He was ‘America’s greatest wit’ — so why doesn’t anyone remember this ace Jewish comedy writer?
You know you’ve been around awhile when you can claim to have co-written a script with a guy born in the 19th century. Well, I have been and I did. The show was “Andy Williams Presents” and the writer’s name was Goodman Ace. Born in 1899, just under the wire, a year that also gave us Bogart, Cagney and Astaire. They don’t make years like that anymore.
In the summer of 1974, Jim Mulholland and I signed on as writers of a pilot for a weekly variety show hosted by Andy Williams. The producer, Bob Precht, was the son-in-law of Ed Sullivan, whose own weekly show had folded after 23 years. Precht now wanted to do the same show with a new host, though Sullivan’s body wasn’t even cold yet. (He was alive, but with Ed it was hard to tell.) The head writer of “Andy Williams Presents” was Goodman Ace.
Ace’s admirers included comedians Groucho Marx and Fred Allen, who called him “America’s greatest wit.” Their correspondence with Goody appears in the collected letters of both men: “Dear Groucho: I would have answered your letter sooner, but you didn’t send one.” In a Passover note to Groucho in 1951, Goody wrote that he was attending a seder “to which a nice lady invited us. She said they are going to ask the four kashos. So, I am asking the Five DeMarcos.”
We first met Goody at his midtown Manhattan office, a 1940s time-capsule, where he still wrote a column for Saturday Review. His elderly assistant, Manny — who Goody seemed to have brought along with him from the previous century — served coffee. Goodman Ace was 75 that summer, and not necessarily a young one. His vintage gray suit, with pallor to match, hung loosely on a boney frame. His posture was less than erect with a forward-leaning tilt. Though his circa 1970s hearing aid didn’t bode well for bandying jokes, we needn’t have worried. We asked if he’d worked with Andy before. He shifted the unlit cigar stub around in his mouth and growled, “No, I only know Andy to say goodbye to him.”
Goodman Ace (Aiskowitz) began as a newspaperman in Kansas City, Missouri, where he married Jane Epstein, his high school sweetheart. Through happenstance, they ended up starring in their own radio show, “Easy Aces.” He wrote the scripts in which she was prone to malaprops ––“You could have knocked me over with a fender!” –– and he mostly reacted.
The show ran from 1930 to 1945. Jane soon called it a career, and Goody went on to write for radio stars Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, and Danny Kaye. Kaye wanted him so badly he let him produce his Los Angeles-based show from New York. As head writer for Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater” and Perry Como’s variety show for 12 years, he was the highest-paid TV comedy writer of the era. At CBS, he trained future playwrights George Axelrod, Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon.
Any casual misuse of English drove Goody up a wall. His then-latest peeve: “I watched Alan King’s show the other night. Alan said, ‘Last night I had the most heart-rendering experience.’ I saw Alan’s manager, Harry Adler, at the Friars Club, and I said, ‘I watched Alan last night. He’s killing the English language. He said he had ‘the most heart-rendering experience.’ Harry said, ‘He did, I was there!’”
During that hot New York summer, Jane was in failing health and Goody had just bounced back from illness himself. The topic led him to share conversations he’d had with his doctor. “A humorless man,” he said, “Always hangs up on me.”
“Remember the flu shot you gave me yesterday? Well, now I’ve got the flu. My temperature is a hundred and two.”
“You want it in writing??”
The doctor said to me, “You’re 20 pounds overweight.”
I said, “Not according to this scale. It says I’m the perfect weight for a man six-foot-nine-inches tall. You’ve got to do something about my height.”
These exchanges could have fit into one of his old radio shows. Maybe they had.
Goody took us to the Friars Club for lunch. He raved about his favorite TV shows then on the air: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — “so believable and hilarious;” “The Rockford Files,” starring James Garner, and “NBC Nightly News” with John Chancellor. Nothing else for him was worth watching. One day he got into a kerfuffle with the Friars’ maître d’ and vowed never to return. Despite the efforts of some to broker a truce, I don’t know that he ever did.
The writers, who included Tom Whedon, wrote Andy Williams’s intros for the various acts, as well as “spontaneous” patter between stars –– always the high point of any production. It was a relief to write jokes for Redd Foxx, the show’s one actual comedian. The lineup was a real Sullivan-style potpourri: magician Doug Henning, singer Olivia Newton-John, lunatic Evel Knievel, and from Russia, the Moiseyev Dancers. (Apologies to the show’s many acts I’ve left out.)
On September 7, 1974 “Andy Williams Presents” was presented. It was no Sullivan show. For starters, it lacked a host devoid of charisma. It did not go to series. Its only distinction now is that it was the final TV gig for the great Goodman Ace.
My memory of Goodman Ace was of a gracious, erudite man who was funny without seeming to try. He was never “on,” he was not a comedy know-it-all. It was never “my way or the West Side Highway.” The headline of his 1982 New York Times obituary called him a “humorist,” several rungs above “gagman.” Most of all, he was a writer.
By way of illustration:
Groucho told Goody his doctor said there were three things he could no longer do. He couldn’t smoke, he couldn’t drink, and he couldn’t f—k. Goody asked him if it would be all right if he quoted him in his Saturday Review column. Groucho said that it was all right with him, but he’d never get away with it. They bet one dollar. Here’s how Goody phrased it in the magazine: “Groucho told me there are three things the doctor told him he can no longer do: he can’t smoke and he can’t drink.”
Michael Barrie was a longtime writer for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and the “Late Show with David Letterman.” His work with Jim Mulholland won a Writers Guild Award.