interview with Hank Rosenfeld, by David Holzel.}
That was Irving Brecher.
Riley: Now look here – It's silly to be scared of girls, believe me. Girls are just like boys... only they're... well they're girls... (PAUSE) Nothin' to be scared of.
Junior: Well I'm not scared – I just don't feel like goin'.
Riley: Yeah, 'cause you're scared. But ya got no reason to be, it's childish. When I took your mother out on our first date, was I scared of her? Of course not. Now yes, but then no!
Gene Kelly: “Ah… Rami, isn’t she wonderful?”
Zero Mostel: Just another female woman. Take away her eyes, her
nose, her mouth, her legs and what have you got? A blank
And that was Irving Brecher.
So who was Irving Brecher?
Brecher wrote those gags, and the scripts that went with them. From 1933 until 1963 he was an in-demand comedy writer, hopping from one Golden Age to the next – vaudeville, movies, radio, television. He wrote two Marx Brothers movies (“At the Circus” and “Go West”), the third Thin Man movie (“Shadow of the”), and “Meet Me in St. Louis,” featuring a reluctant Judy Garland, whom Brecher had to convince that taking the starring role was a good career move. The movie was nominated for four Oscars, including best screenplay.
Brecher was the creator, writer and director, or some combination, of “The Life of Riley” – a radio program, a movie and a TV show (the latter starring newcomer Jackie Gleason). The life of Brecher was long enough for him to make a brief appearance on the internet. During the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007, he starred in a video posted on YouTube voicing support for the writers’ demands for residual rights on DVDs and new media. “Don’t let them take away the internet. It’s our future,” the 93-year-old said.
Vaudeville was the 19-year-old Brecher’s future, when he wrote what
turned out to be his most successful pitch. Milton Berle was a
rising star in vaudeville. As part of his act, he bragged he stole
other comics’ material. Brecher placed a one-inch ad in Variety and
hoped the comedian would take the bait:
Positively Berle-proof gags.
So bad, not even Milton will steal them.
The House That Joke Built
Schwartz and Brecher, Circle 7-1294
Berle called. And all his life Irv Brecher loved to fish.
“Unless there’s a canary in here,” the 87-year-old Brecher said, “my hearing aid
“How long do those batteries last?” asked the interviewer.
“About two weeks,” he told her. “Longer if you don’t do any listening.”
You can practically hear the cigar puff.
Rosenfeld spent six years learning who Irving Brecher was. He became the older man’s Boswell. Rosenfeld helped Brecher sum up his life and, as he did, Brecher recreated a world in which he was the last living inhabitant. It was largely a Jewish world, of comics, actors, studio moguls, bean-counting producers and directors who lacked even a shred of artistry.
It was a world not unlike our own.
The as-told-to memoir “The
Wicked Wit of the West” (a nickname Groucho gave Brecher) is the
sum of the memories Brecher poured into Rosenfeld’s tape recorder,
and Rosenfeld’s experiences with Brecher. Yes, the book is elegiac.
Just not sunset-over-the-lake elegiac. More like unfinished-tongue-sandwich-on-rye elegiac.
Hank: Mr. Brecher?
Irv: It could be.
Hank: The Times editor said I could do 800 words on you.
Irv: An obituary?
“The Wicked Wit of the West” was published by Ben Yehudah Press in January. Last November Brecher died at age 94. As he said at least once, “Life gets the last laugh.” But for those like me who had never heard of Irv Brecher, it isn’t too late.
I interviewed Hank Rosenfeld – who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Jewish Journal and tells stories on NPR – the old fashioned way – by email. He told me about Brecher’s life and what it was like to know the man Harpo Marx dubbed “Irv the Nerve.”
David Holzel: Why haven't we heard of
– his fellow scribes came to the rescue:
They were the Mankiewicz brothers (who wrote “Citizen Kane” and
other classics), the Epstein brothers (“Casablanca”), the great Ben
Hecht and Nat Perrin.
LeRoy had, in fact, hired Irv on the spot
the day they met, because he said he thought Irv looked like
the Irving Thalberg portrait above his desk. (Thalberg, the Boy
Wonder creative head of MGM who had just died.) Anyway – got all
that? – it was LeRoy’s son-in-law Morton Janklow who turned Irv down
on the phone. As Irv said: “Janklow said nobody would want to read
about dead people; they only care who Brad Pitt is shtupping.”¯
You spent quite a lot of time with him – six years – accompanying him to events, interviewing him at length, even
having a “Boston Legal”-like sleepover with him. You were his
Boswell. What sort of person did he reveal himself to be?
Irv was a relentless person. He called himself a Type A and Harpo Marx called him Irv the Nerve because he was so wound up while writing Marx Brothers scripts. So worried. He never stopped worrying the whole time we spent together – about his daughter, Joanna, his wife, Norma, about the dang book. “Hurry up!” he'd say. “Time is of the essence.” Finally once he said: “Time is the essence! I don't wanna have to read these stories post-humorously!”