This article is a composite of deleted sections from the forthcoming Grove Atlantic release Drunks, Thieves and Scoundrels: American Comedians 1915-2015 by Kliph Nesteroff
If you weren’t conforming to the television homogeny of early 60s comedy, you were out of luck. Fanciful, childlike sitcoms controlled the landscape: The Addams Family, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, Gilligan’s Island, Mister Ed, The Munsters, My Favorite Martian. In an environment where laughtracks told you what was funny, anything highbrow was doomed.
Get Smart was a cut above the others with a joke driven narrative created by Mel Brooks, Buck Henry and Leonard Stern. It was produced by Talent Associates, the David Susskind production company founded in 1952. They had an early hit with the Wally Cox sitcom Mister Peepers, but ten years later Susskind’s production company had lost its relevancy. Producers Dan Melnick and Leonard Stern were hired to revitalize the company with a plan to bring television production back to New York City. Writers with a Manhattan sensibility were hired to develop shows. Among the pilots were The Laughmakers created by Woody Allen and Inside Danny Baker created by Mel Brooks (neither were picked up). The success of James Bond at the box office created a secret agent craze in popular culture. Susskind wanted to cash-in and asked Mike Nichols to develop Get Smart. Nichols turned him down. Second choices Mel Brooks and Buck Henry got the job.
The early 1960s were frustrating for Mel Brooks. He wrote a screenplay for Jerry Lewis called The Ladies Man, but none of his work was accepted. “That didn’t go well. I gave him the material and he and another writer took it and went on a boat and rewrote it. I’d always had that privlege with Sid Caesar of being consulted. My work was highly respected. So I was incensed. I didn’t get along with him too well.”
“A rewrite was required because Dan [Melnick] was not going to let go,” said Stern. “He assured them he would incorporate everything they wanted in it. When the rewrite was finished, Dan said to ABC’s reps if they didn’t like this version they could have their money back. Within twenty-four hours they called and asked for their money back!”
NBC needed a vehicle for a comedian they had under contract. Don Adams had been a minor nightclub comic for fifteen years. He started in a comedy team with Jay Lawrence, the impressionist brother of comedian Larry Storch. Adams and Lawrence were lousy:
‘Look who’s coming now! Why it’s Jimmy Cagney!’
‘You dirty rat! I’m gonna give it to you just like you gave it to my brother.’
‘Now look who’s coming! Why, it’s Lionel Barrymore!’
“That’s how their act was put together,” says Storch. “I don’t think they enjoyed it.” Adams and Lawrence split up. Lawrence was cast in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 and opened a New York nightclub called the Crystal Room. It closed down after he was nearly stabbed to death in an altercation out front. Meanwhile, Don Adams did stand-up as a solo and loathed it. “He did the same act over and over,” says comedian Pete Barbutti. “He never put anything into it.” Don’s manager Mace Neufeld teamed him with writer client Bill Dana. Dana was housesitting for comic Imogene Coca when Neufeld sent Adams to see him. “Imogene was out of town and she asked me to apartment sit for her at 307 Park West. She had the twentieth and twenty-first floors, a beautiful apartment. Mace felt Don Adams was a comedian I could write for. I was in this beautifully furnished apartment at 307 Park West and Don Adams came to see me there. We had never met before. I had this smoking jacket on. He couldn’t understand why this multimillionaire would want to write for twenty dollars a week.”
Dana wrote a routine that Adams did on The Steve Allen Show, in which he emulated the cadence of the William Powell character from The Thin Man movies. “He did his famous bit - the William Powell character,” says comedian Will Jordan. “Look at those arms! Look at those thighs! Are those the thighs of a homicidal maniac?’ That was pure, one hundred percent Bill Dana. ‘Would you believe?’ is Bill Dana. The little expressions are important in that characterization and that was all created by Bill Dana.”
Occasionally Adams used material Dana hadn’t written – which was a problem. While some comedians were mere joke thieves, Don Adams was a klyptomaniac. Dana says, “He took a lot of material, some of it from Woody Allen.” He released a comedy record with a verbatim recitation of a Jackie Mason routine that Mason had already pressed to wax. Bob Newhart was another of Don’s victims. “It was very early in my career, and the line of work I was in - comedy – wasn’t making me any money,” said Newhart. “I decided to become a comedy writer and sell my material to established comedians. I felt the Submarine Commander could very easily be adapted to Don Adams because of his deadpan delivery. I reached Don when he was in Chicago for a show and he agreed to take a look. He [said] it wasn’t the type of material he was looking for. Two years later, I’m watching The Steve Allen Show, and Don walked out onstage and performed a chunk of the Submarine Commander. Word for word. I couldn’t believe it. I was yelling at the TV, ‘That’s mine! You’re stealing my routine!’ I was furious. However, I reasoned that if other comedians were going to steal my routines, I had better perform them myself.”
Get Smart’s successful five seasons made Don Adams a star, but his love-hate relationship with show business continued. “Don was the show’s leader and set the tone for each day,” said Get Smart director Alan Rafkin. “If he showed up in a lousy mood, it could be a long and tedious day. He was kind of a bully in that he picked on people who couldn’t fight back." Pete Barbutti says, “I didn’t get along very well with Don Adams, but then again nobody did. He was unapproachable. He would walk out, do his lines and disappear. Don was so bloody insecure that he had to carry his Emmys around with him in his car.” Bill Dana says, "The only thing Don enjoyed was going to the track. He didn’t enjoy anything else."
With television fame, Adams was offered big dough to play Las Vegas. He wasn’t in love with the idea. He’d much rather be at the racetrack, but he couldn’t say no when he was offered twenty-five thousand a gig. It turned into a vicious cycle. Adams was hooked on gambling and the more he was paid, the more he wagered. After his first year of Las Vegas bookings, he was deep in hock to the Mob. “Don would get a phone call on the set,” said Rafkin. “When he hung up the phone, inevitably he would say he had to go to Las Vegas. This happened several times and I was told that it was because of gambling debts. He owed somebody in Vegas money, so when a headliner like Sammy Davis Jr. canceled a show due to illness or whatever, Don had to fill in without any notice. He was at somebody’s beck and call, and the arrangement apparently wasn’t open to discussion.”
Danny Thomas and Desilu
The busiest backlot in the sitcom world was Desilu Productions. And the two busiest producers working on its property were former comics Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard. Danny Thomas climbed to success with his stand-up act in the late 1940s. He was a favorite at the 5100 Club in Chicago with a routine called The Jack Story. It was originally done in 1915 by comedian Bucky Carleton. Thomas adapted it for the Kurtis sportscar age. Danny’s contemporary Bobby Ramsen remembers the routine: “A guy buys an automobile and the car breaks down. Gets a flat tire. He opens the trunk and there’s no jack. So he starts to talk to himself. ‘I bought this car! It cost me twelve hundred dollars! No jack!’ Danny paced as he did this in front of the microphone. ‘I need a jack! I got no jack! Now I gotta walk! Ah... Ah... it’s not so bad. It’s not so bad. I’ll get there and he’ll see that I walked and I’ll get my jack and he’ll drive me back. But what if he says I can’t drive you back? I’ll have to walk! I’ll have to... in this weather? This guy won’t even drive me? What kind of a human being is this!’ And Danny Thomas builds the story. The guy isn’t going to drive him back and the guy is going to charge him a lot of money. It gets one laugh after another until finally he walks in and says, ‘Listen, mister. You can take your jack and shove it!”
Thomas moved to New York and enetered La Martinique at 57th and 6th Avenue for a long engagement. The Manhattan club previously made stars of Danny Kaye, Jackie Miles and Jan Murray. Thomas became hot. He was offered a chance in the new medium of television, but initially decided, “Television is only for idiots.” A year later when Thomas changed his mind he became one of the wealthiest idiots in comedy.
His sitcom had a clumsy title: Make Room For Daddy. As his popularity increased it was renamed The Danny Thomas Show and lasted eleven seasons. Actress Jean Hagen played his spouse until Thomas decided she wasn't pretty enough: "The thing that bugged me about Jean was that she was a schlump. On rehearsal days we all wore jeans and sloppy clothes, but she carried it too far. I said to Jean, 'For God's sake, put on high heels and a little lipstick."
The Danny Thomas Show was the cornerstone upon which the Thomas-Leonard empire was built. The Andy Griffith Show was one of its spin-offs. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bill Dana Show, Gomer Pyle USMC and The Joey Bishop Show were additional sitcoms cranked out under their watch. “The Joey Bishop Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show – everybody – we were all on the same lot,” says comedy writer Bill Persky. “There were five stages and we had five of the top ten shows on television. Everyone knew everybody. Sheldon Leonard was a Damon Runyon character, great business man, a real good eye for talent.” Comedy writer Sam Bobrick says, “It was a great atmosphere. Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas appreciated writers - and in Hollywood very few people do.”
Hogan’s Heroes was another hit on the Desliu lot. Bing Crosby’s production company produced the sitcom with an incongruous premise: humorous goings on in a Nazi concentration camp. Offensive perhaps, although few questioned the Bob Crane vehicle at the time. Stan Freberg’s advertising company was hired to create radio ads promoting the show and addressed the elephant in the room. Giving the holocaust a laughtrack was hard for Freberg to ignore:
Stan Freberg: Where does the show take place?
Bob Crane: In a Nazi prisoner of war camp in Germany.
Stan Freberg: Always a good situation comedy locale. What are some of the amusing ingredients?
Bob Crane: German police dogs, machine guns, the Gestapo…
Of all the sitcoms on the Desilu lot The Joey Bishop Show was the least harmonious. Bishop is remembered as the fifth member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, but little else. The dour-faced comedian was far from an ingratiating character. “He was a prick,” says Persky. “The best story about him... he played his own cousin on one episode. He was playing two parts and he complained that the cousin was getting bigger laughs than him."
“He was a bullshit act,” says comedian Jack Carter. “He fought with his writers constantly. Joey was a quick wit and great at ad-libbing, perfect for the Rat Pack because he could keep it moving, but there was no longevity, no warmth. He was a tough little man.” Bishop was part of the Philadelphia nightclub scene in the late 1940s. He had a three-man comedy act called The Bishop Brothers and briefly did an act with Jack Soo before going solo. His crewcut head and deadpan face was popular at the Vine Gardens in Chicago, but true fame eluded him until he hitched his star to Frank Sinatra. “I never took Joey Bishop seriously,” says Shecky Greene. “Joey Bishop was a strange man. There are certain people in our business that have very little talent, but they’re good politicians. Joey was a politician. I saw Joey kill audiences and I don’t know why. Joey Bishop got so far without any fucking talent, it’s unbelievable.” Rich Little says, “He was difficult. Very pompous. Hard to get to know. Not friendly at all. Never was. I think he was very bitter that he was a member of the Rat Pack, yet nobody seemed to know who he was.” Comedian Slick Slavin had the unenviable job of headwriter on Bishop’s talk show. “Joey was tough. Very, very tough. I used to hide when he was around. I never tried to be friends with him. He hated every writer. Hated them." If nothing else, Joey Bishop gave the world Regis Philbin. Philbin was Bishop's sidekick for two and a half seasons when Bishop had a late night talk show. However, Regis came to a national audience in an unlikely way. “Regis took over from Steve Allen,” says Pete Barbutti. “How that happened? Steve left in disgrace.”
The Steve Allen Scandal
In the early 1960s Steve Allen conceived a segment for his syndicated program. It was called Meeting of Minds, a pretentious labor of love that made the sponsor wince. Buck Henry was writing for Allen at the time and groans at the thought, “Oh, God, the horrible Meeting of Minds!” Contrary to the general tone of The Steve Allen Show, Meeting of Minds was non-comedic in nature. It was a showcase for the philosophy of famed thinkers - Jesus, Aristotle, Darwin - debating each other’s beliefs as actors played the parts. “I was there for the taping of the first one and he did it without an audience,” says Barbutti. “He would get six character actors. ‘We are taping in one month - and you will be Sigmund Freud. The subject is crime and punishment.’ Next guy would be Aristotle and so on. When the segment went on they were dressed in period and Steve would just be in his suit. He’d say, ‘How do you feel about this?’ [Alfred North] Whitehead would say, ‘No one should ever be punished for a crime.’ Westinghouse produced this show and Westinghouse is real whitebread. Westinghouse came to Steve Allen and said, ‘Steve, you can’t have them say these things on the air.”
Westinghouse searched for a way to kill Meeting of Minds, but Steve Allen’s contract gave him creative control. Finally Westinghouse found a way. Comic Jackie Curtiss, a regular on The Steve Allen Show says, “Steve was kind of a philanderer and fooling around. Jayne Meadows caught him. That was it.”
“Steve Allen had an affair with a girl singer named Jennie Smith,” says Barbutti. “She was an absolutely gorgeous girl. Jayne got wind of the affair and it became more overt than it should have been. Steve was going to break it off so Jennie attacked him backstage with a pair of scissors and tried to stab him. Westinghouse went to Steve Allen and said, ‘Look, either take out Meeting of the Minds or we’re going to invoke the morals clause.’ He said, ‘Forget it,’ and walked away.”
Westinghouse had an empty time slot. They grabbed obscure San Diego television personality Regis Philbin and had him fill in. He was initially presented as the guest host of The Steve Allen Show, but after a couple weeks Westinghouse changed the title to That Regis Philbin Show. Totie Fields, Jack E. Leonard and Don Rickles were regulars, but Philbin’s show vanished in less three months, a victim of low ratings. Comic Dick Curtis says the comedians felt sorry for him. “We used to always say, ‘Poor Regis. He can’t do anything.”
Get Smart, DVD Audio Commentary by Leonard Stern
Cue the Bunny by Alan Rafkin, pg 51
Come Backstage with Me by Benny Rubin, pg 48
The Agency by Frank Rose, pg 185
Make room for Danny by Danny Thomas, pg 191
It Only Hurts When I Laugh by Stan Freberg, pg 132
Rich Little, Interivew with Author
Bill Dana, Interivew with Author
Will Jordan, Interview with Author
Jackie Curtiss, Interview with Author
Pete Barbutti, Interview with Author
Larry Storch, Interview with Author
Sam Bobrick, Interview with Author
Bill Persky, Interview with Author
Jack Carter, Interview with Author
Shecky Greene, Interview with Author
Slick Slavin, Interview with Author
Dick Curtis, Interview with Author
Buck Henry, Interview with Author