Author: Paul Kupperberg

REVIEW: The King of Comedy

15213160_201402150106There’s a scene early on in The King of Comedy where late night talk show host Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) leaves his New York City apartment and walks through crowded midtown on his way to the studio. Fans greet him and kibbitz with him and Jerry, always on the move, waves, smiles, and tosses one-liners back at them. He gets waylaid at a corner by a woman on a payphone who gushes effusively—“You’re just wonderful. I’ve watched you your entire career. You’re a joy to the world!”—while he scribbles an autograph for her nephew, with whom she’s talking on the phone. Then, shoving the telephone at Jerry, she asks, “Would you just please say something to my nephew Morris on the phone? He’s in the hospital.” Jerry politely demurs, explaining that he’s late, and, in the blink of an eye, she turns from adoring fan to spurned maniac, screaming after him, “You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!”

king-of-comedyLater, wannabe stand-up comedian and obsessive fan Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) shows up as an uninvited weekend guest at Langford’s country house, unsuspecting girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) in tow, in an effort to get Jerry to take a look at his comedy routine in the belief it will lead to an offer to appear on Jerry’s show. An earlier, brief encounter that ended with Langford telling Pupkin to call his office in an effort to get rid of him had only fueled the wannabe’s delusions that he and Langford were friends. Langford angrily dissuades the clearly baffled Pupkin of that notion and, like the woman whose nephew Jerry wouldn’t talk to, Pupkin’s response to his inappropriate demand on Langford’s time is immediate and visceral. Neither fan can understand how Jerry Langford can treat them this way. “I’m gonna work fifty times harder and I’m gonna be fifty times more famous than you,” Rupert tells him. “Then you’re gonna have idiots like you plaguing your life!” Jerry snaps.

deNiroKingOfComedyIt’s an interesting coincidence that the Blu-Ray edition of The King of Comedy, Martin Scorcese’s 1982 comedy about fame and obsession landed in my mailbox the same day Archie Comics released the news that their flagship character, was going to die in an upcoming comic book story which I wrote. The news thrust me into a Warholian fifteen-minutes of online fame. On Facebook, people who had earlier praised my work were now denouncing me for “daring” to kill off a beloved American icon, or vilifying me for my creative bankruptcy in participating in yet another comic book death “stunt,” feeling betrayed by my treatment of the character (that the Archie who’s dying is not the “real” Archie, but a future/what if?/alternate universe version of the character either escaped their notice or would have just interfered with their righteous indignation; the “real” teenage Archie remains alive and well in Riverdale.) On the flip side, strangers whose only connection to me was that most meaningless definition of “friend” ever coined, i.e. “Facebook friend,” were claiming reflected glory by posting that their “pal”/”buddy”/”friend” was behind this event, while others didn’t find it in any way inappropriate to email me asking to be let in on the secret of exactly how Archie was to die, or even requesting insider information on sensitive corporate internal affairs.

king-of-comedy (1)While my moment in the limelight pales in comparison with the plight of Jerry Langford, the experience did cause me to look at The King of Comedy from a very different perspective than I had in past viewings. I had always thought of the film as an indictment of obsessive fans, but it’s just as much a stark look at the price of fame. Rupert Pupkin is, in the very first scene, shown to be a member of the Day of the Locust-like swarm of obsessed, autograph seeking fans who haunt stage doors everywhere, but he holds himself above the hoi polloi. To Rupert, these aren’t just signatures dashed off by celebrities who probably didn’t even look at him while they were signing, but bonds of friendship between them.

king-of-comedy-2Later, on a date with Rita, his high school crush, now a bartender in a seedy midtown tavern, he shows off his collection of signatures, casually tossing out facts and personal observations about the stars, trying to impress the clearly unimpressed and disbelieving woman. But Rupert can only see himself through the eyes of others and only in the way he needs to believe others see him. If he were deliberately inflating his talent and his connections to the stars, you would say he was shameless. But the sad, creepy truth is that Rupert, a thirty-something loser who works at a dead end messengers job and lives with his mother in whose basement he’s built a set where he hosts his own “talk show,” complete with life-size cardboard stand-ups of the stars, believes every word he says and is genuinely baffled when others fail to share his warped view of reality.

King of ComedyJerry Langford’s reality is equally sad. He’s one of the most famous faces in the country, but his entire world is constrained by that fame. He can’t walk down the street without being badgered by everyone who believes that because he comes into their bedroom every night on their TVs he also belongs to them in person. Even a solitary dinner in his lonely apartment is violated by a fan who have somehow gotten hold of his telephone number and think it’s okay to call with their unreasonable demands on his time, attention, and, as we’ll see, love.

Aiding Rupert in their shared obsession with Jerry Langford is rich girl groupie Masha (Sandra Bernhard). But where Rupert wants Jerry’s fame, Masha wants Jerry himself, in body if not in soul. Where Rupert’s fanaticism seems constrained, at least at first, Masha’s is crazed and out of control; Rupert at least tries to see Jerry in his office even if his “appointment” is only in his head, while Masha stalks the star through the streets, forcing the frightened star to make a mad dash for safety. And, when Rupert finally accepts that Jerry will never voluntarily have him as a guest on his show, he enlists Masha as an accomplice in his scheme to kidnap the comedian and hold him for the ransom of a guest-shot on The Jerry Langford Show.

While it’s probably heresy to say, I prefer Martin Scorcese’s directorial efforts on films like The King of Comedy, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, After Hours, and Hugo over his gangster oeuvre. His humor is always dark regardless of genre, but it shines much brighter for me when I don’t have to wipe away the blood to get to it. And while his crooks and killers always brilliantly realized as the broken people they are, I have a hard time finding common ground with Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito or Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill no matter how real they are. But an ordinary guy like Griffin Dunne’s Paul Hackett in After Hours or the orphaned Asa Butterfield’s Hugo are relatable and, ultimately, have more to share with me as a viewer than even his greatest gangster.

While everyone expects high caliber performances from Robert DeNiro, it’s Jerry Lewis who steals the show here. As a life-long and unabashed Jerry Lewis fan (several of his movie posters and other paraphernalia decorate my living room) I am a bit biased in his favor, but, like many great comedians (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Milton Berle, Robin Williams, to name a few) his dramatic chops are impressive, giving credence to the old line, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Even while trussed up by kidnappers Pupkin and Masha like a mummy with tape up to his nostrils, Lewis is able to convey his entire performance with just his eyes. (The King of Comedy isn’t just a lucky one-off performance under the guidance a great directors either; Jerry Lewis delivers as well in dramatic roles in Raising Arizona and Funny Bones and turns in TV series such as Wiseguy and Law and Order: SVU.) And both actors are backed up a solid supporting cast, including Bernhard and Shelley Hack, and 1980s celebrity cameos ranging from announcer Ed Herlihy, band leader Lou Brown, Dr. Joyce Brothers, comedian Victor Borge, and Tony Randall, as well as Scorcese himself as Jerry Langford’s TV show director, and the then-Tonight Show producer Fred De Cordova as Bert Thomas, his producer.

The King of Comedy Blu-Ray is a nice package, featuring the fully restored and remastered film as well as the usual assortment of extras for those who like that sort of thing, including a Tribeca Film Festival conversation with Scorcese, DeNiro, and Lewis, a “Making of” documentary, some deleted and extended scenes, and the original theatrical trailer. For myself, I prefer a film to speak for itself without filmmakers and actors explaining to me how and why this or that was done or without wading through excised scenes or trimmed footage; if they were so important, they wouldn’t have been excised or trimmed in the first place.

The King of Comedy stands the test of time and then some. In fact, it’s even more relevant today with our cult of undeserved celebrity, fueled by the rise of reality TV starring non-stars like the housewives of wherever, Snookie, and Honey Boo-Boo, nobodies made somebodies by virtue of appearing on television. Maybe if Rupert Pupkin had known how easy it would one day be to become a star, he might have rethought his strategy. Or maybe come to the conclusion that in a world where everybody’s a “star,” it just wasn’t worth the effort.

REVIEW: The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast got its Crunch

The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast got its Crunch
By Marty Gitlin and Topher Ellis
Abrams Image. Hardcover. 368 pages. $19.95

Come breakfast time, my kitchen cabinet holds a limited, and boring, offering of ready-to-eat cereals; just some Kellogg’s Raisin Bran and a box of Honey-Nut Cheerios. In my mid-fifties, breakfast cereal no longer holds any importance in my life. To tell the truth, if I’m going to have cereal, I would much rather sit down with a bowl of Quaker Oatmeal and leave the cold, crunchy stuff for when I’m feeling especially lazy.

But, as The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast Got Its Crunch reminds me, once upon a time, in that galaxy far, far away of childhood, breakfast cereal was important. Very important. The Golden Age of comic books, as someone once observed, is eleven years old. That is, whatever it is we’re exposed to as children is what we hold in our memories and imaginations as the best ever of that particular thing. What’s true for comic books is also true for breakfast cereals and, as it turns out, not only do co-author Marty Gitlin and I have a Golden Age of breakfast cereals in common, but that shared mid-1960s era of cereal seriousness came at a time when the breakfast cereal business was in fact booming thanks, in large part, to Saturday morning cartoons. (more…)

Ailing Colorist Tom Ziuko Needs Some Help

Long-time DC Comics and Marvel colorist Tom Ziuko (The History of the DC Universe, Superman, Batman, The Shadow, Hellblazer, Looney Tunes, Spider-Man, Captain America, Tomb of Dracula, etc.) has been facing some difficult medical issues over the last two years, including kidney failure, neuropathy, and, most recently, emergency surgery to repair a strangulated colon.

According to the Facebook page started by Gary Mann for Tom, “Tom is a freelance artist, unable to afford health insurance, and the last year has been brutal for him…. Tom is currently recuperating at home, although still unable to return to work full-time. Early last year, Tom’s friend and fellow freelance artist Alan Kupperberg mounted an effort to help raise some funds for him; and a great non-profit organization, The Hero Initiative, has played a major role in helping Tom to survive during this last year, keeping him afloat and literally saving him from becoming homeless. But Tom continues to face a mountain of medical bills, personal expenses and debt.

“And so I appeal to those of you who may have been touched by Tom’s work over the last three decades; in that you might be able to contribute to assisting him financially while he continues his recovery. I know that times are tight right now for everyone, but any contribution you might be able to make, no matter how small, would be both beneficial and greatly appreciated by Tom.

“If you want to contribute directly to Tom’s assistance fund, you can do so at Paypal — the account name is — chroma999@aol.com.

“And whether you’re able to contribute funds or not, you can write to Tom directly on Facebook, or at his email address (atomica999@aol.com) in order to send him get-well wishes, to say hello and wish him a speedy recovery, or just to let him know if you’ve enjoyed his work over the years.”

 

 

Let Them Talk

Let Them Talk
Hugh Laurie
Produced by Joe Henry Warner Bros. Records

Let us stipulate up front that Hugh Laurie is an insanely talented individual. He’s a comedian, a comic actor, a dramatic actor, a comedy writer, a novelist, plays piano, guitar, and percussion, and, apparently, deep down in his soul, according to the liner notes of Let Them Talk, he’s also an 80-year old, gravelly-voiced Negro ex-sharecropper blues singer.

Sure. Why not?

Most of us think he’s a dyspeptic American medical miracle man (hearing his acceptance speech for his Emmy win as Dr. House, my ex-wife, who knew Hugh Laurie only from House and Stuart Little, asked, “Why is he putting on an English accent?”), so why couldn’t this British born, Oxford and Cambridge educated actor also be Jellyroll Morton?

In Let Them Talk, Hugh Laurie sings the blues, and if he ain’t Jellyroll Morton (and who could be?), he dives into these classic numbers as though he wished he could be. “These great and beautiful artists lived it as they played it,” Laurie writes in the liner notes. “But at the same time, I could never bear to see this music confined to a glass cabinet, under the heading Culture: Only To Be Handled By Elderly Black Men. That way lies the grave, for the blues and just about everything else: Shakespeare only performed at The Globe, Bach only played by Germans in tights. It’s formaldehyde, and I pray that Leadbelly will never be dead enough to warrant that.”

Laurie offers his credentials for playing the blues: a lifelong love for the music and its performers, “I love this music, as authentically as I know how.” The love is there, and combined with some of the abovementioned insane talent, Let Them Talk comes across with some new takes on the old blues worth listening to.

“St. James Infirmary Blues” opens with a quiet, almost symphonic rendition of this great, mournful song that eventually slides into a more traditional take that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The high points include “Swanee River,” the Stephen Foster classic that Laurie weaves with the swinging, piano pounding verve of a Jerry Lee Lewis and Craig Eastman’s haunting violin accompaniment; the energetic power of Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot”; the lazy Ferdinand Joseph Morton composition, “Winin’ Boys Blues,” Cosimo Matassa’s “Tipitina,” and the simple, crisp pickings on Arthur Phelps’ “Police Dog Blues.”

Joining Laurie are such guest vocalists as Dr. John on the Harry Creamer and Turner Layton classic “After You’ve Gone,” which pays no uncertain homage to the 1928 Bessie Smith and later Mac Rebennack recordings; Irma Thomas on the soulful “John Henry,” and Sir Tom Jones (yes, that Tom Jones), plaintively begging “Baby Please Make A Change,” by Armenta Bo, Carter Chatmon/Alonzo Lonnie Chatmon.

For the most part, Laurie’s voice carries him through, but polish and sophistication were never a perquisite for singing the blues. We can forgive him if he has to reach and sometimes strain to hit that note; the blues are, after all, about struggle and pain. But like the first time you heard Hugh Laurie speak without an American accent or play the piano, you’ll be delighted and surprised by what this talented individual can do. Kind of makes you wonder what he has to sing the blues about.

Paul Kupperberg is, deep down in his soul, an 80-year old phlegmy-voiced Jewish comedy writer. He also writes the critically acclaimed Life With Archie Magazine for Archie Comics and is the author of the mystery novel, The Same Old Story (available as an eBook on Amazon.com).

 

Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land

[[[Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land]]]
edited by Harvey Pekar & Paul Buhle with Hershl Hartman
Abrams Comicarts, 240 pages

It always seemed to me like mine was the last secular “Jewish generation” in America. Born in the mid-1950s, in the depths of Brooklyn in a neighborhood adjacent to the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Crown Heights, surrounded on all sides by three generations of family, including grandparents and great-grandparents born in the old country, the entire world seemed Jewish. Even when my family moved (briefly) to West Virginia (population 5,000, only seven of which were Jews), then back to Brooklyn, to Canarsie and East Flatbush, the feeling of Jewishness never went away. The neighborhoods were now a mix of Irish, Italian, and Jewish, even a sprinkling of Afro-Americans, but when the family gathered, Yiddish was still spoken among the adults when the topic wasn’t fit for kinder, children. As a result, der kinder learned to understand, if not speak, just enough of the mamaloshen (the mother tongue) to get the gist of what we weren’t supposed to hear.

Popular entertainment was Jewish, too. The producers and writers behind many of the sitcoms were Jews and even if the characters weren’t Jewish (with the exception of The Goldbergs), the comedic sensibilities sure were. Ditto for the variety shows, where in addition to everything else, many of the hosts were Jewish as well. Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis (although not Dean Martin), Sid Caesar. Allan Sherman sold millions of comedy albums in the early-1960s with song parodies that were flavored by schmaltz (chicken fat). Today, when he’s remembered, he’s remembered for his (mostly) WASPy “Hello Mudder, Hello Faddah.” Song-writing in the mid-20th century was so Jewish that according to ASCAP’s list of the top twenty-five most popular Christmas songs, twelve were written by Jews.

Even the Italians were Jewish in Hollywood. In The Detective, a 1968 mystery starring Frank Sinatra, Jack Klugman co-stars as one of Frank’s police colleagues who has a brief exchange with his wife in the sing-song cadence of Yiddish about whether or not he wants her to make him a “nice glass tea.” My great-grandmother drank hot tea out of a glass (never a mug), sweetening it with a cube of sugar between her teeth as she sipped.

Jewishness, if not Judaism, was everywhere. Hollywood is still a Jewish town, but the entertainment it now produces is far less so. Even the language of the Jews, Yiddish, has become somewhat catholic in appeal; every schmuck on the street thinks he’s a big macher because he knows a bissel Yiddish. And as the Jews have long known, there’s really nothing like Yiddish to make a point. As Neal Gabler (author of the excellent An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood) says in his introduction to Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land, “Yiddish is the most onomatopoeic language ever created. Everything sounds exactly the way it should: macher for a self-appointed big shot, shlmiel for the fellow who spills the soup and shlmazel for the hapless one (as in “poor shmuck”), shnorrer for a freeloader, nudnick for a pest. The expressiveness is bound into the language, and so is a kind of ruthless honesty….Yiddish has dozens of words for imbecile, a tribute to Jewish lucklessness…. There is no decorousness in Yiddish, nor much romance. It is raw, egalitarian, vernacular.”

Yiddish is an “amalgamated language, borrowing freely from German and Polish and Hebrew with its own unique constructions and confabulations,” and the people who speak it are the Yiddishkeit, or the Yiddish culture…although as Gabler points out, what the word encompasses is “so large, expansive, and woolly a concept that culture may be too narrow to do it full justice. ‘Jewish sensibility’ comes closer,” but, in the end, “You can’t define Yiddishkeit neatly in words and pictures. You sort of have to feel it by wading into it.” (more…)

Review: ‘Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection’ on DVD

Review: ‘Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection’ on DVD

I have to laugh when I watch old [[[Tom and Jerry]]] cartoons. First, of course, because they’re funny. The original series of 114 theatrical cartoons by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Hollywood cartoon studio were produced between 1940 and 1957, seven of them winning the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons)…a tie for most awards, one should note for the animation snobs out there, with Walt Disney’s [[[Silly Symphonies]]] animated series. A series of perfectly dreadful and too-often released cartoons followed, produced in Eastern Europe (cheap labor, I would imagine, and worth what they paid for it), produced by Gene Deitch at Rembrandt Films in 1960 before, thank the animation heavens, there came Chuck Jones in 1963.

Which brings us to Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection, hitting stores on Tuesday. Jones was one of the handful of master animators to influence the entire look and feel of the Warner Bros. animated line with his Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Tweety and Sylvester and countless other cartoons. But after 30 years, the studio closed its animation section and Jones set up his own shop, Sib Tower 12 Productions, with partner Les Goldman. MGM came knocking, and the 34 madcap adventures included in this collection was the result.

The second reason I find to laugh at these, or any classic animated shorts is because of how the reality of these characters clashes with the perception that has grown up around them since the 1950s when they began appearing as Saturday morning children’s programming. These cartoons were not created, originally, as children’s fare. They were, instead, part of a program of entertainment shown to adult movie audiences in a day and age when theaters routinely ran double features and the bill changed twice a week. Before, between and after the movies, however, came a variety of subjects: a newsreel, a short feature (usually humorous), a cartoon, and coming attractions, at the minimum. Look at a World War II era Bugs Bunny cartoon; that was not kid’s stuff!

Because as I watch these cartoons—and they are a lot of fun, have no doubt of that—I’m struck at how mercilessly violent they are. Heavy objects routinely fall and crush their victims (Tom), explosives blow in hand or in the victim’s (Tom’s) mouth, an axe used to chop open a mouse hole chops a victim’s (Tom’s) tail like a chef chops a carrot. The network censors chopped a lot of that material out of the cartoons when they went to TV in the 1960s, and, by the 1980s, the original essence of these little seven minute masterpieces was corrupted beyond redemption, to the point that as the writer of the Tom and Jerry syndicated newspaper strip for Editor’s Syndicate around 1990, I was told Tom could chase Jerry, but if he caught him, he could do him no harm. No hitting, no smashing, no slamming, certainly no chopping of tails. These guys were pals they just chased one another for fun.

Bugs Bunny has suffered a similar fate in the modern world: A friend working on a Bugs Bunny promotional comic book project was told by WB to change a gag because “Bugs would never produce a mallet out of nowhere and whack someone like that!”

But thanks to home video and DVD and the demand of the marketplace for original and uncut material, the truth is coming out. Tom and Jerry is funny and it’s funny because it’s violent. Take away the psychedelic randomness and well-constructed but mean-spirited violence of a situation like Tom and Jerry or the Road Runner and Wiley E. Coyote and all you’re left with is the existential angst of the eternal loser pursuing that well-known definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again in expectation of a different result.

(more…)