Friday, April 15, 2005

If you're gonna steal, steal from the best

I'm glad people are enjoying Charlie meets Bill. I'm enjoying it myself---because of all the great The Day I Met Bill Clinton stories that are appearing in the comments. But there are a couple of things about the post that make me uneasy.

One is, I really do think it's unfair to use this anecdote to make comparisons between Clinton and George Bush---either George Bush, 41 or 43, or even between Bill and George Washington. What happened in that meeting between Clinton and Carl Reiner's dying brother shows Clinton's special gift, something he is better at than any other President. There are so many other ways that Bush doesn't measure up, not just to Clinton, but to every other good President and most of the mediocre ones, that to use this one against him feels like running up the score.

Something did go on in that room that showed Clinton's skill as a politician and executive along with his gift and that something's worth a post on its own.

I'm not sure I believe that Clinton just happened to know what towns Charlie's army unit captured in World War II.

The other thing that makes me uneasy is I feel like I'm getting credit for Carl Reiner's story. I know you know I put it in my own words. Reiner devotes half a chapter in his book to that meeting. It's a beautiful chapter, full of love and grief for his big brother. I shortened it a bit. So I can take credit for the re-write but otherwise I feel like I've committed the comedian's cardinal sin.

I stole someone else's material.

Well, as Shakespeare used to say to Kit Marlowe, whenever Marlowe would get a snootful of sack and come looking for his rival, dagger drawn, to talk about how Bill was swiping all his best lines, "Hey, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best."

Then he'd say, "Keep up your bright sword, you crybaby, the dew will rust it. Who do you think you are anyway, Erroll Flynn? You'll poke somebody's eye out! Worse, you'll get yourself killed one of these days, waving that around. Someone's going to think you're serious, and then you know what I foresee for you, my friend? A great reckoning in a little room, that's what."

So, even though it's supposed to be verboten, comedians steal from each other all the time. Reiner knows that. He's been stolen from by the greats. He probably stole from some of the greats himself. He wrote an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show about stolen material. Rob accidentally steals an idea for a talking bowling pin sketch from the host of a TV kids show. He thinks it's something his son Ritchie came up with. Of course, Ritchie's just repeating what he saw on the Unlce Spunky Show. When Rob finds out what he's done, he tells his boss Alan Brady, who, as you probably know, was played by Carl Reiner. This is trouble. Uncle Spunky is known in the business as Spunky the Sue-er. He's notorious for suing anybody he thinks has filched a single line of his material. Rob and the gang try to talk Alan out of doing the sketch. Brady, though, doesn't want to give up it. He loves the bit. Plus he's not the kind of guy you can intimidate. And he's a star. What's Uncle Spunky compared to him? So he calls Uncle Spunky and says he can't believe Uncle Spunky's had the nerve to do the bowling pin sketch. Uncle Spunky replies, What nerve? It's his material, he's been doing it for years. Alan says, Oh, is that so, and tells Uncle Spunky how a long time ago, at resort in the Catskills, a young comedian did a sketch about a talking bowling pin. "I don't have to tell you who that young comedian was."

Uncle Spunky, afraid he'd stolen the material from Brady, gives up any claim to it. But Alan was blowing smoke. The reason he doesn't feel guilty about lying to Uncle Spunky is that he figures that some young comedian somewhere probably did do a bowling pin sketch. The point being that there are no new jokes and everybody steals from everybody.

The fact that comedians poach each other's material may be why we ever heard of Mel Brooks and how come we don't know the 2000 Year Old Man as some other comic's routine. I'll give you a hint which comic.

"Say good night, Gracie."

If Reiner and Brooks didn't know that comics, even the best comics, commit the cardinal sin, they never would have recorded their 2000 Year Old Man bit.

They used to do the routine at parties and they thought of it as just something to entertain their friends with. People kept encouraging them to make a record out of it. Those were the days when comedy albums were big. Comics made their reputations with albums. Bob Newhart, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby are famous because of their albums. The 2000 year old man preceeded them. But it took some convincing.

You've got to make an album, friends, family, people in the business would say.

No, no, no, a thousand times no, Brooks and Reiner would reply. We're just doing this for fun.


Reiner tells it this way (See, no question now. I'm not stealing. I'm reporting):

In 1960, Joyce Haber, Hollywood's reigning gossip columnist, coined a phrase, the A-list party. Well, this party [at which Brooks and Reiner were guests and the chief entertainment] had a lot of A's and A pluses. Wall-to-wall stars, whom I will bill in order of their appearance, or rather, in the order they appeared to compliment Mel and me after Mel had them falling off their plush seats for a good hour or more...

I would like to return to my playwriting mode to recreate that most memorable and historic night for me, for Mel, and for his alter ego.

Time: 11:30 P.M., June 21, 1960

Place: A living room in a Beverly Hills mansion

[Mel accepting accolades, Carl accepting the overflow]

[George Burns approaches Brooks and Reiner]

GEORGE BURNS [Puffing on an El Producto]: Boys, very good---very funny. [Exhales] Is there an album?

MEL/CARL: No, there is no album. We only do it for friends.

GEORGE BURNS [Puffs, exhales]: If you don't put it in an album, I'll steal it...I'm serious.

[Takes a puff and exits]

Actually, Reiner credits Steve Allen with finally persuading them to record the bit. Allen offered to set up the recording session and front them all the expenses, no strings.

But I've got to think that it was Burns' threat that he'd steal the material that softened them up for Allen's offer. Burns said he was serious and I figure Brooks and Reiner believed him.

Years later, Reiner returned the favor by making George Burns a movie star.

"The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea."

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

I was trying to avoid the BOOK MEME. Not that there's anything wrong with it. I just know me. This is the kind of thing I obsess over. But Coturnix snuck up on me like a process server and stuck it in my hands, so now I've got to testify.

I thought of bolting. The Canadian border beckoned. But Coturnix is a good guy and Majikthise, another of his victims, has come through with her answers, so I guess I should suck it up and follow through. Here goes:

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be [save by memorizing]?

I said in my post below that I was seriously thinking it would be Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow. But probably I'd go with David Copperfield.

Or The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse.

No, David Copperfield.

No, Code of the Woosters.

No, wait...

See, one question in and I'm already turning into Adrian Monk.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

I have an ongongoing crush on Kate Croy from Henry James' Wings of the Dove. But I think it's because Helena Bonham Carter played her in the movie and got naked. Very naked. Very, very naked. Nakeder than I think any serious actress has ever gotten in a movie.

But I've never had a crush on Charlotte Stant, the anti-heroine of James' The Golden Bowl, even though Uma Thurman played Charlotte in the movie. Thurman, though, was absolutely perfect casting.

"...the face was too
narrow and too long, the eyes not large, and the mouth, on the
other hand, by no means small, with substance in its lips and a
slight, the very slightest, tendency to protrusion in the solid
teeth, otherwise indeed well arrayed and flashingly white...He saw again that her thick hair [had] a shade of tawny autumn leaf in it, for
"appreciation"--a colour indescribable and of which he had known
no other case, something that gave her at moments the sylvan
head of a huntress. He saw the sleeves of her jacket drawn to her
wrists, but he again made out the free arms within them to be of
the completely rounded, the polished slimness that Florentine
sculptors, in the great time, had loved, and of which the
apparent firmness is expressed in their old silver and old
bronze. He knew her narrow hands, he knew her long fingers and
the shape and colour of her finger-nails, he knew her special
beauty of movement and line when she turned her back, and the
perfect working of all her main attachments, that of some
wonderful finished instrument, something intently made for
exhibition, for a prize. He knew above all the extraordinary
fineness of her flexible waist, the stem of an expanded flower... If when she moved off she looked like a huntress, she looked when she came nearer
like his notion, perhaps not wholly correct, of a muse."

I never saw the movie, it didn't get good reviews, so I don't know if Thurman got naked in it. She had reason to. Apropos my post a little while back, in The Golden Bowl James comes the closest I know of in all his writing to putting a sex scene right on stage.

"'It's sacred,' she breathed back to him. They vowed it, gave it
out and took it in, drawn, by their intensity, more closely
together. Then of a sudden, through this tightened circle, as at
the issue of a narrow strait into the sea beyond, everything
broke up, broke down, gave way, melted and mingled. Their lips
sought their lips, their pressure their response and their
response their pressure; with a violence that had sighed itself
the next moment to the longest and deepest of stillnesses they
passionately sealed their pledge."

What was the question again? Oh, right.

My first literary crushes were on Callie Shaw and Iola Morton, the Hardy Boys' girlfriends.

The last book you bought is?

The Crysanthemum Palace by Bruce Wagner.

What are you currently reading?

Don't Ask.

"Come on, Lance, you can tell us. No need to be shy."

Don't Ask.

"How embarrassing can it be to tell us what you're reading?"

Don't Ask.

"Wow. Must be something really kinky."

I told you, Don't Ask.

"Fine. Be that way. Spoil everybody's fun."

Listen, Lou Costello, that's the title of the book. Don't Ask by Donald Westlake. I'm also in the middles of The Outcry by Henry James and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. (Check out my sidebar.)

(The 9 year old wants to answer this question too.

What book are you currently reading, 9 year old?

Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy. Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets.

The 11 year old says this is kind of a nosy question, so let's pick another topic.)

Five books you would take to a deserted island?

David Copperfield, if I didn't memorize it. The Pickwick Papers if I did.

The World of Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.

The Aztec Treasure House by Evan S. Connell. A collection of beautiful essays, all about exploration, discovery, and feats of courage that will inspire to get to work figuring a way to get off this island.

The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. I actually sort of did this one. When I went off to grad school I took only two books with me, a dictionary and Shakespeare. Of course by the end of my first week in Iowa City I had a library card and the names of all the clerks at Prairie Lights bookstore memorized, so the experiment was never really conducted and I don't know how long I could have been happy reading nothing but Shakespeare.

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Coturnix's personal copy, because it's his fault I'm stuck on this island.

Who are you going to pass this on to and why? (Name three.)

(My first pick would have been Nance, but this is the kind of thing she can go either way on, either getting into it or brushing it off as really annoying, and it's too late to call her to find out which way she'd jump. These other people don't scare me the way she does.)

Blue Girl, because she asked me to be brutal, although she meant something else. No, not that! Geez. Some people. (Done!)

Neddie Jingo, because I want him to prove that he can read and he's not some sort of idiot savant producing that wonderful, hilarious blog of his through the kind of automatic writing William Butler Yeats and his wife claimed produced their mystic writings. (Also done!)

Grishaxxx, because I know he can read and I'm interested to see in what way he shows how much he loves Wind in the Willows here. (And done!)

Your turn. Put your answers in the comments or on your blogs and send me the links. Once everybody in the world has done this we can put this meme to bed.