To historians of American comedy, the name Irving Brecher, ought to be included among the legends. At 24 Brecher was the only writer to get sole credit on Marx Brothers’ films, “At the Circus” (1939) and “Go West” (1940.) He also worked on “The Wizard of Oz,” created,“The Life of Riley” as a radio show, wrote and directed it as a movie and then as the first television sitcom (Starring a young, and relatively slim, Jackie Gleason).
Brecher’s remarkable life is chronicled in this hilarious memoir, “The Wicked Wit of the West” (as Groucho dubbed him) as told to L.A. Times folk-journalist, and Santa Monica resident, Hank Rosenfeld.
Drawing on his early days of writing for Vaudeville and radio, the book is brimming with Irv’s juicy tales about Hollywood icons, including Benny, Berle, Gleason, Burns, and of course, the Marx Brothers. It’s the product of seven years of Rosenfeld’s tagging along with Irv, splitting pastrami sandwiches, and recording Irv’s every word of rapid-fire banter and acid wit.
Like “Tuesday with Morrie” only with laughs, the beauty of this book is the deep friendship that develops between Rosenfeld and the oft-crotchety Brecher. It began in 2001, when Turner Classic Movie channel interviewed Golden Age Hollywood participants. “I’m afraid I’m the last living MGM writer,” Irv said. “And frankly I just hope I get through this interview.”
In attendance, Rosenfeld was struck how much Irv sounded like Groucho, “That distinctively edgy launching of an expertly aimed zinger.” Suddenly there was a beeping sound. “Unless there’s a canary in here, my hearing aid just died.”
“How long do those batteries last,” asked the interviewer. “About two weeks,” Irv replied. “Longer if you don’t do any listening.”
Brecher didn’t want to be part of a typical, self-absorbed Hollywood biography. He agreed to do the book on one condition, “That I don’t have to read it.” Hank insisted on using a tape recorder to “get everything accurately.” Irv quipped, “You’re going to have trouble being a journalist if you insist on being accurate.”
The book begins in 1931 in New York city. Irv was 17 and a ticket-take/usher at his cousin’s movie house on 57th Street. He worked six, 10 hour days for $18 a week and was glad to have it as he was the only support of his parents and siblings in Depression-era Bronx.
In his spare time, Irv would occasionally send newspaper columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan topical gags and one-liners for the pure joy of seeing his name in papers with circulation of over one million. He never for a moment dreamed it would eventually lead to a career in glamorous, far-off Hollywood.
One day a reviewer for Variety, Wolf Kaufman, came into the theatre. He had recognized one of Irv’s jokes in a Vaudeville act of Bob Hope! He convinced Irv to run an ad in Variety advertising his joke-writing talents. Irv didn’t have the $15 for the ad, as it was almost a week’s salary. Kaufman arranged for Irv to temporarily owe Variety, a publication he would wind up subscribing to for the next 70 years!
One of those responding to the Variety ad was a brash, young Vaudeville comedian named Milton Berle who was notorious for stealing other comics’ material. (The chapter on Berle is entitled, “The Thief of Bad Gags.”). After reviewing pages of Irv’s jokes, Berle paid him the princely sum of $50. Soon Irv would quit his usher’s job and would forever jokingly blame Hope and Berle for his life in show business.
Among the great Groucho stories details his and Irv’s vacation at a hotel in the south that didn’t accept Jews. Groucho sat on his suitcase and accused the hotel of being one in a chain of brothels. “Is it true that you’re your brothel’s keeper?” he asked the perplexed hotel manager.
In a scene from “Go West,” a western, Groucho’s knocked down a flight of stairs in a saloon by the villain. Harpo and Chico rush over to give him water. “Forget the water,” Groucho says, “force brandy down my throat.” That line became famous in bars all across the country. Pretty heady stuff for the 24-year-old screenwriter who wrote it.
“The Wicked Wit of the West” is a funny, charming, and ultimately touching, reminiscence. For those over 60, it may bring back fond memories of radio and early television. For those under, it represents an essential piece of American comedy history.
Irv’s glaucoma made it impossible to review the book’s galleys. He hired an actor to read it to him over four days. Shortly thereafter he passed away but even on his deathbed, he was cracking one-liners. Irv missed the publication but he had “read” the book, something he joked he’d never do. I’m definitely glad that I did.
Jack Neworth also writes the “Laughing Matters” column which appears every Friday. He can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com,