Friday, February 10, 2017

The World's Foremost Authority: Deceased Artiste Professor Irwin Corey

It is the mid-1950s. A disheveled middle-aged man comes out in a swallow tail coat. He is here to deliver a lecture, but realizes he doesn’t have the text of his speech. He searches for it, taps his pockets, looks in his coat, glances around to see if he dropped it… and then says, “HOWEVER….”

November 2004. A very old gent, 90 years of age, comes out onstage in a swallow tail coat, looking like he woke up in the damned thing. He’s beyond disheveled, but he’s here to tell us something. He suddenly realizes he doesn’t have his speech. He taps his pockets, looks in his coat, glances around to see if he’s dropped the text, and… “HOWEVER….”

The one thing that struck me the most about Professor Irwin Corey’s act is that he “aged” into it. He was always funny, but a middle-aged man being a crazy lecturer isn’t anywhere near as funny as a 90-year-old man doing the same act, and coming out with the same improvised nonsense. When the middle-aged Corey did it, it was radically weird — the end of the act I’m describing above (at least on the Steve Allen Show on which I have him doing it) is that the Professor would run into the audience and the show’s crew members would pursue him with a butterfly net.

As a very old man doing the bit, though, he was the “voice of wisdom” — except his wisdom made no sense, and was thus a perfect spoof of academia and the notion of a “public intellectual” (a real, actual phenomenon we used to have in this country, smart people who would hold forth on news and talk shows about smart things!). As the Internet has crushed all our attention spans and made us prone to loving small bits of digestible but pointless information, Professor Irwin Corey became a comedian whose crazy, rambling lectures truly suited our culture.

His early life was rather amazing and was discussed in his obits: born as one of six children, he wound up in an orphanage (his parents couldn't afford to feed him and his siblings). From the age of 13 onward he was on his own, traveling the country, then toiling for a public work relief program (where he became a featherweight champion boxer) and the Int'l Ladies Garment Workers Union. His work in the union's show Pins and Needles in the late Thirties spurred him on to the career in show biz that he pursued for the next 80 years. It also cemented his eternally Progressive political stance.

Irwin was not the only family member to pass the century mark. In researching this piece, I found an article on the York Daily Record site (a newspaper in York County, Penn.) about his sister Thelma. She was a professional dancer who, in 2009, celebrated her 100th birthday. The article can be found here.

A lot of tributes online have linked to YouTube clips, but I wanted to explore an earlier adventure in the Professor's career. In December 1944 (the year after he appeared in the New Faces of 1943 show), he appeared on a few episodes of The Chase and Sanborn Hour, hosted by Edgar Bergen and his little wooden pal Charlie McCarthy.

Edgar needs a tutor to teach Charlie (it wasn't clear what), and the gent recruited is the Professor, who was already being called “The World's Foremost Authority.” It's fascinating to hear Corey at this point because he's formulating the character, who has a somewhat British accent. (And his voice is quite high – but, then again, Corey is only 30 years old!)

Two of the episodes with Corey as Charlie's tutor, in which the Professor does what seems to be his own material, are available online. In the first, Corey compares L.A. to NYC — when asked if it's hard to get around NYC, he responds, “Any taxi driver will tell you where to go… and they usually do!” In the second episode he gets his own segment, lecturing on the future and electricity (and, again, it sounds like his own material and ad-libs).

The December 3, 1944 show can be found here. It is the 45th show in the collection. Corey enters at the 13:00 mark and is on for four and a half minutes.

The December 10, 1944 show can be found here – click the Chase and Sanborn Hour, and listen to the  “Charlie McCarthy 44-12-10 Signe Hasso.mp3” link. The professor appears around 10:15.
Courtesy of the Scott
Rollins blog

I never spoke to Irwin one-on-one or interviewed him, but I saw him perform in a few unique circumstances. The Nov. 2004 gig I mentioned above took place at Lehman College in the Bronx, when a show called “The Comedians” played in their auditorium. This particular show was traveling around the U.S. at the time, and its roster was quite impressive: The Professor, Bill Dana (subbing for Louis Nye, who wasn't well), Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, and Dick Gregory. The host was the “baby” of the bunch in terms of age, Dick Cavett.

The Professor kicked ass at 90, but even more impressive was what occurred at an April 2014 screening of the documentary Irwin and Fran at the Anthology Film Archives.

Corey was a mere kid of 99 (!) at the time. He had agreed to do a Q&A after the picture, but he wound doing what amounted to more than 20 minutes of standup comedy from his wheelchair. Members of the audience kept asking him serious questions, but I was very happy to throw him a “straight line” after he asked us, “Any more stupid questions?”

Feeling that he did not want to answer any more queries about the film — which is a very touching portrait of the relationship between Corey and his wife Fran, who were married for 70 years until her death — I asked about his sex life. He responded with a line that he attributed to George Burns, likening senior-citizen sex to “trying to shoot pool with a rope.”

The audience was amazed at the energy coming from the Professor. He was pretty much unable to hear anything by that point (his son was repeating the questions to him, in a louder tone of voice so he could hear them) and he was indeed wheelchair-bound, but he was “on” and in the mood to do his shtick. And he was *very* funny.

By comparison, at his 100th birthday celebration, held at the Actor's Temple, he spoke but only for a few minutes and with none of the gusto that he had at the Anthology event. I'm assuming he was exhausted by the proceedings, in which he was being surrounded by people and praised by numerous folks at the mic.

I feel the only way to end this piece is to showcase Irwin's best performance in a film. He had done serious acting since he was a young man and had many credits in “legit” theater, but his movie roles were mostly supporting parts that were pretty silly (as with his “mystery man” character in Car Wash). That was not the case with Herb Gardner's Thieves (1977), directed by John Berry.

Irwin had played the role of Joe Kaminsky, the cabbie, in the Broadway production of the show, and repeated his performance in the film. It's a beautiful turn, mostly because he's playing a cartoonish character who is simply a note of “local color” for a lot of the film, until we reach a beautifully written scene in which he talks to his daughter, played by Marlo Thomas.

I've rhapsodized before about Herb Gardner's writing on this blog — you can check out an entry on his Nebbishes cartoon and merchandise here and his long out-of-print novel and short stories here. Gardner wrote a kind of urban poetry, and his dialogue transforms his comedies into these sublimely rendered character studies of folks in middle-age (with some unforgettable senior characters in the later plays).

I remember that Frank Rich — the lousy, *horrible* movie reviewer (he hated every great movie of the mid-Seventies) who then became a very influential theater critic and is now a political pundit (?) — trashed Thieves and, in particular, loathed Corey's performance. As he always was, Rich was wrong about the film, and the Professor — I find this scene beautifully scripted and just wonderfully acted by Thomas and Corey. (Note: I uploaded the clips seen below, including the eight-minute scene in question. The sound is only active on one channel, and the titles come from the episode I did on Thieves back in 2014.)

Since the Professor's act consisted of nothing but surprises, given his talent for ad-libbing, I think the biggest surprise was that he was a very talented character actor as well….


Thanks much to Max Schmid — host of a very long-running show about old-time radio on WBAI (check out his FB page here) —  and Stephen K. for help in uncovering the Chase and Sanborn shows.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

MTM in bed: the mind-bending special “Mary’s Incredible Dream”

Mary Tyler Moore wanted to be known as a song and dance woman. Never mind that she was hailed by both the public and her colleagues as a great comic actress, a talented dramatic actress, and a producer of successful TV series in a number of genres. She wanted her music skills to be recognized — the only problem was that she made some *very* bad choices.

First, there was the Breakfast at Tiffany’s musical called Holly Golighty in December 1966; it ran on Broadway for only three days. The year after that, she costarred with Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie, one of countless late Sixties/early Seventies musicals that helped kill off the genre. It’s a charming picture in its own way, but it didn’t click with the public and did nothing for any of its stars.

Then she was in a musical where she watched someone else sing. It’s something every camp fan in good standing must see, the startling A Change of Habit (1969). MTM plays a nun helping “inner city youth” and Elvis plays a ghetto doctor (yes, you read that right).

It’s a stunningly, wonderfully awful movie that is the only time “the King” is seen in one of his vehicle pictures confronting the significant issues of the day. Poverty, race relations, Vietnam, the rebellion of youth — they’re all tackled in Habit in a bizarrely silly fashion.

The film’s conclusion is a startling moment in which MTM the nun watches ghetto doctor Elvis singing at a “folk mass” and ponders her fate. We see her POV as she thinks about whom she should choose (via a number of clunkily edited shots, some including awkward, Fulci-like zooms), will it be Jesus or Elvis, JesusorElvis, jesusorelvis? A smooth crane shot (Johnny LaRue would be impressed) moves us high up above the pews in the church, and the credits start to roll. End of film.

A friend, who adored Elvis way, way too much, perfectly explained the film’s conclusion to me once, saying that no matter whom Mary chose she was choosing God. “Elvis *is* Jesus. Jesus *is* Elvis. She’s choosing God either way.”

That bit of theological deduction aside, the movie stiffed. The year after, she swung a deal for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I won’t discuss that perfect sitcom here, because it has been spoken about quite a lot in the weeks since Mary’s death. What has not been discussed, however, is her 1976 return to musical comedy, the mind-bendingly strange TV special “Mary’s Incredible Dream.” When you watch it, you’ll understand why it’s been left out.

I’ve often talked on the Funhouse TV show about the schizo nature of later Sixties/early Seventies  variety shows. They presented a very odd mixture of the old and new. By the Seventies, the genre was dying out so it split in two directions — the shows hosted by “hip” pop acts (led by Sonny and Cher) that were anything but hip, and the old “songs and sketches with repeated characters“ model (represented by very late Gleason — woof! — and Carol Burnett).

A third type of show was rarer, but far more sublimely awful — the “concept” variety show or special. The best-remembered of these are the “Star Wars Xmas Special” and the Krofft-produced variety shows that were set in odd circumstances (Donny and Marie near an ice rink, the Brady Bunch near a swimming pool).

“Mary’s Incredible Dream” is a stunning example of the concept variety special. Most important to remember is that MTM chose to produce and star in it while The Mary Tyler Moore Show was still getting great ratings and regularly winning Emmys. The show is a sort of distant cousin to the religious rock operas of the Seventies — it’s closer in tone to the ultra-goofy Godspell, rather than the earnest but instantly dated Jesus Christ Superstar. Why Mary wanted to make a musical special translating Old Testament stories into tacky “modern” musical numbers we’ll probably never know, but therein lies the joy.

The show was directed by Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour collaborators Eugene McAvoy and Jaime Rogers. The script was written by Jack Good (producer of Shindig), McAvoy and Rogers’ partner in creating the amazing — and in this case I mean that seriously — concept variety show “33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee” (1969). That show exhibits a greater “handle” on rock music — especially in the sequences featuring Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, and a Fifties rock 'n' roll segment that features Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis — and was intended to showcase the “implosion” of a musical act.

The guest list of the “Dream” special is a classic variety show roster, minus any comedians — that would’ve taken the special into the area of intentional comedy and we certainly wouldn’t want that. Ben Vereen in his bearded, Bob Fosse-directed, Seventies rockin’ soul incarnation, is the main guest; Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw is also featured. Completing the roster is the Manhattan Transfer and Arthur Fiedler conducting not the Boston Pops, but the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

The show’s frame device is that Mary is dreaming this musical mess. The best place to start adapting the Bible is the beginning, so we start out with Vereen as a flashy-trash Satan tempting “Woman” (MTM) and “Man” (Doug Kershaw) in the Garden of Eden, as the Manhattan Transfer sing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” (get it — it’s a joke! Apple tree, Garden of Eden…).

The show is embedded below, so I won’t run through the “plot” or the blissfully dippy selection of songs. The most interesting choice in the early scenes, in which man is surrendering to the impulse of war, is a World War I recruiting song that is “sexy” for its time (1914), “I’ll Make a Man of You.” Clearly, this was a nod to Cabaret, as Mary is seducing soldiers into war with her sexy outfit and her not-that-sexy way with the number.

The “war” section of the special closes with the dropping of the atom bomb, after which the Transfer sing “Sh-Boom” (get it? a bomb dropped — boom? It’s another musical pun!). This song is accompanied by a fast-action montage of Henry Kissinger meeting world leaders. (President Ford is briefly shown, but clearly Jack Good felt Kissinger went better with the Transfer’s song….)
The special has very little dialogue and mostly functions as a pop-rock operetta. It fully breaks on through to the bizarro universe when Mary and Doug survive being on Noah’s Ark and Mary sings Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken.” From that point on the show gets odder and odder, as Mary does the full version of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from Follies (why Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover are being mentioned in an Old Testament context is inexplicable), Ben Vereen does a rockin’ “Ball of Confusion,” and one of the male members of the Manhattan Transfer does “Sympathy for the Devil.” (Thereby answering the trivia question, “when did Mary Tyler Moore produce and star in a show that has an insane musical number conceived around a Rolling Stones song?”)

The show ends on a triumphant note that you will discover if you watch it. And then Jack Good throws in a bit of closure, bringing back the frame device for the final time. I do remember my best friend noting in the Seventies that he had seen this puzzling bit of programming, but I missed it at the time. We can be very grateful to the YT poster for having “made it public” for all to see.

The only (partial) musical endeavor that Mary was involved with after this special (trivia-fiends, correct me if I’m wrong) was her short-lived variety series, best known for having an ensemble that included newcomers (David Letterman, Swoosie Kurtz, Michael Keaton) and one seasoned vet (Dick Shawn). This, too, was a disaster, and the remainder of Mary’s career was split between acting and producing. There was no second “Incredible Dream.”

The beginning of the show is here:

And the point at which the show gets insane:

It’s enlightening to know that Mary really loved the special before it aired. Blogger Jaime J. Weinman notes here that Mary was quoted by columnist Marilyn Beck as saying "As a performer I can go to my grave happy now. I've done everything I want to do."

Beck added, “Mary's so convinced the special is the best thing ever to hit the airwaves she's been talking it up to anyone who will listen. And has been cornering so many of her friends for preview cassette-unit glimpses of the all-musical hour that actress Betty White finally told her teasingly, 'It's a shame you don't put it on TV, instead of showing it door to door.' " 

Thanks to Stephen K. for sending this disaster on — as well as Mary singing Loudon Wainwright’s “Dead Skunk” on her failed variety show!