It's only one day into the summer Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, and already we've seen one of the best shows (albeit not on TV) that we're likely to get in the next three weeks of hype and schmooze.
The occasion: a panel late Tuesday afternoon promoting Pioneers of Primetime, a PBS special (airing Nov. 9) about the legendary vaudevillian clowns who first made TV popular. Several gave their final TV interviews for this documentary, including the late Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Red Skelton — who turned down producer Steve Boettcher's interview requests at least half a dozen times before relenting and rewarding him with three and a half hours shortly before he died.
At TCA, this all-star panel of 80-something golden-age talent, which at first glance promised to be an exercise in fawning nostalgia, quickly turned into a rollicking display of classic shtick, as Red Buttons and Carl Reiner mercilessly needled an earnestly and endlessly verbose Mickey Rooney, at one point prompting a wry Rose Marie to quip, "I was a young girl when this panel started."
Throughout, Sid Caesar — a king among peers — sat and chuckled at the mayhem, which included a face off of dueling Jimmy Cagney impersonations between Buttons and Rooney and Buttons' ribald riff on Rooney's Andy Hardy family pictures, including "Andy Hardy Schtups Lassie."
"What the hell did Mickey say?" barked Buttons after one of Rooney's ramblings. Reiner responded, "I don't know. I was about to ask if somebody had written it down because I want to make a sampler out of that." Later, Buttons heckled Rooney by asking: "By the way, Mickey, was Lincoln a nice guy?" (A roastmaster in rare form on this day, Buttons at another point interrupted the panel's analysis of Lucille Ball's timeless appeal by snarking, "I never liked her.")
When Rooney pointed out his adoring wife sitting in the audience, Buttons cracked: "Mickey, introduce your mistress, too." The critics howled. When Rooney tried to interrupt Buttons' anecdote about being on stage the night Minsky's was raided, Buttons snapped, "Mickey, I'm on." To which Rooney retorted, "I've never seen you get off."
And when Rooney fielded a question with "Can I answer that?" Reiner's weary reply was: "I would be amazed if you didn't." As the session wound down, Rooney's tormentors took pains to say they only kid him because they love and respect him. "Mickey Rooney should be forgiven all his madness up here today, because he is a genius," said Reiner, most affectionately.
There were even a few moments for serious reflection. Reiner took issue with the show including Bob Hope among TV "pioneers" because "he came along from radio three years later and never took it that seriously. He didn't learn his lines."
And Caesar brought the room to a hush as he spoke of how the TV remote control "took over the timing of the world," and led to a generation of impatient young people seeking instant gratification. "Every culture is known by its music. I haven't heard many melodies lately."
But the merry melody of laughter is what we who were there will remember from this all-too-fleeting gathering of immortal masters.