Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Gene Wilder has died.  He was an unlikely movie star.  A fine actor with a deftcomic touch, but still not the kind of guy (or the kind of face) you'd think would be earmarked for stardom.

After starting out in the theatre and doing some work on TV, he got his first notable movie role in Bonnie And Clyde (1967), as an undertaker who has a rather nervous ride with the Barrow gang.  It was clear from the start-- here is an original, with his own offbeat comic style.

He was chosen the same year to play one of the leads in Mel Brooks' The Producers.  The film is a comedy classic, thanks in no small part to Wilder's Leo Bloom, the meek accountant who's convinced to join a fraudulent scheme by Broadway producer Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel.  While Mostel has the bigger part, in every sense of the word, I think Wilder's quiet yet panicky Bloom steals the show.  The Oscars agreed, and gave him his only acting nomination.

After starring in another cult comedy, Start The Revolution Without Me, and showing some range in the more dramatic Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx, he starred in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.  While not that highly thought of in its day, it's become a children's classic, held together by Wilder's funny yet sinister work--we don't know Wonka's motives until the end, and don't really know if he can be trusted along the way.  It's possible generations hence this will be the part for which he's remembered.

After that he did a Woody Allen comedy, starring in one section of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, where he portrays a man who falls in love with a sheep.  While Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were the two top comic filmmakers of the 1970s, this is not one of Woody's better films, and Brooks would use Wilder to better advantage.

After a fairly listless version of Rhinoceros, costarring with his old pal Zero Mostel, Wilder returned to the Brooks' fold with the comic Western Blazing Saddles in 1974.  The role wasn't written for him, but when veteran actor Gig Young wasn't up to the role of the experienced gunslinger, Mel Brooks frantically called the twenty-years younger Wilder to replace him.  Wilder seems so natural (and this was not the sort of part he usually played) that it's hard to believe it wasn't custom-tailored.  The film was a blockbuster, and before the year was out, Brooks and Wilder made another huge hit, the horror parody Young Frankenstein.

This was actually Wilder's project, but Brooks, now a recognized comedy director, was brought aboard.  This time around, Wilder is the clear lead and many would say it's his greatest role.  While he's very funny, he also has to play it straight enough to hold the story together. (Also in 1974 he appeared in a small part in Stanley Donen's The Little Prince, as well as Thursday's Game, a little-seen TV-movie written by James L. Brooks that deserves another look.)

Now a major star, Wilder started writing and directing his own comedies.  The next ten or so years would see The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, The World's Greatest Lover, The Woman In Red and Haunted Honeymoon.  The films aren't bad (except for the last), but they definitely don't compare to his work with Brooks.

While this was happening, he found a new comic partner in Richard Pryor, and they made some hits of their own.  First--and still best--is Silver Streak (directed by the recently-deceased Arthur Hiller).  It's a romance and murder mystery aboard a train, but the real romance is between the duo of Wilder and Pryor.  Their next three films together, Stir CrazySee No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You, are examples of diminishing returns.

In the midst of all this, Wilder made another gem that's mostly forgotten, The Frisco Kid.  It's a comedy and a Western, but the story is played straight, unlike Blazing Saddles.  Wilder is a rabbi on his way to a synagogue in San Francisco who meets up with tough hombre Harrison Ford.  I wouldn't call it a classic, and it's a bit too long, but worth checking out.

Some of the films he made around this time featured Gilda Radner.  Wilder and Radner became an item in the 1980s, and were married from 1984 until her death in 1989.  Those last few years when she was ill he didn't do much work.  However, when he returned to movies, he wasn't the star he'd been, and before too long, was out of films.

He went on to appear in a number of TV shows and TV movies, and essentially retired from acting in his late 60s.  But there was a time, mostly in the 1970s, when he was the face of Hollywood comedy.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Mad Man

When I was a kid, I loved MAD magazine--as did everyone else I knew.  I sought out the paperback reprints of older issues and that's where I discovered the original MAD, as created by Harvey Kurtzman.  It was wilder, more anarchistic than what I'd seen before. Its parodies of Superman, Archie Comics, Gasoline Alley, Mickey Mouse, Howdy Doody and so many other parts of popular culture evinced a skewed vision of the world, where nothing was what it appeared to be and anything could be mocked.  Kurtzman's work affected me as few other comics did.

Which is why I checked out Bill Schelly's biography Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD And Revolutionized Humor In America.  Quite a claim in that subtitle, but the book substantiates it in its 600+ pages.

Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn in 1924, a child of Russian Jews.  His father died when he was young, and the boy was sent for a period to an orphanage--which may have led to a sense of uncertainty which Harvey never fully shook.  Growing up during the Depression, Kurtzman loved comic strips, and had a talent for drawing.  As a teen he won a scholarship to the High School Of Music And Art, and developed his gift.  There he met others who would be a central to cartooning, such as Will Elder and Al Jaffee.

In the early 40s Kurtzman got a foothold in the comics industry, doing lowly work for little pay. This was interrupted when he was drafted into WWII.  He stayed in America during the war and kept cartooning--for camp newspapers, instruction manuals and the like.  After the war, he started freelancing, taking whatever he could get. He created a one-pager called Hey Look!--used as filler in comic books--which showed a wild imagination and absurdist view of the world.

He married in 1946, and while he had big plans, and talent to match, for years was barely earning a living.  Then, in the late 40s, he met Bill Gaines, publisher at EC (which once stood for Educational Comics but changed to Entertaining Comics).  Gaines saw talent in the quirky artist and used him wherever he could.  Kurtzman started illustrating EC horror titles, but didn't really like the genre.  He moved on to science fiction, and then found his métier in war stories.  Kurtzman started editing two separate war comics, writing most of the material and using the best artists EC had to flesh out his conceptions.

Kurtzman was painstaking, doing lots of research, and creating his own sketches which the artists were required to follow.  He also wrote stories that were much more realistic than other war comics.  Because he worked slower than others, he always needed more money.  MAD was created, if nothing else, as a way to give him a new source of revenue.

It was Harvey's baby all the way--even with the amazing work of artists such as Wallace Wood, Jack Davis and Will Elder to bring his ideas to fruition.  MAD seemed to unleash something in Kurtzman.  It was like nothing else out there (though it would soon be copied by everyone--EC even came up with its own knockoff Panic).  Word of mouth spread, and after a few issues it took off, becoming EC's best seller.  Meanwhile, there was a crusade against violent comics, which just about destroyed every other title Gaines published.  MAD became EC's main source of income.  In addition, it was turned into a magazine and Harvey widened its subject matter, and started accepting contributions from other (often name) writers. 

Harvey asked for more money, and a voting control of stock--a demand it's hard to believe he thought Gaines would accept.  Indeed, Gaines let him go, but Harvey had an ace in the hole.  Hugh Hefner, who'd created the tremendously successful Playboy, told Harvey he'd back him if he left EC.

It looked like Gaines was in trouble.  Harvey was the magazine, and he also poached all the MAD artists. But EC brought in a new editor and MAD continued being a success for decades to come.  Meanwhile, Harvey had problems.  Hefner gave him unlimited time and money--unsurprisingly, Harvey took too long and spent too much.  His new humor magazine, Trump, was wide-ranging, sort of a precursor to National Lampoon.  But as the second issue was going to press, Hefner was having trouble with his line of credit, and canceled the entire project.  Suddenly Harvey was scrambling.

He and other artists from Trump funded a new magazine, Humbug.  Launched in 1957, it was certainly cheaper than Trump, but still had solid content.  However, its format, cost, and somewhat sleazy distributor helped ensure the magazine never quite took off.  It disappeared in 1958.

Harvey, now with a family to feed, did whatever freelance work he could get, landing many pieces in respectable slicks. He also published Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book--long comic stories reminiscent of his work for MAD.

In 1960 he got the backing of a publisher to put out another magazine, Help!.  This one was considerably cheaper than Trump.  For instance, it used a lot of public domain photos with humorous captions.  But Kurtzman added a lot to it, and started doing, for instance, fumetti--series of photographs shot specially for the magazine that told a story.  Help! attracted a lot of names who became big later--Terry Gilliam, Gloria Steinem, Robert Crumb, etc.  It lasted five years, but never was a big moneymaker.

During this time Kurtzman--with friend and collaborator Will Elder--started doing a comic strip in Playboy, "Little Annie Fanny." It ran from 1962 to 1988, and became Harvey's main source of income (say what you want about Hef, he paid well).  But it's far from Kurtzman's best work. For one thing, Hefner micromanaged it.  Worse, while the strip had a satirical slant, putting title character Annie in the middle of cultural movements of the time, its main purpose was sexual titillation.

Kurtzman continued to work on various freelance projects, and more and more was recognized as a master in his field.  A whole generation or two of cartoonists who grew up reading his stuff sought him out.  He worked with many younger collaborators in his later years.  In the 1970s, he also started teaching in New York's School Of Visual Arts, instructing many up-and-comers.

In the late 1970s, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but kept at it until the end. He died in 1993, but did live to see a revival of interest in his work, with his old material--MAD and otherwise--reprinted to acclaim.  He was generally humble about what he did, but it's good to know he knew that his work would live on.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Name Game

I enjoyed reading It Happened On Broadway: An Oral History Of The Great White Way, even though oral histories are a form a cheating--I'd rather the authors do the full research and write a real book rather than just edit what others say.

But, as I've wondered before, what has happened to editing?  Okay, you've interviewed a bunch of people.  And someone typed up transcripts.  That's not the end of it.  Make sure it's spelled right.  This is an insider book, people will know.

For instance, early on we get a couple mentions of critic "Alexander Wolcott." I believe this is supposed to be Alexander Woollcott.

Later, more than once, we see the name of composer "Aaron Copeland." I'm pretty sure they're referring to Aaron Copland.

By the way, both these names are spelled wrong in the index as well.

But the weirdest of all is the mention of the great Russian opera singer "Shlapin." I have to assume they're referring to Feodor Chaliapin.  But how could anyone make such a mistake in the first place?  When a transcriber hears an unfamiliar name--even if she doesn't want to look it up, and decides to spell it phonetically--the least she can do is make a notation about it so someone will catch it later.  And I don't mean the reader.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Also have bowel movements, and exhale carbon

August Round-Up

Let's enjoy the music of some birthday boys and girl.

Lester Young

Martha Raye

Tommy Sands

Daryl Dragon

Glen Matlock

Friday, August 26, 2016


AP news coverage is frequently ludicrous in its bias against conservatives, Republicans and free market values, and its bias in favor of the antithesis of these things.

So it is all the more remarkable that the organization returned to actual news coverage. Shades of Larry Tribe. There are a few green shoots left in the Tree of Liberty. The smart money is they are merely the cut off remnants, enjoying their last, dwindling moments of life.

But here's hoping God might bless the country yet, and that the tree might still live. It will take efforts like this AP effort to make it so.


John Oliver's weekly HBO show is pretty amusing, though predictable politically.  Many of his comic-yet-serious investigations are very much like (or perhaps based on) articles found at leftist websites like Think Progress or ProPublica. And his solutions tend to be of the "more regulation, more government spending" type.

Sometimes I agree with his basic take, sometimes not, but that he looks at things a certain way is a given.  Which is too bad, since there are plenty of juicy stories he seems blind to, and it would be quite instructive not only for him to investigate these problems, but also to see the reaction of the people who, at present, agree with him on practically everything.

Why bring up Oliver now?  Because of his most recent piece against (or, some would say, hatchet job on) charter schools.  This is a subject libertarians know a lot about, and I know a lot of libertarians, and they seem to be reacting against this piece more negatively than anything else the show has done. (For example, this reaction.)  Of course, some of them have never seen the show, so are surprised to hear what sounds to them like an uninformed rant.

It's not so much that charter schools don't deserve to be put in the spotlight.  It's that all education does.  And I guarantee for every horror story in the charter school system, you can find ten in public schools--horror stories much harder to fix, in fact.  But Oliver seems to be on the side that will defend public schools against any competition. (The same side that often puts their own kids in private schools).

Would it be that bad to question leftist shibboleths on education, John?  To investigate not just the corruption, but how they oppose all sorts of reform that threaten their interests?  After all, when you're done you can always say "if only we spent more money we could solve this problem."

Thursday, August 25, 2016

I wish I'd got my doctorate in that

Prison currency

Bonus: Who doesn't love ramen?

Toots Goodbye

Toots Thielemans has died.  He was the best Belgian harmonica jazz artist ever.  He also played guitar and whistled.  And we had something in common--we shared April 29th as a birthday.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

All in

So I see one orange juice product labeled "100 percent orange juice" and the next, identical in every way, including packaging and supplier, also 100 percent orange juice--PLUS added calcium and vitamin D.

Isn't the second one mathematically impossible? Shouldn't it be something like, oh, I don't know, "More than 99 percent orange juice, plus some stuff we think you'll think is good for you, or at least that will help loosen up your wallet, you tightwad, but neither we nor any competent health care professional have expressed any such opinion, just to be clear about it"?

A Day For Waffling

Happy National Waffle Day.  Not to be confused with Vaffeldagen, Sweden's Waffle Day, which is on March 25.

How do I feel about waffles?  I guess I agree with Mitch Hedberg: waffles are pancakes with syrup traps.

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