Style Icon: George Burns

“We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet.”

At age 7, Naftaly Birnbaum, aka George Burns, landed a job making syrup in the basement of a local candy store. When the mailman — a sucker for tight harmony — heard Burns and his pals crooning away on a barbershop ditty, he brought them out to the street and a crowd gathered. They played street corners, saloons and ferryboats.

 Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats.

Burns quit school in the fourth grade to pursue show business full time, which meant singing with a trained seal, trick roller-skating, and adagio dancing in small-time vaudeville acts.

In 1977, Carl Reiner directed Burns in “Oh, God!” opposite John Denver, an assistant supermarket manager chosen to deliver a message to the world.

“George was really a workhorse,” Reiner explained to Investors Business Daily last week. 

He was always so calm you never knew how much preparation he had done before he got there. We once had some weather problems and had to shoot a different scene, so I told him he could have some time to look over his lines. He told me, ‘Before I ever go into a project, I learn every scene and everyone’s part.’ He was ready.

Let’s call it Centenarian style: one hand wrapped around a beautiful lady, the other clutching a lit El Producto cigar.

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I smoke a domestic cigar. It’s a good cigar. It’s called an El Producto. Now the reason I smoke a domestic cigar is because the more expensive Havana cigars are tightly packed. They go out on the stage while I’m doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if you’re onstage and your cigar keeps going out, you have to keep lighting it. If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out. That’s why I smoke El Productos. They stay lit.

We lost George Burns ten years ago this month.

Sleep softy, sir. (Just remember to tap out the El Produco. They stay lit.)

—C.B.S.

True Grit: The John Fairfax Story

When he was 13 years old, John Fairfax ran away from home to live in the jungle, emerging periodically in town to exchange ocelot skins for knives—which he used to skin more ocelots, and so on.

After having been dumped by a college girlfriend in Argentina at the age of 20, he attempted suicide—by letting a 400-pound jaguar attack him.

A decade later, he drew upon navigational skills picked up as captain of a Panamanian pirate ship, braved numerous typhoons and shark attacks, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat stocked only with Spam, oatmeal and brandy. Then, after a brief stint as a mink farmer, he traversed the Pacific Ocean in identical fashion, only this time he brought along a female companion.

 

Mr. Fairfax’s eulogy in the New York Times reads a whole lot like a Dos Equis commercial. That is, if the Most Interesting Man in the World had anywhere near the sand of John Fairfax…

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It seems this sand has been eroding for years: bull-ravaged matadors replaced with professional wrestlers, perilous summits neutered by high-speed chairlifts, fighter pilots grounded in place of unmanned drones.

Yes, the post-Apollo generations have spawned their share of unmitigated badasses. SEAL Team 6, we’re looking in your (classified) direction. But even they would admit: assassinating a pirate is one thing. Being a pirate is another.

Citing Mr. Fairfax as a hero, 15-year-old Jordan Romero became the youngest person to scale the highest mountains on each of the world’s seven continents. It’s time we, too, recommit ourselves to adventure for adventure’s sake, to exploration for exploration’s sake, to crossing all forms of nature simply because, as Fairfax said of the Pacific Ocean, “it is there.”

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Dusting Off: The Cigarette Ad

Cigarettes are bad. But boy were cigarette ads good.

By good, of course, I don’t mean accurate. (“The finer the filter, the milder the taste.”)

Or moral. (“Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere.”)

Or okay. (Barney Rubble: “I sure hate to see our wives work so hard.” Fred Flintstone: “Me too. Let’s have a smoke around back where we can’t see ’em.”)

The product was (exactly) fatally flawed—which made the marketing of that product all the more difficult. Anyone can sell an iPad. But an addictive, poisonous, cancer-causing vice? That required employing the most accomplished artists and the most savvy copywriters and the most popular public figures in America.

The result was nearly 50 years of exceptional—albeit morally reprehensible—television, radio and print advertising, which, regardless of the product, made for some actively enjoyable media consumption.

And some wildly aspirational scenes.

Men wanted a record studio in the Hollywood Hills and a voluptuous woman on an Eames-era couch. Voluptuous women on Eames-era couches wanted jewels. And kids wanted to light up with Santa while he decorated the Christmas tree with packs of cigarettes (what?).

But isn’t aspiration the point of entertainment? Or at least the point of entertaining advertising. To escape into a fairy tale that, with the right amount of blissful ignorance, can feasibly be attained by purchasing a pack of Chesterfields. (Or, you know, receiving a Christmas carton of Chesterfields from Ronald Reagan.)

A boy can dream…

The Classy Mug Shot, circa 1924

Clockwise: Thomas Bede, suborning a witness, 1928; Hampton Hirscham, Cornellius Joseph Keevil, William Thomas O’Brien and James O’Brien, burglary, 1921; Valerie Lowe, stealing a saddle and bridle, 1922; Sydney Skukerman, fraud, 1924

Here’s a collection of mug shots from the New South Wales Police Department in Australia taken between 1910 and 1930.

As curator Peter Doyle explains, an anonymous photographer working in Sydney’s Central Police Station took the photos of “men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension.”

More photos are available here and the complete collection is on display at the Sydney Justice & Police Museum.

article-2129646-129751C8000005DC-971_964x697Sidney Kelly stares remorselessly in his mugshot from June 25, 1924. He had regular run-ins with police, who described him as an ‘Illicit drug trader’ who ‘drives his own motor car, and dresses well’

article-2129646-129600EA000005DC-666_964x600Well-heeled: Hampton Hirscham, Cornellius Joseph Keevil, William Thomas O’Brien and James O’Brien were arrested after a bookmakers was robbery.

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Burglar Valerie Lowe had her mugshot taken on February 15, 1922

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Low-life crook: Thiefs such as Frederick Edward Davies, pictured on July 14, 1921, were held in such low regard by police that they were photographed in front of the toilets

—C.B.S.

 

 

DUSTING OFF: Holding Up Lighters at Concerts

The stage was still smoldering when Leonard Cohen stepped upon it shortly after 4am.

Hours earlier, on the final night of the Isle of Wight concert in 1970, the festival had deteriorated into anarchy when the rain-soaked crowd of 600,000—few of whom had slept in five days—responded to Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary performance by setting ablaze anything remotely combustible.

Multiple riots erupted.

Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson were booed offstage.

The piano and organ were burned to the ground.

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Bed-headed from a two-hour nap and belted in a frayed safari jacket, the 35-year-old Cohen greeted the snarly crowd of half a million undefiantly with an anecdote from his childhood:

When I was seven years old, my father used to take me to the circus. He had a black mustache, a gray vest and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did.

But there was one thing that happened at the circus that I used to wait for.

I don’t want to impose upon you—this isn’t like a “sing-a-long with Mitch”—but there was one moment when a man would stand up and say,

“Would someone light a match so we can locate one another?”

So could I ask you, each person, to light a match so I can see you all? So we can locate one another. I know that you know why you’re lighting them.

And then he played “Bird on a Wire.”

British rock journalist Sylvie Simmons watched it all from the wings alongside Baez, Kristofferson and Judy Collins, who stood in awe. “Leonard greeted the crowd with a hypnotist’s charm and an intimacy that seemed unfeasible in such a vast, inhospitable space. It was magical, from the first moment to the last. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

There’s some debate as to whether this began the practice of audiences holding up lighters at concerts. Some attribute it to Dylan and the Band’s world tour the same year. Others credit the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” The beginning of Live Peace in Toronto 1969 by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band begins with emcee Kim Fowley instructing the audience to “Get your matches ready. Ladies and gentlemen, the Plastic Ono Band.”

Music critic George Varga, though, offers the strongest empirical evidence: “During the Mudfest of 1969, otherwise known as Woodstock, the performance of a songbird known as Melanie during a massive rainstorm was rewarded by appreciative fans who held various lit items up to demonstrate their gratitude. Melanie documented this illuminating incident in her song ‘Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).’”

As I see it, though, laying claim to a candlelight vigil is as futile as Richard Lewis’s attempt at copywriting “____ from hell.”

Of much greater concern is the fact that the practice has grown extinct, replaced by cell phones and PDAs hoisted maniacally into the air like radioactive semaphores. Sure, the fact that fewer and fewer people carry lighters speaks to a healthier (and safer) world, but I’d still like to dust the practice off — we could use some help finding each other

Particularly when the need to locate one another arises.

—C.B.S. (via Kempt) (via C.B.S.)

The Filthiest Song of 1937 (by a lot)

While preparing a report “In Defense of Cussing,” a couple years ago, I stumbled upon a 1937 song by Lucille Bogan that contained the first swear word ever recorded.

I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb. I got somethin’ between my legs that’ll make a dead man come…

The latter half of the line would be borrowed by both Tom Waits (“Pasties and a G-String”) and the Rolling Stones (“Start Me Up”) in the decades to come.

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There exists an acceptable time and place for the employment of vulgarity. For Ms. Bogan—who is undeniably a lady of the most righteous sort—that time and place was the sex-infused bowels of African-American juke joints throughout the American South in the 1920s and 1930s, where “Shave ’Em Dry” is set.

You’ll never look at bell snappers the same way again…

—C.B.S.

I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb I got somethin’ between my legs that’ll make a dead man come Say I fucked all night, and all the night before, baby And I feel just like I wanna fuck some more And I would fuck you, baby, honey, I’d make you cry Now your nuts hang down like a damn bell sapper And your dick stands up like a steeple Your goddamn asshole stands open like a church door And the crabs walk in like people

 

 

THE GOLDEN (BROWN) AGE OF GAME SHOW HOSTS

The game show era of the 1970s and 1980s.

A strange time. Refined, black-tie shows like What’s My Line and Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life gave way to wide lapels, sexual innuendoes and long-stemmed microphones.

Helming these shows was an interchangeable fleet of charmingly fake-tanned, bleach-toothed, dyed-haired pseudo sex symbols, the majority of whom had begun their careers as small-market disc jockeys. They were likably sleazy. Used car salesmen with a heart of gold. And following Johnny Carson’s lead, they pushed/shredded the envelope when it came to loud sport coats.

That’s not to say they weren’t good guys—Richard Dawson often made on-air, tearful pleas to help save the lives of needy children. Peter Tomarken died trying to transport a cancer patient in his Beechcraft Bonanza prop plane. And without a doubt, Bob Barker helped to control the pet population.

Today, I salute them.

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Dick Clark

Real Name: Richard Wagstaff Born: November 30, 1929 First Job: Disc jockey Primary Show: “Pyramid” (five versions, two networks) Catchphrase: “For now, Dick Clark. So long.” (Salutes) NotablePyramid’s bonus round has been called “the most dramatic in all of gamedome” thanks to Dick’s dramatic, even-tempered introduction and maniacal off-camera shouts of “Hurry!” with 10 seconds remaining.

Here’s Nipsey Russell taking it to the hoop in 29 seconds.

 

Wink Martindale

Real Name: Winston Conrad Martindale Born: December 4, 1934 First Job: Disc jockey Primary Show: “Tic Tac Dough” Has hosted 15 game shows, the second-most behind Bill Cullen (23). Notable: Martindale’s rendition of the spoken-word song “The Deck of Cards” sold over a million copies and reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It remains the least hot song to ever hit that chart.

Peter Tomarken

Real Name: Peter Tomarken Born: December 7, 1942 First Job: Copywriter at Young & Rubicam Primary Show: “Press Your Luck” Catchphrase:“Stop! On a whammy.” Why He Became Host: Agent said, “Because you work four days a month and get paid six figures.” Notable: Tomarken and wife were killed when his Beechcraft Bonanza crashed a few hundred feet offshore in Santa Monica Bay due to engine trouble. The Tomarkens were en route to San Diego to pick up a cancer patient who needed transportation to UCLA Medical Center for treatment.

Bob Eubanks

Real Name: Robert Leland Eubanks Born: January 8, 1938 First Job: Disc jockey Other Job:Music producer. Responsible for bringing the Beatles to Los Angeles for their first West Coast performances in 1964 and 1965 (mortgaging his house to do so).  Primary Show: “The Newlywed Game”  (Hosted in six different consecutive decades—1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.) Notable: In Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger and Me, Eubanks tells a joke that proved to be controversial: “You know why Jewish girls don’t get AIDS? They only marry assholes, they don’t screw ’em!”

 

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Bob Barker

Real Name: Robert William Barker Born: December 12, 1923 First Job: Fighter pilot in the US Navy Primary Show: “The Price Is Right” Catchphrase: “Help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.” Style Note: On October 15, 1987, Barker did what other game show hosts never did: renounced hair dye and allowed his hair to turn gray. Fellow hosts Monty Hall, Alex Trebeck and Richard Dawson followed suit soon thereafter. Notable: Has been sued for sexual harassment by “Barker’s Beauties” Dian Parkinson, Holly Hallstrom, Janice Pennington, Kathleen Bradley, Sherrill Paris and Sharon Friem.

Richard Dawson

Real Name: Colin Lionel Emm Born: November 20, 1932 First Job: Corporal Peter Newkirk on Hogan’s Heroes Primary Show: “Family Feud” Nickname: The Kissing Bandit Notable: Married second wife Gretchen Johnson, a contestant on Feud, in 1981. Did not kiss the female contestants in his second run on Family Feud due to a commitment he made to his wife and daughter

 

Chuck Woolery

Real Name: Charles Herbert Woolery Born: March 16, 1941 Earlier Jobs: US Navy, wine consultant, sales representative for Pillsbury, half of musical duo the Avante Garde (1968 top-40 hit “Naturally Stoned”), truck driver, costar on the hit children’s series New Zoo Revue Catchphrase: “We’ll be back in two-and-two.” Notable: A devout Born Again Christian, Woolery sells his own line of fishing products, including the MotoLure, a motorized lure that simulates the motions of a small fish.

 

Perhaps we’re entering a new (Brown) Golden age of game show hosts with Craig Robinson at the helm of Caraoke Showdown?

—C.B.S. (via UrbanDaddy) (via C.B.S.)

Greatest Moments in Sitcom History — Part 4: The Hams

A couple years ago I asked some very funny writers about their favorite sitcom moments. Here’s Claudia LonowNell ScovellMerrill Markoeand Stephen Root on theirs.

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Claudia Lonow (Writer/Creator: Rude AwakeningAccidentally on Purpose): Of all of the brilliant I Love Lucy episodes — stomping grapes, the scary one when she has a vase stuck on her head, the one where she proves she can’t even handle working at a chocolate factory — “Lucy Gets In Pictures” stands out as my favorite.

Because finally, Lucy gets in pictures! She actually does, which is so satisfying after she’s tried so hard, for so long, with so many obstacles.

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In this episode, Lucy lands her dream gig: Not only is she playing a glamorous showgirl, but the script calls for a dramatic death scene after she is shot in the middle of a performance. All Lucy needs to do is walk down a staircase with a gigantic head dress on. But the head dress is absurdly tall and heavy, and she can’t even keep her head upright, let alone gracefully prance down a set of stairs.

Each take is worse than the one before. Finally, the director gives her part to another girl and puts Lucy in a smaller head dress. Lucy’s devastated – she still wants to be the one who gets shot. During the next take, even though she’s wearing the smaller head dress, even though the director has taken her part away, when the gun goes off, Lucy does a dramatic death scene down the staircase. When the director asks her why she reacted this way — she’s not the one who’s supposed to be shot — Lucy answers: “He missed.”

There’s one obstacle Lucy can’t do anything about: She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s not actually that talented, and she’s certainly not experienced. Lucille Ball was a brilliant performer, but Lucy Ricardo was just a charming, ambitious person who sings off key and can’t take direction. But she can’t see that, and she never gives up. Most real musicians will tell you the hardest thing to do is sing out of tune – and Lucy did it to perfection.

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Merrill Markoe (Writer, Co-Creator – Late Night with David Letterman): I had lost interest in sitcoms for a long time until the British version of The Office turned up. From episode one, I was completely bowled over by Mr. Gervais’ brilliant dead on vision of unctuous, jokey smarm in the person of David Brent. I was riveted by the way this show pulled off having an awful person as its central character.

I think it was the first utterly repellent/totally fascinating character I’d seen someone pull off in an ongoing series: all the winking, the nervous giggling, the hand gestures that belie the content of the words, the delusions about his role in the world and the way others see him.

In the very first episode, the way he shows a temp around what is designed to look like a truly boring soul-killing dreary workplace, stopping to point out every cartoon tacked up on the wall as proof of the hilarious ribald no holds barred atmosphere of non-stop fun that the staff is having is just brilliant. I’d never seen a sit com so accurately deliver the stench of failed jokes. Gervais’ demeanor and body language made my jaw drop.

Common network wisdom, as I had come to know it in my sitcom writing attempts, in OUR country, was that this could never be. I had always longed to write an awful person at the center of a show. It was never a possibility. Network guys all felt the center of a sitcom had to be lovable. So I was riveted, from episode one on, by everything about David Brent.

I have always admired and flat out envied the BBC’s system of only doing six episodes of a series per year. If only they would allow that to happen here, what a brighter TV world it would be.

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Nell Scovell (Creator/Writer: Sabrina, The Teenage WitchThe Simpsons): For overall brilliance, nothing beats “Absolutely Fabulous.” It has everything: brilliant characters, brilliant situations, brilliant sight gags, brilliant lines, Jennifer Saunders is an absolute genius. And if I had to pick ONE moment above all, I’d go with a scene where Edina greets Saffy on the morning of her wedding day. Edina tiptoes into the room and sweetly hugs her daughter…only to hold her down so Patsy can rush in with a wax strip and remove the facial hair from Saffy’s upper lip. It’s perfect. You really believe for a moment that Edina’s maternal instincts are kicking in, and then, in her own twisted way, they do. She waxes Saffy upper lip because she cares.

Stephen Root (Actor: King of the HillNews RadioOffice Space): The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended with a perfect ensemble moment from the perfect ensemble cast – people I admired then and now. They’re all hugging and crying in one big group. When Mary says she needs a tissue, the entire group hug shuffle-walks over to the desk to grab her one. It’s certainly not the funniest moment of the series, but it speaks to how much of a unit that exceptional group of actors was.

For me it resonated because it was the same type of farce I was doing on stage every night but in the original form, a Shakespeare comedy. The second paying gig I’d had as a “real” actor was with the National Shakespeare Company. We spent nine months of the year on the road playing at military bases and colleges all over the country. I must have watched the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in some dumpy Motel 6 in anywhere USA.

As a character guy then, I remember wanting a chance to be an “Ed Asner” type. That kind of came true for me as Jimmy James on NewsRadio: I got to play some of the same varied emotions: explosive frustration, throw-away asides and the father’s joy of his “children”, his team, his friends. Encapsulated, I think, in one phrase, “I cherish you people.”

More to come…