Bob and Ray cut through the smog in this sketch from their 1951 NBC television program.
Thanks to YouTuber katherinesdaddy1
The once popular radio and television comedian Jack Benny welcomes some unlikely guests to his TV show, the folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary. They prove that you can make a folk song out of anything—even stingy Jack’s home town of Waukegan.
Johnny Carson had a lot of great long-running character bits on The Tonight Show, but my favorite was “Carnac the Magnificent.” The premise, of course, was that the great mystic seer from the East would divine the contents of a hermetically sealed envelope.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Carson, a fan of magic and a magician himself (see here for my interview with Lance Burton where Burton talks about Carson), took the character from these guys.
Some of Carson’s jokes are very topical and don’t land anymore (two Leon Spinks jokes?), but the audience knew the format and eagerly responded. In my opinion, Ed McMahon earned his keep here as a terrific straight man in this routine. Now you, too, can partake of the wisdom of the great mystic seer by clicking on the video above.
Thanks to YouTuber Richie Cunningham
The Patty Duke Show overlapped The Beatles first coming to America and somehow she was part of that era for me. The television show which ran from 1963–1966 was perfectly tailored to Patty Duke’s acting talents, where she played two cousins, a demure Scottish girl, Kathy, and Patty, a swinging teen from Brooklyn Heights. A great supporting cast too, with William Schallert as the mildly acerbic father and Paul O’Keefe as her annoyingly nerdy younger brother.
Duke’s greatest role, however, was as Helen Keller in the stage and screen versions of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. Later on in her career she got to act in the play again, this time playing Annie Sullivan to Melissa Gilbert’s Helen.
Watching the opening titles again made me laugh when I saw the mirror sequence. Of course, that mirror bit had been done a number of times before, including most famously the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (and I recently ran across the Chaplin short The Floorwalker where there is a kind of an ur-version of the routine) but what made me laugh was considering that the joke inherent in most mirror routines is that of two people acting as one; but in The Patty Duke Show it was one person in the mirror acting as two.
In a strange turn of irony, later in life, Patty Duke was diagnosed as bipolar, and she devoted much of her later years to mental health causes. But she was a really wonderful actor who died just this past March.
Thanks to YouTuber TeeVees Greatest
One day, someone will write his or her Ph.D dissertation on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the most imaginative, mind-bending children’s show ever.
Here’s the intro and outro of the weekly television show that ran from 1986-1990.
And that’s Cyndy Lauper singing the theme song!
Thanks to YouTuber thatsclassicofficial
When I was an adolescent, I delightedly stumbled across a book in my local library called Marked Cards and Loaded Dice, a volume which purportedly exposed the tools and methods of crooked gamblers. The book was written by an excellent magician named Frank Garcia, who I later learned often held court at the local magic establishment, Tannen’s. His genial manner was very smooth and convincing.
At that time in NYC, David Susskind, a theater, film and television producer, had a late night television program called Open End that seemed to go on for hours. Susskind was often derided as being insufferably pompous, so it was with some happiness that I came across this video of Garcia with his magic rendering Susskind nearly speechless.
Click on the video to play. Thanks to YouTuber MrMagicbymax
The great Bob & Ray, with one of their classic bits, Mr. Science. It was a merciless parody of a popular educational television show of the 1950s that viewers of a certain age may remember, Watch Mr. Wizard with Don Herbert. Mayhem, as the saying goes, ensues.
Click on the video to play.
Thanks to YouTuber danieljbmitchell
In the mid-60s, comedian Soupy Sales had a local daily children’s show in the days of live television on WNEW in NYC; there was a freedom and sense of chaos on his program that appealed to my anarchic junior high school heart. If I rushed home quickly enough, I’d be able to catch Soupy, Pookie, White Fang, Black Tooth, and the rest of the gang doing the expected unexpected. Click on the video above to watch some rare footage and foolishness.
Magicians Penn and Teller, who have been fooling us for forty years, last night premiered the first episode of the new season of their CW network television show, Fool Us. It’s packed full of magic (and commercials), but it’s certainly entertaining for both magicians and non-magicians alike. The format of the show remains the same as in the past; that is, several performers, often well-known magicians in the magic community, perform tricks for Penn and Teller and the live audience. The performers’ goal is to fool P&T about the methods used to accomplish the magic. Teller, in particular, has a vast knowledge of the history and methods of magic, so that’s not an easy proposition.
Now the fun part for the magic-savvy audience tuning in, is that P&T have seemingly painted themselves into a corner: for if they know how the trick is done, how do they prove to the performer that they know the method? They can’t just outright say the method, because that would violate one of the venerable tenets of magic: magicians may not expose how tricks are done without very good reason to do so. So the fun for the at-home magician is watching P&T speak in a coded language that makes it very apparent to the challenging performers that P&T have caught them out. The performers understand right away that they’ve been busted when they hear P&T say, as they did last night, that “the trick took my breath away” or “we think we’re one ahead of you” and so on. When the performers hear such comments, they metaphorically hang down their heads, signaling that they’ve been busted; they have to admit to the audience that indeed P&T know exactly how their tricks were done.
So, yes, it’s fun for magicians and hobbyists, it makes us feel like we’re smart and on the inside. In fact, most likely, we are consciously being pandered to. Because at least two of the effects on last night’s show would not have fooled anyone with even the most basic knowledge of magic. There is no way in hell that the performers could have actually thought that P&T wouldn’t know their methods. Really, without exaggerating, the methods of two of the magicians in last night’s show could be found in many children’s magic books. I guess it’s nice for the performers to get national exposure, I’m not knocking them for that, but really what were the producers of the show thinking when they selected them? I can only think that it was to increase the number of viewers who could feel like they, too, were in on the joke.
That said, there were some fine performances. The highlight of the show was Steve Brundage, a very clever and engaging young man who does a signature routine with a Rubik’s Cube. He tosses a mixed cube behind his back, and when he catches it, the cube is restored to its solved state. A very pretty effect. But the kicker was when he appeared to have failed, only to reveal that the cube was now in precisely the same mixed state as another mixed cube sitting between Teller’s previously closed palms. P&T had no clue as to method, and over here, I’m certainly still scratching my head.
But truth be told, I don’t want to know. It would only disappoint me. Much better to live with that feeling of amazement.
To round out each of their episodes, P&T do a trick of their own, and last night it was the ancient mystery of the “Cellphone to Tilapia’s Entrails.” It’s a classic in the P&T repertoire, but it’s always fun to see them work.
There’s much discussion about the show in the magic community, and the more negative comments seem to center around two things: first, though P&T generally do not expose any magician’s tricks on the air (except their own), they have been known in past episodes to be particularly rough on those who claim to be mentalists. Unless you clearly mark yourself as a comedy mindreader, as the performer in last night’s episode did, you can expect to get skewered—and exposed—by P&T.
The second criticism of the show—which I think is a very fair one—is that by naming the show Fool Us, P&T are inviting potential magic audiences to look upon magic as only a puzzle to be solved. Now there’s much intellectual satisfaction in trying to solve a clever puzzle, there’s no doubt about that. But magic is so much more than “the method.” In fact, a clever method is no guarantee at all that the effect is any good. In magic we don’t care if the method is clever or not—it only has to fool the audience, not Penn and Teller. Strangely enough, there is no correlation between a method’s ingeniousness and how good a trick is. The puzzle is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the performance of strong magic. What a magician cares about is the overall impact that the magic will have on a spectator. If clever puzzles were all that were necessary and sufficient, then magicians could hand out copies of the Sunday Times Cryptic Crossword Puzzle and go home.
But no, Our Magic (that is, stage conjuring) is a branch of the theatrical arts, albeit a very specialized one, and it’s subject to the theatre’s constraints and glories. In a magic performance, there are many other considerations that contribute to the overall effect and impact: acting, pacing, character, staging, music, lights, premise, participation, engagement, scripting, likability are all as important as “method” to the audience’s ultimate experiencing of a feeling of magic. And Fool Us, with it’s emphasis on puzzle-solving, neatly elides all those factors. “The method” is not the method. That’s the big secret. And watching Fool Us, you would never know that. You think you’re on the inside track, only you’re not. But you can be sure that P&T understand that as much as anybody. They show you their empty hands, while their other hands remain hidden. Clever boys, those rascals, Penn and Teller.
With the Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason created one of the first television comedies of working class life. It may also be the best. The glorious talents of Art Carney and Audrey Meadows created an irreplaceable ensemble. Audrey Meadows’s characterization of Alice, a loving woman with a steel core, was Gleason’s perfect foil.
Here’s a classic scene that fans rank as one of their all-time favorites.
When I was eight years old, my mother found me in front of her make-up mirror, my forehead, cheeks, chin, and hands covered with large swatches of her green eye shadow and brown eyeliner.
I was trying to look like Vic Morrow in the World War ll television series Combat! Tough guys had green and brown mud on their faces. Anyone who watched Vic knew that.
Fast forward to this February. I had stumbled into acting a small part in a production of Romeo and Juliet in Manhattan. There were a bunch of young actors who had worked together before, and several of them were quite proficient in armed and unarmed stage combat. We were a modern dress production, so we had knife fights along with the usual slaps, kicks, and punches.
I was enchanted watching them work the fights. It was everything I loved about the theater; that part of the theater which overlaps stage magic. We were creating an illusion and the illusion looked so real, there was real doubt as to whether the violence was genuine or not.
The magician and the actor work at different purposes with regard to “suspension of disbelief.” The actor asks us to accept that the cardboard trees in the set function as if they were real. No one thinks a play is unworthy if the interior of a house is indicated with a few blocks of wood. We expect emotional truth, but not necessarily physical truth. The audience is expected to play along.
But the magician has a different task. S/he doesn’t care about “suspension of disbelief.” In fact the magician challenges the audience not to suspend its disbelief. Even if you remain skeptical, I will still fool you says the magician. It doesn’t matter whether you want to play along or not, you will be forced to confront the fact of the woman who has just been cut into two–and your eyes will not be able to disprove it.
So stage combat and special effects make-up belong to that specific realm of theater which seems to duplicate physical reality and hence fools the spectator whether s/he wants to be fooled or not. This has always been a delightful aspect of the theatre for me. I loved the stories of the teen-age Paul Muni dressing up as an old man in make-up and character so convincing, that when he rang the front door of his house, his own mother didn’t recognize who he was. There were leading men, and then there were character actors who could do the transformation. I always most admired the transformers.
Which brings me to this past week. I found a place where I could take a class in stage combat. I had my first class. I’ll tell you more about it later this week in Part II.