those comedy gems with the terrific documentary by ace filmmakers and historians Kevin Brownlow and (the late) David Gill, who gave Harold Lloyd a long overdue spotlight in one of their outstanding Photoplay Pictures films. Have wanted to buy this on Blu-ray or DVD (region-free or otherwise) for eons. As the other Brownlow-Gill films are, it's among the best of the best.
As the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog catch up on last weekend's online presentations by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, we reflect upon the stellar contributions to comedy and cinema made by Harold Lloyd, the still unsurpassed master of the action comedy and originator of best practices in feature film story construction.
Thanks for the laughs, Harold!
Friday, April 16, 2021
We support this fundraiser for film preservationists Paul Gierucki and Brittany Jane Valente, who have been on the receiving end of freak accidents, multiple surgeries, hospitalizations and sudden deaths in the family. If you don't know them personally, the classic movie buffs in the reading audience will know Paul and Brittany from their work on splendid Blu-ray and DVD releases.
They have brought movie rarities back from The Twilight Zone - or (more accurately) The Nitrate Zone - and more laughs into a world that needs them.
The organizer of this GoFund Me, Chris Seguin, elaborates, "Let’s kick up our good thoughts a notch to good deeds, and “buy” them some much needed breathing room — the ability to mourn, recuperate, regroup, and begin take care of not only their hospital bills, but also the many high-cost realities that come with a family member’s passing, with at least a little less stress about how to materially manage to make all of that happen. This is our chance to tangibly help two wonderful friends who find themselves in the worst of bad circumstances, in a time already too filled with them."
So, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog have done just that and hope this blog's readers can chip in to the fundraiser as well.
Sunday, April 04, 2021
Last year, posted a Happy Easter entry that spotlighted a few all-time favorites of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog. Why not? Nobody was going anywhere!
If one is going traditional on Easter, and pondering the multiple Biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the 1927 silent King Of Kings would get the nod.
It's an epic, as many silent features produced in 1923-1928 are, so you might need a gargantuan television - or a 35mm projector and a genuine film print - to view the big big big (and, no kidding, we do mean BIG) production.
If the Easter viewing is definitely NOT going traditional, there's always DeMille's early talkie Madam Satan, the director's headlong plunge into pre-Code delirium.
Indeed, DeMille's epic spectacle of dirigibles, dancers, showgirls, wild parties, massive masquerade parties, all in fever dream hallucinogenic-ness anticipating Busby Berkeley, serves as an excellent palate cleanser.
Arguably, Cecil B. DeMille is most frequently associated with the 1956 epic production of The Ten Commandments, which TCM will be screening in various venues today.
All the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog can think of seeing The Ten Commandments is not Yul Brynner's hairdo, but Edward G. Robinson. As described by Billy Crystal: "where's your Moses NOWWWWW?"
We're big fans of Eddie Robinson AND Billy and would love to see Mr. Crystal perform his excellent stand-up comedy live sometime.
Here are a few more snippets of Easter entertainment options, beginning with a Name That Film proposition. Don't know the name of this cartoon or where MyFootage001 found it. Looks Eastern European and gets me thinking of the Tom & Jerry cartoons the great Gene Deitch produced in Prague. Whatever the country of the cartoon's origin may be, that is one badass rabbit!
Along similar lines to the MyFootage001 clip. . . Australia's Eric Porter made violent albeit cheerful short subjects, resembling classic American toons filtered through a broken funhouse mirror. While the budget is low and the animation is anything but Disney-esque, the two Color Classics by Porter strike this animation buff as oddly original and rather entertaining, with some very funny and enjoyably extreme sight gags throughout.
Had Eric Porter produced cartoons 40 years later, the voice of this series' ersatz star, rabbit trap purveyor and unsympathetic lout Bimbo the Wombat, would have no doubt been provided by Chris Farley (or at least the SNL and comedy feature film star's Down Under equivalent).
Wrote a post about Eric Porter's studio in 2013 and was unquestionably unduly harsh in calling its cartoons "The Blunder From Down Under." Never mind this blogger's natural inclination towards sarcasm - we're actually very fond of these cartoons and would especially love to see more of the Porter studio's animated commercials, WW2 era training and advertising films.
After producing Rabbit Stew in 1952 and Bimbo's Auto in 1954, Porter pitched the Color Classics as a series to Columbia Pictures. At that time, Columbia was distributing UPA's popular Mister Magoo cartoons and critically acclaimed Jolly Frolics.
Jolly Frolics won Oscars and Mister Magoo got laughs, so Cohn and Co. at Columbia did not regard Eric Porter's pitch as an offer they could not refuse.
This is quite ironic, considering that the pre-UPA producers of animation for Columbia Pictures, the much-maligned and misbegotten Screen Gems Studio, produced actual American toons filtered through two SHATTERED funhouse mirrors.
Of course, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, along with three or four other individuals upon this earth, LOVE both Screen Gems and Eric Porter Studio cartoons!
As all of us here miss the annual Easter shindigs of yore and especially the family and friends who have passed, is there anything else we will watch today? This, episode 52 of The Silent Comedy Watch Party, featuring Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon. The Silent Comedy Watch Party is on YouTube every Sunday, at 3:00 p.m. EST /high noon PST!
Silent Comedy Watch Party logo by Marlene Weisman
The 50th episode of The Silent Comedy Watch Party was two weeks ago on March 21.
This Sunday series has been helpful in weathering many rough spots in the past year.
Cool vintage silent comedies fill the bill, Easter Sunday and every day.
Movies starring the likes of Chaplin, Langdon, Keaton and Chase, preceded by some documentaries about music, followed by Bugs Bunny in Easter Yeggs and a Billy Crystal stand-up comedy set or two, that will do just fine as Easter entertainment.
Getting back to Mr. Crystal, the eloquent eulogy Billy gave at Muhammad Ali's memorial is something that will lift one's spirits on Easter and the other 364 days of the year. Underlying Billy's reminiscences of his friendship with the heavyweight champion is a message about the brotherhood of man.