Top Shelf Lives: Norman, Mel, Howard and Woody6
I don’t normally read biographies or autobiographies. The last one I truly enjoyed was WC Fields & Me which was a 1971 memoir by his girlfriend Carlotta Monti and read because my father had turned me on to Fields when I was a kid. The man was less than his talent but the lines Fields threw away under his whiskeyed breath were funnier than A material from today’s A List comics and Monti threw in a little sex which wreaked havoc with my impressionable teen angst. I also enjoyed Brad Park’s autobiography from the same year Play The Man.. If you don’t know who Brad Park is well…. it’s okay.
Less enjoyed in recent years was the painful life story of the late great Rolling Stone editor/writer Paul Nelson whose tragic time on earth and transcendent work were chronicled and archived respectively in Everything Is An Afterthought. It was a little too close to home as Nelson, in the late 70s and early 80s, was the dean of the school of cranky criticism for people like myself who reviewed two guitars, bass and drums for a living.
As usual, I digress. I decided to dive back into the genre over the COVID summer and attacked two biographies and two autobiographies, the former examples being Funny Man Patrick McGilligan’s survey of Mel Brooks’ life and Howard Cosell: The Man The Myth And The Transformation Of American Sports by Mark Ribowsky, the latter are Norman Lear’s Even This I Get To Experience and Woody Allen’s recent Apropos Of Nothing. Full disclosure – I wasn’t planning on writing this installment until I read Allen’s testimonial to his 84 years on earth. It was so engaging and ultimately revelatory that I thought I could create a context for a look at, arguably, four men who were the seminal forces behind American entertainment in the back half of the 20th century.
More than that, people of my bent have so many hours invested in the work of these great men that we need some kind of confirmation from them and their biographers that our devotion was somehow well-placed because we are past the curtain calls and are now more interested in these guys as members of the fraternity. The fact that three of them are still around and very much kicking gives us the confidence that perhaps one can live a long blessed life if dedicated to entertaining America. Indeed Lear, at the tender age of 98, was recently in the trades as an executive producer of a TV version of Fried Green Tomatoes.
Second, they are all Jewish and that aspect fascinates me as do the storylines that intersect over the course of their careers.. Allen worked with Brooks for Sid Caesar and is generous in his praise of Brooks as a ladies man, let alone a wit. He does also remind us that Lear and his early writing partner Ed Simmons were the hot team for a while in the 50s. And they were. Cosell was in Allen’s breakthrough 1971 comedy Bananas. Lear cast Louise Lasser in the title role in his brilliantly off key soap opera Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. She lasted a season. Allen wasn’t so lucky and spends a good chunk of his book chronicling his runaway train of a relationship to an extremely red flagged Park Avenue beauty. It’s painfully forthright.
And so on.
I will start with Lear’s 2014 autobiography because he is the oldest of the three survivors. Had Cosell lived past 77 he would be 102 today. A card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation Lear, like the rest, grew up in less than luxe surroundings in Brooklyn and then Connecticut. His father, whom he loved, was a bit of a goniff and ultimately did some time in chadar, which is a Hebrew euphemism for the pokie. Lear is quick to credit Archie Bunker’s signature reprimand to Edith Bunker, “Stifle yourself!” to his father. Putting aside his titanic career in the business, Lear was a WWII hero, flying 52 combat missions in the European theater, for which he was awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters. That, to me, shaped a bravery that was very much needed for the showbiz battlefields. The byproduct is some very bloodless prose in these pages, a stoicism tempered with a Buddha’s humility that might have come from the weekly runs into the Rhineland and anti-aircraft artillery, let alone the Messerschmitts.
He was at times broke, at loose ends and suffering in bad marriages but nothing really phased him and if it did, he rarely writes of abject desperation. Personally I would have liked to hear more about him and Simmons working for Dean and Jerry. There is precious little about his process or actual views on the role of laughter. All we have time for is a quick trip through a shit ton of achievement in radio, TV, film and activism. I was kind of fascinated by Lear’s 1971 feature Cold Turkey, about a whole town that has to quit smoking to get a bunch of dough. Great overlooked comedy. And if you want to read about All In The Family, there’s always Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria. Yes we could talk about a couple of hands worth of landmark shows from Maude to Good Times, the first all-black sitcom, through Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, Fernwood 2Night. There is a 2.0 version of One Day At A Time on TV right now!
What stayed with me emotionally, and this just maybe was the way things worked out, was the story of his estrangement from Carroll O’Connor in O’Connor’s later years. He spoke of visiting the house after the great actor’s death and being given a letter from O’Connor’s widow that was addressed to Lear but was kept by O’Connor on his desk. I credit Lear’s candor for relating that sad epilogue, more for the fact that he expressed some regret at not reconciling with O’Connor while he was alive. Note to self: make peace while you still can.
It is my belief that a lot of Lear’s success is owed to O’Connor who brought almost too much to Archie which perhaps precipitated his creative and business struggles with Lear. Bunker remains, to this day, one of the greatest sitcom roles in the history of television, maybe the greatest above Ralph Kramden, George Costanza and Barney Fife in my ranking. O’Connor just blew the doors off network television, at the time feeding its viewers a steady low fibre diet of father figures like Fred McMurray and Robert Reed. Yes, Lear was driving the bus but if O’Connor hadn’t worked I doubt that Bea Arthur, Redd Foxx, Jimmie “JJ” Walker, Bonnie Franklin, Valerie Bertinelli and Sherman Hensley would have made those primetime dollars. Nor would the late great Fred Willard have become such a beloved comic foil as he was on Fernwood 2Night. All In The Family was the foundation on which Lear’s kingdom was built.
A large chunk of the text is reserved for Lear’s later years in liberal philanthropy and the story of his movement People For The American Way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – Lear is responsible for a lot of great work in Hollywood and beyond And it was his dime behind it all for the most part so he has to be commended especially, when he persevered over a few financial potholes. What drove Lear? Money perhaps. Fear of the abyss. The options weren’t much for a kid with a dad in the slammer. The character of his creation with whom he most identified? Maude, a steamroller of a woman.
Overall it’s a good if not quite revealing read. Lear is short on dirt and comedy methodology which would have been nice for anyone who has tried to write for TV or film. However it’s a lot of life to cram into a few hundred pages. Although I found it kind of excessive that he spent over over eight million dollars for a copy of the original Declaration of Independence he did share the document with the country on a national tour. That’s kind of it for Lear – lots of money well earned and well spent. And to write with this kind of detail in his 90s, he could be excused for missing a few factoids.
There is a different kind of chill in the Brooks biography, probably due to the writer’s distance from his subject. It doesn’t appear that Brooks was present in the writing or research. What would have worked was Carl Reiner writing his old friend’s history. It would have been wildly entertaining from an anecdotal perspective. Alas Reiner, a legend in his own right, is no longer available. As a result, there is neither anything very funny about Funny Man nor anything particularly moving. It is fairly dry stuff and, to be honest, more biz than show and Brooks comes off as an insecure shtickler who cranked out a lot of work, very little of it treated as more than just that. Again, Woody admired his swordsmanship with the ladies while I had some problems with the way Brooks treated his first wife. I temper my criticism with the knowledge that Brooks grew up sharing one bed with his three brothers or so it is written. Short, poor and not much to look at, Brooks had something to prove. Landing Anne Bancroft as wife No. 2 was probably the point in his life when he finally got out of Brooklyn.
He entertained the troops during a short stint in the army, moving to The Catskills when he got back in the world. He ‘Sammy Glicked’ his way into the good graces of the legendary Caesar and the writer’s room on Your Show Of Shows that was memorialized in My Favorite Year and Laughter On The 23rd Floor. The room in its various iterations did include Allen for a period.
As per the Lear book there is a long timeline of TV, movies and Broadway, most of it taken with the various versions of The Producers, Brooks’ signature film and one of the funniest ever made, thanks in no small part to stars Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Dick Shawn. That Brooks could reinvent The Producers as a massive stage hit not to mention a terrific season’s worth of laughs for Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm is truly incredible. It’s just not a lively read. Certainly not as much fun at the American Masters documentary on Brooks of a few years ago. Also check out Brooks and Reiner on Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.
Second in Brooks’ credits is Blazing Saddles – (the 2000 Year Old Man routine was a shared credit with Reiner) which might stand as the most politically incorrect comedy of all time. It is now aired with a disclaimer which is a serious badge of honor in my books. After that there’s more movies but with the exception of Young Frankenstein which, it can be debated, was really Wilder’s, very little of it is part of the comedy liturgy. Again, this book should have been a much more high concept piece, more in the lines of Jim Carrey’s recent foray into literary weirdness. I learned little about Brooks that I really wanted to know. What I did learn, I didn’t need to. Finally, there was not enough about Get Smart! although Brooks’ role as co-creator and his contributions to one of the top ten sitcoms of all time seem to be a little thin. It truly might have been Buck Henry’s show. One thing is for sure – like the rest Brooks paid his dues, rising to the top after decades of struggling. You don’t see that today.
In terms of a page turner, the Cosell biography is the best. In the history of televised sports there never will be another Howard Cosell who, simply put, was the greatest TV sports journalist of all time. He pretty much invented the discipline, formerly a journalistic sub-basement populated by drunk ex-jocks and neatly coiffed bingo callers. Please note the book has been around for years but as a media history lesson, it is timeless. Anybody with a kid in J School or some bogus sports management program at college or university has to be gifted a copy of this book.
Unlike Lear and Brooks, but like Allen, Cosell never collaborated with others. He was his own invention, another poor kid from Brooklyn, one generation out of the Russian shtetl, who rose to a ranking officer in the Brooklyn Navy Yards during the war, then a successful lawyer and huge sports fan who muscled his way onto local radio and TV in New York and then re-hustled his way into the ABC TV network after many at bats and foul balls. Here was a Jew who had to ingratiate himself to the Ivy-league old boys who ran network television in its golden heyday. People like Roone Arledge, the patron saint of TV sports as the creator of ABC’s Wide World Of Sports. ‘Roone’ is a name Cosell would never have encountered in his youth.
It was Cosell’s love of the fight game that earned him his stripes, first as the media cornerman for the troubled heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson whom Cosell eventually jettisoned for Patterson’s various personal flaws. He then made the fateful decision to hitch his star to the ‘Louisville Lip’, a noisy young Olympic fighter named Cassius Clay who, in his time, went on to become the most famous person in the world as one Muhammad Ali.
Much has been written about their relationship, one that will never be repeated in today’s sports universe populated by the corporate shills we mentioned above, albeit less soused, and the spoiled athletes who, for the most part, stand for nothing, not even the national anthem. Cosell and Ali had a relationship that was worthy of a Biblical metaphor, the former some kind of Aaron to Ali’s Moses. I’m riffing here.
Like the two heroes of Exodus, It took Cosell to enunciate what Ali couldn’t about the fighter’s decision to convert to Islam, respect Allah and refuse to report for military duty. Ali, it might be remembered, didn’t do himself any favors by changing his name and faith in an America where the ink on Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act wasn’t yet dry. There were people in sports who wouldn’t acknowledge his new name and his time spent with Malcolm X didn’t resonate with those who sent their boys off to Vietnam, many to die. Cosell actively advocated for Ali, citing legalities and standing up for the fighter’s rights. Thus, Cosell became part of the story, by design or not, a story much larger than mere boxing. This was American history being played out in real time. I believe that without Cosel keeping the conversation going with the American public, Ali might not have come through it as well. The relationship is dramatized in Ali, the Will Smith-starring biopic with Jon Voigt as Cosell.
This was courageous work from the press box, Cosell taking great personal and professional risks with his words, a stance that he carried into other areas. Please check out this link to a legendary screed on the racial controversies at the 1968 Olympics.
Ali lost three extremely prime years in his career, and when Ali was reinstated, Cosell reaped the rewards he so richly deserved. He spent the better part of the 70s riding shotgun to the Promised Land on Ali’s second act and third acts, while seeing his own star rise to the point where Cosell became the man everybody loved to hate on Monday Night Football. For one season he even had his own variety show which delivered unto prime time one Bill Murray. None of this happened by ABC’s choice as Cosell had few friends at ABC past Arledge who couldn’t quite be described as a friend. Cosell was just that big, consumed too with Icarus-like ambition, much more so than the others in this essay. Why? Again a poor Jew with nothing to really fall back on, armed with only his superior intellect and survival skills, he literally forced his way into the scrum. I write this with a little mist in my eyes because some of my fondest memories were grounded in MNF viewing parties in my mother’s basement with ten guys and some Schlitz my father had brought in from Detroit. I remember that first MNF game, Jets versus Cleveland and Homer Jones’ kickoff return for a TD winning it for the Browns and Cosell’s dramatic line at the end of the game, “Joe Namath stands alone!”
I also remember a cold winter day in 1968 watching Cosell calling a tape delay bout featuring Jimmy Ellis, the champ in Ali’s absence, winning a ridiculous decision over an aging Patterson, who had clearly outfought Ali’s former sparring partner. This is over 50 years ago!
If you don’t remember Cosell’s heyday then this piece isn’t for you. If you can’t clearly imitate his inimitable nasal gravitas with the words, “Oakland Alameda County Coliseum” then you’re excused. Billy Crystal’s legendary impression of Cosell is more loving homage than sendup. None of today’s muzzled mannequins will ever be so fascinating as to attract the likes of John Lennon to the broadcast booth. It also should be noted that it was MNF that broke the news of Lennon’s death on national TV. MNF today is a vestigial remnant of what it was.
Last year’s MNF broadcast team, led by one Booger McFarland was a far cry from Dennis Miller and “Foutsy” let alone the unholy trinity of Cosell, The Danderoo and Faultless Frank Gifford. The tension between them made for terrific TV and it was Cosell’s imperfections that kept the booth hopping, inclusive of some drinking issues that caused him to puke on Gifford’s shoes during a memorable game between my New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles at the old Franklin Field during that first season of MNF. The Giants lost and with it a playoff berth. I wish I could remember my grandmothers’ maiden names as well as that night.
Wherever he went he was mobbed, the couch critics turning into fawning fans. Cosell needed security at one point in his career. My friend Stevie tells a story of seeining Cosell on a Manhattan street, a much taller man than he was expecting, clad in Burberry and sporting a rather imposing Churchill in his maw. “I don’t care what they say, Howard, I still like you,” was the best my friend could do in the presence of his Howardness. Cosell took a slow draw on the stogie and turned, with an imperious glower, to reply “And just who are they?” It was Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow who best described Cosell as “grace disguised as bluster.”
If you can find it there is a terrific interview Cosell did with Robinson himself in a limo on the way back from Gil Hodges’ funeral in 1972. Robinson was to die just a few months later but the interaction between the two men is the stuff of great two-handed theatre. Whatever drove Cosell, the engine was probably turned on by Robinson. Indeed, if one had the time, a solid thesis could be written that the true roots of the modern civil rights movement in America started that day in 1947 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn when grown men had to explain to their sons why a black man of Robinson’s immense talent was just now stepping up to a major league plate. Many of those fans were from the Jewish and immigrant communities who had seen their fair share of suffering and would go on to lives of great success and influence.
Cosell’s career waxed and waned in step with Ali’s career in the early 80s. His drinking now more than noticeable, he finally left MNF in the mid-80s and faded into a forced retirement after a short stint in print. The love of his life, Mary, known as ‘Emmy’, passed away in 1990 and Cosell hung on until 1992, his health finally failing him. There never was a victory lap as cable started to push network TV sports to the sideline. The leagues started to clamp down on outliers and outlaws on their telecasts. The stories became about the money rather than the men earning the money. However I wonder what side of the coin Cosell would have come out for with regards to Colin Kaepernick and the whole BLM deal. The shenanigans on the sidelines would have tested the strength of Cosell’s convictions.
I am no longer the sports fan I was even five years ago. I have written about that. There is very little to cheer for. Whatever sport is or isn’t, the dollar overshadows everything. Yet Cosell, this many years after this death, stands a little taller than the rest in this study. Our times are best described as the illusory state of Olam Hasheker according to our sages. In our world, that which appears good is actually evil and so goes the reverse. Cosell, although never evil was painted as the pushy disrupter, which is shorthand for anti-semitism which was distinctly less fashionable than it is today. He saw it himself and fought through it with the perspicacity of a man who was sure of his moral footing. It was a lonely perch overlooking for the millions watching him at home and listening to him on radio.
Yes, for a time people who had no interest in football tuned in to watch and listen intently to a homely man with a pronounced Brooklyn accent to go with his pronounced nose who was born one Howard Cohen. As the late great Dick Enberg said, “When the complete book on sportscasting in the 20th century is composed, Howard Cosell has earned the longest chapter. His influence on sportscasting has been profound.”
I mentioned earlier that Woody gave Cosell a role as himself in Bananas, calling the play by play of an assassination attempt, a fair indication that Cosell’s ship had come in by 1971. Allen, himself as much a New York Knicks fan as Spike Lee.
And what of Allen? Well, this is the most emotional read of the bunch because Woody bares his soul while kicking in some great throwaway lines, most of which are in the classic idiom of self-deprecation. My initial problem with the book was that it’s just one book. Given that Allen was into his career by the time he was sixteen and that he has made more movies than ten good directors combined, the coverage is thin. Yes, of his 50 feature film credits, there are a few turkeys but the forest obscures the towering redwoods in his catalogue. I would have preferred a more selective retrospective when he talked of his films. There are other tomes dedicated to his craft and this book is more about a life than a career and for it Allen has to be commended. Ultimately, however, to borrow from the Talmud of Festivus, the book is “an airing of the grievances”.
Like Lear’s, Woody’s father was a bit of a schemer and grifter always, it seemed, a day late and a dollar short. Some of what you will read of Allen’s childhood is actually illustrated in the brilliant flashback scenes in Annie Hall, Allen’s masterwork. It was the last comedy to win a Best Picture Oscar and shall remain so.
Allen was making more money than his parents by the time he was in tenth grade, churning out printable gags for the columns as Allan Konigsberg for a showbiz publicity firm’s celebrity clients. Throughout the book Allen is very careful to pay respect to the people he met on the way up, including the old school comic Phil Foster who had a victory lap on Gary Marshall’s Laverne & Shirley late in a life that included being my celebrity partner on the Canadian game show Definition! Won a couple of rounds too! Marshall is also mentioned during his days as a comic at the old Duplex cabaret in New York that my sister would take me to in the 70s. I was blessed to have played a couple of hours of doubles with Marshall way back when. Indeed there are so many bygone names mentioned that the early chapters read like a Broadway yizhkor service.
Allen writes in a very frank, conversational patois. You’re not really reading, you’re spending quality time with a man who has done enough living for an apartment building full of Jews on Avenue J in Brooklyn. I spent a lot of my childhood on Avenue L so I have some feeling for his roots. Although his parents are not written about with the detail of Lear’s, Allen professes deep love for his younger sister Letty Aronson, now his producer.
Early in the book, apropos of nothing actually, Woody takes a detour into his troubles with his former producer Jean Doumanian with whom he shared a terrific relationship until the money started going sideways and he had to sue her and her partner. Allen begged them to account for his profits instead of bringing in the lawyers but they stonewalled and he had to litigate. They settled, It’s an interesting inclusion in the proceedings, something that could have been handled in a paragraph instead of pages. That Allen purposely positions himself on the moral high ground on this one is important over the course of the read.
It’s a hard position to maintain. Allen wasn’t on the up and up when he first got involved with Louise Lasser, who blows into his life during the late stages of a starter marriage. She then proceeds to torture him for most of the sixties during which Lasser took full advantage of the “new liberties” to quote a great line from the Coens’ A Serious Man. Hard to believe he put up with it. To say Allen was blinded by love is an understatement. Lasser was one big “Danger Will Robinson”. Stop me before I sub-reference again..
One of the nice tributes in the going is reserved for Bob Hope whom Allen idolized in his youth for Hope’s charming life in charming movies in locales way the fuck away from Brooklyn. That and Hope’s signature phrasing of punchlines on the exhale. Woody’s act was crafted on the inhale blurting out his masterworks on the edge of dyspepsia. Similar to Hope’s best lines, Allens’ seemed to linger in the ether until you caught up with them. You could never be ahead of Allen’s standup because he would zig when you thought zag. Laughter in the room always seemed to be on tape delay.
The film that gets the most coverage, ironically, is What’s New Pussycat in which Allen just shows up. But it’s more about that period in his life than the film, a young kid messing around with Peter Sellers and the go go London scene of the mid-60s. Trust me, the name dropping is done with style. However, Allen makes sure, on several occasions, to make sure we know that his flat in Manhattan was a PENTHOUSE.
These misdemeanors are forgiven and/or forgotten when we hit the pages dedicated to the ‘problem’ as I like to call it. Or the tragedy in a few acts. Perhaps this is the ultimate reason for the book, to tell his side of the story. I’m speaking, of course, of the story arc that started with his unlikely affair with his stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn (his eventual wife) whilst still calling her mother and his muse, Mia Farrow, his partner. It’s a difficult passage. Do I have an opinion about it? No. In a world where it is not uncommon for men to run off with their wife’s bestie or their own sister-in-law, this is just another messy combo platter. A man who is in an emasculating, sexless, joyless relationship can get desperate which , no doubt, describes Allen at the time twenty some odd years ago. Farrow was still involved with Allen professionally but it appears the brood of third party adopted and natural kids and Farrow’s unique parenting skills – two children would eventually commit suicide – had taken its toll on whatever relationship there was off set.
No, I don’t think documenting Soon-Yi’s budding sexuality in Polaroids left casually on the mantle so that her mother could find them was the best way of breaking the news to Mia that you were involved with her adopted daughter. Not that there is a good way. Yes, that level of scandal would greatly embarrass Mia Farrow, despite having been to a few rodeos herself. But the heart wants what the heart wants. Soon-Yi was 22 at the time, extremely unhappy in a home where she was called ‘retarded’ and when Allen finally moved in for a kiss, according to the book, she said “I wondered when you were going to make a move.” Morally, this kind of move isn’t going to get you a seat at the table in the next life. But it’s not criminal yet there’s no question that Farrow, even though Allen had single handedly kept her career going decades after Rosemary’s Baby, had the right to be pissed and then turn the rest of the kids against him save for Moses whom I will get to later.
Farrow’s revenge, and it was purely that, was to brainwash her daughter Dylan into believing that Allen had been sexually inappropriate with the girl one night in 1992 at their country home. All this was supported by the perfect accomplice, Woody’s son Ronan Farrow, the investigative journalist who broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Do not let this colour your opinion of Ronan but, according to Allen, Mia slept naked with the boy until he was eleven. Yeesh. Ronan actually pressured the original publisher of this book, to dump it pre-publication.
Whatever judgement Allen’s ardent public held in reserve during the Soon-Yi scandal was certainly tested when the Dylan Farrow allegations came forth. And that is all they were, allegations, That the police could not accept Dylan as a reliable victim killed investigations in two states. But in the court of public opinion, fueled by the influence of third grade morons like Emily Ratajkowski, and former journals of record like The New York Times, Allen was a monster. Douchey spineless actors posted their ‘regrets” for working with Allen. Amazon backed out of movie deals to great cheering from the mob.
With no real malice to anyone involved, even Farrow, Allen presents his case calmly and rationally. And it’s a winning case, one that Diane Keaton has stood for along with Woody’s own son Moses, now 40 and a counsellor in his own right. In fact, the whole passage brought me to tears. There are actually pro-Allen tropes out there that paint the haters as racist themselves for shorting Soon-Yi as having been some kind of unwitting Asian sex slave. As I have said, I have a lot invested in Allen’s work going back to my youth and the comedy albums I spun to death when I hosted the Comedy Hour on a local radio station way the hell back when. Somewhere in late sister’s effects was a letter Allen wrote her when she fan mailed him as a kid. Give me six Woody Allen Blu-rays and I am good for a desert island. I have a friend who consistently greets me with the line, “You know nothing of my work.”
No, I am not neutral on this issue but I wasn’t quite sure about Allen’s truth until I read this book. I am now and I will issue a challenge to all of you reading this – go out and buy the book, read it and if Allen’s ‘testimony’ does not establish, at the very least, reasonable doubt in your mind, send me a cogent paragraph or two with your thoughts and the receipt for the book. If you make any sense – “Believe the victim” shit will not cut it on this one – I will send you back your money. Make sure the receipt is dated after the posting date of this entry. Please.
As far as some kind of conclusion to this book report, I was going to try to collect and calibrate all four men as Jews. Difficult. Old world Judaism was something to escape from when you grew up poor in The Depression. There were very few rich Jews to aspire to in the 30s and then there was the war. Woody, the youngest, was an old soul himself and the respect he had for his roots was best illustrated in that aforementioned scene from Annie Hall when Allen takes Tony Roberts and Keaton on a time trip back to be flies on the wall in his grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment during a family gathering. In the scene, he pokes fun at the simple Jews of his past – “I was kvite a lively dancer”. I remember those same relatives in Brooklyn when I was a kid and I do remember laughing at the scene when I first saw the film in the theatre over 40 years ago. Today, I watch that scene and I cry for those people and a world that has vanished.
I think as a group, all were slightly ashamed of their roots. Woody perhaps, maybe more than perhaps, is a classic self-hating Jew. Lear is not too complimentary when it comes to his own mother. I appreciate the honesty but…on another hand Lear does mention that he was infuriated by the anti-semitic rants of the Canadian-born depression era radio personality Father Coughlin. Brooks’ 2000 Year-Old Man was given the default accent of an old Lithuanian Jew.. Yes, ‘May the Schwartz Be With You” and all that. Whatever. For Cosell, his religion was himself but he was so greatly conflicted about his identity that he ran from observance. Again, why eat overcooked brown flunken when you can nosh on the steak tartare at “21”? I get it.
So we will talk about possible legacies. Cosell, in spite of his brilliance, is mostly forgotten now as are the athletes he covered. As for Brooks, very little of his work holds up past The Producers which is the kind of work could only have been made in the sixties when Jews had the good sense not to take themselves too seriously in a world that was suddenly embracing them. Could you make that film today? No. Last year we had Oscar winner Jojo Rabbit about a kid who had Hitler as a friend. Can’t say I didn’t have trouble with it’s absurdism, even though we had worked with the director/writer Taika Waititi on his first hit What We Do In The Shadows. As per my earlier words, Blazing Saddles is hilarious but this many years later, the western film genre is pretty much dead as is the audience for its golden era. You couldn’t show Blazing Saddles to your kids. But Mel made us laugh when he did. You can’t take that away from him
Lear is now, a solid forty years past his glory days, strictly an eminence grise. After his shows were done he branched off into film distribution and financing, TV stations and more. He became a power broker in Hollywood and rightly so. No, his old shows don’t hold up. There were of the socio- political moment and it was quite a moment. However beyond all the talent he delivered to the small screen he established that it was okay for prime time sitcoms to be “about something” other than a zany forced mixup at the laundromat. Not that many are but there aren’t many Bea Arthurs out there anymore. Whatever, Lear is carved into the primetime Mt. Rushmore.
Only Woody’s work will stand up past his own mortal fresh date. Because only Woody Allen can make Woody Allen movies. And with a Manhattan that is pretty much gone for the foreseeable future revisiting Broadway Danny Rose and Manhattan might be the best way to see New York at the present time. As I have said, my days of being entertained by the current cinema are pretty much gone. Gambling my precious time on a friend’s recommendation of a new TV or streaming series is a bet I’m reluctant to make. Reading these four books was a nice distraction from the shitshow out on the street and gave me some appreciation as to how lucky our generation was to grow up with these men and their work which, for the most part, made us laugh at nobody else’s expense. Whatever Trump is or isn’t, I’m getting a little sick of Saturday Night Live’s constant mean spirited attacks on a US President. Yes, there are lessons to be learned about choices. None of these guys are going to win Parent Of The Year awards. These are the last guys I would ask for a favor. While I can’t quite call Lear and Allen narcissistic I recall a line that might have been used to describe Picasso, “All artists are selfish and great artists are really selfish.”
I will remind you that I read all these books from paper editions. Thank you Stevie for loaning me three of them. Not sure I would have got through it all in digital. After this my next few reads will be fiction. Thank you out there for taking your valuable time to get this far yourself.
NEXT BLOG: “Inbox. Outbox. Deadbox.”