To people over a certain age it no doubt seems incredible that people under a certain age have to be told who Danny Kaye was. In the middle of the last century Kaye was one of the country’s biggest stars, working his nimble, quick-tongued brand of comedy into a career that bridged eras and genres: radio, stage, film, records, television. For decades you would have to have lived in a cave to not know his work.
At the moment Kaye, who died in 1987, is the focus of renewed attention. It is his centennial year, according to the birth date he used (though he was actually born in 1911, as David Koenig, author of the new biography “Danny Kaye: King of Jesters,” has noted). Various events have been celebrating his work and that of his wife, Sylvia Fine, a lyricist and composer who wrote many of his best-known songs. The Library of Congress in Washington has an exhibition called “Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine: Two Kids From Brooklyn” on view through July 27, and last month it held a gala to mark the opening of an archive and website dedicated to Kaye and Fine.
A lot of the centennial attention has been on Kaye’s film career, movies from the 1940s and ’50s like “The Court Jester,” “White Christmas” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that captured him in his prime. His television work, in contrast, can tend to be shrugged off, much of it coming in the archaic-looking variety-show format (“The Danny Kaye Show” ran from 1963 to 1967) and its cousin, the star-centered special.
But look more closely at some of these television clips (YouTube has a smattering, and more are coming in DVD releases), and Kaye seems to have one of his fast-moving feet in the present after all. Here is a Kaye clinic of sorts: lessons for young comedic performers, drawn from specific TV appearances:
BREAK THE RULES; DEFY EXPECTATIONS: Kaye’s brand of humor seems tame today, but it had an anarchic quality that would sit well in the 21st century. Evidence of that can be found in his first appearance as the mystery guest on “What’s My Line?,” from 1960 or so. In a regular segment on that show a panel of celebrities would try to guess the identity of a mystery guest – that is, a fellow celebrity – while blindfolded.
Kaye turned the proceeding on its head, refusing to answer the panelists’ questions with anything but a nod or a grunt, giving false answers as often as true ones. (At one point he tried to get the host, John Daly, to identify him as a baseball player.) The panelists – Tony Randall, Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen – were flummoxed, guessing Harpo Marx, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud. “The most dishonest mystery guest we’ve ever had,” Cerf said when Kaye’s identity was revealed. Daly said the appearance was the first time Kaye had ever been on live television. So from the start he was subverting the medium a bit even while working in its mainstream.
PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS: Kaye and Fine’s daughter, Dena Kaye, of course has a number of favorite Kaye moments, but one from television that she singled out recently in an interview was a duet he did with Louis Armstrong on an early-1960s program. They reprised a number from the 1959 movie “The Five Pennies,” a version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” with ridiculous patter lyrics by Fine.
The television clip is better than the movie version, both men utterly at ease. Although some accounts have said Kaye could be difficult, there was rarely any evidence of that in front of the camera, and certainly none in this clip.
“You see my father’s ability to work with another star, and you never feel he wants center stage,” Dena Kaye said. “He didn’t have to outshine anybody.”
That’s a quality – of comedy, of performing in general – that sometimes seems in short supply today. Practically every late-night talk show host could use a refresher course: Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert and others have a tendency to step on their guests’ moments. Their interruptions might be amusing, but probably not as amusing as a shared spotlight would have been.
INCONGRUITY IS COMEDY GOLD: It was the mid-1970s, and the folk-pop singer John Denver was at the height of his popularity when Kaye was the guest on one of Denver’s television specials. Kaye by this time was well known for his work with UNICEF, and he did a bit that began with his telling the host that everywhere he traveled for that charity he heard people singing Denver songs.
Kaye, a master of foreign and made-up accents, then proceeded to demonstrate how Denver’s songs sounded in the Caribbean, England, the Soviet Union. By the time he was done, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Sunshine on My Shoulder” and “Country Roads” were in tatters, having been rendered in preposterous accents and rhythms that were the antithesis of the syrupy Denver sound. It was a delirious comeuppance for the somewhat pretentious Denver, one with which he happily went along.
KNOW THE INTELLIGENCE AND TOLERANCE LEVEL OF YOUR AUDIENCE: As Roseanne Barr found out the hard way in 1990 when she sang a disrespectful version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a San Diego Padres game, humor works only if you can read the crowd properly. Kaye had the temerity to bring slapstick into that most somber of chambers, the concert hall, and yet not only survived but also thrived.
His comedic conducting served him well for decades, and by the time of “An Evening With Danny Kaye and the New York Philharmonic,” a “Live From Lincoln Center” performance in 1981, he had already proved that he could make classical-music audiences love him. Still, watching this performance leaves you startled at its brashness: Kaye made fun of the orchestra, the art of conducting, the audience and more, but his obvious knowledge and appreciation of classical music gave him the latitude to do so. As Seth MacFarlane perhaps learned from the reaction to his recent turn as Oscar host, there’s a difference between merely mocking and mocking as a form of homage.
Kaye returns to the concert stage, in a manner of speaking, on April 29 when he is to be honored along with Frank Loesser and Jule Styne at a New York Pops concert at Carnegie Hall. Assorted other Kaye events are also yet to come.
“My overall goal is to get the work out,” Dena Kaye said. The best of it is certainly worth a fresh look.