Wednesday, April 28, 2010


The little-remembered film Luv was released in 1967. It was based on the 1964 play by Murray Schisgal that was half conventional comedy, half Theatre of the Absurd. So you can imagine how disastrous the film version is.

But the "Neil Simon" first half of the film is often pretty funny. Reviews claimed the direction is heavy handed (this is true -- it's New York material, so for some reason they chose an Englishman to direct) and the three leading roles were miscast. Admittedly the extremely whitebread Jack Lemmon isn't always comfortable in the lead (the role was originated on stage by Alan Arkin), but I thought Peter Falk was great and Elaine May was almost as good. The best parts come across as strung-together Nichols and May sketches.

The reason I bring it up is because of what IMO is the film's best scene (which I presume was in the original play), where Lemmon and Falk try to top each other on who had the more miserable childhood:

FALK: My father beat me.
LEMMON. Mine beat me too. What'd yours use?
FALK: (smugly) A strap!.
LEMMON: (quietly taking pride in his victory) Chains.

What legendary English comedy sketch does that remind you of?

While the movie version of Luv debuted in the summer of '67 and At Last The 1948 Show had premiered in February of that year, the play opened in 1964 and probably played in London at some point. Even if it hadn't, John Cleese was based in NY in 1964-5 and could have seen it. Intriguing, at the very least.

Also intriguing is the short story "Self Made Men" by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (a favorite writer of Robert Benchley, Groucho Marx and Jack Benny), published in 1910:

"Draught!" sneered the other man, with a provoking laugh,"draught! Don't talk to me about draughts. This box I speak of had a whole darned plank off it, right on the north side too. I used to sit there studying in the evenings, and the snow would blow in a foot deep. And yet, sir," he continued more quietly, "though I know you'll not believe it, I don't mind admitting that some of the happiest days of my life were spent in that same old box. Ah, those were good old times! Bright, innocent days, I can tell you. I'd wake up there in the mornings and fairly shout with high spirits. Of course, you may not be able to stand that kind of life--"

"Not stand it!" cried Robinson fiercely; "me not stand it! By gad! I'm made for it. I just wish I had a taste of the old life again for a while. And as for innocence! Well, I'll bet you you weren't one-tenth as innocent as I was; no, nor one-fifth, nor one-third! What a grand old life it was! You'll swear this is a darned lie and refuse to believe it--but I can remember evenings when I'd have two or three fellows in, and we'd sit round and play pedro by a candle half the night."

"Two or three!" laughed Jones; "why, my dear fellow, I've known half a dozen of us to sit down to supper in my piano box, and have a game of pedro afterwards; yes, and charades and forfeits, and every other darned thing Mighty good suppers they were too! By Jove, Robinson, you fellows round this town who have ruined your digestions with high living, have no notion of the zest with which a man can sit down to a few potato peelings, or a bit of broken pie crust, or--"

For those who prefer to look at things from a psycho-sociological perspective, "Self Made Men" and "Four Yorkshiremen" are bits of witty silliness and gradually increasing absurdity you don't take seriously, while in the New York variation of Luv you can actually feel the pain of childhood traumas and alienation... Both spoof the stock characters (their pomposity or self-pity increases the humor) but from a unique perspective.

This is yet another approach for the comedy writer to consider: Create an upside down world. Characters topping each other based on how low their pasts were is a reversal of the norm. Take the audience's expectations and... do the opposite. This is the first rule of comedy. And the second for some reason.

1 comment:

  1. When I was with the BBC I was filming out in Beirut. We flew out there to do a story for World In Action...arriving there we were to meet a certain Colonel Bird, supposed fixer and Middle East Snickers sales manager and he would access our contacts to do the story! It turns out that there was no story it was a fiction invented by a result we had to research and film another story on the fly. But what Colonel Bird did, was every time you told him a story, he had to top it. You would say you were in a camel race and won against 100 camels, he would claim to have raced against a thousand. You claimed to have been shot at by a tank, he's have been shot at by a gunship...and so it went on for the whole three weeks. My daily task was that at breakfast each day, I would come up with more and more absurd stories, which he would then have to top. After a few days, the Director would know what was coming, and would without fail blow orange juice, coffee or tea through his nostrils with laughter as soon as I started my a war torn country it was one of the happiest and funniest times I had...and again demonstrates that the potential for climatic comedy lives in the strangest of places! Great Blog Stephen, Mike