September 22nd, 2010


by Frederick Wemyss on Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 2:26pm

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: Thanks for sitting down with me for this interview.

Fred Wemyss: You're standing up, so I'm standing up. This is a self-interview and you have no room in front of your computer for even one chair.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: Hemingway wrote standing up.

Fred Wemyss: And he fell down on the job most of the time.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: Why the lack of a middle name?

Fred Wemyss: Comedy is short and quick. RIDICULOUS THING needed a two-syllable author credit. "Andy Seiler" is four syllables, as is "Jim Beckerman." "Frederick Chambliss Wemyss" is five, or even six if you pronounce the "e" in the middle of "Frederick."

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: "Wemyss" is only one syllable?

Fred Wemyss: When correctly pronounced it is.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: But it looks like "Wemm Iss."

Fred Wemyss: Think of Samuel Pepys, the diarist. Until about five years ago I assumed it was pronounced "Pepp-Iss."

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: But "Pepys" is based on the same principle as "Wemyss."

Fred Wemyss: Indeed.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: So "Wemyss" rhymes with "dreams."

Fred Wemyss: Or "seems."

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss (leaning in): I know not Wemyss.

Fred Wemyss: Hamlet.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: Have we lost the Facebook people who don't get this?

Fred Wemyss: They get it. They just don't care.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: Very good. Now, how did you get involved in THE MOST RIDICULOUS THING YOU EVER HOID?

Fred Wemyss: It started at the Uniondale Mini-Cinema when I was thirteen. I'd been pestering my mother to drive me forty minutes west in order to see DUCK SOUP, which was showing there. I'd been watching Marx Brothers movies on Channel 5 and Channel 9, New York's stations for Depression-era classics and had been hooked on Groucho, Harpo and Chico for about a year at that point. DUCK SOUP was one I hadn't seen, and Joe Adamson, who wrote GROUCHO, HARPO, CHICO (and sometimes) ZEPPO had praised it to the skies in his book. My mother got my older brother and a friend to accompany me and when we got there, the theater was packed. To this day I have never heard such consistent laughter in a movie theater. From start to finish the audience was howling. It was 72 minutes or so of bliss. I imagine when my father was a kid and would spend an entire Saturday afternoon watching newsreels, cartoons and B-movies with his friends at the theatre in Kearny, NJ, that it was a similar experience. In any case, my generation probably had more exposure to Marx Brothers movies than even the generation which was around to see them when they first ran. Groucho played Carnegie Hall when I was twelve and a classmate of mine saw him. I peppered him with questions about it the next day. Groucho was about 80 then, as rakish as he could possibly be, in his French beret and holding cigarettes in an ivory holder. He was threatening once again, in a way he had not been in the YOU BET YOUR LIFE era. Counter-cultural Groucho was the one burned into my brain. Jump forward about thirty years and my fellow Marx-fan Andy Seiler contacted me. Andy is a veritable Smithsonian Institution of Pop culture. Old jazz bands, comic strips, movies, radio shows -- There are very few of which Andy is not aware. Andy contacted me and Jim Beckerman after becoming disabled. He asked us to finish a play he'd started. It was based on a 1932 radio series called FLYWHEEL, SHYSTER AND FLYWHEEL. Groucho and Chico were the stars of the series. Harpo literally can't translate to radio, so he was not on it. We put him in the play, added new songs in the Kalmar-Ruby mode and spun the material we could use, so as to give it a kind of a modern feel (whatever modern is in these post-modern days) and came up with a nice hour and a half show called THE MOST RIDICULOUS THING YOU EVER HOID. It was performed in Oradell, NJ last June by the the Bergen County Players at the Little Firehouse Theatre.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: Can I talk?

Fred Wemyss: No. I love the Little Firehouse Theatre, by the way. If you ever want to see a structure which symbolizes American stage, check out The Little Firehouse Theatre. It's been around since the thirties. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Groucho, Harpo or Chico had taken in a show or two there. Groucho lived in Great Neck for a while, you know.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: Why do you point that out?

Fred Wemyss: Because I'm from Long Island, as is Great Neck. Groucho was doing fantastically well in '29, just before the Crash. He saved astronomical amounts from Vaudeville and Broadway. Then they started filming COCOANUTS in Astoria. It's the only non-Depression era Marx Brothers movie. By the time ANIMAL CRACKERS was being filmed, the financial scramble had begun. You start getting jokes with punchlines such as "Dodge Brothers, 1929." Groucho lost everything.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: And that's why you wanted to participate in THE MOST RIDICULOUS THING YOU EVER HOID?

Fred Wemyss: Well, the mid-century seems to be the zenith of American humor. And people my age (Full disclosure: Both Fred Wemyss and Frederick Chambliss Wemyss slipped into this mortal coil in 1960) watched a lot of mid-century comedy on TV. Screwball comedies, Preston Sturges stuff, W. C. Fields, etc., etc. For some reason, book stores in Huntington, where I grew up, stocked a lot of collections of S.J. Perelman, who wrote for the Marx Brothers. These stores also had Dorothy Parker, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, who certainly knew Harpo pretty well as they sat at the Algonquin Roundtable. These people lived in tough times and devised a style never matched before or since. The GENERAL level of commercial humor was remarkable then. I don't think it's as easy to see these old movies now or get hold of the old collections of humor. But in New York in the early seventies, you couldn't miss Abbot and Costello, The Three Stooges or a lot of very sophisticated TV comics of the old guard in old age: Jack Benny, George Burns and, of course, Groucho.

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: So what are you saying?

Fred Wemyss: I'm saying "See the show."

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: And Jim and Andy are geniuses.

Fred Wemyss: Did they tell you to say that?

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss: You did.

Fred Wemyss: Oh, that's right!

Frederick Chambliss Wemyss and Fred Wemyss: See THE MOST RIDICULOUS THING YOU EVER HOID, September 30th through October 12th, 2010, at Urban Stages, W. 30th St. between 7th and 8th in New York City, NY. RIDICULOUS THING is a Next Link Project selection of the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival.