Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight!”

Comedy week here at the blog: on Tuesday I pointed the way to a fine speech by Ben Tarnoff on Mark Twain, vulgarity, and the 21st century; yesterday I enjoyed a recent interview with veteran Monty Python comedian and satirist John Cleese.

Speaking of Twain, I leave you this week with news that Hal Holbrook, who has been performing his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! since 1959, is retiring the show after touring with it for 58 of his own 92 years. I never saw the show live (there is a recording of a 1967 performance available at, and I’m sorry I didn’t. Holbrook is a highly-respected actor, of course, but also something of a Twain scholar-at-large, and he kept Twain’s writing in the public eye for more than half a century. Fellow Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote this appreciation of Holbrook for the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and below is a short excerpt from that 1967 performance. See you next week.


This week I reviewed Marjorie Perloff’s fine Edge of Irony and noted the upcoming screening of Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert at the Metrograph later this month.

Are L&H due for a renaissance? Possibly. Back in June of this year, Tony Alpsen wrote this appreciation for Splitsider, and Paul Auster noted their appeal in his novel 4 3 2 1, published in January:

… [Old] Laurel and Hardy movies … turned out to be the finest, funniest, most satisfying movies ever made. Yes, they were ever so droll and inventive, and yes, Ferguson’s stomach sometimes ached from laughing so hard at their buffoonery, but why he found them so laughable, and why his love for them began to flower beyond all reason, had less to do with their clownish antics than their persistence, with the fact that they reminded Ferguson of himself … Laurel and Hardy’s struggles were no different than his own. They, too, blundered from one ill-conceived plan to the next, they, too, suffered through countless setbacks and frustrations, and whenever their misfortunes brought them to the snapping point, Hardy’s angers would become his angers, Laurel’s befuddlements would mirror his befuddlements, and the best thing about the botches they made for themselves was that Stan and Ollie were even more incompetent than he was, more stupid, more asinine, more helpless, and that was funny, so funny that he couldn’t stop laughing at them, even as he pitied them and embraced them as brothers, kindred spirits forever smacked down by the world and forever standing up to try again — by hatching another one of their harebrained plans, which, inevitably, would knock them to the ground once more.

As long as we’re on the subject of funny, I want to direct your attention to “How Bullwinkle Taught Kids Sophisticated Political Satire,” an essay by Beth Daniels about the eponymous cartoon moose that appeared yesterday at the Smithsonian magazine’s web site. I used to watch Bullwinkle & Friends (it was syndicated under a variety of titles) as a kid during the 1960s; Ms. Daniels is a few years younger than I am, but I can testify that what she writes about reflects my experience precisely. She notes:

Finally, the show’s format and depth of talent connected my sister and me to a world of comedy that was well before our time, but helped us navigate what came afterwards. First, its gloss of adult sophistication completely undercut by silliness was incredibly attractive to me and my sister. Secondly, it got us to delight in the work of a revolving cast of top-notch, old school voice actors who’d grown up in radio and knew how to sell a line. … And so, through Bullwinkle, we were granted access to nearly a century’s worth of comedy and satire, three generations of backhanded patriotism tempered with gentle skepticism going back to vaudeville, a sort of atavistic psychic tool chest for navigating strange and scary times. …

Bullwinkle’s playful critique lives on today in Spongebob and The Simpsons, shows whose creators openly acknowledge their debts. (Spongebob’s Squidward’s voice is Ned Sparks; Plankton is Walter Brennan. All the male Simpsons have Bullwinkle & Rocky’s middle initial “J.”) These shows are a loving critique of the ways American ideals and American reality are often out of whack.  And it’s a good thing, because suddenly the original great theme of Bullwinkle — fear of nuclear annihilation — is back. 

Read the whole thing here. And I’ll see you next week.

Friday roundup

Maurice Ravel.

I spent some time with Vienna this week, watching Joseph Koerner’s fine documentary about the city and noting Marilyn Nonken’s appearance at the Neue Galerie next week. I also reposted a little essay about duration and the sacred.

Closing out the week, I offer a Vienna Philharmonic performance of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, conducted by André Previn. Carl Schorske begins his magisterial study Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture with a short study of this 13-minute work, seeing in it a metaphor for the condition of the city at the turn of the 20th century. He writes:

At the close of World War I, Maurice Ravel recorded in La Valse the violent death of the nineteenth-century world. The waltz, long the symbol of gay Vienna, became in the composer’s hands a frantic danse macabre. “I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.” His grotesque memorial serves as a symbolic introduction to a problem of history: the relationship of politics and the psyche in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

Although Ravel celebrates the  destruction of the world of the waltz, he does not initially present that world as unified. The work opens rather with an adumbration of the individual parts, which will compose the whole: fragments of waltz themes, scattered over a brooding stillness. Gradually the parts find each other — the martial fanfare, the vigorous trot, the sweet obligato, the sweeping major melody. Each element is drawn, its own momentum magnetized, into the wider whole. Each unfolds its individuality as it joins its partners in the dance. The pace accelerates; almost imperceptibly the sweeping rhythm passes over into the compulsive, then into the frenzied. The concentric elements become eccentric, disengaged from the whole, thus transforming harmony into cacophony. The driving pace continues to build when suddenly caesuras appear in the rhythm, and the auditor virtually stops to stare in horror at the void created when a major element weakens the movement, and yet the whole is moving, relentlessly driving as only compulsive three-quarter time can. Through to the very end, when the waltz crashes in a cataclysm of sound, each theme continues to breathe its individuality, eccentric and distorted now, in the chaos of totality.

Ravel’s musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligentsia of the fin de siecle. How had their world fallen into chaos? …

Schorske spends the rest of the book trying to answer this question, but begins with Ravel. The performance can be heard below; have a good weekend.

Friday roundup

A laff-filled week here at the blog. It started with a nod to a new biography of stand-up comedy pioneer Mort Sahl; I went on to muse upon a possible “golden age of American satire” before describing how I came to love it as a youngster in short pants; and yesterday looked back at what has become curiously the most-read post I ever published here. I assume that this last has just come in handy to be copied and pasted into numerous high-school term papers on American lit. But I shouldn’t look a gift horse etc.

Most appropriately, it was a pleasure to head to the HiFi Bar on Avenue A last night for a reading and celebration of The American Bystander, the lovely new literary humor magazine now into its fourth issue under the wise and indefatigable editorship of Michael Gerber. I was happily parked next to the bar with my lovely spouse. The back room was packed (violating not a few city ordinances, I’m guessing), but I’m delighted to report that literary humor and satire in these disturbed times is still healthy and happy, even if my liver isn’t. My appreciation to those who made it all happen, and I was glad to meet the few of them I had the chance to speak and laugh with.

I’ll close the week with a look at a few other comedy pioneers, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Nichols and May: Take Two ran on PBS in 1996 as part of the American Masters series, and it’s as good an introduction to the pair as any you’ll find. It’s below. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon, possibly, once the morning-after beer haze lifts.


Friday roundup: Satire and schnitzel

A rather slow week — I was away from a working computer for most of it, and I’m none the worse for it — but on Tuesday I posted this review of a recent book about Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a film I watched again a few days ago. I’m glad to report that it still holds up and I can recommend it highly.

I’m delighted to offer for your Friday enjoyment episode 1 of Erwin Cooks, a new series from my good friend Erwin Schröttner at Cafe Katja — so if you can’t join us in person, you can join us in spirit. In this episode, Chef Erwin deconstructs the iconic Wiener Schnitzel (with the secret to making it perfect every time), goes deep into the potato (cucumber/potato salad and parsley potatoes with a butter glaze), discusses Riesling with one of America’s top vintners, and travels to the Alps to cook another version of schnitzel. Erwin Cooks runs on PBS39 in Bethlehem, PA (and below, when I can find it). Prost!