Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Laughter on the 23rd Floor

Laughter On The 23rd Floor, a comedy by Neil Simon now onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, is about a roomful of writers for a 1950s comedy-variety TV show. Joe McCarthy and the Blacklist lurk in the background, and troubles with the network animate the plot. But mostly it’s about the characters in that room, and a parade of jokes that mirrors Simon’s tutelage on just such a show.

 The “Simon says” character is Lucas (played by Evan Needham), who narrates as well as participates. Milt (Scott Osborn) wears outlandish costumes to work (a bullfighter’s cape with a French beret) because it gets him noticed in a competitive arena. Carol (Darcy Brown) is the only woman on the staff, and the only one who seems to pay attention to the outside world.

 Kenny (Dave Fuller) is less ham than wry, and Ira (Ellsworth Pence) is the house hypochondriac, as well as a comic anarchist. Val (Anders Carlson) is a brooding paranoid Russian, while Irishman Brian (Clayton Cook), the only non-Jewish writer, has swallowed the show biz blarney stone. Helen (Kelly Hughes) is the perky secretary.

They all must contend with the imperious peccadilloes of the show’s star, Max Prince (David Hamilton.) Under creative and business pressure, Prince drinks too much and takes too many pills. “I fell asleep with my eyes open,” he says. “I thought I was dreaming about the ceiling.”

 There are brushes with sentiment, passes at seriousness and stabs at theories of humor. “All humor is based on hostility—isn’t that right, Kenny?” “Absolutely. That’s why World War II was so funny.”

The writers don’t seem to write anything, though the one sketch being developed is a highlight—a parody of Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar (Hamilton nails it.) But plot, context and philosophy are all secondary to laughs, and the high jinks and jokes in this 1993 play come faster than in anything Simon had written since his earliest plays.

 The whole cast is funny, but I was especially impressed by how Anders Carlson played his character with precise economy, and how Darcy Brown (formerly Darcy Daughtry) vocally and physically created an instantly believable 1950s character. And David Hamilton plays the mercurial shades of Max Prince with comic moves that kept surprising and delighting the opening night audience.

 Articulation and timing should even improve as the actors find new moments to play. Though this is a sanitized version of the 50s and this group, Calder Johnson designed a suitably tawdry writers room, and director David Moore keeps the actors and action moving in this single set. Costumes (including the outrageous ones) are designed by Lauren Wieland.

The Max Prince Show is based very loosely on the last two years of Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar, the play’s characters are even more loosely based on writers for this program and its immediate successor, Caesar’s Hour.  Caesar's writers rooms were legendary for who they produced: Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart--and Neil Simon.  Together they supplied much of the comedy on screen and on stage for at least the next fifty years.

The hypochondriac Ira is based on the hyperglycemic Mel Brooks, and Milt and Kenny are even more vaguely based on Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart (creator of TV’s M*A*S*H). the two closest parallels are Val, based on Russian immigrant Mel Tolkin, and Carol, who is a little of Selma Diamond but mostly Lucille Kallen (also famously allergic to the pervasive cigar smoke. In the play she claims she has to keep her dresses in a humidor.)

 These legendary writers’ rooms also inspired a film, My Favorite Year, which combined Sid Caesar with Steve Allen. It shows a shy writer whispering his jokes to another writer. That’s Neil Simon whispering to Carl Reiner. Reiner also drew on his Caesar experience for the classic sitcom he created, the Dick Van Dyke Show.

 But no play or movie or TV show has come close to suggesting the unique comic genius of Sid Caesar, or the inspired mayhem of his TV shows. I saw them as a child and remember some of the sketches to this day. There are a few on YouTube, and more on various DVDs.
Exit Laughing: The Real Sid Caesar Shows

Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor is about a group of writers for a 1950s comedy-variety television show called (in the play)the Max Prince Show.  It is  based very loosely on the last year or so of Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar. Here I wanted to expand on the real sources of the play.

The play is set in the writers’ room of a weekly 90 minute comedy-variety series in 1953. The play’s characters are loosely based on the legendary writers who worked for Sid Caesar, but not all of them in the play worked on Your Show of Shows. Several joined later for its successor, Caesar’s Hour, a one hour show of mostly comedy that debuted in the fall of 1954.

The two characters in the play based most clearly on the real writers were the team that were there at the beginning of YSOS, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen. “They set the tone for the whole show,” Carl Reiner said. They had written Caesar’s previous series, The Admiral Broadway Revue, which first teamed him with the now-legendary comedienne, Imogene Coca (pictured above.)

In the play, the character of Val Slotsky is based on Tolkin. Like Val, Tolkin was a Russian immigrant, by way of Canada. And like Val, he had a dour outlook, conditioned by pogroms in Russia. He trained as an accountant but entered show business through music. His first writing was composing songs and then bits to go with them. Larry Gelbart called him the “founding father” of YSOS, where he was head writer. Despite his years in North America, he had a heavy Eastern European accent, but he was highly literate, with a European sophistication and Old World manner.

The character of Carol Wyman is based slightly on Selma Diamond, who was on the staff of Caesar’s Hour and later became a brassy, gravel-voiced performer. But Carol is mostly based on Lucille Kallen, the only woman on the staff of YSOS. Kallen was famously allergic to the pervasive cigar smoke in the writers room. In the play, Carol complains that she has to keep her dresses in a humidor. Like Carol in the play, Kallen got pregnant during the run of the show, and the play has a kind of in-joke about that. Some reference is made to a writer being hired temporarily to replace Carol. Temporary replacements were in fact hired for Kallen—they happened to be Neil Simon and his older brother Danny Simon. By the time Kallen was ready to return, the show was over. (The play is narrated by “Lucas Brickman,” the Neil Simon stand-in. Brother Danny isn’t mentioned, and he would not follow Neil to Caesar’s Hour.)

Kallen had worked with Tolkin, first at a large Jewish resort in the Pocono Mountains, and then on the Admiral TV show. Kallen wrote especially for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca as a couple, either in stand-alone sketches or for their regular segment, the Hickenloopers. She was a small woman in a room of large men, and sometimes had to stand on a couch and wave a red sweater to be heard. Reiner remembers her as very pretty, and concerned with preserving her femininity as a professional woman. She later wrote a novel with this theme, before becoming known to a different public as the author of the C.B. Greenfield mystery novels.

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