In the summer of 1982, after my Marx Brothers film aired on PBS, I was contemplating whether I would produce another film or look for a position with a production company. Before long, fate -- or something like it -- stepped in and I found myself doing both.
The guys at Rollins, Joffe, Morra & Brezner were looking for a new Director of Development and offered me the job, which I gladly accepted. (For more on Rollins & Joffe, see Marx Brothers, Billy Crystal and Rick Reynolds.) Around the same time, I got a call from Stu Smiley who worked with Jack Rollins in New York (our offices were bicoastal) saying he was going to leave the company and was thinking of producing a special on stand-up comedy. He asked if I would be his partner in this venture. I agreed.
Stu and I sold the idea to HBO. It would be called The Great Standups: Sixty Years of Laughter. It would chronicle the history of American stand-up comedy, interweaving performance footage with historical newsreel footage, drawing parallels between the history of our nation and the evolution of our comedy, from vaudeville to the present time (the early 80's).
Today, it's with mixed emotions that I view this film. I suppose it's somehow significant in that it's the first film on which I was the credited director. Yet, of all my films, it's the one that seems to be missing my own personal stamp. Anyone could have made it. I found myself overly concerned with pleasing the money people (HBO), and I was constantly making changes based on their notes and adhering to their needs. Perhaps that's why the film feels so homogenized to me. It was a valuable lesson though and The Great Standups marks the first and last time I'd create a work that was so vulnerable to the input of executives.
But that wasn't the only problem. Frankly, we bit off an awful lot for a one-hour special. Elsewhere you can see by the alphabetical list that the film included an amazing number of performers. Consequently, very few of them got their proper due in the amount of time they were allotted. I realize now, as I did then, that it's nothing short of sacrilegious to take Abbott & Costello's Who's On First routine and edit it down for time. Yet, that's one example of the many compromises I found myself having to make.
The fact is that a proper look at the history and evolution of American stand-up comedy warrants a full-on mini-series treatment, a la Ken Burns' Jazz series for PBS.
Don't get me wrong, viewing The Great Standups is not without its pleasures. There are actually a few directorial flourishes that I'm proud of, but the saving grace of the film is the performance clips (as abbreviated as some may be). I mean, a film that includes Nichols & May doing their ''necking'' routine, and Sid Caesar doing the bit comparing a couple dating in 1939 and 1949, and Brooks and Reiner doing their ''2000 Year Old Man'' routine (to name only three) can't be all bad.
The film proved significant for me in a couple of other ways. In creating this retrospective of sixty years of standup, I found myself most drawn to that period from the mid-50's to the mid-60's where standup comedy made that transition from innocuous jokes about mothers- in-law to more socially and politically relevant humor, ushered in initially by Mort Sahl and later popularized by Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. This inspiration would lay the groundwork for a proposed series for PBS called Shaping Laughter, which would eventually become my three separate films profiling those very same three comics. (The Dick Gregory piece still in production.)
The Great Standups was significant in one other way. Using the needed clips of Lenny Bruce necessitated getting written permission from his mother, Sally Marr. I screened a rough cut for Sally and thus began a friendship that would last to the end of her life... and (I'd like to think) beyond.
I'll include here excerpts from a New York Times review of the film. It's a lukewarm review at best, but for the most part, it reflects my own feelings about the film. (I will say that Carl Reiner exerted no editorial control that led to the longer clips featuring Brooks & Reiner and Sid Caesar. Those choices were mine alone.)
A final note: The Great Standups was the first long-form film edited by Carl Byker who has since become a respected documentary filmmaker in his own right.