A few weeks back, my friend Ian Abrams who teaches in the film at Drexel University invited me to sit in one of his classes out here in Los Angeles where he's running a summer program for Drexel students. He was going to be screening a classic live production from Playhouse 90 called The Comedian, done in 1957. I couldn't make it but decided to check to see if there were any clips of the production online. As it happened -- the entire show is on YouTube. It runs 72 minutes, is fascinating and has quite a remarkable pedigree.
The Comedian stars Mickey Rooney, Edmond O'Brien, Mel Torme and Kim Kunter (particularly timely, since she played 'Zira' who befriends Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes, and one sequel.) Further, it has a script by the great Rod Serling, based on a novelette by Ernest Lehman (who wrote such screenplays as North By Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Sweet Smell of Success, Sabrina, Hello Dolly!, Executive Suite and much more). And was directed John Frankenheimer, who went on to direct such feature films as Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in Main and The Manchurian Candidate.
Make no mistake, despite it's title there no humor in The Comedian. It tells the story of an out-of-control, nasty TV comic (played by Rooney), who acquires hangers-on but self-deceptively no friends. But the story really isn't only about this Sammy Hogarth character alone, but others with their own troubled shadows covering their lives -- the head-writer of the show (O'Brien) and Sammy's brother (Torme). So, to the show's credit, it doesn't spend the whole time pounding Sammy.
There's quite a bit of over-the-top angst here, which occasionally gets exhausting, but ultimately you begin to accept that that unrelenting tone is the core of the story, and its power carries things along. Rooney's portrayal is impressive, going for high energy cruelty to turning the charm on a dime to be everyone's favorite comedian. Edmon O'Brien may carry the story the most, and does it with a taught weariness that's very effective. And Mel Torme brings levels of sad, lost and pathetic to Lester Hogarth.
It's all well-worth watching, most especially if you're interested in the Golden Age of Television. But even if you don't want to watch the whole thing, consider checking out at least 10 minutes or so, to see a classic (and remarkable) live production.
If you do watch the entire show, know that there are about half a dozen interruptions for ads. They only last about 15 seconds each, though, so it's not intrusive. (A couple of the ads tell you that your computer is missing a video converter -- you're not, this is just an ad. No need to "Click here" like it says.)
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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