David Bruce: The Coolest People in Comedy — Names, Originals, Plagiarism, Politics

Names

• Mark Linn-Baker and Lewis Black used to perform comedy together at Yale University. More or less, they were performing so that they could get enough money to do their laundry. Therefore, they called their act The Laundry Hour.

• Don Adams played Maxwell Smart in the 1960s TV series Get Smart. His real name was Donald James Yarmy, but actors were called in alphabetical order at auditions. He got tired of being called last, so he changed his name.

Originals

• Whoopi Goldberg is a true original. While she was still in the process of being born, she put her thumb in her mouth, surprising the doctors and nurses. When she was a little girl, she asked her mother if she could be a princess. Her mother replied that an actress can be anything, and so Whoopi started acting. Her two cats were named Lou and Bud, after the comedians Lou Costello and Bud Abbot. And when she had her own talk show on TV, she invited white supremacist Thomas Metzger on. When he advocated the separation of the races, she asked him, “Where are you people going, ’cause I sure […] ain’t leaving.

• Latino comedian George Lopez lives in a very fine house; after all, he is a multi-millionaire. In fact, he lives in such a fine house that many people, including many Latinos, are surprised that a Latino lives there — and owns it. He once needed a new roof, and so 15 Mexicans started working on it. In the afternoon, Mr. Lopez returned to his house and noticed that no one was working on the roof. He went looking for the Mexicans, and he found them having a party in and around his pool. One of the Mexicans saw him and said, “Hey, vato [dude], jump in. The man’s not home.”

• Mel Brooks is the co-creator of the TV series Get Smart. One of his contributions to the series was the shoe phone worn by Control spy Maxwell Smart. The idea came to Mr. Brooks when every phone in his office started ringing, and as a joke he took off his shoe and started talking into it.

Plagiarism

• The 1957 B-movie Zero Hour provided inspiration for the disaster movie spoof Airplane!, which was created by Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, aka ZAZ. The movie featured a traumatized veteran being forced to land an airplane after the pilots and crew and passengers are made ill by food poisoning. In fact, many of the plot elements and even dialogue for Airplane! are taken directly from Zero Hour. For example, the line “We have to find somebody who cannot only fly this plane but who also didn’t have fish for dinner” appears in both films. Paramount ended up buying the rights to Zero Hour so that it would not be accused of plagiarizing the film in Airplane!

• Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner used to do a comedy routine in which Mr. Reiner interviewed Mr. Brooks, who played a 2,000-year-old man. However, they performed the routine only at private parties, not in public. Other comedians were impressed by the act. George Burns asked if the routine had been recorded on a comedy album yet. It hadn’t, so Mr. Burns told them, “If you don’t put it on an album, I’ll steal it. I’m serious.” They did, and it became famous.

• Many comedians plagiarize, especially early in their careers. Early in his career, Jackie Mason introduced a comedian named Phil Foster. As he did so, he used much of Mr. Foster’s own material. When Mr. Mason finished the introduction, Mr. Foster walked out on stage, said, “How do you do, ladies and gentlemen? You just heard my act, so good night.” He then walked off the stage and left the building.

Politics

• Zero Mostel took the Fifth Amendment when questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, perhaps in part because saying that he was not a Communist would have opened him up to prying questions about friends of his who may have been Communists. Certainly Mr. Mostel was a leftist when it came to politics. He survived the blacklist, partly by working as a nightclub comic at prices far lower than he had been receiving, partly by selling paintings, and partly because his wife went back to work. Late in life, he starred in The Front, a film about the blacklist that also starred Woody Allen. However, Mr. Mostel never forgave those who cooperated with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Whenever he met an informer on the street, he called out cheerfully (but sarcastically), “Hello, Looselips!

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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