Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Weirdos, whatnots and Flywheel: a fireside chat with Andrew T. Smith

There aren't many people who can honestly say they wrote the book Marx & Re-Marx: Creating and Re-creating the Lost Marx Brothers Radio Series, but one who can, indeed the only one who can, is Andrew T. Smith, a disgustingly youthful wanderer down the byways of popular culture, and the subject of this interview (after Monica Bellucci turned me down on the grounds that she had never heard of the book and suggested I interview the author instead).

Should you part with your hard-earned shillings to obtain a copy? Well, yes, actually you should, because it's that rarest of beasts: the Marx Brothers book that actually tells you something new.
It's a history and analysis of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, to this day a relatively neglected element of the boys' oeuvre, and doubly interesting to me in the light it throws on the writing of Duck Soup. (For instance, the programme features the line, "I'm going to tear you down and put up an office block where you're standing", a quintessentially Groucho-ish quip I was amazed to hear delivered almost word for word in the earlier Paramount film This Is The Night, meaning it got from Paramount script to Paramount script via a radio series...)
I was fascinated. Right on the arm.
It's unquestionably the best book Andrew has written since his pioneering but flawed Guide to the Mammals of China, in which a lot of the mammals proved to be imaginary ones he made up himself, resulting in a series of bloody international protests that almost lost us the Olympics.
In the following conversation, Andrew and I discuss Marxes, Muppets, the difference between screen and radio comedy, and pretty much everything else, except whether or not the 'T' stands for Edgar.

Andrew T. Smith, shortly after losing the Lou Costello lookalike competition for the fourth year running

When and how did you first encounter the Marx Brothers?

think  I first encountered the Marx Brothers at my grandmother's house during one of those Saturday Matinee double bills BBC 2 used to show during the early 90s. In fact, the first time I saw any of their work wasn't through watching one of their films at all; retrospectively I can trace it back to the Robert Youngson compilation film The Big Parade of Comedy. As his finale Youngson chose the runaway train sequence from Go West. Not one of the team's better films but a fantastic Keaton-inspired sequence in isolation.
I can't really say that I became a Marx fan straight away. In fact, it wasn't really until I was around 11-13-ish that I "discovered" them for myself. I was on a family trip to see my Dad, who was working away from home at the time, and we visited a car boot sale. There I found two audio cassette tapes that grabbed my attention. One was a set of soundtracks to the sitcom Are You Being Served?, while the other was a set of episodes from the BBC recreation of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. I fell in love with those episodes despite the fact that they didn't feature the real Marx Brothers, and my appreciation of these shows led me to track down copies of the team's films.
I already had a deep love and admiration for Laurel and Hardy, again encouraged by my grandmother, and although at first the two teams might not seem to have much in common, I think that their appeal to me can be boiled down to what I'd call "watchability." The Marxes appeared in some pretty poor films, as did Stan and Ollie, but no matter what their vehicle is, the performers themselves are always fascinating to watch.
They were masters of their craft and could elevate even the dullest of material. I love the film Hellzapoppin' and will force guests to watch it at the drop of a hat, but the same can't quite be said of Olsen and Johnson or even better known teams like Abbot and Costello or The Three Stooges, brilliant though they could be.

How do you come down on the Paramount period v MGM period issue; do you have any unusual or personal favourite films or scenes that are not usually rated highly by the Marx Consensus Enforcement Brotherhood (MCEB)? Even more heretically, is there any aspect of their work you don't warm to?

I find the Paramount films more consistently funny, but I think the generalisation of two periods labelled by studio is misleading. It is impossible for me, for example, to lump Room Service in with the MGM films and the Thalberg period is distinct from the films made after his death.
To an extent one has to judge each film on its own merits, which might be why I’m one of the few who really like Love Happy! Judged against the team’s highlights – or even as a Marx Brothers film – it isn’t great, but viewed as a solo vehicle for Harpo, with guest appearances from Chico and Groucho, I think it’s a blast.
As for aspects of their work that I don't warm too? Well, I don't think it would be too controversial to say that Room Service and The Big Store are duds, would it? I do fear a late night visit from the MCEB and their hired goombahs though.

I've been writing a bit lately about attitudes towards non-Marx elements in the films, specifically the musical interludes by supporting stars, and romantic subplots. I like the latter, love the former; many fans, however, pride themselves on an iconoclastic dislike of both. Where do you stand on these time capsule irrelavancies? Be honest: do you or do you not skip them when you watch the films at home?

It’s rare that I skip over these scenes, the At The Races ballet excluded (even Glen Mitchell hurries past that one), but it would be fair to say that they don’t hold much interest for me. The one exception that I can think of is the "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" number, a real showstopper in the best possible sense of the word. My aversion to the non-Marx musical numbers in general might be why I find Flywheel such a perfect distillation of their work: no faff, just gags.

Assuming you like any, who is your favourite co-star (except Dumont)?

Dumont aside, it’s rare that anybody gets a chance to really shine alongside the brothers. There are, of course, exceptions; Thelma Todd, Edgar Kennedy and Sig Ruman spring to mind. She doesn’t particularly get to do much in Room Service, but I love Lucille Ball in her own right. The same goes for Charles Middleton, who briefly appears in Duck Soup, but who really shines as a melodramatic heavy in a number of Laurel and Hardy shorts.

Do you miss Zeppo when he drops out, or is it a case of not missing what you never noticed in the first place?

Zeppo inevitably got a raw deal. By most accounts he was a very funny man in real life, so it’s just a shame that this never came across in the films. What he did do, though, he did well. His departure is partly to blame for the romantic subplots in the MGM films that many seem to dislike so intensely. Previously he had been the one to handle the ‘leading man’ type material, and perhaps because of his status as a brother, things seemed to blend more organically. His leaving the team saw other actors invited in to fill that role. Some worked and some didn't, but I don't think there is a single one of them I wouldn't replace with Zep. It does seem a big shame if one of the major factors in his leaving was due to his non-role in Duck Soup as his skills could have been put to much better use in A Night at the Opera, with its reintroduced romantic subplots. Come to think of it, I bet he would have been good in Deputy Seraph too - but we’re getting into the realms of fantasy now, Jones...

Sometimes when I can't sleep I wonder what it would have been like if they made lots of short films, like Laurel and Hardy. Do you think that would have been good, or do you see them as essentially feature-length comedians?

As long as the writers were top notch, and they were given time to approach the material, rather than being rushed through a Columbia-like sausage machine, I don’t see why not. I guess Flywheel was the closest they ever got to the short comedy format. The show arrived during the dawn of the sitcom format on radio and I certainly think that it worked for them. Whether film audiences would have embraced them in this format, we'll never know. Unless Humor Risk turns up, that is!

Which would you most like to hear had been discovered - recordings of all the Flywheel shows, Humor Risk, or a sound recording of a performance of I'll Say She Is?

That is a very difficult proposition to consider! On the one hand I would love to listen to the entire run of Flywheel. It is such an important and overlooked aspect of the Brothers’ career and actually being able to listen to the episodes would inevitably raise the profile of the series. At the same time, however, there are enough artefacts of Flywheel’s run to gauge its overall feel: the scripts, the remaining recordings, the recreations. In the case of Humor Risk we only have one photo and some hazy recollections from those involved in its production. For that reason I’d have to request Humor Risk – I’m curious! Also, if the entirety of Flywheel magically turned up then my book would be rendered out of date and I wouldn’t make any more money from it. I like money. In fact, if you find any episodes of Flywheel just tell me and nobody else. It’ll be our little secret.

Do you think radio and film comedy differed in any substantial or significant ways, and if that difference is in any way reflected in Flywheel? (Apart from the fact that you can't see them, I mean.)

Hmmmm. In the case of Flywheel I don’t think that there is much of a difference on the page, but the dynamics of Groucho and Chico’s performances are certainly a little different. Their delivery for the most part is slower; understandably so in that they would have been reading from scripts rather than delivering well-rehearsed material. Groucho’s delivery in particular seems a little less sure. The general conception seems to be that radio comedy emerged as a showcase for a new breed of rapid-fire comedian. In the case of the Marx Brothers I don’t think this was much of a problem, they were already rapid-fire comedians. Laurel and Hardy, on the other hand, really had to work on modifying their gentle act for radio. They were equally capable of great wordplay, but their dialogue scenes were as slow and measured as their physical humour. Neither of their two forays into the medium works particularly well, but they’re worth a listen.
I think the main differences between Flywheel and the features stem from the sitcom format rather than the radio medium. The characters are forced into interacting with a wider variety of characters and, unlike in many of the films, these supporting characters get more than one or two lines in before the next Marx interruption. If the writers were really creative I think that Harpo could have been afforded a recurring role. The radio adaptation of Dick Vosburgh’s A Night In The Ukraine manages to get by with copious sound effects.

Deputy Seraph is a rather grim prediction of what a Marx television show would have been like, but if they'd only got their act together ten years earlier a Marx tv series might well have worked. They could even have adapted Flywheel scripts, and worked in some viz biz for Harpo. But people just didn't seem that interested in the fifties.

Well, my first thought is to confess that I actually quite like what I have seen of Deputy Seraph, although I haven’t read the full script (which is coincidentally available from the same company that published my book). From what I recall, the Brothers were only to feature in the segments set in heaven. On earth they would inhabit the bodies of whichever guest stars were featured that week. I seem to recall as well that all of the earthly segments were to have been filmed in England. I wish they had at least finished the pilot, as I would have loved to see what other actors would have done in the parts. It would probably been awful, but at least it would have been more Marx material to digest.
Flywheel television show was attempted off the back of the success of the BBC revival. The full story can be found in my book, but to summarise a pilot was recorded and, as you suggest, Harpo was added to the mix. It wasn’t very good and when I interviewed folks about it I got the distinct impression that they’d all rather it never surfaced again. I’ve seen it and it’s not that bad, but I can see where they are coming from. It takes a lot of work to adapt an audio script to a visual medium and they just didn’t have the time or money to do so. Visually, it’s not that much more sophisticated than one of those comedy sketches contestants were hurried through on The Generation Game!

Have you seen Papa Romani, Chico's sitcom pilot? It's one of those things that I can't defend but watch over and over and over. If only it had gone to a series! But terrible to think that the team were still around, and active, and working, and this sort of thing was all folks could find for them to do.

 From what I can remember, Papa Romani is a very odd entity, made in the mold of other ‘ethnic’ shows like The Goldbergs. Actually, I’d love to see it again – so much of it has faded from my memory. Of all the television possibilities available to them in the fifties, however, I think it’s a shame that Harpo wasn’t invited back onto I Love Lucy or The Lucy Show, perhaps with Chico in tow. The sight of Lucy struggling to make sense of both Ricky and Chico’s accents at the same time would have been something to behold!

Fashions in humour do seem to go in waves, and often what is fashionable to one generation is seen to be merely fashionable to the next, as its emptiness is revealed. The Marxes tended to work in reverse for long periods of the time: fashion blinded people to their excellence. This takes us to the nature of their appeal: they are very, very broad, and very, very sophisticated at the same time. I often feel that the sophisticated elements of their humour actually alienated large parts of the audience that would otherwise have responded warmly to the broader bits. It seems like a lot of people thought they were talking down to them, smart-mouthing, mocking the audience in the same way they mock Sig Rumann. Do you agree at all? It really does seem like they constantly had to soften their act to get by, first with MGM fluff, then with Groucho's transmogrification into cheeky uncle quizmaster. I guess a radio series would be an even riskier proposition than a movie, if this were the case. I see the typical home audience as something like the Waltons, clustered round the steam-driven radio set in their dungarees, and emphatically not wanting to hear two smart alecks being cynical... The Hollywood Agents pilot which survives is a lot softer. 

You make a good point about the makeup of a typical radio audience at the time of Flywheel’s broadcast, but I think it’s important to note that the original incarnation of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel was by no means a flop. Of all of the shows broadcast under the banner of the Five Star Theatre, the Marx Brothers were judged the audience favourite by popular vote. The listening figures were equally respectable – just not quite as respectable as Standard Oil’s major rival Texaco and their show hosted by Ed Wynn. It is easy to see why Wynn won larger audiences, however, with his avuncular, family-friendly persona.

I see you're working on a book about the Muppets next. In common with many people, I suspect, I first encountered "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" in its Kermit version, via the Muppet LPs. Seems pretty obvious to me that the Henson boys were Marx fans.

First of all, thank you for the lead in to a much appreciated opportunity to plug Frogs, Hogs, Weirdos and Whatnots – coming soon to all good, and some bad, bookshops near you. It’s going to be a whopper, covering pretty much everything the Muppets have appeared in between the mid 1950s and now. Get those pre-orders in at http://www.miwk.com/ and be the envy of all your friends and so on and so forth.
Yes, Henson was a big fan of the Marx Brothers. In fact, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” was one of his favourite songs. It was performed by Jim as Kermit in the second ever episode of The Muppet Show in 1976 and, as you remember correctly, appeared on the first Muppet Show LP. Henson also recorded it as Rowlf the Dog in 1984 for an album entitled Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back, which wasn’t actually released until some years after his death. In the meantime Kevin Clash had sung the song in character as Elmo at Henson’s memorial service in 1990. It was clearly a song that, no matter how silly, meant something to him. Actually, as a side note, the first film that Henson could recall seeing at the cinema was The Wizard of Oz, further solidifying that Arlen and Harburg connection! In another episode of that first season of The Muppet Show, there is a pastiche of Duck Soup’s mirror routine and in the special Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting, Grover can be heard selling Tootsie-Frootsie Ice Cream. There are lots of these kinds of examples, but I think the Muppets’ connection to the Marx Brothers is actually a little deeper than this. If one looks at the format of The Muppet Show with its theatre setting and variety acts, it can clearly be seen to be a tribute to vaudeville and music hall. Throughout the series’ run, the characters perform loads of old vaudeville tunes and if you look at the guest stars featured each week, the producers often booked seasoned pros like George Burns, Ethel Merman, Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen – the closest living equivalents to genuine vaudevillians like the Marx Brothers. It’s a shame that Groucho didn’t hang on for another couple of years really, he would have made a perfect guest! So yeah, even though the two “teams” were separated by decades, they both originated from a very similar place. I’m running a website to help promote the book at the moment called Muppet Reasons (www.muppetreasons.tumblr.com). Each day I throw up a video or an image or a link which provides a reason to love the Muppets. In honour of this interview, I shall try to ensure that every reason during the week of this posting evokes the Marx Brothers in some way.

An album just of Rowlf songs called Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back??? Surely that’s the best title for an album ever?

 I love living in a world where a puppet dog can release a Frank Sinatra parody album, don't you? Actually, the album has little to do with Old Blue Eyes. Instead, it’s a collection of songs that would seem to have been Henson’s favourites. He loved silly songs, so as well as Muppet favourites like “Bein’ Green” it also featues daft stuff like “Carbon Paper” and “You and I and George”. I’d love to know the story behind that album. Did Henson record it on a whim? Why was it held from release for so long?