by Mark Evanier
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 8/21/98
Comics Buyer's Guide
A little over a decade ago, someone at CBS decided to produce an animated special based on a colorful book by Thacher Hurd. It was named Mama Don't Allow and it involved the hoary song of the same name. Briefly, it's the story of a young possum named Miles who is given a saxophone which he plays so badly that his mama orders him from the house. He roams about with his instrument, repulsing others with its sounds until finally, near the end, he learns to play the thing well. The end.
The adaptation would incorporate the title tune (with new, special lyrics) and other songs written especially for the special. I was hired to write the script and lyrics, and they asked me to help select someone to compose the music. It took me all of three seconds to suggest we try to get Eddie Karam, a superb composer-arranger whose work is heard constantly in your finer TV shows and movies. We'd worked together on a variety show for Dick Clark and I'd been dazzled by Eddie's ability to instantly grasp any kind of music, from the hard rock to the softly symphonic.
Eddie impressed me in dozens of ways but one is worth mentioning here. It was the caliber of the musicians he hired for the show. Guitar players and violinists and drummers are like any other profession: The better you are, the less likely it is that you're gettable. Dick Cavett used to say that, in show business, the most impressive quality you could have was unavailability.
Some of the top players get so many offers that they can pick and choose. On a previous show I'd done, the musical director had removed fistfuls of follicles from his scalp, trying to round up an orchestra he trusted. Said he, "There are 600 unemployed trumpet players in this town but there are only about 10 I'd bet my career on. Unfortunately, those 10 are all booked solid 'til next August."
This was not a problem when Eddie convened the band for our show. Even Dick Clark — who knows a little about music and musicians — gasped at the assemblage of talent. "My God," he exclaimed. "I guess no one else in town is recording today."
How did Eddie amass such a gifted crew? Easy: He asked them. I soon learned that every good studio musician in town knew and loved working with Eddie and that most of them owed him a dozen or more favors. He called, they came. It was that simple.
So when CBS said to me, "Any ideas who we can get for the music?" — hey, I'm no dummy. I nominated Eddie. Someone looked up his résumé, which was roughly the length of the 405 Freeway, and they only asked, "Can we get him and can we afford him?" Somehow — don't ask me how — they managed to do both.
Working with Eddie again was sheer pleasure — one of those all-too-rare assignments where you find yourself wondering, "Gee, you mean I get paid, too?" A favorite moment came when Eddie came over and we started discussing the band he'd need to hire. He pointed out that since, at the end of the show, the possum has to become a sax virtuoso, we'd need to book a genuine sax virtuoso. Naturally, the first name that popped into my mind was that of Tom Scott.
If you were in a roomful of professional musicians and you proclaimed, "Tom Scott is the best saxophone player alive today" — well, the opinion might not be unanimous, but I don't think anyone would waste a lot of breath arguing the point. Others might have their partisans but most would concur that if Mr. Scott is not the best, he's right up there with whoever is.
But of course, Tom Scott's the first guy everyone tries to hire when they need a sax man. He was surely committed months ahead. Good luck trying to get him to come in and play for a kid's cartoon show next Tuesday. I said to Eddie, "Too bad we can't get someone like Tom Scott."
Eddie said, "Why can't we get Tom Scott?" He picked up my phone, dialed a number and his end of the call went exactly like this…
"Tom? Eddie Karam. You booked for anything next Tuesday afternoon?
"Any way you can get out of it?
"Super. We'll be in touch."
We had Tom Scott.
The following Tuesday, we all reported to a recording studio on Riverside Drive in Burbank. I was just pulling into the parking lot when a thought hit me — one that combined equal parts of pride and insanity: We had not only hired maybe the best sax player in the business to play for a show I'd written…we had hired him to play badly.
For the first 75% of the script, Miles the Possum plays the sax so poorly that windows shatter, milk curdles, and even statuary gets up and leaves the room. This was the role in which we had "cast" Tom Scott.
But you'd figure, hey, he can play well…it should be a cinch to play poorly, right? Would that it had been that logical. After Tom played the first number through once, Eddie turned to him and said, "Okay, now you have to make it sound amateurish."
"That was amateurish," Tom said. (There are probably folks out there who've practiced the saxophone their entire lives and whose best efforts sound worse than Tom Scott's first stab at a poor performance.)
"Well," Eddie said. "Worsen it up."
So they played the number again. At the end, Tom asked, "Was that bad enough?" We all shook our heads no.
He tried it again. Eddie turned to me for my opinion and I said it was good — which, of course, meant that it was not good.
This went on for about twenty minutes, and Eddie did everything he could to make it stink. He wrote in some wrong notes on Tom's sheet music. He had him do something to misadjust the mouthpiece. And when he conducted, he deliberately brought Tom in on the wrong beat.
Nothing worked. Tom's talent was so instinctual that, though his mind reached for the wrong notes, his fingers found the right ones. Eddie took me aside and said, with a grave expression, "We've got a problem here." His tone reminded me of at least a dozen times on other shows when a producer took me aside and told me we were approaching Armageddon…
We were hopelessly behind schedule. We were over-budget. We were behind schedule and over-budget. A guest star had cancelled. An actor had quit. A set hadn't been finished in time. The network had just unapproved all sorts of things they had previously approved. Permission had been denied to use a song we'd counted on using. Standards and Practices said an entire scene was offensive and had to go.
All these had happened to me — and worse. This was, however, the first crisis that ever resulted because somebody had too much talent.
I am in awe of folks who do things so well that their skill approaches the level of magic. I don't mean they merely do it well…but they do it so flawlessly that even others who do it well (whatever it is), stand around with their jaws open, wondering if they even belong in the same business.
It goes beyond sheer ability. Years ago, when Sandy Koufax was pitching for the Dodgers, they used to say, "He's pitching in another league." There were others around who sometimes matched his E.R.A. — some who won more games — but their capabilities were earthbound and understandable. Koufax's talent seemed to come from a whole other place. With him, a strikeout was more than one-third of the end of the inning; it was an act of poetry. (So was Vin Scully's description of it, up in the booth.)
There is just something beautiful about someone doing something — anything — to perfection. Somewhere out there, there's got to be a chicken flicker who flicks his chickens so expertly that other chicken flickers stand about and go, "How does he do that?" I've seen great cartoonists say this about other great cartoonists.
Sometimes, it's a matter of inexplicable, ingrained talent. Other times, it's a little of that honed by thousands of hours of rehearsal. One of the reasons I love Vegas-style entertainment is that you see a lot of acts who have trained to a flawless sheen. It can be Lance Burton plucking doves from nowhere at the Monte Carlo…or Charlie Frye juggling Indian Clubs at the Tropicana…or the Flying Cavarettas trapezing their way through the rafters of Circus Circus.
It needn't even be a feat of dexterity. He seems to be retired now but, years ago in Vegas, I loved to go see George Carl do a comedy act that Johnny Carson (no stranger to great comedy acts) called "The funniest 20 minutes in show business." It basically consisted of Mr. Carl getting tangled in the microphone cord. For 20 minutes.
Ostensibly, he was there to play a harmonica solo…but before he got the first note out, he dropped the mike and then he had trouble with the mike stand. And then he knocked over a tray with his harmonicas on it. And then he somehow got the mike down his pants…and the more he tried to undo things, the more tangled and snarled and hopeless and hysterical things got.
I don't know how many times he performed it. I'm guessing 3 shows a night, 6 nights a week for 40 years. Those are very conservative numbers and it still totals out to 37,440 performances. Long before I saw him — near the end of a very long career — he had every second of the act perfected. Every movement, every gesture, every expression, he'd polished the way Nijinsky honed each step of Afternoon of a Faun. If there was a way to get a laugh in any given second of his performance, Carl had found it. A dead person would have laughed at that act — even one pumped full of formaldehyde.
That is an art. It takes talent to do something badly and do it that well. That was the challenge we were facing in the recording studio, thanks to Tom Scott's dearth of incompetence. Finally, Eddie had an idea. He said, "I'll play the sax for the first part and then, when we get to the section where the music gets good, Tom can take over."
Well, that ended our crisis, though not the way Eddie intended. When Tom heard we were considering "replacing" him for even part of the gig, his pride was suddenly on the line. No one was going to replace Tom Scott, not even when it came to wretched playing. "Let me have one more stab at it," he asked.
The next time through, sure enough, it was sufficiently lousy. Problem solved. The engineer rolled tape and Eddie began conducting. I sat on the other side of the glass and, after each take, Eddie would look my way and I'd signal if I thought Tom was rotten enough. A few times, I had to say, "Too good" and we'd do it again.
Finally, we reached the point where the sax playing was supposed to improve. Eddie told Tom Scott he could start playing like Tom Scott and everyone, Tom especially, untensed. When he blasted into the "good" section, he sounded incredible. Part of this was because we'd just spent an hour listening to dreadful sax playing…so anyone playing on-or-about-key would have sounded pretty good. But part of it — the majority of it — was because he was Tom Scott. I loved that moment. It was like seeing Billy Batson turn into Captain Marvel.
But I'll tell you the moment I really loved. Before we got to that point — back when Tom was sounding like a moose with a groin pull — some visitors crowded into the booth near me. They were folks who'd been working in the studio down the hall and they'd been told that the great Tom "Triple-Scale" Scott was recording.
"Wait'll you hear this guy," one of the intruders told his friends. "This cat" — he actually said cat — "is the best danged sax player in the biz." Then Tom started to play and he blew one aberrant note after another. Simply awful. But at the end, the conductor said, "Perfect, Tom."
I looked at the audience. They looked like the first-nighters watching Springtime for Hitler. Looks of stark horror.
After about a dozen more clinkers, they hurried from the booth, and I could hear their voices as they disappeared down the hall. One was saying, "I thought you said he was great…"
And the other was saying, "I swear to God, he used to be…"
P.S. Since this article was first published, George Carl has passed away. A shame, especially for those who never got to see him perform. Also, Charlie Frye is no longer juggling at the Tropicana. You may be able to ascertain where he is juggling by consulting his website, www.charliefrye.com.