Confessions of a TV Addict #5: Aaron Ruben, Man Behind the Laughter

So what could a Jewish kid from Chicago possibly know about life among rural Southerners or the black experience in Watts? Probably not a whole heck of a lot, but if that kid’s name is Aaron Ruben, there’s one thing he  does know – funny! For Aaron Ruben was the producer/writer behind such classic sitcoms as THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and SANFORD AND SON, who used his comedic talents behind the scenes keep America laughing while glued to the boob tube for over forty years!

Milton Berle in his radio days

Ruben was born on Chicago’s West Side in 1914, and after service in WWII began his show biz career writing for comic Wally Brown on Dinah Shore’s radio show. He was soon hired by Burns & Allen for their program, and then wrote for Milton Berle alongside Nat Hiken, who would play an important role in Ruben’s later career. Berle brought Ruben on board for his smash TV series TEXACO STAR THEATER for the 1953-54 season, marking the writer’s first efforts on the small screen. They wouldn’t be his last!

(clockwise from top) Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Nanette Fabray, and Sid Caesar in “Caesar’s Hour”

Ruben’s next gig found him in heady comedy company indeed. Sid Caesar returned after his smash YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS in a new variety hour titled, appropriately enough, CAESAR’S HOUR, bringing back sidekicks Carl Reiner and Howard Morris along with newcomer Nanette Fabray (replacing Imogene Coca, who went out on her own). Aaron was added to a writing team that included Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Tolkin, as well as Caesar, Reiner, and Morris, producing a live hour of mirth on a weekly basis! The show lasted three seasons, following which Ruben went to work for his old friend Hiken writing and directing THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, subtitled YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH but better known to TV fans as SGT. BILKO.

Ruben with Don Knotts & Andy Griffith

In 1960, Ruben got in on the ground floor for a true comedy classic, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. He was a producer/writer/director on the series set in the quaint little town of Mayberry, North Carolina, and did some of his finest work on the show. Among his many contributions are a few standouts: “Barney Mends a Broken Heart”, which introduced The Fun Girls from Mount Pilot (Joyce Jameson and Jeanne Carson), who returned in the Ruben-penned “The Fun Girls”. “Floyd, The Gay Deceiver” gave series regular Howard McNear a chance to shine. Ruben left the show after the final episode of 1964, but returned in 1968 with “Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting”, the improbable tale of Barney Fife trying to negotiate détente between the U.S. and Russia, which turned out to be Don Knott’s series swan song.

Frank Sutton and Jim Nabors in “Gomer Pyle USMC”

That last episode in ’64 was the pilot for GOMER PYLE, USMC (1964-69), a spin-off starring the late Jim Nabors as Mayberry’s hayseed gas station attendant, now in the Marine Corps, opposite apoplectic Frank Sutton as the beleaguered Sgt. Vince Carter. GOMER PYLE was Ruben’s baby all the way, played strictly for laughs despite the raging war in Vietnam at the time. The formula was simple; Gomer’s naivety constantly gets him in trouble, and Sgt. Carter usually takes the fall. GOMER was popular with both audiences and the Marines themselves, proving the Corps really does have a sense of humor. Semper Fi!

“The Comic” (1969) with Dick Van Dyke & Michele Lee

After GOMER’s run, Ruben cowrote the film THE COMIC (1969) with director (and former CAESAR’S HOUR cohort) Carl Reiner. This dramedy starred Dick Van Dyke (another TV icon) as a washed-up, alcoholic silent comedian, and costarred Mickey Rooney, Michele Lee, and Cornel Wilde. While it didn’t do well at the box office when first released, it’s well worth rediscovering for fans of classic comedy, of which Ruben was definitely one (he wrote some skits for the 1965 TV special A SALUTE TO STAN LAUREL, hosted by Van Dyke and featuring, among others, Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, and the great Buster Keaton).

Ruben with Redd Foxx & Demond Wilson on the set of “Sanford & Son”

1972 found Ruben working for Norman Lear as producer/writer on a new sitcom, SANFORD & SON. The misadventures of junkyard proprietor Fred G. Sanford, played to perfection by cantankerous comedian Redd Foxx, and his hip son Lamont (Demond Wilson) was yet another feather in Ruben’s comedy cap, writing the first episode aired, “Crossed Swords” (with the Sanfords trying to raise the price of a porcelain piece they procured at an auction), and twenty others, including the classic “The Piano Movers”. Ruben stayed with the show for two seasons, and was a big part of its early success.

Aaron Ruben didn’t slow down, but the hits seemed to stop coming. His military sitcom CPO SHARKEY, starring Don Rickles , lasted two seasons (1976-78). Other attempts (THE STOCKARD CHANNING SHOW, TEACHER’S ONLY) failed to move the ratings meter. Old pal Andy Griffith hired Ruben as a creative consultant on his hit series MATLOCK, adding some comedy bits from 1990-92 to brighten things up. It was his last TV credit; soon Ruben settled into a comfortable retirement with his wife, actress Maureen Arthur. He was lauded for his work with abused children in the Los Angeles area, which he continued until his death from pneumonia in 2010 at the age of 95. Aaron Ruben will always be remembered by TV fans for his comedic talents, but it’s his work with children he was most proud of.  Most importantly, he helped put smiles on people’s faces, and when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what life’s all about? Thanks for the smiles, Aaron!

 

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Halloween TV Havoc!: Richard Pryor Meets The Exorcist on SNL!

Back when SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was actually funny, guest host Richard Pryor (making his first and only appearance on the show) starred in an EXORCIST parody called THE EXORCIST 2, which is no relation to the later film (and much better!). Pryor and Thalmus Rasulala (BLACULA ) play two priests battling Satan for a little girl’s soul, with Laraine Newman in the Linda Blair role. Enjoy this priceless Halloween spoof from 1975:

Turning Back the Cuckoo Clock with Wheeler & Woosley in THE CUCKOOS (RKO 1930)

We last left the wacky world of Wheeler & Woolsey with a look at the looney HOLD ‘EM JAIL . Today we delve deeper into comedy’s film vault with their 1930 effort THE CUCKOOS, based on the hit Broadway musical by Guy Bolton, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby. The play featured the team of Clark & McCullough, who are even more obscure than W&W to most film fans (they appeared in a series of shorts from 1928-35), but RKO (after the success of 1929’s RIO RITA) put W&W into the film version, hoping the team’s antics would click with Depression Era audiences.

And click they did, leading to an RKO contract and nineteen more features! THE CUCKOOS’ plot concerns romantic entaglements at a plush hotel, with  heiress Ruth (June Clyde) in love with pilot Billy (Hugh Trevor), but pushed toward the oily Baron de Camp (Ivan Lebedeff ) by her rich Aunt Fannie (Jobyna Howland). The boys get in the thick of things as a couple of fraudulent “American fortune tellers”, with Sparrow (Bert) in love with gypsy Anita (W&W’s frequent costar Dorothy Lee). The gypsies, led by burly Julius (Mitchell Lewis), scheme with the Baron to kidnap Ruth, while out to get Sparrow and his pal Professor Cunningham (Bob) because Julius wants the lovely Anita for himself.

The plot takes a backseat to Wheeler & Woolsey’s silly shenanigans, and they dominate the picture with their buffoonery and double entendre laced puns (it is the Pre-Code era, after all!). Some highlights include the nonsense song “Oh, How We Love Our Alma Mater” (complete with silly dance), Woolsey putting Wheeler in a trance (he gets on all fours and barks like a dog), the boys asked to keep their eyes on a forbidden keg of beer at the border (Prohibition, doncha know?) with hilarious results (and the punchline later lifted in a Three Stooges short), being constantly interrupted in their hotel room by a succession of crazies (reminiscent of the old burlesque skit ‘Crazy House’), and Bert in drag enticing the gypsies to his boudoir, only to receive a conk on the noggin from a hidden Bob!

Woolsey gets off some funny one-liners with Jobyna Howland, the team’s version of Margaret Dumont (she appeared in two other W&W films), like this one: Fannie: “Do you think you’ll love me until I die?” Professor: “Well, that depends  on how long you live”. She’s big and bawdy, and makes a perfect match for sarcastic Bob.  Miss Lee, just 19 at the time, was cast a Bert’s love interest in a dozen of their films. She’s cute as a button but no great thespian, though she brings a Ruby Keeler-ish enthusiasm to her roles (personally, I think she’s much prettier than Ruby!). Dorothy and Bert have a charming duet together, “I Love You So Much”, which is reprised by the cast at film’s finale.

THE CUCKOOS is far less static than The Marx Brothers’ early effort THE COCONUTS, although it can be stagey in spots. One thing different from that film is the abrupt switch to two-strip Technicolor for some of the musical numbers, which took me by surprise! W&W’s song “Goodbye” is in this early color process, as is “Dance the Devil Away”, a bizarre little segment with Dorothy and a bevy of beauties gyrating with wild abandon on a Hades-inspired set! The finale gets the Technicolor treatment, as well. Wheeler & Woolsey were on the right track here, and continued to make kooky comedies until Robert Woolsey’s untimely death in 1938. If you haven’t rediscovered them yet, you’re as crazy as they are!

Quirky Jerky: Jerry Lewis in THE BELLBOY (Paramount 1960)

The late, great Jerry Lewis was not just a funny man, he was an innovative filmmaker whose talents behind the cameras matched his onscreen antics. Paramount Pictures gave him carte blanche on THE BELLBOY, his first film as producer/director/writer/star, a film with “no story, no plot, just a series of silly sequences” following the misadventures of Stanley, the world’s most inept bellboy. To the best of my knowledge it is the first of its kind… even W.C. Fields’ bizarre NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK and Olsen & Johnson’s wacky HELLZAPOPPIN’ had some semblance of loose plot foisted on them by nervous studio execs!

Lewis was doing his nightclub act at Miami’s Fontainebleu Hotel at the time, and already had CINDERFELLA in the can. Paramount wanted a summer release, but Lewis thought the film would do better in the Christmas season, so he concocted this loose, madcap romp done in blackout style, and filmed during the day at the hotel. He rounded up stand-up comics playing the area (Bob Clayton, Sonnie Sands, Herkie Styles, Jack Durant) to play minor parts, even corralling Milton Berle to play himself in one funny sequence.

Comedian/impressionist Bill Richmond pops up amidst the chaos as Stan Laurel , and that’s no coincidence. Lewis had long been a fan of Laurel & Hardy’s humor, and he asked Stan to work as a gag writer on THE BELLBOY. Laurel refused the request, but went over the script for Jerry, making notations and suggestions which Lewis diligently followed. Lewis even named his character after the comic giant, and THE BELLBOY is a love letter to the kind of silent slapstick Laurel did best, a tribute to the man’s generosity toward younger comedians.

The movie featured another first: Lewis came up with what’s now known as Video Assist, a device where the director could watch the footage being shot to assure he’s getting the scene he envisioned. Today the system is used on virtually every movie made, and Jerry Lewis is to thank for that. THE BELLBOY is a unique film in the Lewis canon, and I think it’s among his best. It’s pure, unadulterated Jerry Lewis zaniness that defies description, full of wacky sight gags that’s sure to please fans of inspired lunacy. Even non-fans of Lewis’s films will get a kick out of this if they give it half a chance.

(This post is respectfully dedicated to the memories of Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel, both of whom brought so much needed joy and laughter into the world!)  

Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every laugh they can get, especially Kahn as the mystery woman who continuously changes her name and personality!

There’s a CASABLANCA subplot with Louise Fletcher as Lou’s former flame, now married to French resistance fighter Fernando Lamas, getting an opportunity to show off his comic skills. Nicol Williamson plays Colonel Schissel, leader of “the Cincinnati Gestapo”, with young James Cromwell as his aide Schnell. James Coco and David Ogden Stiers are café waiters, and since you can’t have CASABLANCA without Sam, we get Scatman Crothers as the piano player who’s told not to play that song again… “Jeepers Creepers”!

Eileen Brennen mimics Lauren Bacall as a sultry saloon singer who calls Lou “Fred” (he in turn dubs her “Slinky”). Ann-Margret channels THE BIG SLEEP’s Martha Vickers as the oversexed wife of ancient, decrepit Sid Caesar , Simon’s old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS boss. Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife at the time, plays Merkle’s cheating widow Georgia, who accidentally flushes the dead dick’s ashes down the toilet! Stockard Channing’s on hand as Lou’s handy, virginal secretary Bess, and Vic Tayback, Abe Vigoda, and Carmine Caridi are the overbearing cops on Lou’s case ( at one point, Tayback tells Vigoda to “stop leaning” on Lou… literally!). Funnyman Phil Silvers , who Simon also worked with on the SGT. BILKO sitcom, has a cameo as a cab driver.

DP John Alonso, who shot the neo-noir CHINATOWN (and there’s a CHINATOWN gag in this, too), gives us a fog-shrouded, sepia-toned San Francisco setting. Simon goes back to his SHOW OF SHOWS roots with all the puns, word play (“Hello, Georgia. I just had you on my mind”), and wacky sight gags. It’s obvious Simon has an affection for these films as he lampoons all the Bogart movie tropes, and the cast seems to be having a ball. There are plenty of guffaws to be had viewing THE CHEAP DETECTIVE, a Bogie devotee’s delight, and fans of film parodies like AIRPLANE! and THE NAKED GUN are sure to get a kick out of this one.

 

Summer Fun with Bill Murray in MEATBALLS (Paramount 1979)

Summer is finally here, so what better way to celebrate than with a summer movie starring Bill Murray!  Bill had joined the cast of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1979 (back when it was actually funny) and quickly became a fan favorite with his smarmy, snarky persona and silly characterizations. After the film success of John Belushi, it was only natural for Hollywood to come calling, right? Wrong, bucko… it was Canada that lured Bill for his first starring vehicle, the oh-so-70’s teen comedy MEATBALLS! Yeah, you heard right, ’twas the Great White North that plucked Bill away from being “Live from New York” to a location shoot at good ol’ Camp White Pines in the wilds of Ontario.

Bill’s fellow ‘Second City’ alumnus Harold Ramis (or as he was called in SCTV’s credits, ‘Ha-Harold Ramis’!) was a cowriter of the screenplay, beginning a long string of movie collaborations between the two (STRIPES, CADDYSHACK,  GHOSTBUSTERS I & II). It’s director is Ivan Reitman, who produced Belushi’s smash NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE, a film from which MEATBALLS derives much of its anarchic spirit, minus much of the raunch, though sex is still a pervading theme (hey, it’s a 70’s teen comedy, whaddaya want?).

Bill is Tripper Harrison, the smart-assed senior member of rundown Camp North Star, in charge of the CIT’s (that’s counselors-in-training). Tripper has the hots for his female counterpart Roxanne (Kate Lynch), but she’s turned off by his amorous attempts. He takes new camper Rudy (Chris Makepeace, MY BODYGUARD), a shy kid shunned by the other campers, under his wing, and the relationship between Rudy and Tripper is kinda sweet, in a nutty-Bill-Murray sort of way.

Rival Camp Mohawk is full of snotty rich kids, and they’ve beaten Camp North Star at the annual Olympiad the last twelve years. This time around, things are going much the same, until Tripper gives a rousing, non-sequitur filled speech (like Belushi in ANIMAL HOUSE) to rally the troops. After some chicanery, the score’s close, and Rudy ends up sacking the quarterback… wait, wrong Rudy… he wins the marathon race to lead Camp North Star to victory!

MEATBALLS is populated by the usual stereotyped characters you find in these films. There’s the nerdy Spaz (complete with taped glasses and a pocket protector), chubby Fink (who wins the hot dog eating contest), studly Crockett, and perennially put-upon camp director Morty. A special shout-out goes to sexy Kristine DeBell as knockout A.L. Kristine starred in the X-Rated musical spoof ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1976) at age 22, and appeared in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, Paul Mazursky’s WILLIE AND PHIL, THE BIG BRAWL (as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend), and TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME. She’s gained somewhat of a cult following for her roles, and is fondly remembered by fandom.

The music score is by Elmer Bernstein. Yes, THAT Elmer Bernstein, of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN fame. He also cowrote the goofy disco-flavored theme song, with Rick Dees (of “Disco Duck” and SOLID GOLD fame). David Naughton’s one hit wonder “Makin’ It” can also be heard in the movie – though why anyone would want to is a mystery to me! Pop singer Mary MacGregor (“Torn Between Two Lovers”) contributes the sappy “Good Friends”.

MEATBALLS is perfect fare for a summer’s eve, a silly but sweet comedy that showcases Bill Murray’s zaniness. Like most teen comedies of the era, it won’t tax your brain, and though not nearly as outrageous as ANIMAL HOUSE, you’ll get some chuckles out of it. Now, for all you angry David Naughton fans, here’s “Makin’ It”. Excuse me while I leave the room. Happy summer, everybody!:

Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)

I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell Bank, currently headquartered in a trailer while construction is finished on a new building. Karp’s assembled a nutty robbery crew that includes his ex-FBI agent nephew Victor, ditzy, amorous financial backer Eleonora, looney driver Stosh Gornik and his con artist mom, and trigger happy wanna-be politician Hermann X. The brainy Ballentine decides they won’t just rob the bank… they’ll steal the entire kit’n’kaboodle! Ballentine and company pull off an elaborate, ingenious heist that baffles everyone but “Bulldog”, who’s hot on the fugitive’s trail.

 

Scott, complete with bushy eyebrows and a pronounced lisp, is the lynchpin holding BANK SHOT together, playing straight man to the wackiness going on around him. When he learns the job is in LA, he grumbles it’s “freak town- kook city – where the nuts are – trouble”, and he’s not wrong. Sorrell Booke (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Boss Hogg) goes strictly for laughs as his partner-in-crime Karp. Joanna Cassidy (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT?) has one of her earliest roles as the constantly giggling Eleonora, as does Bob Balaban (credited as Robert) as young Karp. One of my favorite comic character actors Don Calfa (WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) plays the manic Stosh, with Bibi Osterwald (THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) as his swindler mom. Ex-NFLer Fred McRae (48 HRS) makes a funny Hermann X, but it’s the late Clifton James (Sheriff J.W. Pepper of LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN ) who stands out as the ornery, doggedly determined Warden “Bulldog” Streiger.

Director Gower Champion was a former MGM musical star famed for his dancing with wife Marge Champion. He was more successful as a Broadway director (BYE BYE BIRDIE and HELLO DOLLY! were among his many hits) than on film, in fact BANK SHOT was only his second (and last) feature. It was a good swan song, as the film captures the Westlake flavor nicely. The movie has a daffy, anarchic spirit to it, and though sometimes it can be over-the-top silly, is worth watching when you’re in the mood for a good, solid belly-laugh.