Making It Up

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(Pictured: Red Skelton, 1970.)

I have mentioned here before that when we were kids, The Red Skelton Hour was one of the highlights of week. In the home video era, I have not sought out Red’s shows—in fact, Red kept them out of circulation for years to spite CBS for canceling him in 1970, and actually threatened to destroy the tapes at one point. Their long scarcity has something to do with why Skelton, for 30 years a giant of American comedy, someone who inspired the likes of Steve Martin and Richard Pryor, is largely forgotten today. But some late-60s episodes of his CBS show have recently been added to Amazon Prime, and I have watched a few.

Skelton considered himself his own best writer and an expert on what was funny, and he did not have much respect for the writers he employed. Our friend Wesley, who’s written a book on Red’s show, told me:

[W]riters for his show tended not to last long either on their own volition or on Red’s whims. In the spring of 1967, when his show came close to beating Bonanza as the number one show on TV, Red unceremoniously fired Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf, the men who contributed to I Love Lucy and would later work on The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show and Maude. Some slouches, eh? Anyway, the men talked to LA Times columnist Hal Humphreys frankly about Red’s tendency to use tried material rather than their new work and how the result was spotty at best, not to mention how many writers had revolved through the successful show. Irritated by what they said, Red decided he would get back at them by performing their last script word-for-word with no ad-libs, confident that the show would die. The final taping ran eight minutes over due to audience laughter.

Skelton’s disdain for scripts—or maybe it’s just a lack of discipline—is on full display in the episode of October 31, 1967. In “Hippie Days Are Here Again,” Red’s character, the hobo Freddie the Freeloader, meets a group of hippies in a park. There’s potential in the idea because Tim Conway is playing the hippie leader. Partway through the sketch, Red abandons the script entirely, breaking the fourth wall, talking to the backstage crew, and spouting non-sequiturs. Conway is a master of making it up on the fly, but Skelton’s ad libs are so insular that they leave Conway with nowhere to go. Red wants every laugh for himself, and he doesn’t care if his co-star never gets one.

Something similar happened on January 14, 1969. “The Best Thing to Get Out of Marriage Is to Get Out of Marriage” co-stars Audrey Meadows, famed for playing Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, as Clara Appleby, the henpecking wife of Skelton’s recurring character George Appleby. Partway through, Skelton once again starts ad-libbing furiously. Meadows gets a laugh with a scripted zinger, but Skelton has to top her: “No wonder Ralph Kramden divorced you.”

Wesley again:

Guests soon learned this is how he operated, which is why most of CBS’s other big comedy stars like Lucille Ball didn’t do his show, precisely because he’d go off script and get irritated if you got more laughs than he did. Harvey Korman’s son Chris Korman told me Red banned his father from the show for getting laughs in one minor role and Red thought he was stealing the spotlight from him.

(The January 14, 1969, show is the one on which Red delivered his monologue about the Pledge of Allegiance, which became a middling radio hit a few months later.)

The Red Skelton Hour and The Carol Burnett Show overlapped on CBS for three seasons starting in 1967, and the differences are instructive. As Wesley wrote in his book, The Carol Burnett Show never saw itself as a vehicle for Carol alone. She was happy to give the laughs to others. Her cast broke character plenty, but instead of tossing the script and flailing for jokes, they always stayed close to the core of the sketch. And partly because of a reputation for making guests look good, Carol was able to get practically anyone she wanted to appear on her show.

A half-century removed from watching Red on Tuesday nights, I think that what younger me responded to was Red’s silliness, and that just ain’t funny to me any more. A half-century later, all I can say is “Red, thanks for the laughs when I was eight, but we’re done now.”

The Guys

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(Before we begin: Another edition of The Sidepiece went out yesterday. I do not intend it to be a weekly thing, but it has been so far. You can subscribe to The Sidepiece here.)

So now then:

Earlier this month, I wrote about “Maggie May,” touch football, and the coming of autumn. In addition to a pic of Rod Stewart, I included another photo with that post, a newspaper clipping my mother saved. I’m not going to post it again, as I think some of the guys in the picture would not want their 11-year-old selves repeatedly broadcast over the Internet, but you can go back and look at it

On the subject of old pictures, I should say here I do not consider myself a saver, although I am an accumulator. I have boxes of stuff from high school, college, old jobs, other places we have lived, boxes of pictures and boxes of newspapers and boxes of junk, but they’re not organized. I cannot go into a closet or walk down to the garage and pull out a specific piece of memorabilia on demand. (I could not even tell you where our wedding pictures are.) 

That one clipping, however, I have saved. 

Everyone has seen it, a famous photo of the Vietnam War: the South Vietnamese officer executing a prisoner by shooting him in the head. But there is also video of the moment. The officer raises his gun, shoots the man, he falls down dead, and the camera moves on.

While shocking, the film packs a lesser punch than the still photo. On film, the shooting is an incident, a ripple in the river of moving time. In the still photo, the moment is frozen. It is always happening, and it will never stop happening.

On an October afternoon in 1971, another film is made. It’s a home movie of the city park-and-rec sixth-grade touch football championship game, pitting the Northside Browns against the South Raiders. I get into the game briefly, which is by no means a certainty on that day, for I am the scrubbiest of the scrubs. Although I like to play football and other recess games, it is obvious from the way I move that I am no athlete and I am never going to be one. I gamely chase after the ballcarrier even though I have no hope of catching him.

Now the film cuts to a postgame scene. Excited, laughing Browns form up so the photographer from the local paper can take our championship picture. One boy, the team’s alpha dog, holds the trophy. We stand still and the photog snaps, then we break up to accept the congratulations of parents, siblings, friends. I am aware that I am being filmed, so as I walk away, I throw up a jubilant gesture at no one in particular, an upraised index finger into the sky, we’re number one.

The movie is no more than a few seconds, an incident, a ripple in the river of moving time. In the still photo, the moment is frozen. There is time to tell its story, what happened before and what happened after.

One of the guys is a banker.

One of the guys was my mother’s boss at her office job.

One of the guys runs his father’s company.

One of the guys taught me how to swear.

One of the guys was the best athlete of us all, but he stopped playing after one year of high school and I never knew why. 

One of the guys has a copy of this picture framed on the wall in his home office.

One of the guys I have beers with every once in a while. 

One of the guys came up to me a few years ago and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

One of the guys dated a girl I wanted but couldn’t speak to, yet I hated him for it anyway.

One of the guys I knew from the school bus and rarely saw anywhere else.

One of the guys I knew from church.

One of the guys I have no idea what became of. 

One of the guys is dead.

One of the guys is a writer who looks back at his young self with fondness and regret, thinking of roads both taken and not. 

In the still photo, the moment is frozen. It is always happening, and it will never stop happening. There is time to tell its story, what happened before and what happened after.

Slice of Life

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(Pictured: I’d eat it.)

It happened at radio stations from time immemorial—somebody orders a pizza for lunch or dinner, and whatever they don’t eat sits on the counter in the break room for anybody to grab a slice. There’s not a single radio jock alive who hasn’t taken advantage of such good fortune. Sometimes it gets put in the station refrigerator instead of being left on the counter, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still gonna eat it, and we don’t care if it’s cold. But it seems to me that COVID-19 has killed the food-on-the-counter tradition. Most of us are not inclined to mess with stuff when we don’t know where it’s been. Hand sanitizer is not a good pizza topping.

(Digression: I tweeted general thanks to whoever made leftover pizza available at my station one day, and I got a response from Chicago radio legend Fred Winston, who was following me at the time, asking how long it had been sitting out on the counter. It was one of my greatest thrills in radio. Alas, Fred blocked me several years ago. I choose my heroes wisely and they don’t often disappoint me, but he did, and it still stings a bit.)

Also dead is the dish of candy on the desk. I used to cruise the sales office when everybody was gone, early in the evening or on the weekend, looking for a sugar fix, but I found nothing so often that I quit doing it. I once heard of a company that told people to take the candy dishes off their desks because somebody from their health insurer was paying a visit, and they didn’t want that person to see them. You could apparently fill up a drawer with Ding Dongs and Butterfingers if you wanted, but keep it out of sight.

(Further digression: I remember one especially long and stressful day at the radio station when, late in the afternoon, I found a package of Oreo cookies in my desk that I’d forgotten about. It redeemed the whole day.)

I occasionally joke on the air about having eaten exactly one million sandwiches in studios, but realistically, it’s got to be a few hundred by now. These days, it’s usually a pre-made sandwich from our neighborhood convenience store, which is cheap, edible, and best of all, simple. Simple is key, although my very first Christmas Day on the air, in 1979, I ate turkey and dressing in the studio, packed by my mother, leftovers from our Christmas Eve dinner.

Occasionally The Mrs. will suggest that I take leftovers from home, but I like to get out of the house precisely so I don’t have to eat what we’re eating at home.

I wonder if COVID will interfere with the broadcast-and-print newsroom tradition of Election Night pizza. In past years, you could be sure that everybody who worked on Election Night coverage was fueled by a slice or two. I have written before about a similar phenomenon that sometimes happens on radio station blizzard days. When staffers are likely to be shut in for a while, if only for a long day, food appears in the break room, either delivered or picked up from a grocery or convenience store. One blizzard day, the menu consisted exclusively of Doritos, Oreos, and Chips Ahoy. As one colleague said to me, “It’s not a blizzard, it’s a party.”

The company I currently work for has a fairly liberal attitude toward beer in the building. One of the stations does a regular feature with a local brewery, and it’s not unusual to find a few bottles at large in the fridge. We don’t drink ’em while we’re on the clock, but people who are done for the day have been known to crack one in the office, and nobody gets weird about it. Maybe that’s a Wisconsin thing, though.

Every profession has food-in-the-office stories, not just radio. If you have stories from your job, no matter what the job, please share them.

A Year With Gale Garnett

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(Pictured: Gale Garnett.)

I have written many times about songs I knew before I knew that I knew them, and another one popped up on shuffle the other day: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” by Gale Garnett. It’s an easy-rockin’ singalong from 1964 that featured just enough harmonica to qualify it as a folk record back then, plus an orchestra, acoustic guitars, and a small chorus of what sounds like overdubbed Gale Garnetts:

We’ll sing in the sunshine
We’ll laugh every day
We’ll sing in the sunshine
Then I’ll be on my way

I must have heard it on Mother and Dad’s radio; it’s a song our hometown station would have been quite likely to play, and for years thereafter.

“We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” is the slow-cookin’est single I’ve seen at ARSA lately. It first appears on several northern California radio stations in June and July 1964 and gradually creeps east. It hits the Top 10 at a couple of stations in San Francisco in mid-July, and while it rides high at a lot of stations for the next several weeks, it doesn’t hit #1 anywhere in the west until the last full week in August. It continues to cook across the country into September, going #1 at KLIF in Dallas in early September, at KIMN in Denver a week after that, and at both WKNR and WXYZ in Detroit at the end of the month. By the time October begins, most every city that’s listing it has it in the Top 10.

During the week of October 17, 1964, “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” reaches its peak of #4 on the Hot 100, part of a killer Top 10 that also includes “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Oh Pretty Woman,” “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” Chad and Jeremy’s “A Summer Song,” and the Beach Boys’ “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man).” It hits #1 in Cash Box during the first week of November. In Bluefield, West Virginia, it’s still in the Top 10 come December.

“We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” ran the Billboard Hot 100 and Cash Box Top 100 for 17 weeks each. In Billboard, only the Louis Armstrong “Hello Dolly” and Barbra Streisand’s “People” charted longer. It did seven weeks at #1 on the Billboard Pop-Standard Singles chart (later Easy Listening, still later Adult Contemporary), from late September through mid-November. Billboard ranked it at #8 for all of 1964. The song would win Best Folk Performance at the 1965 Grammys. Garnett’s followup single, “Lovin’ Place,” would reach #54 on the Hot 10 early in 1965, but it would be her last visit to the American charts.

Music had interrupted Gale Garnett’s acting career. She had started working on television while she was still a teenager before a 1963 singing gig in a New York City club led to a record deal. After “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” a handful of busy years followed. She frequently played Greenwich Village clubs and college campuses, and she opened for stars including Bill Cosby, but after all that, she returned to Hollywood. In the late 60s, she fronted a psychedelic rock band called Gale Garnett and the Gentle Reign. They made two albums whose titles could not have been more pop-psych perfect: An Audience With the King of Wands and Sausalito Heliport. Still later, she wrote novels, reviews and other journalism pieces, and she appeared on the stage, usually under her full given name, Gale Zoë Garnett. She’s still with us, at age 78.

Unusual for a female singer in 1964, Gale Garnett wrote “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.” She said it was about “settle-down fear,” but also “a happy approach to personal independence.” It’s also pretty bold for its time. We’ll do everything that lovers do, she says, and while “everything” isn’t explicitly defined, it’s reasonably clear that it includes acts that in 1964 were not yet considered respectable without the benefit of clergy. And nothing about it is permanent. “Although I’ll never love you, I’ll stay with you one year,” she says. And then:

And when our year has ended
And I have gone away
You’ll often speak about me
And this is what you’ll say
We sang in the sunshine . . . . 

Translation: “I’m gonna ruin every woman who comes to you after me, son. But I mean that in the most benign way possible.”

When All the Black and White Turns Into Colors

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Not gonna lie—it’s tough getting into the ol’ October frame of mind this year: the pure insanity of the news every damn day, the gut-clenching insomnia-causing terror about the election and its aftermath, the still-nagging-and-very-real fear of catching COVID, and never mind the thousand other little things that might get in the way even if this were a normal October.

But the fall colors are beautiful up here in Wisconsin, as always. The Mrs. and I have enjoyed some Sundays in the country, and we hope to enjoy a couple more. And we resolve, to the extent that we are able, to keep November and beyond in the intermediate distance.

If you have read this blog in a past October, you know how I am about this month of the year. And so it’s kind of inevitable that sooner or later I’d get around to a podcast episode about October, and here it is:

The episode is also available at the usual other spots if those are more convenient for you: Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, and Stitcher. You can also listen to all of the other episodes in those places, or find them here. And as usual, many thanks for caring about it, if you do.

Note to Patrons: This morning, I sent the first edition of The Sidepiece to subscribers. The Sidepiece is a free e-mail thing in which I intend to intermittently write about stuff that doesn’t fit the subject matter of this website. Check your spam filter. As I said the other day, it probably knows better what’s worthwhile. If you haven’t subscribed to The Sidepiece yet and would like to, go here

The Yiddish Are Coming

It is said that on the night of November 22, 1963, Lenny Bruce went through with a previously scheduled club date. (Nobody seems to know exactly where.) He walked on stage, looked at the audience for a moment, and then said (again, nobody is precisely sure, but this is a cleaner version), “Poor Vaughn Meader.”

Meader was the voice actor famed for his John F. Kennedy impersonation, the star of two wildly successful comedy albums written and produced by Bob Booker and Earle Doud. Cadence Records nearly scrapped the planned release of The First Family in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but going ahead proved to be a wise decision. The album spent three weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s monaural album chart in December 1962 and won Album of the Year at the 1963 Grammys. The First Family Volume Two, recorded in March 1963 and rushed out to capitalize on the success of the first, went to #4. But after Kennedy was assassinated in November, the label pulled the First Family albums from stores, and even went so far as having the unsold copies destroyed out of respect for the Kennedy family.

Meader wasn’t the only person involved with the First Family project whose career was derailed by the assassination. Bob Booker was also left figuring out what to do next. In 1965, Booker and a writing partner, George Foster, hit upon You Don’t Have to Be Jewish. The cast included Jack Gilford and Lou Jacobi, whose faces you would likely recognize; Bob McFadden and Frank Gallop, whose voices might be familiar; Betty Walker, a character actor and comic who had released a couple of albums featuring a one-sided telephone routine; and Arlene Golonka, then a Broadway actress who would later appear on practically every famous TV comedy show, including a co-starring role as Millie on Mayberry RFD. Booker and Foster didn’t duck the fact that most of the routines were based on material that was ancient even in 1965. As puts it, “Those with a lowered tolerance for nagging-mother jokes should consider themselves warned.”

You Don’t Have to Be Jewish was a hit, going to #9 on the Billboard album chart in a 34-week chart run that started in September 1965. A sequel was inevitable: When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish reunited most of the cast of the first album with the exception of Gilford and Golonka, who recommended a young New Yorker named Valerie Harper to take her place. Phil Leeds also joined the cast, another character actor who did literally every TV comedy from the 50s to the 80s. When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish did not equal its predecessor’s performance but it did OK, making #22 in an 18-week run starting in April 1966. It also produced an actual hit single: Frank Gallop’s “The Ballad of Irving,” which is at the top of this post. It became a top-10 hit in Seattle and Denver, and it made #34 on the Hot 100 in May 1966. Valerie Harper got her own spot on the album on “A Call From Greenwich Village,” a telephone routine also featuring Betty Walker, which foreshadows the relationship between Rhoda Morgenstern and her mother (played by Nancy Walker) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Much of the same cast went back to the well in the fall of 1967 for The Yiddish Are Coming, the Yiddish Are Coming. This one scraped up to #165. One last album, The Jewish-American Princess, with Jacobi, Gallop, McFadden, and a Broadway veteran named Bea Arthur, came out in the fall of 1971. It made #183, and after that, the Booker/Foster Jewish comedy boom was good and truly over.

Some comedy is timeless, and some is timebound. These Jewish comedy albums are definitely in the latter category. Even in 1965, the audience often seems to be laughing in recognition of a particular sort of reality and not because the stuff is straight-up funny. Even the “The Ballad of Irving” doesn’t have much going for it beyond the amusing premise of a Jewish gunfighter in the Old West. A listener in 2020 may wonder why people are laughing at all. But 50 years ago, in a time not far removed from Allan Sherman’s heyday, when a great deal of stand-up comedy was heavily Jewish in outlook and the Borscht Belt was still a thing, the You Don’t Have to Be Jewish Players were right on time.