Sunday, May 19, 2013

JULIUS MONK REVUE : THE HOLY MAN AND THE NEW YORKER

Before there was "Saturday Night Live" in America, or "That Was The Week That Was" in Great Britain…there was the late 50's.

Before your time, and mine, intelligent audiences couldn't find topical, sophisticated or thoughtful humor on late night television. Not anything close. There wasn't much on even the most avant-garde indie radio station, either. What did they do?

They went to a now almost-extinct form of nightclub entertainment called the "revue." Or cabaret. Or review. This was where sketch comedy was droll, and following in the less polished footsteps of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, one might find a singer offering a witty ballad. Many top songwriters began by submitting material to these shows, from the Americans Schmidt and Jones (alias the authors of "The Fantasticks") to the British team of Flanders and Swann.

Though there was plenty of "shoestring" and "new faces" competition (from Bagley, Sillman and other producers), Julius Monk made his shows a favorite among New York theater fans, especially for those who had already pored through the week's New Yorker cartoons, loving both the grim (Chas Addams) and the obscure (William Steig). Each season, offbeat off-Broadway fans went to see the latest edition (each with an ascending numerical title) "Four Below" or "Take Five" or "Demi-Dozen," enjoying material that was witty and usually in good taste. [Ronny Graham's cheerful "hep smoke a reefer" bit drew the jealous ire of hipster Lenny Bruce...one of the few times a Monk revue monologue strayed into bohemian concerns.] In other words, if it was the subject of a New Yorker cartoon, it might be worthy of a Monk sketch...and an evening at a Monk show got you six performers instead of just one comic and a folk trio.

"Demi Dozen" was probably the best Monk show, featuring a controversial sketch about Madison Avenue mad men trying to spin away the news that cigarettes cause cancer (written by pre-Jose Jimenez Bill Dana), and a frisky song, "The Race of the Lexington Avenue Express" sung by comic diva Jane Connell. Also, the change-up: "The Holy Man and the New Yorker," performed by Gerry Matthews (later getting a good paycheck as the voice of Sugar Bear, a cereal spokes-creature in TV commercials). Like Flanders & Swann, who offered "20 Tons of TNT" and "Slow Train," or even downtown beatnik Shel Silverstein (who performed the sad "Unicorn" along with the raucous "It Does Not Pay to Be Hip') a good love song or a bit of comic-drama was welcomed to make for a varied evening.

As these blog entries tend to go on too long anyway, let's end the discussion of Mr. Monk and his revues here (no surprise he and the entire genre disappeared by the late 60's when decent late night TV became available) and let you discover "The Holy Man and the New Yorker" for yourself.

HOLY MAN AND THE NEW YORKER performed by Gerry Matthews

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