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Sines & Cosines      


 
  Chico and Harpo Marx think something isn't kosher with brother Groucho.
{An interview with Hank Rosenfeld, by David Holzel.}



Groucho Marx (as S. Quentin Quale): Lulubelle, it's you! I didn't recognize you standing up.

 

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!


That was Irving Brecher.
 

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 expression.”
 

 

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.

 


Writer Hank Rosenfeld met Brecher in 2001,
as Irv was being interviewed for the Turner Classic Movies archives of the surviving members of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Brecher was in the middle of his interview when a beeping sound forced the producer to cut. What followed, in Rosenfeld’s retelling, is a moment that begins with Groucho and seamlessly ends with George Burns.

 

“Unless there’s a canary in here,” the 87-year-old Brecher said, “my hearing aid just died.”
 

“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 Irving Brecher?

Hank Rosenfeld:
Because he wrote those words, he never proclaimed them on screen. Everyone has heard of Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx. You've heard of Jackie Gleason and Judy Garland, Ann-Margret, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Maybe some of your readers even know the names Myrna Loy and William Powell.  Speaking on a panel called “How Movies Happen,” Irv explained one of the reasons nobody knows who writes anything: people think actors write their own lines.

Irv was part of a roundtable of wits at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the famous studio in Culver City in the 1940s. The only praise was what he called “the happy approval of some of your fellow writers.” At MGM, when Irv got into hot water by standing up to the brass –  L.B. Mayer, Arthur Freed and other producer bosses

 

Irving Brecher and his alter-ego, Groucho Marx.

Brecho and Groucho: "His tongue was an unguided missile."

–  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.

Those who pay attention knew him; 'twas ever thus, right? New York Times writer Bruce Weber called Irv a literary lion in a touching obituary filled with one-liners by Brech.  Time magazine devoted half-a-page of its “Milestones” to Irving Brecher, Irv's wonderful wife, Norma, even told me, after so many incredible accolades that followed his passing: “I knew he was a big man but I guess I never knew how big until now!”¯

When Irv and I first began talking in 2001 about turning his stories into a book, he pitched the idea to a big agent in New York he knew, Morton Janklow. Morton was married to Mervyn LeRoy's daughter – LeRoy was the famous director (“Little Caesar,” “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” “Mr. Roberts,” “Gypsy”) who first signed Irv Brecher to a personal contract and took him to MGM in 1937. One of the first things he did there? LeRoy had Irv punch up a picture LeRoy was producing called “The Wizard of Oz.” LeRoy introduced Irv to Groucho Marx and told him he'd be writing their next picture, “Marx Bros at the Circus.”

 

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.”¯

So that's partly why nobody's heard of him. Irv Brecher only had two loving marriages.

 
 

 

 

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?

A few times yeah, he told me I was his Boswell, describing it as “watching an old kacker in the last stages making people laugh.”  And that was his raison d'etre: getting people to laugh. He was doing stand up at the age of 92. After all those years writing funny lines, he finally got to be like his pals Jan Murray, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Burns, Red Buttons and Danny Thomas.

 

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!”


One night I saw him get up with pneumonia and do a Q & A with a host from CNN. Relentless.  But you asked me about sleeping over at his place. I spent five days with him when Norma went with her daughters to New York for a birthday visit. I tried to be respectful and quiet and just to emulate him, having the same two tablespoons of flaxseed oil to start the morning, drinking my coffee black because that's the only way he said it was any good. I also made martinis at 6 p.m., which he said gave him an appetite to bring to dinner. He was getting skinnier and skinnier, down to about 125 lbs. He tried to teach me to make martinis the way Norma did, but I wasn't very good at it.

One evening I turned on my tape recorder and he said William Powell first got him drinking martinis in 1940 when Irv was writing the picture “Shadow of The Thin Man,” starring Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as his wife, Nora. He told me Powell would get him tipsy and then Irv would promise to write more lines for him than for Loy. We ended up a little shikker and I spilled my drink all over him. I felt like such an idiot, but Irv immediately said, “I asked for a dry martini!” So we just laughed about it.

During the day, suffering from glaucoma, he could no longer enjoy movies or much TV besides baseball games and the news and Bill Maher's kind of talkfest. Aside from books-on-tape, he found fun during the day by making prank phone calls. Aural humor is more on an even level when neither party can see the other. One of his favorite phone bits was called Fucking with Telemarketers. You know how telemarketers always say $19.95 and then $4.95 for shipping and handling when you order something? Irv told them he couldn't afford the product, the $19.95 or whatever it was, “so just send me the shipping and handling.”¯


That always blew their minds.

I thought it sounded like something Groucho would say: Well then just send the shipping and handling.


Another thing he did was fill up business return envelopes. The ones that come postage-paid. He'd stuff them with so much paper it cost them about eighty-five cents by the time it got back to them.  He bragged that he had envelopes sometime you can't lift. I couldn't believe the thing. He said he'd been doing it fifty years, never to a charity or something he respected, mostly to banks sending him credit cards. He said it was a form of protest. I said, “You're relentless!” and he said no, he was just irascible with sponges.¯


He said he went through his daily life looking for the funny. As a master at creating it, I guess it was sort of graduate research. As he explained it: when you reach an elevated age and you find yourself out of the loop, if you find a chance to amuse yourself, you take a shot at it. 
The interview continues >>