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."


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