December 12, 2002
Hijinks ‘n’ Hilarity Mark Wit’s Career
Irving Brecher, my 88-year-old writing partner, stood onstage at the Arclight Cinemas on Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street after screening "Meet Me in St. Louis." Irv wrote this classic in 1944, one of seven MGM musicals he did. The moderator of the Arclight "Screenwriter's Network Night," Dennis Michael, introduced him as, "the dean emeritus of American comedy screenwriting." Nice.
"Dean emeritus," Irv sniffed. "Emeritus means you're out of work. A dean who is out of work is a man who has lost his faculties."
Two hundred people exploded in laughter. Eighty-eight and he's still doing killer stand-up.
From 1935 to 1962, Irv wrote for every medium: vaudeville, stage, radio, television, motion pictures -- the whole thing. And he has amazing recall and energy. Me, I'm just an envious, wannabe-as-told-to ghostwriter, who wishes I'd lived his wonderful life of hilarity, hijinks and highballs.
He started writing for Milton Berle at the age of 19, then punched up "The Wizard of Oz" (who knew "The Wizard of Oz" even needed punching up?). Irv cracked wise with Hillcrest Country Club weisenheimers like the Ritz Brothers, Danny Kaye, Al Jolson and George Jessel.
Imagine Irv cruising his Cadillac up Stone Canyon Road smoking cigars with Jack Benny and George Burns in Bel Air. Cross-country rail adventures with Groucho Marx. Camping out with Groucho, watching Groucho being chased by a bear on a fishing trip in Wyoming, Irv being chased out of anti-Semite hotels down South with Groucho. What, are you kidding me?
All true, I kid you not. Having gotten close over the past year through many interview sessions and many, many shared sandwiches at Label's Table on Pico Boulevard, Irv will finally let me reveal: we're compiling "the archives of Irving Brecher" into some kind of book form.
Maybe I've been pushing him too hard. "When you're 88, time is of the essence," he told me, so I've been bugging him. "At my age, hurry," he said.
S. J. Perelman called Irv "one of the three fastest wits" he'd ever known, the others being George S. Kaufman and Oscar Levant -- just part of the MGM roundtable of humorists that included Ben Hecht, Nat Perrin and the Mankewiecz Brothers.
"I'm afraid I'm the last MGM writer," Irv said semi-wistfully. "And I hope I get through this interview."
In 1943, Irv, 29, became the youngest owner-member at Hillcrest, the only Jewish country club of its day. "The club burned down right after I joined," he told me the first time he treated me to lunch there.
But our lunches have stopped. Irv said he's "heading for the barn." A real deadline.
I told all my friends to show up at the Arclight and come out for deli afterward with Irv, his beautiful wife, Norma, and their two really cool daughters, Joanna and Ellen. It would be a real mechayeh (delight), as Irv liked to proclaim, with Irv holding court, of course.
Irv told the moderator that he found his comic voice at the age of 24, writing "Go West" and "At the Circus" for the Marx Brothers. "I'm a complainer, a dissenter and a put-downer," Irv explained. "Groucho was my alter ego, and I liked the anarchism."
Irv created a radio show called "The Life of Riley," originally writing it for Groucho as "The Flotsam Family." "I had to think of it in terms of a Jewish family," Irv told the Arclight audience.
"Riley" became television's first sitcom, winning Irv an Emmy in 1951, when he cast Jackie Gleason as the lead. William Bendix took over, but with the show threatened with cancellation, Irv changed his life -- and Riley's -- by adding a friendly undertaker character called, Digger O'Dell.
"Digger was so shocking," he recalled, "the sponsor, the National Meat Institute, wanted me to take it off the next week. They sold fat to morticians. But letters came in from old people all over the country, thanking us for making death humorous. And the show continued for eight years.
If not for Digby O'Dell," Irv said, "I wouldn't be here talking to you today. That character made my career."
It turned out, Irv had walking pneumonia that night at the Arclight. After another coughing fit, he rapid fired: "My HMO doctor says that coughing is good for me. Says it takes my mind off other things that are wrong with me."
The last of the Hillcrest Roundtable got more big laughs. He also has glaucoma and other octogenarian problems. His big thrill is reading The New York Times op-ed page through one eye.
"I want to sleep with Maureen Dowd," he told me recently, complaining about the president and praising another terrific Dowd commentary. "She's sexy, don't you think? Norma said if I ever want to cheat, I can only cheat with Dowd."
Do you love it? Irv and I say we love each other on the phone a lot now. But he's tired of going to Hillside Memorial Park for the funerals of friends like Berle and Billy Wilder.
"The way it is these days," Irv said, "When I go there, I leave the motor running." I asked him if he's attending yet another golden-ager-who-left-us-this-week's burial.
"No," he replied. "And I'm trying to arrange not going to mine either."