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"Uncle Miltie" always seemed an incongruously playful nickname for Berle. The most unreconstructed vaudevillian among the great comedians of the early days of television, his style was coarse, vaguely angry and heavy, full of broad clowning, obvious slapstick and relentless drag routines.
That Berle seems so little changed is one of the fascinating things about these three hour-or-so-long tapes of excerpts from his 1948-54 TV shows. Introducing the clips, he's as overbearing as ever—age (he's 81) clearly hasn't introduced him to humility. A new theme song for the tapes, written by Berle and his producer, Buddy Arnold, even brags that his show's jokes were "old and new jokes without any blue jokes" when, of course, he had no choice given the era's censorship.
Berle was, however, shrewd enough to save his old shows and to realize that they now have more than archival value. For his fans, that value will come from seeing Berle himself. For others, though, the fun will be in seeing his guests.
Frank Sinatra, a Berle pal, appears in a number of excerpts, displaying an ingratiating ease rarely associated with his later career. One bit involves Berle, Sinatra and then hot singer Georgia Gibbs. (Today this would be like having Eddie Murphy, Prince and Madonna on the same show.) When Gibbs sprays Sinatra with saliva in saying a line, he deadpans, "Not funny but it's cooling." In another clip, Sinatra jokes with Berle, then sings "Nevertheless" with a kind of attention and sense of melody rarely shown on TV today by pop musicians.
A young Elvis Presley also appears with Berle—singing "Hound Dog" and getting upstaged mercilessly. Nat Cole, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter are among the musical guests too. Harpo Marx, Arnold Stang, and Johnny Puleo and the Harmonica Rascals appear as well, and the editing of the tapes is exemplary, so the guest shots are more than just glimpses.
It must have been stunning to early TV viewers to see these performers in such spontaneous, casual contexts. And it still is enjoyable to see them—it's even worth putting up with Berle and his "I'll kill you a million times" line. (Kodak, $19.95 apiece or $49.95 for the set; 800-331-6839)