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Milton Berle ends the Vietnam war
F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
3 October 2004
The 1966 edition of 'The Milton Berle Show' was nearly identical in
format to the original version that had made Berle a star on 'Texaco
Star Theatre' in the 1940s. But in 1948, Berle was a novelty on
television (and television itself was a novelty). By 1966, much of the
novelty had worn off, and Berle was much older. So were his jokes.
The 1966 show was in bright colour, filmed on glitzy sets in the huge
Hollywood Palace Theatre, which may actually have been too big and posh
for Berle's style of performing ... a style that had worked fine on
those cramped little soundstages in 1948. Berle's new entrance theme
was 'You Gotta Enjoy Joy', a song for which he took co-author credit.
During its brief run into January 1967, this show's format was quite
rigid. Berle would begin with a monologue for the live audience. The
guest star(s) would perform alone or with Berle. Milton Berle was
allegedly one of the biggest stars in show business, a man who knew
everyone, so it's dismaying that most of the guest 'stars' on this show
were quite minor: often someone whom the ABC bosses wanted to promote
for some other production. A welcome exception was Bette Davis.
Parodying the famous scene from 'Now, Voyager', Davis sat with Berle at
a restaurant table while he lighted two cigarettes and suavely offered
her one. 'No, thank you,' said Davis. Berle stuck both lighted
cigarettes into his mouth and gazed into the camera, puffing two
cigarettes with a hilariously stupefied look on his face.
The best part of every episode came at the halfway point, when the
announcer intoned 'And now it's time for Miltie's Mad, Mad World' while
Berle mugged in a Napoleon cozzy. This was the cue for a series of
blackout gags, some of them done silent, some with one or two lines of
dialogue. They tended to be elaborate sight gags. For example, a sign
would advertise 'Man Eating Shark', then the camera would tilt down to
show a man in a seafood restaurant, chewing on a shark. (Man eating
shark, geddit? Boom, boom!)
Unfortunately, every episode's 'Mad World' sequence ended the same
unfunny way, with a big fanfare as the camera tracked towards a woman
with long black hair, dressed in furs and a glamorous gown, and with
her back turned towards the camera. As the camera zoomed in for a
close-up and the orchestra cued her song, this woman turned round to
reveal that she was (surprise!) Milton Berle in drag and heavy make-up.
Annoyingly, his make-up ALWAYS included that drag-queen cliché: a
so-called beauty mark. (Who started that dumb idea?) This 'woman' would
start to sing a song, but would inevitably break character after the
first few notes. The only time this was remotely funny was when Berle
started to sing 'Yes, We Have No Bananas' ... only to be interrupted as
unseen stagehands overhead pelted him with bunches of grapes. 'We've
got grapes' said the Berle 'diva', holding some up for the camera.
Another routine that never varied each week was Berle's 'stooge' act,
in which Berle would start another monologue ... only to be heckled by
some guy in the balcony, whom Berle introduced to the audience as
Sidney Shpritzer. Like the drag routine, this was meant to be a
'surprise' but it always happened the same way at the same point in the
show, every week. At the end of each episode, Berle sang his perennial
theme 'Near You'.
Although ABC-TV gave Berle a long-term contract and touted this show as
a hit, it was very quickly cancelled. Berle (or his gagwriters) then
bitterly responded with a line that (in 1967, at least) was much
funnier than anything he actually said on this show: 'They're going to
put the Vietnam War on ABC, and it'll be cancelled in 13 weeks.'
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