3 October 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Milton Berle ends the Vietnam war
The 1966 edition of 'The Milton Berle Show' was nearly identical in format to the original version that had made Berle a star on 'Texaco Star Theatre' in the 1940s. But in 1948, Berle was a novelty on television (and television itself was a novelty). By 1966, much of the novelty had worn off, and Berle was much older. So were his jokes.
The 1966 show was in bright colour, filmed on glitzy sets in the huge Hollywood Palace Theatre, which may actually have been too big and posh for Berle's style of performing ... a style that had worked fine on those cramped little soundstages in 1948. Berle's new entrance theme was 'You Gotta Enjoy Joy', a song for which he took co-author credit.
During its brief run into January 1967, this show's format was quite rigid. Berle would begin with a monologue for the live audience. The guest star(s) would perform alone or with Berle. Milton Berle was allegedly one of the biggest stars in show business, a man who knew everyone, so it's dismaying that most of the guest 'stars' on this show were quite minor: often someone whom the ABC bosses wanted to promote for some other production. A welcome exception was Bette Davis. Parodying the famous scene from 'Now, Voyager', Davis sat with Berle at a restaurant table while he lighted two cigarettes and suavely offered her one. 'No, thank you,' said Davis. Berle stuck both lighted cigarettes into his mouth and gazed into the camera, puffing two cigarettes with a hilariously stupefied look on his face.
The best part of every episode came at the halfway point, when the announcer intoned 'And now it's time for Miltie's Mad, Mad World' while Berle mugged in a Napoleon cozzy. This was the cue for a series of blackout gags, some of them done silent, some with one or two lines of dialogue. They tended to be elaborate sight gags. For example, a sign would advertise 'Man Eating Shark', then the camera would tilt down to show a man in a seafood restaurant, chewing on a shark. (Man eating shark, geddit? Boom, boom!)
Unfortunately, every episode's 'Mad World' sequence ended the same unfunny way, with a big fanfare as the camera tracked towards a woman with long black hair, dressed in furs and a glamorous gown, and with her back turned towards the camera. As the camera zoomed in for a close-up and the orchestra cued her song, this woman turned round to reveal that she was (surprise!) Milton Berle in drag and heavy make-up. Annoyingly, his make-up ALWAYS included that drag-queen cliché: a so-called beauty mark. (Who started that dumb idea?) This 'woman' would start to sing a song, but would inevitably break character after the first few notes. The only time this was remotely funny was when Berle started to sing 'Yes, We Have No Bananas' ... only to be interrupted as unseen stagehands overhead pelted him with bunches of grapes. 'We've got grapes' said the Berle 'diva', holding some up for the camera.
Another routine that never varied each week was Berle's 'stooge' act, in which Berle would start another monologue ... only to be heckled by some guy in the balcony, whom Berle introduced to the audience as Sidney Shpritzer. Like the drag routine, this was meant to be a 'surprise' but it always happened the same way at the same point in the show, every week. At the end of each episode, Berle sang his perennial theme 'Near You'.
Although ABC-TV gave Berle a long-term contract and touted this show as a hit, it was very quickly cancelled. Berle (or his gagwriters) then bitterly responded with a line that (in 1967, at least) was much funnier than anything he actually said on this show: 'They're going to put the Vietnam War on ABC, and it'll be cancelled in 13 weeks.'