Brooklyn Boro

Uncle Miltie

"If the show was too long, it just ended."

May 12, 2021 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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Let us invent a word. Pandemical. Things that are peculiar to the pandemic period are pandemical. The amazing number of hours being logged on television, especially binge watching of series, would be pandemical. “Couch potato” is not new but it describes what Covid has brought on. We sit in our favorite chair, we rip open our favorite snack, hunt up the remote and…

First we’d better have a target in mind. You’ve said it as have all your friends. Five hundred channels and nothing to watch. Now we can add streaming to that. It could take you a day to go through them all — and you do to make sure that what you’ve chosen might not be supplanted by something better — until you’re ready to actually watch something. Then you sit there are exercise your favorite remote finger and get what you want — usually. But that’s another story.

We are reminded of what it used to be like. Choosing was easy. Depending on the city you were in you had three or four channels at your service and a limited amount of time for watching them. It was a sorry time for insomniacs or very early risers. And there was exercise involved. Every time you wanted to change the channel you had to get up from the sitting position, straighten up to standing, then actually walk. Once you’d march the 3-4-5 paces to the TV, you then had to bend over and start turning the dial. Having found the channel, you did it all in reverse. Since the sound was always perfect standing in front of the TV once you retreated to your seat and couldn’t hear well you did the exercises all over again. Then for reasons no one you knew could explain to you, once settled in the picture went out of focus or to “snow” and you got to exercise a third time as you angrily launched yourself at the rabbit ears. And if you didn’t have the TV Guide handy and had to discover on your own that you didn’t want to watch whatever was on, you did it again and added the additional steps either upstairs or into another room. Were it like that today we wouldn’t be a nation of obese people. But it isn’t and we are. But sedentary or not, watching TV is keeping a lot of us from going mental. As Waylon Jennings crooned, “I’ve always been crazy, but it’s kept me from going insane.” He well could have been talking about us today.

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Odd it is that the need for escape can be cause for a lighthearted detour from the pressures of life. “Lawsy mercy,” as Butterfly McQueen used to say to “Miss Scarlet,” do we need a break from life’s headlines right now. Milton Berle provided millions of Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s with exactly that and did it in prime time. You didn’t need to stay up until all hours to see funny stuff.

First, just the act of acquainting or reacquainting oneself with his kind of slapstick is cause for joyous relief. The most important thing to understand about Milton Berle is that he had no shame. There were no limits to the heights, or depths, to which his comedy would sink to get a laugh. He could do one-liners with the best of them, like “Mr. One-Liner,” Henny Youngman (who often said most of Berle’s one-liners were so funny because they were Henny Youngman’s!).

In a suit and tie and doing standup routines with the likes of Phil Silvers, he was a master of comic timing. But he’d appear in drag, in clown costume, in anything that touched on the outrageous. If there was a laugh in you, Berle would get it out. I often needed that. Just like I can listen to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine one hundred times in a row and laugh out loud every time, all I needed was to hear someone yell “MAKE-UP!” and I broke up because what came next was hilarity embedded in my mind before it even happened. Berle is in a chair or standing next to someone. Then, a lunatic from the wings, often sporting a fright wig, bolts onto the stage and hits Berle in the face with this gigantic powder-puff that sends white powder flying. Then Berle gazes at the camera with a look of disgust that is somewhat different every time it happens. Even if you groaned, Berle was happy. He had reached you.

In today’s world of sensory overload, the simplicity of life with television in the ‘50s is hard to imagine or even describe. How does one understand watching a test pattern in anticipation of a show coming on when today one has access to dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of things to watch 24/7? Imagine a time when, at times, there really was nothing at all on TV.

How does one who didn’t live through it understand the transfixing nature of a medium that caused people to gather on sidewalks in front of television stores to watch “Uncle Miltie” and later “I Love Lucy” in whatever weather the good Lord was throwing down that day? Star-power is when some individual causes whole industries to create conveniences to make it easier not to miss these shows. TVs in stores that sold them were turned on and faced towards the street. Crowds gathered to watch and hopefully would come in later to buy one.

The food industry? They didn’t call it an “instant dinner” or a “quick dinner” or a “frozen dinner.” They called it a “TV dinner.” And mostly, in those days, they were awful, but we ate them—in front of the TV.

Today, the “Berle Show” seems almost quaint. In those days, four, freshly scrubbed guys in gasoline service station uniforms that had never been spotted with grease came singing their way into our living room with the line, “We Are the Men from Texaco. We serve you from Maine to Mexico” and they seemed, well, entertaining. They opened their arms, swept them out, and introduced, “The star of our show . . . Milton Berle!” Vaudeville came right into your living room.

Berle invented the format we now know so well—the monologue followed by variety. Part of Berle’s variety was a guy named Sid Stone. Bowler hat, striped shirt, sleeves pulled up above the wrists and held in place by armbands, Stone was the stereotypical shyster from which Johnny Carson and others later made half a dozen characters. Syster, Syster, and Flywheel or their competitors Gonif, Gonis, and Finagle come to mind. Stone could sell ice to an Eskimo in winter and he’d do it with the line, “Tell you what I’m gonna do . . .” The “deal” was coming, and along with it a broad smile that stretched across America because everyone knew it. It was a shtick line employed ever since, the setup line that people knew by heart, anticipated with glee, and then made part of their everyday vocabulary.

The greatest wonder of early TV was that it was live. That made it both “real” and really funny.  Also provided us with the last generation of skilled and unschooled performers on television. A show was a certain number of minutes long. There was one take. The show had to fit, or it became a Procrustean bed. If it was too short, it had to be lengthened, and watching that happen could be painfully funny. If the show was too long, it just ended. Comedians tested their fellow actors. Men like Sid Caesar and Milton Berle took pride in being able to unnerve another actor in a skit, watching in glee as the person’s face contorted, as he or she struggled both for composure and articulation. All the while the clock is running. The early days of The Carol Burnett Show with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman are some of the best examples. The real benefit of it all was sitting in your living room and being part of it. I remember Carol dancing out of the top of her dress and I couldn’t decide what was funnier, my mother’s screaming, or the look on Ed Sullivan’s face after it happened.

That kind of television and the people who made it—Berle, Caesar, and so many more—is virtually extinct, to be found only on late night television. It was a wonderful time with wonderful memories. No matter how bad the day, no matter how bleak the mood my “Uncle Miltie” would fix it—guaranteed. It was pure escapism for nights when escape was what I longed for.

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