Red Buttons never got a dinner, but he once had a hit TV series


If you are of a certain age (i.e., mine), you remember Red Buttons primarily as the guy who always turned up on Dean Martin’s TV celebrity roasts and did a never-ending routine about famous people who “never got a dinner.”

If you are inquisitive about pop culture (like I am), you probably learned along the way that Red Buttons once did a TV show that started out blazing-hot but eventually fizzled due to Buttons’ ego. I had heard that story for years, but I never knew the details until now.

A guy named Kliph Nesteroff has written some very entertaining blog entries about acrimonious show-biz personalities of the 1950’s, such as Martin & Lewis and Joe E. Ross. In his latest blog, Klisteroff tells the complete (and completely fascinating) about how Red Buttons was a victim of his own success. The link to the Buttons story follows, but also use the search engine at his blog to read the other engrossing blog entries I mentioned.

Charlie Chaplin in CRUEL, CRUEL LOVE (1914) – A cruel attempt at comedy


The girlfriend of Charlie (here sporting a two-pronged mustache) mistakenly believes he has been flirting with her maid and says she never wants to see him again. By the time she realizes her mistake, Charlie has taken what he believes to be poison and thinks he is about to die. He’s put right, the woman takes him back, and everyone left standing at movie’s end gets drop-kicked by Charlie for no reason.

Story-wise, that’s about it. Chaplin mugs him it up as you’ve never seen, before or since, in a vain effort to convince us of the story’s hilarity.

Laurel & Hardy in FROM SOUP TO NUTS (1928) – Long live Anita Garvin!


If anyone doubts Laurel & Hardy vet Anita Garvin’s place in film-comedy immortality, witness her comedic contributions to L&H’s From Soup to Nuts, in which she develops an entire routine out of a tiara and a maraschino cherry. Most of the time when Stan and Ollie rub elbows with rich folk, the rich folk are dismissed as one-note snooties who snort at L&H and move on. Here, Garvin shows a rich snootie who nevertheless gives indications that she doesn’t fit into the rich world any better than L&H. Laurel & Hardy historians tell us that Garvin briefly served in her own L&H-type comedies for Hal Roach (though they didn’t catch on). This movie amply demonstrates why.

Of course, this is all with the benefit of hindsight. At its original release, From Soup to Nuts was viewed simply as another funny L&H comedy, and so it is. Long before the days of “high concept” (in which a movie’s appeal could be captured in a single sentence), “Laurel and Hardy are waiters” was all you needed to know in order to laugh just at the premise. If you want some iconic images of The Golden Age of Film Comedy, watch Ollie continually try to serve a huge cake, or Stan serving the salad undressed.

The directorial credit for this short goes to E. Livingston Kennedy, better known as L&H’s perpetual nemesis Edgar Kennedy. It’s usually a given that Laurel was the uncredited director of the L&H comedies, but one could do worse than having From Soup to Nuts and You’re Darn Tootin’ on one’s film resume.

Laurel & Hardy in THAT’S MY WIFE (1929) – Hold on to your wig


That’s My Wife is one of those films that truly puts Laurel & Hardy’s characterizations to the test. Decades of stale sitcoms have long worn thin the man-masquerading-as-a-woman-for-trite-reasons comedy cliche. Like the pie-in-the-face routine, the only thing that makes this ritual funny is not the fact that it’s happening, but its normally staid character’s reactions to it. On that basis, That’s My Wife holds up surprisingly well.

The premise is that Stan has lived on Ollie’s premises for so long that Mrs. Hardy (L&H vet Vivien Oakland) has had enough and moves out. Wouldn’t you know it, Ollie’s rich Uncle Bernal (William Courtwright) — who plans to leave Ollie his a huge inheritance if Ollie stays happily married — chooses that night to visit Ollie and meet Mrs. Hardy for the first time. Guess who gets commandeered to play Mrs. Hardy.

Again, it’s not the premise itself that’s so hilarious as how the familiar characters react to it. When the story sends Mr. and “Mrs.” Hardy to dinner with Uncle Bernal, the movie throws every cliche it can muster at The Boys — an obnoxious drunk, a necklace inadvertently dropped down the back of Stan’s dress — and L&H meet each challenge fully in character. When a restaurant customer opens a phone booth and catches Stan and Ollie in it, Ollie sheepishly emerges and provides (via intertitle) one of the all-time great Hardy lines: “Believe it or not, we were calling Philadelphia.”

As with all of the great L&H shorts, at movie’s end Stan and Ollie are left with nothing and no one but each other. As their concise characterizations here prove, that’s more than enough.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in STEALIN’ AIN’T HONEST (1940) – Not quite comedy gold, but close

StealingAintHonestPopeye and Olive Oyl are heading a ship for Olive’s secret gold mine (to which they are easily directed by a big neon sign reading “Olive’s Secret Gold Mine”). But old reliable Bluto gets there first and tries to grab the gold for himself.

This cartoon sometimes relies too heavily on the gratuitous violence of which 1950’s parents so often accused these cartoons. But it’s balanced out somewhat by some very good gags, the best of which is Bluto’s fey remark when he can’t quite reach his goal: “Sometimes I get so discouraged!”

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCan

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in PLEASED TO MEET CHA! (1935) – Time to clean house


Suitors Popeye and Bluto arrive at Olive’s house (Bluto at the back door, Popeye at the front) to court Olive. Olive can’t decide which doorbell to answer, but it’s a moot point when they both burst in and start whomping on each other. Olive tries to make peace by having them both sit with her on the couch, but they still whomp on each other when she’s not looking.

When Olive says one of the guys will have to go, Bluto offers that the guy who does the best trick can stay. The “tricks” involve more whomping, and Olive seems unusually content to watch her two beaus beat each other up, at least until they start destroying the house. (It’s always funny until somebody puts a house out.) Popeye opens his spinach can unusually elaborately, gets Bluto out of the way, and cleans the house in two seconds flat.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCan

Laurel & Hardy in BRATS (1930) – Boys will be boys, even when they’re adults


In the canon of Laurel & Hardy dual-role movies, Brats falls about midway between the highbrow hi-jinks of Our Relations and the nails-on-a-blackboard gratiness of Twice Two — nothing profound, but it goes down easy enough.

As generations of L&H biographers have pointed out, with Laurel and Hardy portraying “themselves” and their own children, Brats takes L&H’s child-like-ness and makes it a little too literal. But it does offer some interesting insight as to how the same qualities we find endearing in our children, we sometimes regard as “brattiness” in other people’s kids. Notice the shots where either Stan or Ollie acts as though he supports the other adult and then makes faces to his kid, behind that adult’s back. (Interesting, too, that in their day, Laurel & Hardy could still be considered “lovable” even when Ollie is yelling at kids and calling them “brats.” These days, that kind of behavior would probably get him a call from Child Services.)

Just as interesting as the sociological perspective are the simplistic special effects, which still satisfy in the era of Star Wars. Ollie Jr., on an outsized movie set, throws a block at Stan Jr., and it hits Ollie on the “regular” set. Buster Keaton couldn’t have done it more seamlessly.

And of course, there’s the usual fun characterization, which here demonstrates that, even as a parent, Stan just doesn’t get it. (His latest words of wisdom to Ollie are, “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead”; and at one point, he threatens the kids that if they don’t behave, he’ll have to go to bed.)

This all makes you realize that Brats is the only movie depicting Stan and Ollie with natural offspring. Short of immaculate conception, how could it happen? One critic who saw the Disney cartoon A Goofy Movie, (1995), about Goofy and his adopted son Max, turned purple when he jumped to the mistaken conclusion that Goofy had had sex. One can only guess what heights of apoplexy this critic would reach about Brats.

MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS – Episode 34, “The Cycling Tour,” orig. broadcast on 7/12/1972


The following is my contribution to the “Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon,” being held March 27 through 29 at the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on the above banner, and read interesting insights into bloggers’ favorite single episodes of TV series!

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

“My name is Pither…as in ‘brotherhood’, but with P-I instead of BRO and no HOOD.”


Broadcast for a total of 45 episodes — first on the BBC from 1969 to 1974, followed a year later by its American premiere on PBS — Monty Python’s Flying Circus changed the face of television comedy. Its sextet of writer-performers (Britons Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin; and American expatriate Terry Gilliam) delighted in offering sketches that had no punchline finale and often commented on each other. Generations of comedy fans have delighted in this TV surrealism.

However, as Humpty Dumpty proved, sometimes it’s just as meaningful to put something back together again as it is to break it. After 33 episodes of TV deconstruction, the “Flying Circus” actually went the traditional route for one episode. “The Cycling Tour,” a third-season outing from 1972, actually carries a linear storyline from start to finish.

However, even most Python fans are not likely to cite this as their favorite “Flying Circus” episode. Even though it has a “traditional” plotline, it careens all over the map even more than their Etch-a-Sketch-style episodes. It has references that will be lost on the average American viewer. (Previously, I was unaware of the Eurovision Song Contest, which plays a major role in many of this episode’s gags.) And one scene contains Chinese stereotypes that are as jaw-dropping as anything you’ll find in old Charlie Chan movies.

Perhaps it’s for all of these reasons that ‘The Cycling Tour” is my all-time favorite “Flying Circus” episode. It’s as though the Pythons are saying to their detractors, “You don’t like our unique comedy style? Right, then, we’ll do a sitcom-style plot and screw up that tradition for you!” For that reason, I find this episode as adventurous and wondrous as anything in the Python pantheon.

(Actually, the only reason that this is a more “traditional” “Circus” episode is that Michael Palin and Terry Jones, who are the main stars of this outing, had written this script for another venue, only to see it unused. The Pythons snapped it up to fill out an episode when they found themselves running short of material during their third season.)


The episode follows the adventures of Reg Pither (played by Palin, who seems to have gloriously channeled Stan Laurel for his character’s likable imbecility). Mr. Pither is on a bicycling tour of Cornwall, and every few yards (or so it seems), his bicycle overturns because, as he informs us in off-screen narration, “the pump got caught in my trouser leg.”

Mr. Pither recounts this mundane fact (and the contents of his lunch pack) to any number of people who couldn’t care less. He blathers on about it to a woman who tends to her gardening without ever acknowledging him; then to an equally disinterested restaurant cashier; and finally to an arguing couple whose relationship’s demise is aided by uncomprehending Mr. Pither.


My favorite such encounter is when Mr. Pither goes to a doctor (Eric Idle) after one of his pump/trouser catastrophes. The doctor tries to uncover Mr. Pither’s malady, but he has none. Pither went to the doctor simply because he needed proper directions and didn’t want to trust “the possibly confused testimony of some passer-by.” Irritated, the doctor provides the necessary directions — in prescription form. The doctor scribbles some Latin on a piece of paper and says, “Here, take this to a chemist [pharmacist]!”


Eventually, Mr. Pither has one too many trouser-based accidents and winds up in the backseat of a car driven by Mr. Gulliver (Terry Jones). At last, Pither has found his equal in pedantry. It seems that Gulliver is an inventor making breakthroughs in self-protected lunch items. He has even perfected a tomato that ejects itself from an automobile just seconds before an accident occurs. Sure enough, a Gulliver-laced tomato pops out of the car, followed by crash sound-effects and a screen blackout.

When the scenario resumes, Pither is transporting Gulliver to a hospital via his bicycle. Gulliver lost his memory in the car crash and now thinks he is Clodagh Rogers, the then-recent winner of the Eurovision Song Contest for her pop smash “Jack in the Box.”


The hospital scene is a slapstick delight involving Palin, Jones, and Chapman and Cleese as hospital personnel. One Python biographer reports that the scene actually bombed when performed live for the show, but Jones and “Circus” director Ian MacNaughton turned it into a comedy miracle via some judicious editing.

In any case, Gulliver gets booked in a nightclub to sing as Clodagh Rogers. But once he gets on stage, he suffers another lapse of memory and starts spouting Communist propaganda in the mistaken belief that he’s now Leon Trotsky.


Pither checks Gulliver into a hotel for safety and goes to the British Embassy, not realizing that his bicycling has taken him all the way to Communist China. As previously mentioned, there follows the episode’s most unforgivable scene, with Chapman and Cleese cavorting as outrageous Chinese stereotypes that put even Jerry Lewis’ foreign mimicry to shame. (However, it is funny, in the Pythons’ usual non-sequitor way, that the embassy duo are singularly obsessed with bingo.)

When Pither returns to the hotel, he finds that Gulliver/Trotsky has headed for Moscow. The Russian secret police are tailing Pither, and they take Pither to Moscow “to be present as an honored guest when Trotsky is reunited with the Central Committee.” But they tell Pither — who is too dim to figure out the international mess he’s in — that they’re taking him to a clambake.


When Gulliver/Trotsky is “reunited” with his comrades at a huge meeting, he starts out by giving a pro-party speech, but the speech then turns into a seductive nightclub number complete with feather boa. Gulliver has suffered yet another memory bash; he now thinks he’s Eartha Kitt. The Russians arrest Pither for misleading them, but they decide to let Gulliver continue his number since “He’s going down well.”

Pither is then thrown into prison, and shortly thereafter, he finds himself in front of a firing squad. Again, Pither is completely oblivious to this ominous threat until the guns are actually aimed at him. Luckily, everyone in the firing squad misses their intended target. Pither is thrown back into prison while the firing squad practice their shooting skills.

There follows one of Python’s greatest-ever gags. I am a long-time opponent of the old “It was only a dream” cop-out; it was used in countless Chaplin and Keaton silent comedies, as well as many TV sitcoms to follow. Instead, in this extremely satisfying scene, Pither falls asleep in his cell and wakes up to find his mother serving him tea in their backyard. There follows this exchange:


Sure enough, Pither is woken up so that the firing squad can have another go at executing him.

Meanwhile, Gulliver/Kitt has snagged yet another nightclub engagement. But as luck would have it, when he gets up to perform, he slogs his memory one more time and now becomes Edward Heath, the then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (who was a frequent butt of Python jokes). When “Heath” starts spouting capitalist rhetoric, an Eartha Kitt fan in the audience smacks him with a turnip.

The turnip finally brings Gulliver to his senses, and he runs out of the nightclub and through town (while in a gown, high heels, and blackface) screaming for Pither, as the out-for-blood audience trails him. Gulliver hears Pither’s voice and climbs over a wall to get to him.


“Pither!” an elated Gulliver cries. “What a stroke of luck!” “Well, yes and no,” dithers Pither, as he points to an oncoming firing squad armed with bayonets.

How are the duo going to get out of this one? We’ll never know. A “Caption – Scene Missing” title flashes on the screen, followed by Pither and Gulliver on the outskirts of town, recounting their luck at their “amazing escape.” The duo say goodbye and go their separate ways, as the title “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” finally graces the screen. (The episode had no opening title sequence, probably to try to confuse viewers into thinking they’d switched on the wrong TV show.)

Oh, did I mention Terry Gilliam’s animation? Two strange-looking monsters named Maurice and Kevin rear their ugly heads every so often during the episode, before coming on after the credits to provide a rousing final laugh.


Despite its being a traditionally-based episode, I find “The Cycling Tour” as endearing as any episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It has every element that made the series a comedy stand-out: Completely insane actions performed by nonchalant people who act like it’s just another day at the office; hysterical verbal wordplay and sight gags; Gilliam’s wacko animation; and definitely a smattering of bad taste. I might not recommend it as an introduction to the Python style, but the episode wouldn’t have been out of place at the end of the team’s movie debut, the sketch-laden And Now for Something Completely Different. Kudos all around!

The real Clodagh Rogers. Click on her photo to hear her award-winning song.

The real Clodagh Rogers. Click on her photo to hear her award-winning song.