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Irv Brecher


David Holzel: As I listened to Brecher’s voice as I read the book, I sometimes heard Groucho. But at other times I heard George Burns.  Two very different types of humor and comic timing.  Where did his Groucho-ness and George Burns-ness come from?

Hank Rosenfeld: I hope readers can hear Irv's voice, not only as they read, but for real on his website or at YouTube. That Grouchiosity came from when he was a kid in the 1930s, listening to comedy on the radio. He loved Ed Wynn especially, but he also loved a show called “Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel,” starring Groucho and Chico Marx. Soon Irv was doing his version of Groucho Marx for the amusement of his friends. He had dark, kinky hair that he parted down the middle. He did Groucho's lines, adding his own, and did the burnt cork mustache and got wire eyeglass frames at a ten-cent store. He said that although somewhat taller and leaner than Julius Henry Marx, he really looked like a 16- year-old clone of the great Grouch.

 

Little did he know, less than 10 years later he'd be writing movies for those guys. And there's a story in the book describing the day Groucho got sick and couldn't make a shoot for “Go West” promotional posters and Irv was made up and played the guy. The photograph is a hoot because Harpo and Chico drop clues in it implying that this mustachioed young fellow – Irv was 20 years younger than the brothers – is surely an imposter.

Irv's Burnsitude probably came from the era at Hillcrest Country Club – located across Pico Boulevard from 20th Century Fox Studios – when he smoked cigars around a famous Hillcrest roundtable of comics like George Burns and Milton Berle, Jack Benny, the Marx Bros and the Ritz Brothers. He said Benny got him smoking cigarettes and Groucho switched him to cigars. Irv told me he was the only writer allowed to join the comedy giants when he showed me the table the first time he took me to lunch at Hillcrest. Nobody sits there now, in tribute. Larry Gelbart famously called a dais at Hillcrest consisting of Burns, Benny, Berle, Buttons and Thomas as “Mount Rushmore with cigars.”¯


Brecher and Burns actually went into business together in the mid-1950s, producing a sitcom called “People's Choice,” which

featured Jackie Cooper and Cleo, a talking basset hound. And they remained friends for another 40 years after that. Irv did standup at those various Hillcrest events and at every roast for Burns, whether George was reaching 85, 90, 95 years old.  Irv played me an amazing audiocassette that I'd like to get on the worldwide web for folks to hear: At Irv’s wedding to Norma in 1983, these same kings of comedy fought each other for the microphone, each trying to out-emcee the other, telling hilarious Yiddish stories, Hollywood stories, New York stories. George Burns sang a couple songs. It's like a classic comedy LP never pressed, you know?

 
Irv told the telemarketers he couldn't afford the product,
the $19.95 or whatever it was, “so just send me the shipping and handling.”¯ I thought it sounded like something Groucho would say: Well then just send the shipping and handling.

 

Anyway, Irv explained the difference between his friends Groucho and George this way: “George Burns had his own style. A style I liked. He was impish and had an attitude about life: he didn't take it seriously. I don't know of anybody else quite like George Burns. He had a long history in vaudeville; when I was a kid, I saw Burns and his wife Gracie Allen perform at Keith's Fordham Theater in my native Bronx. George Burns told outrageous lies and told you they were lies.  Everything related to show business. Once after he rebounded from a case of pneumonia, I asked him if he had ever during his hospital stay thought he might never get out alive. He blew smoke in my face and said: 'I knew I wouldn't die because I'm booked to play the Palladium in October.' Typically George.

 

“Groucho was not necessarily that kind of fellow. Different natures. I loved the nihilism of Groucho. Fucking the big shots. I'm a complainer and a put-downer and Groucho was my alter ego.  The truth is, Groucho hated being an actor. He wanted to be a writer. And whereas Harpo was upbeat, Groucho was quite pensive. He was interested in politics, by which I mean he had a contempt for most politicians. He was a Roosevelt Democrat. But Groucho was also murder. He used to do something that I never quite understood: when dealing with strangers, he'd create danger in order to make me laugh. Only me. Destroy a situation to put me in peril! An audience of one. He couldn't resist. Maybe it was because I was twenty-four and he was in his forties?  No, he was just a dangerous companion. A menace.  His tongue was an unguided missile. Worse than in his movies.”¯

I think Irv definitely found George Burns quite lovable, but he said Groucho was definitely not lovable. I think he was closer to Groucho.

 

Oh, and Irv also told me they were both liars.


Tracing the arc of his life, it seems Irv started out as a kid with smarts (the ad he placed that caught Milton Berle's attention was a stroke of genius); then was taken under the wing of older men (Berle especially); and then he came into his own and with his own talent and hard work played the system well and profited from it. And even at the end of his life, he came into demand again, partly because he was the only one left. Do I have that pretty much right?


Yes, when that 25-year-old brash comic Milton Berle called Irving Brecher at the Carnegie Theater where he was a 19 year-old usher, it changed young Brecher's life. He made $50 selling jokes to Berle, who took him to a hotel where they worked all night on Berle's vaudeville show at the Capital Theater in New York. Berle took him on his first airplane ride when they flew to Boston to create a radio pilot, his first train ride (on The Twentieth Century) when they came West together in 1937, and to his first house of ill repute (in Buffalo). Mervyn LeRoy was 14 years older than Irv. LeRoy signed him and took him to MGM. Groucho was much older than Irv.


He told me he was always the youngest in his crowd, until the end when he became the oldest because, as he said about George Burns at a roast: “He doesn't have an enemy in the world. They all died.” They all dropped away: Berle, Jan Murray, Buddy Hackett, Red Buttons.  I went to some of their funerals with Irv.  I remember I asked if he was going to go to Billy Wilder's funeral because they were friends who took walks together in Westwood and Beverly Hills. And he said, "No, I'm not going to his funeral. And I'm trying to arrange not going to mine either.”¯

I don't know if he came into demand at the end of his life. The Writers Guild of

 


 
Brecher's New Media debut, 2007

America Foundation honored him in the fall of 2007. He had some younger friends who admired him and he was very excited about new media, even though he couldn't see to use a computer. He made it onto YouTube and received thousands of hits during the 2007 WGA strike because of one of those friends, Nell Scovell, a writer I knew from SPY Magazine who went on to create “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” – Nell came up with a hilarious idea and wrote the video where Irv ranted against the producers and studios and raved about his fellow scribes.


When the two of you went out for deli, you’d split a sandwich, because his appetite had dwindled. Although he was down to half sandwiches, he must have been pretty wealthy.

From what I could tell, he spent all the money he'd made in Hollywood on his two children, who tragically died before he did. He had some investments but he couldn't make much on movie residuals, because writers don't even get such dough unless a film was made after 1960! Irv wrote his last movie, “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1962. He was only 48. He wrote a novel, another movie script, but very little after that aside from speeches for benefits and roasts, and angry letters to the editor of the LA Times.


It was his son, who suffered from schizophrenia, who ended Irv’s career. You quote him saying, “My son, John, died from alcohol. Fifty-five years old. He was loving and totally irresponsible and starting at the age of thirteen he became an alcoholic… In fifty-five years he never earned a dollar. He made an old man of me. My career was stopped.” In a life filled with success, this was practically the only thing Irv couldn't fix with his talent, his quick wit, his worrying, his bullying himself in the mirror. And the fact that his daughter died before Irv, what a shock that must have been.

And it was his daughter, Joanna, who had always been bugging him to write a book about his amazing friendships and Hollywood writing experiences. It was awful that she died a year before he did. She made it to a night he did at the Aero Cinemateque Theatre in Santa Monica just before Christmas of 2005. Irv showed “At the Circus” and we did a wacky Q & A session on the stage afterwards. He introduced Joanna to the audience and said how happy he was to have her there. We all went out afterwards and had a grand time, which I remember thinking of as the last hurrah, but Irv continued sharply with the sechel , even on his deathbed at Cedars-Sinai, on morphine coming up with retorts that only he could conjure. He had blood in his straw after taking a sip of something and someone in the room said, “Oy! Call a nurse!” and someone else said, “No call the doctor,” and Irv retorted, "Call Dracula." 

Copyright © 2009 by David Holzel  

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