Friday, April 29, 2016

In Search of ‘Comedy Tonight’

A few years later: Klein on SNL.
There are no pictures floating around the Internet from Comedy Tonight, and precious few of Klein as a young man. (Naturally I couldn’t take pictures off the monitor at the Paley Center — that’s all kinds of wrong in an archive.)

Only at the end of the last episode of Comedy Tonight, on 21 August 1970, did Robert Klein get around to introducing the cast of his show. After eight weeks, this was the first chance viewers had to get to know anything about the regulars, most of whom were relative unknowns. It’s also the first acknowledgment that one co-star, Peter Boyle, starred in a hit movie that year — Joe. When at last Madeline Kahn appears (“Hiya, boss!”), she and Klein canoodle for a long moment, whispering and giggling. The microphones don’t pick up their voices clearly, yet it’s impossible to miss the intimacy they share.

At his insistence, she does “that thing I love”: announcing “The Bobby Klein Show” in a high-pitched Noo Yawk accent and a Sylvester the Cat-style sputtering. Madeline warns the audience, “I have a degree in speech therapy, so I can do this.” (“Tastefully?” Klein inquires. “Well….” Madeline’s voice trails off.) Once she’s finished her truly silly bit of business, Klein announces, “Richard Rodgers saw her do that one night and signed her for his new show, which is called Two by Two, on Broadway this October.”

It had been a long, strange trip. A summer replacement for CBS’ hugely popular Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour — and a forerunner of the “rural purge” that overhauled the network’s programming a short time later — Comedy Tonight strives to be urbane, a smarter Laugh-In, with thematic arrangement of topical satire, delivered in blackout sketches — to the appreciative chortles of a laugh track. The writers and producers, chastened by the example of the Smothers Brothers, on the same network, didn’t want to ruffle anyone’s sensibilities. Apart from Klein’s peerless monologues, the bulk of the material hasn’t aged well.

But it has survived.

Klein nowadays.

No one was more shocked by this news than Klein himself, who believed for decades that all the tapes were destroyed when producer Joe Cates’ basement flooded. Yet the entire series — eight episodes — can be found in the collections of the Paley Center for Media here in New York, and I recently watched some familiar, impossibly young talents who more than earned the canned applause they received.

When Comedy Tonight was announced, only Klein, Madeline, and Peter Boyle had signed up. Newspapers took note that Klein and Madeline had worked together in New Faces of 1968, and that Klein and Boyle had performed Candide together in Corpus Christi, Texas. (No one seemed to remember that Madeline sang Cunegonde in the same concert, conducted by Maurice Peress.) Soon enough, though, the rest of the cast signed up.

Judy Graubart had worked with Madeline at the Upstairs at the Downstairs, and she’d worked with Klein, Boyle, and another cast member, Lynn Lipton, at Second City. Jerry Lacy had just finished playing Bogey in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam on Broadway (and he’d play it again, himself, in Herbert Ross’ film adaptation in 1972) and was a regular on Dark Shadows. Boni Enten was in the original cast of Oh, Calcutta!, and the stunningly beautiful Laura Greene, the only black person in the cast, had starred in Putney Swope. I wasn’t familiar with Marty Barris (not to my taste, once I saw him) or MacIntyre Dixon (quite good), but Barbara Cason’s acerbic delivery has enlivened more shows than I can count.

The series begins (July 5, 1970) by announcing what sort of show it will not be, offering quick-take parodies of Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, Hee-Haw, The Johnny Cash Show, and conventional show-biz variety programs such as “The Bobby Klein Show” (where Madeline, as “the fabulous singer, Miss Connie Lane,” blatantly lip-syncs as she falls behind the audio track). The parodies are pretty mild: Laugh-In and Hee-Haw recognizable mainly thanks to their respective peek-a-boo shutters and fake cornfield, and Graubart dons a Cleaning Woman costume to introduce her guest star (Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill, who sings “Spinning Wheel”).

Once that’s out of the way, Klein sings a goodbye song — 15 minutes into the program. Viewers in 1970, unaccustomed to such rule-breaking, must have freaked. “What? It’s over already?”

For the next 45 minutes — and really, for all eight episodes — Comedy Tonight will try to establish what sort of show it will be. Every episode will open with a couple of quick sketches, followed by the ensemble singing Sondheim’s eponymous song; around the middle of the hour, Klein will deliver an extended monologue. Sketches will be organized thematically, with two-part titles (“SPORTS: BASEBALL”) superimposed over a brightly psychedelic background. Sets are minimal, mostly a darkened soundstage. And while the material does remain smarter than most other variety television of the period, you can almost feel the writers’ and performers’ desire to break free.

Graubart the Great as Julia Grownup on The Electric Company.
Minus the emphasis on vocabulary and spelling, many sketches on Comedy Tonight are reminiscent of PBS’s zanier programming from the 1970s, and Julia would have fit right in with Klein & Co.

The first theme, for example, is “SOCIETY: RADICAL CHIC,” and Madeline and Klein play a wealthy couple who are throwing a party for “the poor.” The writing probably wouldn’t have passed muster at Saturday Night Live in its heyday, but it’s worth noting that Tom Wolfe coined the term “radical chic” in a New York magazine essay that had appeared one month before the episode aired — June 8, 1970. Was Middle America supposed even to know what these words meant?

Especially given the Smothers’ experience at CBS, there’s a certain boldness to the frequent appearances of characters dressed as hippies, of characters protesting, of the ensemble performing “The Age of Aquarius” (once correctly, once as a parody of a campaign song for Nelson Rockefeller), and to Oh, Calcutta! itself. A character played by Madeline pickets the all-nude play, describing it as “a blatantly sexist show that treats women as inferiors. …Just tell me why the men’s costumes are different from the women’s!” A two-part study of U.S. Senator Herbert Mildew Dullman (Boyle) mostly mocks political image-making (a consultant immediately renames then-candidate Dullman “Ted”). While there’s no hint of the Senator’s party affiliation — sure, the sketches do qualify as political satire. (Boyle would play a campaign manager in The Candidate two years later.)

But the Vietnam War is never mentioned, not even in a series of sketches (featuring guest star Fred Willard) set in an army headquarters, and the attitude toward hippies is perhaps best encapsulated in an anodyne song, “Summer Is,” performed by almost the entire cast, dressed in Summer of Love outfits — and Boyle, dressed as a cop. The show’s commitment to its own tokenism goes only so far: Greene is scarcely used and doesn’t appear in every episode (though Willie Tyler and his puppet, Lester, are guests a few times). The material is bolder than that of New Faces of 1968, but that’s not saying much.

A dash of surrealism pervades three sketches that find Klein in three cities: Washington, Hollywood, and New York’s Madison Avenue. Walking along a hallway (and the Avenue) he opens doors or runs into various characters that illustrate the foibles of government, moviemaking, and advertising. The satire could go further, but the set-up and execution represent a worthy midpoint between Ernie Kovacs and Monty Python (think of the Argument Clinic). [In the Hollywood sequence, the actor playing a boy director (“I’m 8½!”) is Steven Paul, who grew up to direct Madeline in Slapstick (Of Another Kind).]

When Comedy Tonight succeeds best, it targets the timeless — that which will never change or that which is already finished. The “radical chic” couple reappears as “Beautiful People” (to the strains of the Melanie song), and in this age of the One Percent, their attempts to understand the underprivileged are semi-quaint, semi-refreshing. A series of sketches on one-upping attacks human behavior that predates history. (When Cason tries to make Madeline feel as if she visited only the most ordinary sites in Europe, Barris intervenes and advises her to make up names. Madeline eagerly begins to speak of “the running of the chickens in Sedilla,” while Cason trades her condescension for dismay.)

The recurring character of Klein’s best friend, Peter Chalker (Boyle, in a toupée), will ring true to anyone who’s ever struggled to find something nice to say to a friend who’s in an underwhelming show — or anyone who’s ever performed in an underwhelming show and had to endure the awkward “compliments” and “encouragement.” The routines display some nicely understated character work from Boyle, too.

1970 was a big year for Peter Boyle. He’s seen here in the title role in Joe.

From the August 7 episode, a long series of sketches — presumably the daytime TV shows being watched by a housewife (Graubart) — may have lost some of its relevance only because there are so few lineups any more that resemble the old-time fare of soap operas, old movies, game shows, re-run sitcoms, and a perfunctory news report. In each of the soap operas (including the vampire soap “Strangest Shadows”), the plot is identical: one character doesn’t know the other character is his long-lost relative; one character has only three months to live.

In the August 2 episode, “MAN AGAINST: RESTAURANTS” satirizes the expense and the jockeying for position among diners at an exclusive French restaurant. Dixon and Lipton have come to celebrate an anniversary — it’s been one year since they could afford to eat here — while Madeline’s One Percenter, Poopsie, breezes right past them on the waiting line and has already finished her meal before they can order.

Madeline returns in a later sketch, depicting the restaurant’s floor show: the cabaret star “Fraulein Lotta Anguish.” To a lilting operetta-style melody, Madeline sings of “When times were good in old Vienna.” But fortunes changed — “Ptui, how the market declined!” — and the number turns into a Weill-flavored anthem. “The Danube was blue, and we were, too!” (The fingerprints of Tony Geiss, a staff writer for the show and the lyricist of “Das Chicago Song,” are all over this piece.) When things were rotten in Old Vienna, “Ve ate garbage!” Madeline shrieks, reciting the disgusting food in such detail that a wealthy diner (Klein) ultimately flees the restaurant. Klein has said that this number was his favorite of Madeline’s contributions to Comedy Tonight.

Perhaps the most successful of the topical sketches is “Miss Extremist 1970,” a beauty pageant hosted by Klein. The three finalists are “Miss Violent Overthrow” (Enten), “Miss Women’s Lib” (Barris, in a dress), and the reactionary “Miss Love It or Leave It” (Madeline, in an Uncle Sam costume). “Miss Love It” burns books for recreation and is studying to repeal the law of evolution; when she senses that she’s not going to win this year, she remarks with innocent-seeming menace to the host, “Klein isn’t exactly an American name, is it?”

Finally, I found truly prescient one series of sketches, “TELEVISION: NEWSCASTERS,” which shows a news executive (Boyle) firing his anchors in favor of a more entertaining program. Now the anchor is a standup (Barris), the weather report is a soap opera (“Outlook for Tomorrow”), novelist Jacqueline Susann is the gossip reporter from Washington, and George Jessel reports live from a crime scene. The film Network wouldn’t be released until 1976.

“The number you have dialed is not in service.”
Madeline played the voice of a thermostat in one sketch.

As I say, Comedy Tonight ends with a glimpse of the real-life rapport between Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein, and it’s not the only one: at the end of “Summer Is,” for example, he reclines beside her, and giggling playfully, she drops her hat over his face. Comedy Tonight wasn’t the first time they’d worked together — it wasn’t even the first time they’d appeared on television together — and it certainly wasn’t the last. Klein would be Madeline’s most frequent partner. He would bring her back for a TV special, and together they won acclaim on Broadway in The Sisters Rosensweig. In the film Mixed Nuts, they played unlikely lovers, and if Madeline had survived, Klein would have joined the cast of the show Cosby to play her love interest once again.

The Paley Center just happens to have the Cosby episode in which Klein guest stars, so I followed up Comedy Tonight with the final teaming of Kahn and Klein, “A Very Nice Dance.” He plays a detective on a stakeout in her café; she believes that he’s spending so much time there because he likes her. He does like her — but when the stakeout leads to a bust, she thinks she misunderstood his intentions.

Embarrassed, she sends him away, and only the intervention of Hilton Lucas (Cosby) can bring them together. He plays the record to which he and his wife (Phylicia Rashad) first danced on the night they met, and soon Madeline and Klein are in each other’s arms.

Three decades had passed since New Faces, and they weren’t fresh-faced kids any more. Yet the intimacy had endured. The episode ends with a shot of the whole street dancing — but in the foreground, as they should be — hardly past the front door of Hilton’s house, as if they couldn’t bear to break the spell that began indoors — are Madeline Kahn and her dear friend.

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