Somebody once described George Plimpton as "the professional amateur", and it certainly fits. Plimpton was a journalist who tried his hand at several high-profile occupations for which (as he readily admitted) he was eminently unqualified -- quarterback, trapeze artist, race-car driver -- not expecting to succeed, but always producing a highly entertaining article or movie or TV deal from his account of his efforts. Plimpton was a weedy man of no discernible physique -- if he were shorter and wore glasses, he would fit the stereotype of what an author is "supposed to" look like -- so he made a point of attempting to succeed in highly physical and athletic jobs.
One of Plimpton's passions was fireworks: living in New York City, where fireworks are illegal (except under special licence), Plimpton had a political sinecure for the last couple of decades of his life as the professional inspector of all New York City events involving authorised fireworks.
"Did You Hear the One About?" finds amateur Plimpton in a less physical job than usual. He has decided to try his hand at being a stand-up comedian, performing a lounge act in a Las Vegas nightclub. We're shown nothing at all about how Plimpton gets booked as a comic with no previous credits; presumably he worked out some sort of publicity deal with the nightclub. This documentary shows Plimpton attempting to acquire material, honing his delivery and his timing, getting advice from successful comedians, and eventually making his debut.
Some very big names in American comedy make appearances in this documentary ... but don't get your hopes up that you're going to see them perform. In a series of low-key conversations, Plimpton meets each comedian in turn, trotting out his pathetic little supply of jokes and then eliciting that comedian's advice on how to improve the material or his delivery, or both. Since none of these comedians are shown performing, I thought it was interesting that this documentary captured them as they actually appear offstage in real life. But this is no Candid Camera episode: each of the comedians is aware that he or she is being filmed, and so all of them to varying degrees remain "on" while Plimpton seeks their advice. Buddy Hackett, who played a coarse vulgar moron in his nightclub act, comes off as a coarse semi-vulgar moron in this documentary: if it's a performance, it's a very convincing one.
Jonathan Winters is not one of my favourite performers, but he makes by far the most interesting contribution to this documentary. He comments to Plimpton that all successful comedians had tragic childhoods. Winters seems to be speaking candidly here, so I was expecting him to offer some evidence from his own childhood ... but he doesn't follow up on his original comment.
Winters does make a very bizarre suggestion for how Plimpton should open his nightclub act. Imitating a very young child, Winters leans round an imaginary proscenium, waggles his fingers, and tells the imaginary audience: "Hi! Hi! My name's George Plimpton! We're gonna have fun!" This documentary climaxes -- if that's the word -- with Plimpton performing his nightclub turn. I was expecting him to be either a huge hit or (more likely) a huge flop; instead, he's simply a respectable success.
One of George Plimpton's least endearing traits (for me, at least) was his extremely peculiar voice, which sounded a very bad attempt to imitate an upper-class English accent. When Plimpton did his amateur stints as a quarterback and a trapeze aerialist, his voice didn't much matter. Here, as a nightclub comic, his diction and his speech patterns are crucial. As a nightclub comic, Plimpton's a first-rate journalist. I'll rate this special 3 out of 10. The brief appearances by the various comedians are only faintly interesting, since they aren't shown performing, and they offer very little useful advice about the art of comedy.
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