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!

 

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.

 

Something Funny Going On: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (United Artists 1963)

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If I was forced to make a list of Top Ten favorite movies, IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD would definitely make the cut. Featuring a veritable Who’s Who of comedy, this film (like The Dirty Dozen) has been often imitated, but never duplicated. TCM ran it in prime time last night, and after watching the horrors unfolding in Paris on the news channels, I figured I could use a good laugh. IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD never fails to disappoint in that department!

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The plot is simple: a car goes flying off the road and crashes. Four parties get out of their vehicles to inspect the scene. The dying driver, Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) tells them about $350,000 in cash buried in Santa Rosita Park “under the Big W”, then kicks the bucket (literally). The four parties decide to find the dough and split it, but greed gets the best of them and the race is on! Unbeknownst to them all is they’re being watched by Captain Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), who has reasons of his own to find the hidden loot. From there, we go to a series of comedic incidents as each seperate party gets caught in slapstick situations on their way to claim the money for themselves:

Title: IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ¥ Pers: ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID / ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID ¥ Year: 1963 ¥ Dir: KRAMER, STANLEY ¥ Ref: ITS003BP ¥ Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Title: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ¥ Pers: ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID / ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID ¥ Year: 1963 ¥ Dir: KRAMER, STANLEY ¥ Ref: ITS003BP ¥ Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Dentist Melville Crump and wife Monica (Sid Caesar, Edie Adams) take a harrowing ride on a dilapidated bi-plane to get ahead of the game. They get themselves locked in a hardware store basement while trying to get picks and shovels, and wind up having to blast their way out with “a little” dynamite.

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Buddies Benji and Dingy (Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney), having been beaten to the plane rental by the Crumps, make their way to an airport and rent a ride from a drunken millionaire (Jim Backus) who promptly passes out, causing the pair to learn to pilot the plane on the fly, with help from tower control veteran Colonel Wilberforce (Paul Ford).

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J. Russel Finch (Milton Berle), travelling with his wife Emmaline (Dorothy Provine) and shrewish mother-in-law Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), after their car is totalled by trucker Pike (Jonathan Winters), hook up with Englishman Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas). After the loudmouthed Mrs. Marcus is “assaulted” and stranded by Finch and Hawthorne, she calls in her son, dimwitted surfer and all around mama’s boy Sylvester (Dick Shawn).

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Pike is forced to ride down the highway on “a girl’s bike”, until he comes across Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers).  Meyer leaves the hulking Pike stranded after learning about the treasure, and when Pike catches up to him at a gas station, Meyer tells the attendants (Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan) Pike’s an escaped lunatic. The proprietors attempt to restrain Pike, who angrily demolishes their gas station!

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Meanwhile, Meyer gets stuck in a ravine after giving an Indian a lift. His car destroyed, he flags down a driver (Don Knotts) and tells the man he’s a spy on the run, stealing his car in the process.

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Everyone makes it to the park and search for the Big W, including a couple of cab drivers (Peter Falk, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson). Pike chases after the conniving Meyer, and spots the Big W (a cluster of four curved palm trees). The group digs, digs, digs, finally hitting upon Smiler’s stolen money. Culpepper shows up and tells the group he’s confiscating the cash, urging them all to turn themselves in. They agree, but when Culpepper takes a turn off the route to the police station, they realize he’s grabbing the ill-gotten gains for himself, and the chase is on again!

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Spencer Tracy mugs it up with the best of the comics as Culpepper. All of these seasoned pros are on their game, but for me Ethel Merman steals the show as the obnoxious Mrs. Marcus. Producer/Director Stanley Kramer pulled out all the stops for this zany epic, and hired the best of Hollywood’s funnymen in small roles and cameos. (I’ll list a few at the end of this post). IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD is just what the doctor ordered to take away a case of the blues, for three hours anyway. As for me, I’m off to a stage performance of DRACULA tonight, but will return tomorrow to look at a darker cinematic gem: 1947’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

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