MPI's Comic Legends: Four-Disc Collection compiles, in one box, the label's four previous stand-alone "Comic Legends" releases: Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form, Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face, Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy, and Comic Legends: Groucho Marx & Redd Foxx. All four were reviewed here upon their original releases in early 2007; follow the links for more detailed analysis of each disc (and thanks to my colleagues Paul Mavis and Stuart Galbraith IV for helping to fill in some much-needed info on the origin of these performances). In general, the discs all contain wonderful performances and enjoyable glimpses of vintage TV shows; they all also suffer from some weak and repeated material.
Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form is hosted by co-producer Pat Boone, and for good reason; the vintage Van Dyke clips in this special appear to be culled entirely from his 1958 appearances on The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom. Van Dyke and Boone appear together occasionally--doing a funny bit decrying slapstick while engaging in it, or doing a couple of numbers that cement Van Dyke's reputation as a song-and-dance-man--but the bulk of the material is Van Dyke alone, performing one-character pantomimes. These are the kind of bits he would occasionally work into The Dick Van Dyke Show years later, when throwing around ideas with Buddy and Sally ("Okay we have Alan play a waiter with a head cold, it'd go like this..."), though in much shorter form. Here, they often run as long as five minutes. The highlight of the bunch comes early, as he does an uproarious Chaplinesque bit where he comes home drunk and tries to get into his house and into bed quietly. He performs many of his other pieces pantomiming along to his own pre-recorded narration; these routines, including his bit as a tennis player and a parody of private eye stories, and inventive and consistently funny.
The routines in which he does the accompanying narrative patter out loud (like a trip to the beach and an attempt to quit smoking) are somewhat less successful; he sometimes seems to lose control of the material and talks just to fill silence (plus it's that "talking to yourself" dialogue that never sounds quite natural). Some of the bits also run out of gas before Van Dyke wraps it up--and Boone's fake-chuckle outros become plenty irritating by the time the end of the special's 75 minutes. But there's still some great stuff here: his routine as a new father has some big laughs ("Y'know something, she looks just like Yogi Berra!"), the silent movie-style bit on a windy corner is wonderful, and he's a dead ringer for Stan Laurel in a very funny Laurel & Hardy tribute sketch (which looked to me to be the same routine he performed with Lennie Weinrib in the second season Dick Van Dyke Show episode "The Sam Pomeratnz Scandals"). Its minor flaws aside, the Van Dyke special may be the best of this bunch.
Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face spotlights the raspy-voiced, self-deprecating comedienne doing stand-up and sketches on the late-60s variety show The Hollywood Palace. I had never given much thought to Diller before I saw the PBS documentary Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, where numerous female comics pinpointed her as a trailblazer; she was, indeed, a woman who gained fame in what was very much a man's world. Theories abound on that special that, in order to become a successful female comic without seeming pushy or overbearing in those tenuous times, she had to develop an act where she put herself down, uglied herself up, and was as non-threatening as possible.
Whatever the psychological groundwork, "Phyllis," the ugly duckling and incompetent housewife to "Fang," was one of the great comic characters, as immediately recognizable in her time as Jack Benny's cheapskate and Gracie Allen's airhead were in theirs. You can easily grasp her popularity in these clips; with her unlikely charm and infectious laugh, audiences just love her--and a good number of her jokes hold up ("I once had a peekaboo blouse," she tells the audience. "People would peek, then they'd boo"). Indeed, the best bits in the special are the numerous monologues, which are full of snappy one-liners and well-delivered slow burns. The only trouble with them is that this compilation of multiple appearances sloppily includes some repeated material (like the joke about her cup size being an "A minus"). In fact, the editing is oddly choppy throughout; there's no host to guide us through the clips this time, and no on-screen text to indicate what shows we're watching or when they're from. In fact, the attribution to Hollywood Palace is nowhere to be found--not even in the closing credits (rather shabby treatment of a well-respected source show). The sketches are hit and miss (though a bride-and-groom sketch with Don Rickles and Terry-Thomas has some laughs, and Dean Martin's visit to her apartment leads to some sharp ad-libs), but the production numbers are fun--the "I Feel Pretty" song and dance number is amusing, and the number about her "charm and finishing school" (performed with a chorus of lookalikes) is funny and well-done.
Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy was also culled from the Hollywood Palace archives, though Conway was clearly a utility player on the show (as opposed to Diller, who was a frequent host). He's quite young in these clips (he started showing up on Palace during his breakthrough stint on McHale's Navy), but his timing was already razor-sharp, and he was already exhibiting the roll-with-it tendencies that made him so entertaining to watch years later as part of the Carol Burnett Show company.
With the exception of an amusing monologue about military history, the sketches here all follow the same format: Conway is a dim expert or professional of some kind, who reveals his idiocy during an visit and interview situation with the host. Bing Crosby interviews Conway as a jockey and later as a racecar driver; David Janssen, as a newspaper reporter, talks to Conway's low-security prison warden about a recent jailbreak; he takes on the guises of a clueless obstetrician, a matchmaking scientist, and a wine expert (talking to notorious lush Phil Harris, who surprisingly doesn't get a laugh when he tells Conway that he "never drinks"). The repetition of this formula begins to wear a little thin by the end of the hour; two of the sketches even share one of the same punchlines (Conway on the phone to an incredulous patient: "I know! A guy just told me!"). But let this be said: the producers knew what Conway did well. And there are some huge laughs here--particularly when "The Warden" sketch falls apart about halfway through, and Conway keeps it afloat with some hilarious improvisations.
The set's final disc is Groucho Marx & Redd Foxx, a combination that sounds about as peculiar as a peanut butter and relish sandwich. On watching the disc (though nowhere on the packaging), the connection becomes clear: both men were featured guests on an obscure half-hour ABC series called "One Man Show" from the late '60s or early '70s (sorry, but it's so arcane that an exact date is impossible to find). Foxx's pre-Sanford and Son show comes first, and mostly consists of funny, loose comic monologues. As on his albums (though much cleaner), he does a mixture of jokes (including some very funny "my wife was so ugly" gags), personal stories ("I was in the service... I was a prisoner of war in Newark"), observations, and non-sequiturs ("I don't hate nothin' but hate... and midgets"). The show's closing bit at a soda fountain doesn't work as well, and the commercial breaks and costume changes (he seems to perform several mini-sets, as opposed to one long one) seem to crack his momentum a bit. But Foxx's act is mostly funny and always enjoyable, a throwback to the low comedy of the burlesque shows and so-called "chitlin' circuit" gigs that gave him his start, and film of Foxx at work on stage is rare enough that even this neutered version is worth a look.
Groucho's show was the entire reason I grabbed this set, and it is, unfortunately, a bit of a disappointment. Groucho had become both a showbiz legend and a countercultural icon by this point, and his frequent talk show appearances (particularly with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson) showed that his quick wit was still very much intact. But his "One Man Show" begins with a perfectly terrible monologue; he was always more of a storyteller than a set-up/punchline monologist, and he is clearly ill at ease, reading his lousy jokes obviously from cue cards. Adding insult to injury, the laughter sounds as though it's been sweetened in editing, but it can't convince us that he's working with anything other than weak material, uncomfortably performed. The question and answer section with the audience is funnier (he remarks of a pretty young audience member, "I've got a question for her later"), and his grilling of a would-be comic is quite amusing (and a little painful). But the next segment, a weak one-on-one interview with a representative of an organization that aims to clothe animals, feels scripted (and badly). However, he winds up the show by doing a brief interview section with announcer Ed Jordan that has some good lines and interesting memories about the early days of the act (even if it's clearly had applause added).
The four discs are packaged in clear ThinPak cases, with each of those four cases housed in a simple cardboard slipcase.
As is expected with this kind of archival material, the full-frame picture quality is dodgy at best. The Dick Van Dyke disc has the oldest clips and is therefore in the roughest shape--the black and white kinescopes are plenty beat up, full of dirt and scratches, haloes, and the like. The new Boone intros look pretty poor as well--noisy, ugly analog video. The rest of the discs are marginally better; most are in color (though a few of the Conway sketches are pulled from black and white kinescopes of the original color broadcasts) and while they have some of the color smearing and general softness you would expect, there is also something wonderfully comforting about the particularly kitschy saturation and video quality of these late '60s and early '70s shows.
The 2.0 mono mixes are serviceable, with the only real trouble coming, again, during the Van Dyke disc, in which several sketches have noticeable tape hiss. Aside from that, the punch lines are audible and musical interludes are crisp.
Surprisingly, all four discs offer up English subtitles.
MPI clearly went to the trouble of trying to track down at least a smattering of supplementary materials, and kudos for that. The Van Dyke disc offers up a full episode of "Laugh Line" (29:33), an enjoyably goofy 1959 panel show in which a "living cartoon" is captioned by the panelists (including Shelley Berman and the comedy team of Elaine May and Mike Nichols). Van Dyke serves as the host for this short-lived show, which came and went a mere two years before his eponymous sitcom debuted. The disc also includes an alternate performance of the "Sneaking In" sketch (4:48), and a quickie bit about an "Invisible Dog" (:57).
The Diller disc includes her very funny 1963 appearance on "What's My Line?" (6:53), as well as a kicky "Soap Commercial" (1:01) for "Snowy Bleach." The Conway disc is a little lacking in extras, including only an alternate performance of "The Warden" (4:42), this time with a bored-looking Joan Crawford playing the "straight man" role. She's truly terrible, merely reciting the lines and not present with Conway at all.
The best bonus feature comes on the Marx/Foxx disc; billed as "Groucho Archive TV Footage" (9:34), it features clips from one of Groucho's gigs hosting, big surprise, The Hollywood Palace, circa-mid 1960s. After a brief (and funny) monologue, he does a sketch revisiting his "Dr. Hackenbush" character from A Day at the Races--though not doing any of the dialogue from the film itself. It's kind of like a mini-sequel that film, and good fun in that regard--plus, we get to see a full-on performance of the Kalmar-Ruby song "Dr. Hackenbush," written for that film but cut before shooting (and subsequently sung by Groucho at pretty much the drop of a hat). In all candor, this ten-or-so minutes of footage is more entertaining for Marx Brothers fans than the appearance that is supposedly the disc's main attraction.
The compilations that make up the Comic Legends: Four-Disc Collection certainly have their flaws, and some of the material has, admittedly, aged rather poorly. But fans of classic comedy and vintage TV will not want to pass this one up; every joke may not be a gut-buster, but there are plenty of big laughs in this set, and it offers up some terrific slices of television history.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.