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Mel Blanc: Comedy and Tragedy

Mel Blanc: Comedy and Tragedy

by William H. Benson

October 8, 2015

     Mel Blanc was known as “the man with a thousand voices” because he created voices for numerous cartoon characters. For Warner Brothers, Mel was the voice of Wile Coyote, Speedy Gonzales, Pepe LePew, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny. “What’s up, doc?” Then, for Hanna Barbera, he was Barney Rubble and Cosmo Spacely.

     On occasion, Mel also appeared on Jack Benny’s television program.” In one classic routine Mel would wear a wide-brimmed sombrero and a serape, acting as if he was from Tijuana. Jack would approach Mel and ask him a series of questions, and to each question Mel would reply with the single word “Sí,” pronounced “see,” meaning “yes” in Spanish. An astonished Jack would stare at the audience in a deadpan glare.

     Jack then tried another tactic. He thought of questions that would require a different answer than “Sí.” Jack asked, “What is your name?” Mel replied, “Si,” pronounced “sigh.” By now in a rage, Jack asked Mel, “Well, then what is your sister’s name?” Mel replied, “Sue.” “Well, then, what is your sister’s occupation?” “Sew.” Jack would explode, “Now cut that out!”

     Among humor’s many forms, Jack and Mel stood at polar opposites. Whereas Mel gave voice to a thousand or more characters, Jack created just one, and that was himself. He only played the part of a tight-fisted guy who played his violin and was instantly provoked. Because he rarely, if ever, revealed his real self in public, there was little distinction between his program’s character and himself. The public loved his character, and so he refused to alter it or create new ones, unlike other comedians.

     For example, people loved Jackie Gleason’s comic monologues, especially when he included his routine phrases: “How sweet it is!” and also his departing line, “And away we go!” Jackie dared though to experiment with other characters: Reginald Van Gleason III, Rudy the Repairman, Joe the Bartender, and Poor Soul. His most well-known character was the New York City bus driver, Ralph Kramden, of “The Honeymooners,” Alice’s husband and Ed Norton’s neighbor and best friend.

     Red Skelton also created his own cast of characters: Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloacer, Gertrude and Heathcliff, Sheriff Deadeye, San Fernando Red, as well as Junior, the Mean Little Kid. Red proved his versatility when he performed pantomime on his television show in “The Silent Spot.”

     Bill Cosby achieved fame when he told stories of his days growing up in Philadelphia among a hilarious circle of childhood friends, such as Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold. He expanded his comedy routine when he dared to imitate Noah, who received divine instructions to build the ark.

      Cosby’s reputation has suffered in recent years, when more than fifty women have accused him of Quaalade-induced assaults, going back to the 1960’s. If true, it demonstrates the truth that “How a person behaves in public does not always equate with how he behaves in private.” Comedy in public, but tragic actions in private.

     Bob Newhart is now called “the world’s first solo straight man.” He would pretend he was talking to someone on the telephone, but his audience would only hear his side of the conversation. For example, he once played a slick Madison Avenue promoter who called Abraham Lincoln and suggested that the President should “boost his image.” One can imagine the laughs.

     Certain comedians—such as Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts, and Henry Winkler—were typecast into a role that they could not abandon. Jerry Lewis played the role of a zany, unintelligent, and incompetent adolescent better than anyone, but he struggled to transcend that character. Don Knotts was Barney Fife, but after that role ended, he searched for years until he found Ralph Furley on “Three’s Company.” Henry Winkler was Fonzie on “Happy Days,” but he failed to find a character since then.

     Life is not always fair to comedians. Gifted and talented does not always ensure constant success.

     Lines from the musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” “Nothing with gods, nothing with fate, weighty affairs will just have to wait. Tragedy tomorrow, but comedy tonight.”

     On January 24, 1961, at Deadman’s Curve on Sunset Boulevard, just north of UCLA’s track and field stadium, Mel Blanc suffered a head-on collision. The Aston Martin he was driving folded him up inside of it, and police had to cut him out. Both of his legs were broken, as well as his pelvis and skull. He lay in a full-body cast and a coma at UCLA’s hospital for days.

     Into the third week, a bedside nurse named Louis Conway glanced at the television and saw Bugs Bunny. Conway walked over to Mel’s bed, and asked, “How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?” Mel startled everyone in the room when he replied, “Eh, what’s up, doc?” The nurse then asked Mel, “And Porky Pig, how are you feeling?” “Ju-ju-st fi-fi-ne,” replied Mel. “Tweety Bird, are you there?” Mel replied, “I thot I taw a putty tat.” And with that Mel himself woke up and asked what had happened.

     Each character had survived intact, and each had awakened before Mel did. It is now known as “the day that Bugs Bunny saved Mel Blanc,” a day when comedy and tragedy had united.