Sunday, September 28, 2008

When jokes go green

“Now see here, Scarlett... I'm crazy about you and always have been. I gave you kisses for breakfast, kisses for lunch, and kisses for supper... and now I find that you're eating out.”

If you’ve ever seen Stalag 17 (1953), you’ll no doubt recognize the preceding bit of dialogue as a Clark Gable impression performed by one of the new arrivals to the P.O.W. camp, played by Jay Lawrence. (The P.O.W. known as “Animal”—played by Robert Strauss—had asked him to do a Grable impression.) So, the other night as I was listening to a Mel Blanc Show broadcast (March 25, 1947), I was amused to hear this exchange between Mel and Professor Potchnik (Alan Reed), the Russian piano teacher and member of the Loyal Order of Benevolent Zebras (Blanc’s fraternal lodge):

POTCHNIK: Hello, Mel…
MEL: Professor Potchnik! My favorite piano teacher—what can I fix for you today?
POTCHNIK: Mel, I want you should fix my tuning fork...
MEL: Well, what’s the matter with your fork? Is it out of tune?
POTCHNIK: No, but when I am eating peas with it, they roll off
MEL: Oh…by the way, Professor—where have you been?
POTCHNIK: As a matter of fact, Mel, I have been hiding out…you know, every day for the last three months I’ve been coming to a beautiful blonde’s house to give her piano lessons…now her husband found out about it and is he sore
MEL: Why should he be sore?
POTCHNIK: They haven’t got a piano!
MEL: Say, Professor—are you going to be at the beauty contest tonight?
POTCHNIK: Of course!
MEL: Isn’t it awful, the bathing suits they’re going to wear?
POTCHNIK: Yeah… (laughing hysterically, he then catches himself) Terrible!
MEL: Uh…listen, Professor…when you get to the lodge meeting tonight, will you vote for my girlfriend, Betty Colby?
POTCHNIK: Mel…I don’t like to interfere, but you are a friend so I am telling you…I am just seeing your girl Betty going into Hill’s jewelry store with that sheik, Hartley Benson…
MEL: Betty going out with Hartley? Oh, I can’t believe it! I just left her and she gave me a dozen kisses…
POTCHNIK: Well, that’s life, Mel…when I first married my Sonia it was the same way…we were having kisses for breakfast, kisses for lunch, kisses for dinner…then I had to get a divorce…
MEL: Why?
POTCHNIK: I caught her eating out!

There’s nothing I enjoy more in this world than listening to a recycled joke. Part of the reason for this is because I like to speculate just how the gag got reused in the first place. I don’t know how it turns up in Stalag 17 (unless it’s such an old standby it worked its way into the screenplay on its own) but I’d like to speculate that the “kisses” joke made its way via Benoff to Howard to Wilder. That is to say, Mac Benoff—the head writer of The Mel Blanc Show—probably introduced it to Cy Howard, creator of Life With Luigi (for which Benoff not only wrote but directed), who lateralled it to Billy Wilder. (Howard was a good friend of Wilder’s, who originally cast him in the Harry Shapiro role in the film because Billy thought Cy was one of the funniest people he knew. As it turns out, Howard wasn’t particularly all that damn funny on film, so Wilder ended up giving the part to Harvey Lembeck instead.)

One of the interesting things that I picked up in my reading (and re-reading, since it’s one of my favorite old-time radio books) Jordan R. Young’s The Laugh Crafters is that while the practice of swiping other people’s material was often frowned upon in comedy writing, it wasn’t necessarily considered a heinous enough crime to bestow the offender with a scarlet letter the rest of their born days (otherwise Milton Berle’s career would have never gotten off the ground). Savannah native Hal Kanter, in one of the interviews in the book, was at first miffed because someone “liberated” a joke he had written:

I remember, I had done a joke for Joe Penner—and three weeks later I heard it on The Judy Canova Show. And I was outraged that somebody had stolen my joke. I’ll never forget the joke—I’ve forgotten in what context it was, but this guy says he takes a milk shower every morning. The other guy says, “You mean a milk bath?” He says, “No, a milk shower.” “How do you take a milk shower?” He says, “I have a very tall cow.” That’s a pretty good joke—it popped up on The Judy Canova Show three weeks later and I was furious about it. And Eddie Davis said, “Don’t be. Just be flattered that somebody’s taken your joke.” He said, “If it’s the last joke you can think of—then worry.”

While I question the time frame Kanter talks about here—Penner passed away in 1941, two years before Canova’s show premiered on CBS (unless Hal is talking about The Chase & Sanborn Hour, a program on which Canova made many appearances with her brother and sister as The Three Canovas)—I find no fault with his philosophy; even Young observes: “They don’t steal if it’s not good.” In fact, many comedy writers often borrowed from themselves, as I’m about to demonstrate here.

One of the interviewees in Jordan’s Laugh Crafters is Charley Isaacs, a veteran comedy scribe who worked with a slew of radio’s “Jesters of the Republic,” to borrow a description from Tom Sutpen. Isaacs—who joked “I worked so damn many shows—it’s the old joke, ‘He couldn’t hold a job’”—started in 1937 with Jack Haley’s The Log Cabin Jamboree and would contribute material to Edgar Bergen, Rudy Vallee, Milton Berle, Spike Jones, Al Jolson and Oscar Levant, Martin & Lewis and many others. In fact, back in April 2004 when I did a write-up on Dean & Jer, I transcribed a routine they did on a November 14, 1949 broadcast that was written by Isaacs and partner Manny Mannheim:

SOAPY: Listen, fellas…I’ve really got your interests at heart and I have one more bona-fide proposition…how would you like to buy a professional football team?
DEAN: Well, that’s not too bad…a pro team…
SOAPY: Yeah… (to Jerry) you like athletes?
JERRY: Oh, sure…I admire athletes…especially girl swimmers…I used to watch ‘em swim every evening when I lived at the YWCA…
DEAN: Jerry…how did you get into the YWCA?
JERRY: I lied about my age…
SOAPY: You know, a lot of the stars have got teams…now, Hope, for instance, he owns part of the Cleveland Indians…and this Crosby, he’s got the Pittsburgh Pirates…and Don Ameche, he invested in the Los Angeles Dons…
JERRY: Gee…I don’t know, Soapy…is the team you wanna sell us any good?
SOAPY: Good, he says…(laughs) good, why we got guys like this “Killer” Thomas…we got “Strangler” Lutz…we got “Butcher” Maronie…I got the whole team, except just two guys…
DEAN: Well, where are they?
SOAPY: They ain’t been paroled yet…
JERRY: Soapy, we wouldn’t want guys on our football team who steal and go around pickin’ pockets…
SOAPY: Well, you don’t have to pay ‘em much salary…between halves, you just turn ‘em loose in the stands…
DEAN: Well, how much money would we have to put into it, Soap?
SOAPY: I’ll tell ya what I’ll do…just for you, I will cut the price to…uh…five thousand dollars…
DEAN; Well, you know what they always say…a fool and his money are soon parted…
SOAPY: Yeah, but this is takin’ longer than usual…
JERRY: Well…what do you say, Dean? Shall we buy the team?
DEAN: But we don’t have $5,000…
JERRY: Don’t worry, I’ll get it…I’ll ask my mother for it…
DEAN: She got it?
JERRY: No.
DEAN: Then what’s the good of asking her?
JERRY: Well…she’d ask Uncle Louie…and Uncle Louie’ll ask Cousin Sarah…and Cousin Sarah’ll ask Aunt Minnie…and Aunt Minnie’ll ask Uncle Herbie…and Uncle Herbie’ll ask my brother-in-law Sam…
DEAN: Oh…Sam got it?
JERRY: No, but haven’t I got a big family…???

As it turns out, Isaacs and Mannheim had used this material previously on an October 30, 1947 broadcast of The Kraft Music Hall starring Al Jolson and Oscar Levant. In this version, guest William Bendix is the one trying to sell Jolie on the idea of a football team investment. I’ve transcribed a bit of the KMH version, and I personally think the material works slightly better for Jolson (even though Al wasn’t much of a “comedian”), particularly the “I lied about my age” gag, which was used on subsequent shows as sort of a Jolie catchphrase:

BENDIX: Hey, uh…Asa?
JOLSON: Asa?
BENDIX: Asa, I…I got a proposition for ya…but first I gotta ask ya…do you like athletes?
JOLSON: Of course I do, Bill…I admire athletes…especially girl swimmers…I…I used to watch them swim every evening when I lived at the YWCA…
BENDIX: Jolson…
JOLSON: What?
BENDIX: How did you get in the YWCA?
JOLSON (coyly): I lied about my age…
BENDIX: Look, Al…
JOLSON: Yeah?
BENDIX: You know, we’re both big radio stars…we’re supposed to be in the public eye…but you don’t hear much about us…
JOLSON: Well, that’s right…you see, you never read in the gossip columns about Al Jolson or Bill Bendix—I don’t understand that…
BENDIX: Well, maybe that’s because we ain’t goin’ together…but the thing I’m gettin’ at, Asa, is…is that most of the big stars own some kind of athletic team…you know, Crosby and Hope, they got baseball teams…Don Ameche’s got a football team…that’s what we gotta have, Jolson—a football team!
JOLSON: Oh, Bill…I don’t play much anymore…really I don’t...
BENDIX: But you don’t have to play…I got guys like “Killer” Jones…“Strangler” Utolde…“Butcher” Renelli…I got the whole team, except two guys…

JOLSON: Where are they?
BENDIX: They haven’t been paroled yet…
JOLSON: Now listen, Wilbur…
BENDIX: Mm hmm?
JOLSON: I…I don’t wanna hire any gangsters to play on my football team…
BENDIX: But you don’t have to pay ‘em much salary…between halves, you just turn ‘em loose in the stands…
JOLSON: Wait a minute…now Bill, wait a minute…now just a moment…just how much money do you expect me to put into this project?
BENDIX: Eight million bucks…
JOLSON: Eight million dollars for a football team?
BENDIX: Oh, sure…we gotta build a stadium
JOLSON: But it doesn’t cost eight million dollars to build a stadium…
BENDIX: Well, we gotta buy a university!
JOLSON: With these boys, we don’t need to buy a university—some dark night we go out to Westwood and swipe UCLA!
BENDIX: But look at the publicity we’d get when we’d play teams like the Los Angeles Dons…the Chicago Bears…the Washington Redskins…
JOLSON: Washington Redskins?
BENDIX: Yeah!
JOLSON: I know the coach there! J. Parnell Thomas!
BENDIX: Al, you’ll have the greatest thrill of your life when you see our team run out on the field…wearing their blue jerseys with the yellow streak down the back…
JOLSON: Wait a minute…wait a minute…a yellow streak down the back? What’s the idea?
BENDIX: That makes the other team overconfident…
JOLSON: Oh, I see…
BENDIX: Al—will you invest, huh?
JOLSON: Now, Bill, wait a minute…you know the old saying…”A fool and his money are soon parted…”
BENDIX: Yeah, but this is takin’ longer than usual…

As the routine continues, Jolson pumps Bendix for information on his experience with athletics and Bendix declares that he was “with the White Sox for years.” “What did you do?” asks Jolie. Bendix sheepishly replies: “Washed socks.”

Jolson: “That makes you the original Bendix washer.” He gets a big laugh with this line, even though he ad-libs to himself: “Hey, Corny Jolson…”

3 comments:

Pam said...

I know this is OT, but... Lots of changes on your site. Graphics, banners - looks nice.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Thanks, Pammy!

Hussey said...

Jolson pumps Bendix for information on his experience with athletics and Bendix declares that he was “with the White Sox for years.”