Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Phoning It In

The telephone comedy routine is almost as old as the instrument itself. The hugely popular "Cohen On The Telephone" was one of the first big novelty records around WWI. It reputedly sold a million copies, an amazing achievement for the era:

Sequels and remakes of "Cohen" would be released until the end of the 1920s. Around that time George Jessel did a phone routine that, as it was addressed to his mother, gave the bit somewhat more emotional depth: "Hello, mom. This is Georgie, your son. Yes, the one from the checks…"

George Jessel phones Mama. Let's hope it wasn't collect. 

You might see brief variations on the telephone routine in the '30s and '40s -- the radio series Duffy's Tavern began each week with one, as the bartender Archie spoke to the never-heard bar owner Duffy:

There was also a comedienne named Arlene Harris who apparently did phone routines on the radio about this same time. How popular she was I don't know (I only know of her because she did a Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s).

Aside from these instances the telephone routine would essentially lay dormant until the '50s.

Shelley Berman had already failed as a dramatic actor when he hooked up with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and other unknowns to help found Chicago's improvisational Compass Theater in 1955.

The Compass players c. 1955: Elaine May, Shelley Berman, and Mike Nichols in the back.

According to Berman his suggestion to form a three-person act with Nichols and May was rejected by the former. Perhaps as revenge/self-protection, Berman worked out his own telephone routines, which notably did not require other actors. This format also had the effect of distancing the performer from the audience, in opposition to the new postwar "personal style" of people like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce.

This routine is much more about Berman's pain and suffering than the woman on the ledge, who during much of the routine is almost an afterthought. Even the official title, "Department Store" takes the emphasis off the ledge climber.

Berman included "Department Store" on his first comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman, in 1959.

Inside Shelley Berman was very successful and even won a Grammy. But Berman's time in the spotlight would be brief. Another Chicagoan, clean cut where Berman was neurotic, was waiting in the wings.

Bob Newhart was a former accountant and small-time radio joke peddler who had never done standup in his life when he recorded a comedy album for the new Warner Brothers label in 1960. It became the bestselling album of the year -- not just bestselling comedy album, bestselling album, period -- and won the Grammy for Album of the Year, the first time a comedy record had ever done that.

As with Berman, many of his routines were one-sided phone conversations. Berman himself was not pleased. Wikipedia:

In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, 87-year-old Berman accused comedian Bob Newhart of plagiarizing his improvisational telephone routine style, describing its genesis and saying it was a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated. It could be stolen. And it was." He continued, "I was coming to work at night and a guy stopped his car, passed me by, and said 'Hey, Shelley! There's a guy [who] stole your act!'" When asked by Maron if it was done maliciously, Berman replied, "Maliciously? He wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living. And he became a star." Berman later added, "I thought it was a rotten thing to do. I thought the agents who sold him - I thought they were just as guilty as everybody else. But, my God, to go into a town and do my show, and the critics saying that I borrowed some stuff from Newhart..."

Sometimes Newhart's subject matter was also reminiscent of Berman. Here Newhart does his own take on a ledge bit (note he does not use a phone).

The subject is the same, but the style is completely different. Berman stresses his own masochistic discomfort and suffering, while Newhart emphasizes the absurdity of taking modern psychology to extremes.

Here's a similar routine with a phone:


The same basic setup as Berman -- calling in about an emergency to an authority figure. But Newhart doesn't suffer himself -- he accepts the insanity of the red tape as just another part of the job.

We'll take a more detailed look at Bob Newhart in our next entry.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

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