Shawn With the Wind

on July 01, 2008 by Steve Simels

The death last week of George Carlin has got me thinking about another standup comedian -- heck, another idiosyncratic comic genius -- who had a respectable movie run despite the fact that Hollywood never really quite knew what to with him. I'm referring, of course, to the late great Dick Shawn.

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Shawn was all over network TV in the 50s and 60s, but these days he's best remembered for two hilarious and iconic film performances -- as Sylvester Marcus, the beach-bum-with-Oedipal-issues son of Mother from Hell Ethel Merman in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and as Lorenzo St. DuBois, the hippy dippy actor playing Adolf Hitler in the original version of The Producers (note flowers and Campbells Soup can). Actually, those two characters are more similar than I remembered -- both of them gave Shawn a fair amount of latitude to sell his hilarious hip-swivelling nightclub Elvis parody -- but by far his most interesting movie role was altogether different, as a deeply repressed, stick-up-his-ass professional Army guy in in the unfairly overlooked Blake Edwards vehicle What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?. In fact, Shawn steals that sneakily subversive 1966 anti-Vietnam parable right out from under nominal star James Coburn; if you haven't seen it (and few people have, alas) it's just been released in a gorgeous widescreen DVD from MGM that you should order here ASAP.

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Shawn wasn't really a stand-up comedian per se, of course; he was far too original to be classified so narrowly, which is why despite his long and successful career he was never quite as widely known as some of his contemporaries (which included everybody from Buddy Hackett to Woody Allen). By today's standards, what he was doing was more conceptual, more like performance art than Vegas schtick. This was, after all, a guy, who dropped dead of a heart attack onstage during a concert and the audience, quite reasonably, assumed it was just part of the act.

Shawn's you-had-to-see-it-live masterpiece was a near indescribable routine called "The Massa," which I think I first saw him do on the old Merv Griffin Show. It had something to do with the Civil War (hence the title) and something to do with the difference between that war and its romanticized portrayal in old Hollywood movies; it was vaguely stream of consciousness, with Shawn playing a succession of characters, including a stand-up comedian named Dick Shawn, and it could run, depending on how he felt at the time, anywhere from ten minutes to up to an hour. As I said, it was near indescribable, but once you saw it you never forgot it, and I remember thinking at the time that it was quite the most remarkable thing I had ever witnessed a human being doing in any context. I later had that belief confirmed when I saw him do it in 1974 (at much greater length) on the cramped stage of Max's Kansas City, a hole in the wall rock club where normally you were far more likely to catch one of the New York Dolls getting a blowjob in the ladies room than you were to see a fifty-year-old in a tux doing the greatest comic monologue in the history of show biz.

Like I said, you had to see it, and over the years it's been a source of some unhappiness to me that no video documentation of it was known to exist, at least publically. Then to my surprise the other day I chanced across this clip of Shawn on the Dinah Shore Show from 1959.

Dinah, bless her heart, gives Shawn pretty much free rein here, time wise, and though the bit he's doing is fairly typical of Any Comic's nightclub act from back in the day, there's a bit right at the end where he breaks character and seems to go off into another, uncharted dimension where Othello and Al Jolson co-exist; I think for just that moment that you're getting a little look at the genesis of "The Massa."

Note to self: Think of a contemporary actor who could play Shawn (Johnny Depp, maybe?) and pitch a bio-pic to him toot sweet.

Tags: George Carlin, Ethel Merman, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World, Blake Edwards, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Othello, Al Jolson

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