|That’s Irv Brecher on the left and Irv Brecher on the right, made up to look like his idol, Groucho Marx, who couldn’t make it for a publicity shoot.|
It would have been Irv Brecher’s 100th birthday this month. The master of comedy and crankiness, who was also a movie writer, director, and TV pioneer, nearly made it to 95. Unlike Willy Loman, however, he did it with a kveth and a retch, rather than a smile and a shoeshine.
Bony, balding Brecher, the kid from the Bronx, Irv the Nerve, the Wicked Wit of the West, the genius who graduated high school at 16 and at 21 married Eve, 15 years his senior (that’s a lot of math). Any way you slice it, and in Irv’s case it was mostly corned beef, he boasted a resume his contemporaries could only drool over, and probably did, a curriculum vitae that would make a gag writer gag with reflux envy.
Just look at part of his oeuvre (and that’s not even a doctor joke): He single-handedly penned two Marx Brothers movies, “At the Circus” and “Go West”; supplied funny stuff for Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, and a host of vaudevillians; punched up the laughter lines for “Wizard of Oz,” wrote “Shadow of the Thin Man,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “DuBarry Was a Lady,” and “Bye Bye Birdie,” among others; and for radio and TV created “The Life of Riley” (it was anything but a revoltin’ development) and “The People’s Choice,” featuring Cleo the basset, who charmed millions with her world-weary voice.
And that’s only part of his output. It doesn’t factor in the countless scripts he polished, or the shtickilah he did at the MGM commissary, or the laughter cum lox he helped bring forth from the comedian’s table at the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverley Hills. He was fussed over and driven to distraction by Groucho Marx, doted upon by Jack Benny, respected by Milton Berle (as much as Milton could respect a fellow funster), and shrewdly partnered into the TV business by George Burns.
How do we know all this minutiae? Because a nudge named Hank Rosenfeld followed Brecher around with a recorder for more years than both probably would like to admit, faithfully getting every jot and tittle from the master.
The resulting collection of Brecherisms allows a dandy and unpretentious little book called “The Wicked Wit of the West” to keep getting under your skin and tickling your funny bones. Great literature it’s not, but it’s definitely a ho-ho-ho of a page turner from Teaneck’s own Ben Yehuda press. And try not to mind that three fonts of type are used. It actually helps clarify all the nonsense.
Irv broke into cracking wise in the early ’30s by supplying gags to columnists and comedians while keeping his day job as an usher at the Little Carnegie Playhouse on 57th Street in Manhattan. Berle noticed him after Brecher took out an ad in Variety offering to write jokes so bad that even Milton wouldn’t steal them. Of course, Berle tried to bleed him dry for very little renumeration (including one disappointing brothel visit). Even the western star Hoot Gibson stiffed him on paying for some comedy fluff.
Fortunately, Irv received an invite from director Mervyn LeRoy to head west and write Milton into “New Faces of 1937.” A bit after that, he was introduced to Groucho, and the legend whom Irv had hero-worshipped just a few years before as a teenage movie-goer told him to come up with a treatment for a yarn about “some horse—- circus.”
So began their beautiful friendship or, since Groucho was involved, their fiendish, frayed, fakakta friendship. Groucho was way beyond high maintenance, but Irv, after he learned not to cringe, actually could write crackling dialogue by talking aloud in his idol’s voice. And the relationship ran so deep that Brecher was made up to look like the leering Lothario for a publicity shot with Chico and Harpo (each of whom had their own mishagas) when Groucho was unavailable.
Irv’s career at MGM went into high flourish, but it was almost undone by his all-purpose and reflexive wit. Seems Louis B. Mayer, the studio’s tyrannical boss, had to stash his aunt’s son on the payroll as a non-producing producer in a choice office with a view of the Pacific. When a new writing colleague asked Brecher over lunch what the chap’s job was, Brecher replied that if the inept schnook spotted an iceberg floating toward the lot he was to alert Mayer by memo.
L.B. got a whiff of the story and summoned Brecher to the inner sanctum. He had fired many writers for much less. Instead, the mogul, apparently sensing something special in Irv, admitted his nephew was a “schnorrer,” but advised the contrite employee: “if it’s funny, put it on paper.” In a later anecdote, Brecher reveals Mayer at his shrewdest and most unctuous, pleading with a reluctant Judy Garland to star in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Politically, Irv was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, unapologetic and merciless in skewering his foes. He’s at his splenetic best in mocking “the brave, patriotic hero of Hollywood who went and fought three war films for his country, John Wayne.” But during the height of the Red Scare, the Duke’s minion’s had Brecher briefly blacklisted for some innocuous earlier associations with groups like the Writer’s Guild. Irv had to compose a semi-suckup letter to Wayne to get off the hook, and the bad taste never left him.
Irv and Eve knew tragedy with their adopted son, John, a late-diagnosed schizophrenic and alcoholic who died at 55. Brecher loses all reserve and cynicism when talking about him or their daughter, Joanne, who tried to help John recover. Irv also lost his beloved Eve to cancer after 40 years of marriage. He was lucky enough to meet Norma Schneider, a widow, who loved him unconditionally and even supported his efforts at stand-up (with a walker) comedy when he was nearly blind and past 90.
Let’s sum it up with Brecher riffing on the difference between a comic and a comedian: “The comedian says funny things, the comic says things funny.” He reels off the comics -Berle, Jim Carrey, Ed Wynn, Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Jackie Gleason (his first TV Riley before Bill Bendix who did the character on radio), and Ernie Kovacs. Cary Grant and Jack Benny are classified as comedians. Rodney Dangerfield and Jack E. Leonard are both comic and comedian. Sid Caesar? A genius defying classification. And Fred Allen, just a sparkling radio wit. Don’t even go to the Marx Brothers.
Breck never got the epitaph he favored: “Here lies Irv Brecher, who doesn’t recommend it.” He did, however, recite the Sh’ma every evening before going to sleep and dreaming the dreams only comics (or comedians) can.