Monday, September 09, 2013


One thing about a deck of cards…you never know when you'll turn up the Ace of Spades. For Sir David Frost, the death card arrived while aboard a cruise ship. The instant "claim to fame" in all the obits, was that he'd sparred with Richard Nixon in a series of TV interviews. Frost's blend of tenacious badgering and wide-eyed adulation and coaxing charm got the ex-President to finally admit, "I let the American people down." Which wasn't that much of a victory considering Nixon had already resigned, which was the most important thing. I must admit, the mention of Frost's death had me thinking of Nixon's demise as well. But more on that aspect in a few paragraphs.

Apparently a close second as a claim to fame was Frost's celebrity as a "lothario" who dated a string of beautiful women, including Carol Lynley, Diahann Carroll (a minor scandal at the time) and the ex-wife of Peter Sellers. In the body of the obit came his talk show credits, and a note that at 74, he was still working (albeit for the Al Jazeera satellite network). Over here, the first thing that came to mind about Frost was his beginnings as a comedian and host of satirical shows. At merely 23, he assembled "That Was the Week That Was," an alternative to the very staid variety shows of the day. He opened with a monologue and it was followed by sketches and from his assembled cast. Topical songs came from the ebullient Millicent Martin (Nancy Ames for the American version). The similar "Frost Report" gave work to some hot new writers who would eventually be part of Monty Python's Flying Circus (including John Cleese, now a regular in front of the cameras). Frost united Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker, who would soon get their own series.

Frost's successful American talk show from 1969 to 1979 led him to constantly fly back and forth across the Atlantic so he could tape five shows a week in New York...while doing yet another set for British television. A viable combo of Carson and Cavett, Frost tried to offer a varied 90 minutes that might include both the simple and the intellectual. He could ask warm and fuzzy questions ("What is your definition of love") or book a guest in the news...including Phil Ochs. Phil's only appearance on a major talk show was because Frost heard about the bizarre "gold suit" concert at Carnegie Hall, which was considered an abject failure. Frost wanted to know what was behind it, even if the general public in America could've cared less.

Frost was not a singer, but did issue a single: "Deck of Cards." It's a track on "The Frost Report," his album co-featuring John Cleese. What you get below is the entire bit, including the introduction. Typically, Frost puts his points across with scathing wit and a lecturer's precision, and then offers his parody of the then-current Wink Martindale hit using the condescending delivery style he liked to employ for goading targets that he felt were incredibly stupid.

I have all of Frost's various comedy albums, domestic and imported. I didn't find myself instantly rushing to play them, although I easily remembered some of the bits. One joke came to mind, indelible thanks to its use in commercials promoting his TV show. It was a clip of David declaring in his most comically officious tone, "WHY is it...that SWISS cheese has the holes...when it's GORGONZOLA that needs the ventillation??"

Aside from recalling that cheesy joke, David's death and the Nixon references instantly brought a flashback to the time I "witnessed" the ex-President's demise. Over the years, Nixon seemed to live in comfortable, smiling retirement in New Jersey, signing autographs, waving to people, and being treated with some sort of respect. As his heath failed him, the animosity toward him faded. Ultimately, a news report declared he was in seriously bad shape, being transported barely conscious to hospital.

"A strange force," to quote a line from the song "Strange Things Happen," drew me to be part of the vigil. I don't know why I had to be there, but I did. I joined with various reporters and photographers standing outside the hospital, simply waiting for the official word of his last physically be there for the final moments in the life of one of the strangest, most divisive, most frightening and yet most pathetic figures in modern American politics.

There wasn't much to see. Nobody knew for sure which floor he was on. But as I looked up at the huge building, I almost expected to see the familiar outline of Nixon's over-sized head on a window shade ten or twelve flights up. That ski-nose. Those jowls. The sloping forehead with the hair combed flat but turning woolly-headed toward the back. I almost expected that "Tricky Dick" would defiantly pull back the curtains of his hospital room, and stand there with his arms up in the air, shoulders hunched, giving the familiar V for Victory symbol with both hands, scowling and grimacing just like David Frye. But, no, Nixon was beyond all that, behind a hospital door with his family and friends, and we were on the sidewalk just to mark the official time of his death...which was certainly important for the TV reporters who had their cameras and were hoping it would happen before the end of the 11pm news.

It wasn't much of a dramatic ending for Richard Nixon. Perhaps David Frost's heart attack aboard the cruise ship was a lot more dramatic and vivid. Certainly Nixon didn't utter any final words, nor re-iterate the catch-phrase David Frye had given him: "I AM the President!" David Frye had put out four albums on Nixon. Laughing at Nixon hadn't taken him down. Perhaps David Frost realized this limit to the power of comedy...and wisely chose chat shows and political interviews for his future. And so it was that his obits concentrated on the legacy of his serious interviews with presidents and prime ministers.

Over here, we say that there's nothing much we can do about how politicians and dictators and kings behave. Much of it is not funny in the least. And so we need, desperately, the John Cleese, The Two Ronnies, or someone like David Frost in the 60's to organize some satirists for a broadcast. Frost's early shows disturbed the powers that be via ridicule and laughter, and to my mind, what he did to politicians back then is every bit as valuable and valid as interviewing them seriously in the later decades. And here, minor though it is, is David Frost slapping at Wink Martindale's religious pretentiousness...finding religion not really in a deck of cards, but...a cricket bag....


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