The penultimate teleplay in The Criterion Collections’ DVD set called The Golden Age of Television is the 1957 Playhouse 90 broadcast of Rod Serling’s The Comedian, originally aired on February 14th, 1957. And it’s one of the best of the eight teleplays. It is also the third and final telepay penned by Rod Serling (of later The Twilight Zone fame), adapted from a short story by Ernest Lehman. And it’s the equal of his original teleplays included in the set: Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight, which, likewise, won Emmy Awards for Serling’s writing.
While most television critics of the day, and in later years, have focused on Mickey Rooney’s scenery chewing performance as the abhorrent television show comedy star (modeled after Sid Caesar, Red Buttons, Arthur Godfrey, and Ernie Kovacs) Sammy Hogarth- and even the director, John Frankenheimer, in the Introduction to the show, for PBS’s 1982 re-broadcast, and in a 1995 commentary, presumably for a laserdisk version, raves about Rooney as the most talented performer he ever worked with; the truth is that the whole 72 minute broadcast is dominated by the performance of the well known character actor Edmond O’Brien, as Hogarth’s comedy writer, Al Preston.
Above all other performers, it is his acting that ties together the varied subplots. It is his character that keeps tensions down between Sammy and his servile brother Lester (Mel Torme). It is his character that prevents Lester’s wife, Julie (Kim Hunter) from throwing herself sexually at Sammy, when she leaves Lester, because he does not stand up to Sammy, whose abusive opening show monologue is wrecking their marriage. It is his character that wavers on whether or not to marry his girlfriend, Connie (Constance Ford). It is his character that has to deal with a sleazeball gossip columnist, named Otis Elwell (Whit Bissell), out to ruin Sammy’s reputation and career. And, it is his character who deals with the teleplay’s central existential crisis, his own decline as a comedy writer, which prompts him to plagiarize some unused gags from a comedy writer named Davey Farber, who died in World War Two. O’Brien runs with it, and in subtle moments the viewer gets to fill in the possible relationship between the dead Farber and the lesser Preston, a man who is not sure of his own abilities, and whose life has devolved to merely acting as editor for younger, equally mediocre, gag writers. Does he envy the eternally young and brilliant Farber? Would Farber have run out of material, as well, had he survived the war? Was Preston another Farber, only one who dried up creatively, or was he a hack from the get go? Fortunately, for the drama, we never get those answers. In fact, O’Brien’s character has the most screen time of all the characters, and in truth, the title of the teleplay may actually refer to his character, who ends up having the last laugh, as he survives threats from Elwell and Lester over exposing his plagiarism, being fired by Sammy, after confessing to it, after Elwell writes of Preston’s going to Sammy’s house to prevent a liaison between Julie and Sammy, yet ends up walking away happy, with Connie and his future.
The rest of the main characters, meanwhile, fall back into the same ruts that they had when the play started. Sammy is still arrogant and abusive, especially to his brother. Lester is still spineless and servile- despite interrupting Sammy’s show and slapping him, and Julie still regards Lester with contempt for his return to servility. Her final look, as the play ends, and music by Fred Steiner (who does an outstanding job throughout) plays, play off of each other perfectly. She is as trapped in her role as the Hogarth brothers. All do quite well with their roles, especially in their assorted ‘showcase’ scenes, but only O’Brien’s character is pitch perfect in all scenes. Torme and Hunter are both good, and Rooney plays a good heel, but without the writing of Serling to boost the moment, none of their performances would have been as good. Rooney would have been considered over the top as the bastard, Torme weak as the coward, and Hunter off the rack as the emotionally unstable wife. There is a scene where a raging Sammy knocks a script out of Al’s hands, and after some talk between them, Al asks his boss to pick up the script he knocked down. A lesser writer would have had Sammy scorn the request, but Serling makes Sammy pick it up, then go back to his schtick. It’s a moment that gives insight into Rooney’s character that the performance does not give, and would be there with any actor playing the role. In short, Rooney does nothing special in that scene. By contrast, there is no corresponding scene wherein Serling’s writing is not enhanced by O’Brien’s performance. It works in synergy with Serling’s words, plus there are moments that are O’Brien showing what great acting is: kicking open a door with Sammy’s face on it, nervously pawing Farber’s gag script when he runs out of ideas, playing cat and mouse in a public bathroom with Elwell, or exasperating over his state to Connie, among others. Watching this, and seeing that he was not a bad looking man, it makes one wonder just what it is that makes one actor a ‘leading man’ and another a mere ‘character actor,’ for there is little doubt that this performance had all the hallmarks of a leading role.
The DVD comes with a few extras. There is the aforementioned Introduction, which runs over 16 minutes, and gives good background on the teleplay, as well as Frankenheimer’s raves about both Rooney and Serling. Then there is a series of extended outtakes from the interview with Frankenheimer, which were edited for the PBS series on the old live television shows. But the real gem is the commentary by Frankenheimer. As mentioned, it was made in 1995 (Frankenheimer died in 2002), likely for a laserdisc, and it is, hands down, the best of the few commentaries made available in this DVD set (at least of the 7 of 8 shows I’ve seen in the set). Frankenheimer ranges broadly on the profound and the specific- such as debunking the idea that live television shows were ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ affairs. In fact, unlike films, these shows were rehearsed to death, not only by the actors, but by the technical crews, so that actors would hit their marks perfectly in time for one shot to end and another to begin, and Frankenheimer explains not only scenes but the utility of certain camera set ups and shots, providing moments where the cameramen succeeded and failed to miss a mark (which could ruin a live show), and provides good anecdotes in between the technical comments. Over the course of just a few years, as represented in this DVD set, it’s quite amazing to see the technical advances and complexity of narrative and production build upon each other, and The Comedian is easily the most complex of the productions thus far in the set (including rear projection of film and montage shots including stock footage and live performances. Overall, a very satisfying and illuminating commentary and show.
The Comedian is not the most famous of the shows included in the DVD set, but it is amongst the best, due to the trio of Serling, Frankenheimer, and O’Brien. That all the acting and technical wizardry were done live only heightens the kudos. It most resembles Elia Kazan’s film, A Face In The Crowd, which came out the same year, wherein Andy Griffith essayed the role of an egomaniacal television show star who destroyed all in his path to the top, then self-destructed. The Comedian ends before the point where Sammy will self-destruct, but one can see it coming, as it happened, in real life, to many of the early big names of television. And the viewer actually longs to see the fall which it knows is coming, but which will never be seen. By ending before then, though, Serling allows the fall of the great man, the classic ‘tragedy,’ to be implied, which removes the work from the realm of classic literary tropes, and into the Modern Era, so that people can more readily relate to the plight of the little characters, like Al Preston, who may not fall because he cannot wing it any longer. He is the average viewer, albeit one who did get a glimpse of the good life, before walking away from it for his own decency. Would that television still made art like this. Perchance….