By Edward Copeland
Without a doubt, one song stands heads and shoulders above all others written by Stephen Sondheim for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and "Comedy Tonight" holds that perch. Even people unaware of the movie or the stage show of Forum probably know that infectious number that opens and closes both versions. No more proof need be delivered to back this claim than the sheer number of performances, spoofs and use of the song as background music for clips and slideshows that I stumbled upon on the World Wide Web. Who knows how many more are out there? One used the song to back scenes from The West Wing, but the quality of the video was so poor, I wasn't going to use it until I stumbled upon a better version. Another person did three separate Bewitched montages, two of which employed identical moments only one used Zero Mostel's 1962 original cast recording version while the other took Nathan Lane's 1996 revival recording. I chose not to toss those in this collection because each montage only lasts 42 seconds, cutting off the song early. Never fear though, that still left me with plenty of options. Before I "open up the curtain," I thought I'd start with a clip of "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" from The Frogs, a 1974 musical staged and "freely adapted" by Burt Shevelove (co-author of Forum) from the play by Aristophanes (written in 405 B.C.) and staged in the Yale University Swimming Pool with a cast of Ivy League students whose ranks included one Meryl Streep. Sondheim originally composed "Invocation" as the opening number for Forum when his first attempt ("Love Is in the Air") wasn't working during out-of-town tryouts. The show's legendary director George Abbott, according to Sondheim's Finishing the Hat, didn't find "Invocation" "hummable enough" — no doubt inspiring the producer's complaint in Merrily We Roll Along. Thankfully, that led to the blessing of "Comedy Tonight" and "Invocation" returned with the addition of the hysterical "Instructions to the Audience" when Sondheim and Shevelove collaborated on The Frogs. The clip below comes from the BBC Proms program given July 31, 2010, to celebrate Sondheim's 80th birthday. With the backing of The BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by David Charles Abell, Daniel Evans, a Tony nominee for best actor in the 2008 revival of Sunday in the Park with George, and Simon Russell Beale, a Tony nominee for best actor in the 2004 revival of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, perform the number.
As I mentioned, people love to use "Comedy Tonight" as a backdrop to scenes from their favorite television shows or, in one instance, a series' cast actually performed the song themselves. I thought I'd start with TV and go chronologically from the oldest to the newest. First, this variety show's ensemble performed the number in the show's third episode ever on Oct. 18, 1976. Honestly, it's pure coincidence that I led into this with the number from The Frogs.
Anyone recall the last time they saw a rerun of this hit 1980s detective series with romantic banter between the leads? No, not Moonlighting. I refer to Remington Steele, the series that made Pierce Brosnan a star during its run from 1982-1987. What did happen to Stephanie Zimbalist?
The English certainly aren't immune to the charms of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Five major productions of the musical have played London since 1963 (with its original Pseudolus, Frankie Howerd, reprising the role in a 1986 revival) and a company that toured throughout the United Kingdom. Some enterprising fan of the musical combined the song with the long-running British spy series MI-5 (originally titled Spooks) that ran 10 seasons beginning in 2002.
This West Wing fan not only sets scenes to a version of "Comedy Tonight" but tosses in some of "Love Is in the Air," the first opening song that Sondheim wrote for Forum as well.
Finally, since in some ways the farcical elements of Forum almost make it a cartoon, its final television salute should, most appropriately, pair it with an animated work, namely Avatar: The Last Airbender, which ran from 2005-2008.
The song brings out the fun in everyday folk as well as we see here where "Comedy Tonight" underscores a year-end slideshow presentation for players, coaches and fans of the Long Beach State track and field team.
What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas if you post it on YouTube as with this parody of "Comedy Tonight" performed by the master of ceremonies (officially named MC Vegas) for an annual Edwardian Ball.
Now, I haven't heard much of them lately but the concept of flash mobs shouldn't be an unfamiliar one to most reading this. Apparently, at University of Western Ontario, you might be able to get course credits for participating in them since they appear to do them so often. The campus' improv broke out once into Handel's "Messiah." They interrupted this lecture with — you guessed it — "Comedy Tonight" Impressively, they choreographed some moves as well as learning the words.
I'm not sure what's funnier: That this boy named Ben (I believe his last name is Lerner) would perform this spoof of "Comedy Tonight" at his bar mitzvah (interrupted by his younger sister Nina) or that the explanatory note by his father informs us that when dad posted it years ago, the video and audio had problems, so we're watching a corrected version that he has labeled Take 2. I didn't try to track down the promised one that Nina later sang at her bat mitzvah.
Also on YouTube sits, as you'd expect, the song playing against photos of various Republican presidential contenders. I almost included it, but that's really like shooting water in a barrel, isn't it? Why waste the space? They make the point so much more brilliantly when they open their mouths than when we just look at them, even if we do see Rick Santorum chowing down on a very phallic-looking food item. Instead, we'll skip to the movies. As with television, I'm going to do this chronologically, starting with the oldest and we're going way back to 1928 and one of the last gasps of silent German Expressionism, Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs starring Conrad Veidt as the creepy villain Gwynplaine, 14 years before Veidt became best known as Major Strasser in Casablanca.
For pure ambition, you have to give it to the students at The College of New Jersey Musical Theatre staged at the Ewing, N.J., campus a full-fledged musical based on the original Star Wars trilogy spoofing songs from a wide variety of musicals. The show opens with "Trilogy Tonight."
The title for the single best-edited video that I found involving a single subject probably deserves to go to the true identity of puddleglum128 for mating Zero Mostel's version to scenes from Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. I'd call it perfect if it didn't contain the strange audio splice in the middle, but the right moments of Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and the rest get used.
Christopher Nolan's second take on Batman, The Dark Knight, earns two takes of "Comedy Tonight!" The first, staged by The Pauper Players of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as part of the group's annual Broadway Melodies in 2009 where they parody different works. (The other two that year were Lost and Super Mario Bros.) The second video features photos from Nolan's film set to Nathan Lane singing the finale version of the song and also includes stills of Gerard Way.
For the last montage, which must have required a tremendous amount of time and effort by CRAIGSWORLD1427, he asked people about what movies throughout film history tickled their funny bones the most and then assembled various bits and pieces (including dialogue) with the song for this nearly 10-minute long package. It's worth it though. Chuck Workman, be damned.