Earlier this week, Saul Austerlitz wrote about his recent author tour and five not-as-terrible-as-you-think movies. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
One of the trickiest aspects of writing my book was figuring out how to structure it. After tinkering with a variety of approaches, I settled on 30 chapters, each dedicated to a single filmmaker or performer whose body of work I considered to be significant to the history of American film comedy. These 30 selections were joined by about 100 additional short entries on comic figures significant enough to deserve a mention, if not quite meritorious enough to earn a chapter of their own. 130 directors and actors seems like a lot, and I got to include most of the people I wanted, but as I expected from the outset, readers and reviewers have often been most interested in discussing the exclusions. (That is, after all, a significant part of the pleasure of assembling a list, and what is a book about film other than a bulked-up list of movie suggestions?) I’ve enjoyed the discussions, kept them in mind, and pondered who else might deserve inclusion. (Second edition, anyone?)
Here, then, are a handful of performers and directors who just missed the cut.
The time between completion of a book and publication makes for strange gaps, including the exclusion of Steve Carell. With the one-two-three punch of “Dinner for Schmucks,” “Date Night,” and animated hit “Despicable Me,” 2010 was the year that confirmed Carell as one of the most successful comedians of the moment. I excluded him first time around because I felt that, even taking into account the brilliant “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” Carell had too short a film resume to warrant inclusion (his vaunted television run as The Office’s Michael Scott notwithstanding). 2010’s parade of hits has meant that Carell must be acknowledged as a consistently funny performer. Carell can be a wizardly comedian, but the roles he has taken on have not always adequately reflected his mastery of a certain brand of goofy lassitude.
Superstar, or flash in the pan? I wasn’t entirely convinced by “The Hangover,” but this past season of “Bored to Death,” HBO’s sublimely stoned comedy series about New York neurotics (what up, Brooklyn!), gives me hope for Galifianakis’s future. Audiences felt that “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” wasn’t, but Galifianakis’s puppy-dog indie charm may be enough to propel him to a more lasting stardom nonetheless.
One of the funniest comedians of the 1950s not named Jerry Lewis, Kaye built his career on such light-hearted burlesques as “A Song Is Born” and “The Court Jester,” where he played a carnie posing as a court jester to take on an imposter king. Kaye made a career out of his bug-eyed expressions of panic and confusion. If Gary Cooper was the absent-minded professor to a T in Howard Hawks’s “Ball of Fire,” Kaye was a more-than-suitable replacement in “A Song Is Born,” Hawks’s musical update of the same material. Like Lewis, and other writers and performers of roughly the same era, like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, Kaye was a product of the Catskills — a Borscht Belt comedian trained by the tough audiences of middle-class Jews on vacation, convinced they were being swindled out of their hard-earned dollars. After that, entertaining America was a breeze.
I included the ZAZ team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker, the brilliantly sophomoric trio responsible for “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” trilogy. ZAZ were masters of laugh-out-loud idiocy, and one of their most dazzling strokes of genius was understanding the untapped comic potential of stolid 1950s leading men like Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and more than anyone else, the recently deceased Leslie Nielsen. Nielsen had been a mostly undistinguished distinguished gentleman in forgettable fare, best known for the sci-fi gem “Forbidden Planet,” before the ZAZ boys cast him in “Airplane!” Voila — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum about there being no second acts in American life was instantly voided, with Nielsen finding renewed vigor as a ludicrous leading man, leading an off-key rendition of the national anthem, or disrupting a courtroom by forgetting to unclip his microphone before heading to the bathroom.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.”
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