BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Milt Kamen was an American comedian who made his mark on network television, appearing on such programs as The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show, giving spontaneous and cheerfully irreverent “reviews” of current movies. As an example, when he praised Rex Harrison’s acting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra, Kamen commented sardonically, “He was the only one who had time to learn his lines.”
Kamen had started in the entertainment business as a musician, playing French horn in pit orchestras for Broadway shows.
As he sat in the pit watching Ray Bolger delight audiences with his antics in the 1948 musical Where’s Charley, Kamen decided he’d like to try comedy himself. He pawned his horn and became a writer for the Sid Caesar television show, along with a talented young joke-smith named Neil Simon. When he took his stand-up routine to New York’s Blue Angel nightclub, Kamen was described by no less an admirer than Groucho Marx as “a most unusual comic … he does things to make you laugh loudly and uproariously.”
When I caught up with him in 1976, Kamen was 54 years old and rehearsing for a play. He was booked to star in a Calgary production of The Sunshine Boys, a Broadway comedy about the reunion of two retired vaudevillians, written by Kamen’s onetime writing colleague Neil Simon. I asked Kamen whether – as a comedy writer himself – he was tempted to make improvements in the script. “No, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “As an actor, I do the play on a different level from what I do as a comedian. I try to interpret, to fulfil what the author has written, and suspend any desire I might have to change the lines. It’s enriching for me to work as an actor. It keeps my craft alive.”
I was grateful for the fact he gave serious answers to my questions because, in other newspaper interviews I read, Kamen had always responded with gag lines. As a comedian, it seemed, he felt the need to be funny both off-stage and on. How poor was he growing up? “We were so poor we thought knives and forks were jewellery. As I child, I had to lie in the gutter because it was the only way I could see the sky.” If I had wanted answers like that, I could have taken them off one of his comedy records.
I asked him about the challenges of playing Willie Clark, a role Walter Matthau had played in the movie adaptation of Sunshine Boys. “It’s the most difficult stage part I’ve ever had to learn,” said Kamen. “I don’t get any cues from the other players, and the pace is very fast. It’s a lot of work, studying and rehearsing.” So much work, in fact, that Kamen hadn’t had time to do any sightseeing or take in any of the tourist attractions he hoped to visit during his first trip to Canada.
Kamen said he preferred the stage to motion pictures because of the involvement with a live audience. He had done several shows in New York, both on Broadway and off, and had been praised by The New York Times for his portrayal of a drunken waiter in an Off Broadway production of William Saroyan’s Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning. “Stage work is as important to me as making a guest appearance on Johnny Carson,” said Kamen.
I asked him about the satirical movie reviews he did for Carson and other talk-show hosts. Kamen said the reviews weren’t that popular with producers, directors or others connected with the film industry, because he refused to take their work seriously. “I’m not caught up in the ‘art’ of the movie,” he said. “So they made a movie, so what? What makes that so important? It costs me $3.50 to see it and sometimes I get angry afterwards. So I go on television and let people know what I think about it.”
He said he got the idea for the mock reviews while visiting a New York zoo. After checking out the ape house, he started thinking of the old King Kong movie starring Canadian actress Fay Wray. “I never knew what she saw in King Kong. The ape had no imagination. On their first date, he took her to the Empire State Building, just like any other tourist. I knew nothing good could ever come of that relationship.”
As well as doing the spoof reviews, Kamen also continued to do stand-up comedy gigs. He didn’t tell jokes, as such, but poked fun at the human condition as he saw it. “A person gets only one trip through life,” he told me, “and there’s a need for laughter in the world.” With the ending of the Vietnam War, people were “back to having nervous breakdowns and studying for examinations again” so there was a need for comic relief. “A comedian has to feel what the people are feeling and relate to what they are thinking. I never feel I know more than the people in my audience. I just look at the world through different eyes and see the things that are funny.”
I didn’t think much of Kamen’s acting in Sunshine Boys. He did fine in the parts of the play where the two old vaudevillians recreated their most popular comedy sketches of the past. But I thought he lacked the depth to effectively carry off the part where the aging trouper suffered a heart attack and had to depend on home care. After my review appeared, Kamen swapped roles with the actor, Eugene Elman, who played the other vaudevillian. Kamen had decided that playing the straight man would be less of a challenge.
Sunshine Boys was the first and last play Kamen did in Canada. In February 1977, five months after the Calgary production closed, he died of a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home at age 55.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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