Monday, September 14, 2009

Larry Gelbart and Jay Leno: Send Out the Clowns

Thirteen years ago I edited a book for the day job on stand-up comedians that was published by Harry N. Abrams. We asked Larry Gelbart to write the intro for the book, which he kindly did. In the library cataloging of the book, he is listed as the editor. C’es la vie. If I’m going to be upstaged by anyone, I’m happy it was Gelbart. He was professionally warm and encouraging to work with.

For the same project, I answered my phone fairly late one Friday night, and it was Jay Leno, (making his own phone calls). We had asked him to contribute a small piece about his influences or about an important tv comedy memory. We had already received short great pieces from Phyllis Diller, Jack Carter, Dick Gregory, Bill Maher, Lily Tomlin, Richard Belzer, Mark Russell, Don Rickles, Shelly Winters, and Jonathan Winters.

Jay was calling to say that it isn’t his thing to write about what he does. Comedy is his job, but he just does it, he doesn’t think about it. He was very pleasant and straightforward, and no matter what I said I couldn’t talk him into sending something for the book. Maybe if I had impersonated Larry Gelbart, Leno would have stepped up to the plate for us.

Put me in the “I don’t get Leno” category. I vaguely remember when he first appeared on Carson, and he was a funny, observational stand-up. But I felt no attraction to his show. The one time I deliberately tuned in was for Hugh Grant in 1995, to see what he would say after his prostitute arrest. Jay opened with “What the hell were you thinking?” with just the right inflection. I thought it was a good moment for him.

I watched his first Jay Leno Show. He mumbled through his monologue. I liked Seinfeld in the tuxedo, and he was pretty funny. Institutionalizing the headlines has made what was once a mildly cute idea into a forced-laugh cringe thing. He did face Kanye, about his nonsense at the MVA. But what audience is interested in Seinfeld, dopey headlines, and Jayzee? Is Leno trying to play to the rap yearnings of the stodgy middlebrow? This is what NBC is pinning its future on?

Let’s go back to the other end of the comedy spectrum. Larry Gelbart. The funny, elegant, effortless intellectual.

In tribute to his passing, here’s an excerpt from the intro, where he waxes philosophic, like any good comic. The opening may seem a little shocking given the circumstances, but I think he would appreciate the unexpected gallows humor of it all.

“Take my life. Please. There was a time when, if I wanted to catch the work of a stand-up comic, or a monologuist as they were called then, I would have to go through the trouble and expense of traveling to a nightclub, a vaudeville house, or a house of burlesque. I would have to sit through endless hours or acrobats and ecdysiasts, of hearing G chords and ogling G-strings, until the band finally hit “Fine and Dandy,” and the guy with the padded shoulders and the porkpie hat came on to stand in the spotlight and tell the audience all about the funny thing that happened to him on the way to the theater that night.


It seems the most inevitable and fortuitous of marriages: television and the practitioners of stand-up comedy. . . .The TV monitor forms the perfect frame for the human face; in close-up, the scale is life size.


Today’s practitioners of comedy differ greatly from those we’ve laughed at in the past. One branch of the current crop of stand-ups, those influenced by the new three “R’s”—rock, raunch, and race—make it very clear that there are no longer any bounds, there are no barriers, and very often, little or no taste at all. They act as so many lepidopterists, pricking our shared pomposities and pretensions and pinning us to the wall, by whatever mean necessary, with fair language or foul. And who are we to yell “Foul,” we who are arrogant enough to believe that there is life on no other planet, while guaranteeing through our ignorance and indifference that before too long there may not be any on this one either. If you would judge the moral climate of our society, listen to our behavior as it is blown back into our faces with such relentless and accurate comic force."

In good conscience I can recommend this book for anyone who is interested in comedy. Besides the whole of the Gelbart piece (which he entitled "Send Out the Clowns), there’s an interview with George Plimpton, and articles by Elvis Mitchell, Douglas Copeland, Anne Beatts, Tony Hendra, Mel Watkins, Merle Kessler, Dennis Leary, and Patricia Marx, with great photos. (Hmm, Gelbart really knew what he was doing, gathering such a great group of writers for his book :) You can get one on Amazon starting at $.06. Such a deal.