Tuesday, November 16, 2004

My sense of humor:

My best friend (David Klecker of Baton Rogue, LA) is my best friend primarily because of our shared sense of humor. We met in our senior year of high school and it’s been one big laugh fest for the both of us since then. My sense of humor is kind of odd—at once both intellectual and sophomoric. I can’t tell you how many things just make be burst out loud laughing that many people wouldn’t find remotely funny.

So I’m going to give my readers a test to see if any share a similar sense of humor. I’ve watched quite a few episodes of the Brady Bunch, and during my childhood and adolescence was a big fan (my best friend & I even met Barry Williams when he came and spoke at Penn State, Altoona, where Dave was attending). So years ago, I bought Barry Williams’s book Growing up Brady, and there was quite a bit written about the Brady’s Patriarch, Robert Reed (he was still alive and in the closet when the book was written). Reed, in fact, wrote the Foreward to the book.

Reed comes off as a very intelligent, intellectual, neurotic, old-fashion conservative. He was a Shakespearean actor, educated at Northwestern University and transferred to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. The Brady Bunch Book describes him as “a self-proclaimed conservative (his idea of marriage in 1963 was ‘to have a little wife to make that 5:00 A.M. coffee, do the dishes, and wash my laundry’)….”

As we all know, he turned out to be gay…a gay conservative.

Anyway what amuses me most about Reed was the fact that he was driven nuts by the Brady Bunch scripts and his having to act under such scripts. Instead of just enjoying his money and rolling his eyes (like 99% of the other actors in his circumstance would do), he decided to fight producer Sherwood Schwartz tooth and nail over this silly show. And he would write these long memos, these long polemics, very well written, complete with references to Shakespeare…. These memos read like he was fighting over something of utmost import, like the “nature” of the “political and social good.” These memos almost read as if they were written by Allan Bloom (another gay conservative).

Anyway, his memos amuse me beyond belief. So, I found this goldmine of a memo online, and I am reproducing it to see if any of you find it as funny as I.

Robert Reed's Orignal Memo Regarding Episode 116

To Sherwood Schwartz et al.

Notes: Robert Reed

There is a fundamental difference in theatre between:

1.Melodrama
2.Drama
3.Comedy
4.Farce
5.Slapstick
6.Satire &
7.Fantasy

They require not only a difference in terms of construction, but also in presentation and, most explicitly, styles of acting. Their dramatis peronsae are noninterchangable. For example, Hamlet, archtypical of the dramatic character, could not be written into Midsummer Night's Dream and still retain his identity. Ophelia could not play a scene with Titania; Richard II could not be found in Twelfth Night. In other words, a character indigenous to one style of the theatre cannot function in any of the other styles. Obviously, the precept holds true for any period. Andy Hardy could not suddenly appear in Citizen Kane, or even closer in style, Andy Hardy could not appear in a Laurel and Hardy film. Andy Hardy is a "comedic" character, Laurel and Hardy are of the purest slapstick. The boundaries are rigid, and within the confines of one theatric piece the style must remain constant.

Why? It is a long since proven theorem in the theatre that an audience will adjust its suspension of belief to the degree that the opening of the presentation leads them. When a curtain rises on two French maids in a farce set discussing the peccadilloes of their master, the audience is now set for an evening of theatre in a certain style, and are prepared to accept having excluded certain levels of reality. And that is the price difference in the styles of theatre, both for the actor and the writer--the degree of reality inherent. Pure drama and comedy are closest to core realism, slapstick and fantasy the farthest removed. It is also part of that theorem that one cannot change styles midstream. How often do we read damning critical reviews of, let's say, a drama in which a character has "hammed" or in stricter terms become melodramatic. How often have we criticized the "mumble and scratch" approach to Shakespearean melodrama, because ultra-realism is out of place when another style is required. And yet, any of these attacks could draw plaudits when played in the appropriate genre.

Television falls under exactly the same principle. What the networks in their oversimplification call "sitcoms" actually are quite diverse styles except where bastardized by careless writing or performing. For instance:

M*A*S*H....comedy
The Paul Lynde Show....Farce
Beverly Hillbillies.....Slapstick
Batman......Satire
I dream of Jeannie....Fantasy

And the same rules hold just as true. Imagine a scene in M*A*S*H in which Arthur Hill appears playing his "Owen Marshall" role, or Archie Bunker suddenly landing on "Gilligan's Island" , or Dom Deluise and his mother in " Mannix." Of course, any of these actors could play in any of the series in different roles predicated on the appropriate style of acting. But the maxim implicit in all this is: when the first-act curtain rises on a comedy, the second act curtain has to rise on the same thing, with the actors playing in commensurate styles.

If it isn't already clear, not only does the audience accept a certain level of belief, but so must the actor in order to function at all. His consciousness opens like an iris to allow the proper amount of reality into his acting subtext. And all of the actors in the same piece must deal with the same level, or the audience will not know to whom to adjust and will often empathize with the character with the most credibility--total reality eliciting the most complete empathic response. Example: We are in the operating room in M*A*S*H, with the usual pan shot across a myriad of operating tables filled with surgical teams at work. The leads are sweating away at their work, and at the same time engaged in banter with the head nurse. Suddenly, the doors fly open and Batman appears! Now the scene cannot go on. The M*A*S*H characters, dealing with their own level of quasi-comic reality, having subtext pertinent to the scene, cannot accept as real in their own terms this other character. Oh yes, they could make fast adjustments. He is a deranged member of some battle-fatigued platoon and somehow came upon a Batman suit. But the Batman character cannot then play his intended character true to his own series. Even if it were possible to mix both styles, it would have to be dealt with by the characters, not just abruptly accepted. Meanwhile, the audience will stick with that level of reality to which they have been introduced, and unless the added character quickly adjusts, will reject him.

The most generic problem to date in “The Brady Bunch” has been this almost constant scripted inner transposition of styles.

1. A pie-throwing sequence tacked unceremoniously onto the end of a weak script.
2. The youngest daughter in a matter of a few unexplained hours managing to look and dance like Shirley Temple.
3. The middle boy happening to run into a look-alike in the halls of his school, with so exact a resemblance he fools his parents [Rowe: what that’s never happened to you?].

And the list goes on.

Once again, we are infused with the slapstick. The oldest boy’s hair turns bright orange in a twinkling of the writer’s eye, having been doused with a non-FDA-approved hair tonic. (Why any boy of Bobby’s age, or any age, would be investing in something as outmoded and unidentifiable as “hair tonic” remains to be explained. As any kid on the show could tell the writer, the old hair-tonic routine is right out of “Our Gang.” Let’s face it, we’re long since past the “little dab’ll do ya” era.)

Without belaboring the inequities of the script, which are varied and numerous, the major point to all this is: Once an actor has geared himself to play a given style with its prescribed level of belief, he cannot react to or accept within the same confines of the piece, a different style.

When the kid’s hair turns red, it is Batman in the operating room.

I can’t play it.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jon,
Thanks so much for the laugh. I'm on the board of the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival opening in a couple of weeks. The pressures are tremendous and this piece just gave a big laugh to many of our actors and crews at a time when we really needed it.
PJ

Jonathan said...

My Pleasure!

The Gay Species said...

Poor Reed. He so seemed to enjoy his role on the Brady Bunch, as saccharine and juvenile as the program was. If Reed's spirit is tuned, we all empathize. Under-achievement, LCD, improbability, and television (in general, with some notable, albeit few, exceptions) are numbing. If only blogging had been an option, Robert, we might have really enjoyed your unintended wit. At least you left us missives. Call it pre-blogging.

Mark H. Delfs said...

awesome find! What a fun show it was. Too bad Robert Reed took it so seriously. If he was that much a dick about every script then maybe he should have worked elsewhere.

Michael said...

The oldest boy was Greg, not Bobby. (Bobby was the middle boy.)I would very seriously consider the fact that Robert Reed would not have made a mistake like that in an internal production communication. That said, I think that if in fact Mr. Reed paid that much attention to story arc and continuity, that the producers would be very grateful for his input.

Anonymous said...

Producers are NEVER grateful for input- particularly from actors.

Anonymous said...

Bobby was the youngest son, Greg the oldest, and PETER was the middle boy

MyPalHal said...

Reed was so NOT a jerk! I love the Brady Bunch, mostly because of Mike Brady. I definitely find this memo hilarious, but also totally cool!! Reed knew that the show meant something to its audience and he intelligently fought for the show to be not lame, which it was in the ridiculous episodes he references. Thanks for the posting, I love it!

Gael said...

Michael: Bobby did invest in the hair tonic. It was Greg who used it, but Bobby invested, so Reed's phrasing is right on.

BobbyEarle said...

Reed was in an ABC movie of the week called "Pray for the Wildcats". Reed, Andy Griffth, Marjoe Gortner and the epitome of high drama: William Shatner. This group of corporate executives take a motorcycle trip into Baja.

If Reed had this much trouble with The Brady Bunch, it seems incredible to me that he would be in this wet dog of a movie.

Anonymous said...

This memo was for the very last episode of the series. What did he hope to accomplish?

Jonathan said...

Thanks all for checking in. Re the last question, it is my understanding that at the time the memo was written the show had not yet been cancelled and the cast was unaware that this would be the final episode.

Anonymous said...

Michael,

The oldest boy was Greg, not Bobby. (Bobby was the middle boy.)

The middle boy was PETER. Greg was the oldest, Bobby the youngest. Jeeziz, get it right.

Anonymous said...

The next time one of the bosses at work tells me to do something ridiculous I shall reply thusly:

"It is Batman in the operating room. I can't play it."

Stephie said...

That is my FAVORITE part of "Growing Up Brady." He would get so upset over lines that were logically or scientifically incorrect, which you have to appreciate. The strawberry fight is also great.

However, I like that quote from Lloyd Schwartz: "Robert Reed is the kind of actor who could perform Hamlet, get booed off of the stage and then say, 'Don't blame me; I didn't write this sh*t.'"

Anonymous said...

It was not intended to be the last episode of the series, it only became that because Reed refused to play his part any more.

Punchy said...

Hey, I say good for Robert Reed.

He apparently took his craft seriously, and I can see how, after so many years of acting in such a hack production, he decided to call it quits.

We all gotta pay the rent, and most of us work in jobs we don't love, so I can't fault him for playing Mike Brady (he wasn't gonna pay the mortgage playing Hamlet).

So despite selling out by playing uberdad in a dumb sitcom, he still tried to use his smarts and experience to raise the quality of the show.

Good for him.

Mrs B was from Dale,Indiana said...

A few years ago I bought a box of
junk at an estate sale. Among the
items--100s of letters. From the
various members of the Rietz family. Thanks to the unusual spelling I was able to figure out
that this was "Robert Reed's" tree.
The letters were from his grandparents to his uncle,etc. I say the man came by his snobbery honestly. The letters are by folks
who had money and an education. The letters were written during the worst of The Great Depression. Pretty interesting stuff,even w/out
the Brady Connection.

His outrage rings true to me. Silly
as it was and is,he wasn't just
pretending to be disgusted by the
material.

Anonymous said...

The guy was obviously very bright but not ASTUTE - you're entirely right and it's WAAAAAAY hilarious!! Puh-leeez!! It's not like "The Brady Bunch" was the TV project of a "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe"-type drama, nor of a long list of hilarious, ridiculous "Three Stooges" shorts. The fact that he was so upset by it all is further proof that you can be alive and unconscious at the same time. FUNNY and kooky - - !! THANK YOU !!!

Anonymous said...

The letters are pretty funny if you don't take Robert Reed's perspective into consideration. It's also easy to find it humorous more than 30 years later. Brady Bunch is now an iconic TV sitcom and a major reason it is so funny to us now is because it's very different than the TV sitcoms we watch today. We think of it as cheesy and cornball and silly but that wasn't the case when the show was being televised in 1970. Sure it was a comedy but it ground breaking at the time, it was the first network tv show that featured two single parents getting remarried and merging two families. No one had explored this type of American family before. I Robert Reed's points were totally valid. He simply wanted to make the best comedy show at the time. What makes the letters so funny is that he was absolutely right. The show became a joke instead of a comedy and it was canceled after only 4 seasons. The family was popular, that's why they have remained a part of pop culture. The show would have lasted a lot longer if the writing hadn't gotten so bad.

Dan said...

...and a decade later, the producers of Diff'rent Strokes used the hair-color gag yet again, this time turning Kimberly (Dana Plato)'s hair green. Silly sitcom ideas never die.

Ron Klopfanstein said...

Could Robert Reed's Brady Bunch Discontent Have Been Due To Contemporanious Societal Oppression Of Gay Men Rather Than The Puerile Scripts of Sherwood Schwartz?

From everything I've read about Robert Reed I cannot understand why he ever took the role on The Brady Bunch.

He was obviously intelligent and had to know what he was committing to before signing the contract. Even if somehow he completely misjudged the quality of the show based on the pilot script; shouldn't he have been familiar with Gilligan's IslandSherwood Schwartz' other hit series?

I've sometimes wondered if all the anger, frustration and energy Reed put into these lengthy, dense and intellectually scathing "memos" to Schwartz, and presumably, the other "Powers That Be" who ran The Brady Bunch were actually subconscious (or sub-textual) expressions of justifyable pent-up dissatisfaction and hostility at playing an unwilling, maybe even self-loathing, part in perpetuating the fiction of the "perfect family," which at that time marginalized gay men right into invisibility.

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Kirk Stock said...

I don't think that that memo is very funny. Reed was right. Obviously there are different styles of a sitcom and saying "Oh, he's just taking himself too seriously"' is childish. Obviously there is an art to comedy.

I think Family Matters is the best proof that we need actors like Reed who care about something other than a paycheck.

That show thought it could be every type of comedy - farce, slapstick, fantasy, everything - it had no idea of the boundaries. We could start off with a normal family scene, and then descend into slapstick or fantasy at any second. Reality could be established, and then distorted.

I thought the same thoughts Reed did when I watched those episodes of The Brady Bunch, and I wish people would be more open-minded to consider what he was trying to get across and whether he really did have a point.