Sunday, November 16, 2008

My first mentor

Thanks to everyone involved in Sitcom Room 2008. It was a total blast. Details later in the week.

Here's another installment of my memoirs growing up in the 60s. This one deals with my early comedy influences and first mentor, since there were no seminars (or even hotels) in my day.

My birthday is February 14th. For everyone else it’s a day associated with love and an execution-like slaying in Chicago. For me it was sharing my birthday with a holiday that no one really celebrated in earnest. I said it was a day associated with love. Actually it’s more like the obligation of declaring your love. Forced gifts, forced flowers, forced romantic dinners. I always felt guilty that my birthday was just one more of those obligations.

My 14th birthday fell on a Friday so any restaurant that didn’t have a drive-through window was booked. But my mom suggested we have a party. It’s always borderline pathetic to hold a party for yourself at that age but I begrudgingly agreed as long as the guest list didn’t include both my friends and my grandparents.

Parties back then were incredibly lame. Everyone’s parents had to drive you and pick you up. We were too young to drink. Too young to smoke. Too shy to really fool around. What was left was ten awkward early teens listening to music, eating snacks, drinking Cokes, and not dancing. The Amish throw better bashes.

Gifts were traditionally 45 rpm records. I got all the new Beatles singles even though I already had all the new Beatles singles. (I wish I still had them today. I could retire.)

Quick side trip (I’ll be taking these from time to time): Not all of these Beatles singles were on the same label. Curiously, they were on five – Capitol, Vee-Jay, Atco, Swan, and Tollie. There must’ve been some complicated rights snafu but it also explains why so many songs were coming out at once. It’s not like Swam records had anything better to release.

A more eventful party a few years earlier was the one at Bonnie Burns’ house. For some reason there was a photo in her living room of Steve Allen. I loved Steve Allen. Once the host of THE TONIGHT SHOW, Allen then hosted variety programs on NBC and ABC that was far better and more cutting edge than THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW (as was LASSIE). I was first introduced to Lenny Bruce on THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW. And Bob Dylan. Even Kyu Sakamoto. Steve also surrounded himself with a hilarious cast of brilliant comedians – Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Bill Dana, Dayton Allen, Tim Conway, and one of my all-time faves – Louie Nye (pictured right).

There was a real sense of anarchy on his show. Allen frequently did inspired outrageous stunts. I remember one time he began his program by having a camera shoot from underneath a clear glass stage. He looked down at the camera and said, “What if a drunk suddenly staggered into your living room and saw this shot?” Wacky stuff you see on David Letterman – that all began with TV pioneers like Steve Allen (and also Ernie Kovacs).

I asked Bonnie why the picture of Allen and she said, “Because my dad is his head writer.” WHAT?! HOLY SHIT!! I was in the tract house of a GOD!

Most boys grow up and want to be baseball stars. Those boys had coordination. The first time I saw THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW I thought, “Wow, bitchin’ babes like Laura Petrie marry comedy writers? I’m a riot for 12. I could do that!”

It seemed like a great life. Hang out with other funny people. Make each other laugh. Get paid for it. And attract long legged brunettes without having to master the harmonica.

Stan Burns became my first mentor. When the guy who wrote for Steve Allen and GET SMART says you’re funny it means a lot. He would go on to create, write, and produce the series LANCELOT LINK: SECRET CHIMP. Picture a James Bond movie but with chimpanzees that could talk. It takes a special mind to come up with that, and a special courage to actually pitch it. Stan did and it ran for two successful years on ABC.

To this day people think I grew up in New York. They can’t believe a Jewish comedy writer could come from the West San Fernando Valley. Hey, some of the funniest shows in the history of television were written right there. Not by me but still.


Anonymous said...

Been compulsively checking in this weekend to see how the Sitcom Writers' Room is going/went. Looking forward to the postmortems!

maven said...

OMG, Ken...thank you so much for that memory of my Dad, and those awful parties! LOL

He was proud to be a mentor to one of my friends! And you did pretty well!

He was just my Dad, but I've come to realize how special he was to the early history of television.

Anonymous said...

Wow, how in the world did I miss that Stan Burns created Lancelot Link? My siblings and I loved that thing (even if the lead chimp was the least talented lip-syncher among the cast. Clearly peanut butter was involved).

Sadly, no comedy gods were operating out of Henderson, Kentucky during my youth.

Anonymous said...

Lancelot Link? That brings back great memories for me of watching reruns of that in the 80s on cable when I was knee high to a grasshopper. Groovy theme song too. Talking chimps saving the world from evil, how could you go wrong?

Anonymous said...

I've always loved men who could master the harmonica.

Corinne said...

Not all of these Beatles singles were on the same label. Curiously, they were on five – Capitol, Vee-Jay, Atco, Swan, and Tollie. There must’ve been some complicated rights snafu but it also explains why so many songs were coming out at once.

This is based on info from my spouse and another friend, both of whom are Beatles collectors & aficionados.

It was an enormously complicated situation that started with Capitol Records (an EMI subsidiary) rejecting "Love Me Do."

Basically VJ, Swan, and Tollie had the rights (George Martin worked to get a label to promote the pre-I Want To Hold Your Hand 45s). VJ lost them and went into litigation (but still pushed Beatle product). It wasn't until "Meet The Beatles" came out that Capitol issued Beatle 45s. They then wanted the rights back from the smaller indie labels

Labels include (not recent reissues):

United Artists
--and several variations within these companies (swirl/non-swirl, yellow swirl, green swirl, etc.).

Tollie was a label formed as a subsidiary of Vee-Jay Records. It lasted maybe a year.

The situation is pretty well documented in Bruce Spizer's "The Beatles Are Coming." Spizer also wrote up an article about this for Goldmine (

estiv said...

I'm a few years younger, but I remember those Steve Allen shows too. With Kovacs already gone by then, Steve Allen was pretty much the only source of inspired lunacy on network TV. Sometimes nowadays in the middle of a conversation I'll say "Whyyyyy NOT." This never fails to draw anything other than a blank stare.

By the way, seeing Louis Nye in some of the early episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm was a special treat. He was still very good.

Anonymous said...

Steve Allen should be recognized by everyone as the ultimate TV god. Not only was he funny, but he created that great PBS series, Meeting of the Minds, in which actors portrayed figures from history and sat around chatting about issues. Great concept.

maven said...

Those days when Dad was working on Lance Link was great fun for our family! Who would have thought that it has become quite a little cult classic!

howie said...

I, too, worshipped Steve Allen in my youth. It's no doubt how I came to be funniest program analyst on this or any other planet.

I did become a litle disappointed in Steve's rather bitter, "Johnny and Dave stole from me" act in his later years. We all know Johnny did, and Dave was always giving credit to Steve for being an inspiration, so why gripe?"

Anonymous said...

Two things. Mr. Levine, if you kept your original Beatles singles, you could have retired, made a house payment, paid some bills'd be broke again. Some of them are worth quite a bit, others aren't worth much, because they sold very, very well. Thank you, Corinne, for the great article link.

Speaking of Links, I not only enjoyed "Lancelot Link" and "Get Smart", but LL has a GREAT soundtrack album. Sell that one on eBay and you will have a lovely meal at Lawry's.

2. Estiv, Dayton Allen's album, "Whyyy Not" is hilarious, too. Lenny Bruce even made a reference to it on "Lenny Bruce: American". He did a bit about an ad for a family with a line item for dope. "We set aside a little money each week for our habit. Why do we do it? Whyyy not!?"

Funnier if heard.

Allen was wonderful. I remember one of his later shows where they had a police lineup and as the narrator focused on each criminal, a la "Dragnet", one fellow with a mustache looked into the camera, sneered and, with the aid of his tongue, removed the mustache and consumed it whole. This was a baaad man.

Anonymous said...

That should be "STEVE Allen" was wonderful.


D. Dawg

Roger Owen Green said...

Re: Beatles - that complicated situation allowed the Beatles to have the TOP FIVE spots on the Billboard charts on April 4, 1964 on four labels (Capitol, Vee-Jay, Swan and Tollie).

Anonymous said...

OMG. Lancelot Link. I now have RIDICULOUS memory whiplash.

Thanks a lot.

P.S. Post something about The Banana Splits and you'll hear from my lawyer and chiropractor.

Kirk said...

Lancelot Link was a secret-agent spoof (like Get Smart), yet Lance talked like Humphrey Bogart, who died a good five years before the first James Bond movie. How's that?

While we're at it, how come a show with humans evolved into a show with apes? Maybe Charlton Heston could explain...

Tallulah Morehead said...

Krik, surely you remember the episode where Lancelot Link visit the portions of The Statue of Liberty that still stuck out of the beach?

As I said to Charleton Heston (I always called him "Cheston") as he gazed at my burning bush, "Get your filthy paws ON me, you damned, dirty ape.

Cheers darlings

Write Away said...

Steve Allen, a man of great talent: writer, comedian, author, personality. Wow, sounds a lot like you, Mr. Levine. Love this blog. Can't wait to hear about all the fun (hell) in the Sitcom Room!

Anonymous said...

Both my cousin and I bought a copy of the Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution LP on the cut out table in the mid 70s. Loved it. Played it for several of my college friends in the seventies without telling them who it was and they all enjoyed it. Kissing Doll was my favorite track. Several years ago there was a fellow who sold bootleg CD copies of it on eBay. I bought a copy since my vinyl record has long since disappeared. Sad to say, his LP has a lot of pops and a couple of skips, but still and enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Reflecting on the early Beatles' labels in the US, in retrospective it's amazing that Vee Jay lost the rights to future Beatles' albums because they didn't make a couple of hundred dollars in royalty payments. However, since Vee Jay was such a small, poor record company you wonder whether the Beatles would have had the same US career since Vee Jay could not have promoted them in the same way that Capitol did.

Anonymous said...

Jack...I though Vee-Jay had some ready cash because they released the first monster hits by the Four Seasons (SHERRY, BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY, WALK LIKE A MAN). Of course, by the time the Beatles hit Frankie and the boys had left for Philips Records after months of litigation and no recording.

P.S. Ken--will you PLEASE share some of David's thoughts on MAD MEN?

Kirk said...

Tallulah, I laughed so hard at your comment, it was a good 15 minutes before I realized you spelled my name wrong. It's Kirk, not Krik.

At 111, a little dyslexia is forgivable

Anonymous said...

Paul, yes the Vee Jay hits of the Four Seasons were monsters and kind of put Vee Jay on the map. But in early 63, the Seasons were suing Vee Jay for non payment of royalties. Seems the head guys at Vee Jay had gambled most of the funds away and by the time they picked up the Beatles' contract, the firm was near bankruptcy. Guess in hindsight that turned out to be a good thing because the original two singles issued by Vee Jay in the summer of 63 bombed and bombed badly, mainly because of poor distribution.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Dear Kork Justgo,

Sorry about the typo. Sometimes the memory of the terror inspired by a close up gander at The Thing That Lived on Cheston's Head Pretending To Be His Hair flusters me.

Ironically, it was the litter-mate of The Thing That Lived on Steve Allen's Head Pretending To Be His Hair.

Both of those Things now live in Tippi Hedron's Animal Preserve.

Cheers darling.

Kirk said...

Kork Justgo? OK, I stepped right into that one.

I might as well be at Tippi Hendron's preserve.