In The Wicked Wit of the West, Santa Monica writer Hank Rosenfeld talks with octogenarian humor writer Irv Brecher. And wow, does Brecher talk. This book is not, as Rosenfeld explains, a memoir or autobiography in the usual sense. It would be easiest to call it an oral history of Brecher’s career.Born in the Bronx, Irving Brecher grew up in a low-income Jewish family and worked as a sports reporter and movie usher. He began submitting jokes to newspaper columnists and then at a friend’s suggestion, started selling his jokes to stage comedians.In the 1930s, Brecher, still in his 20s, became a screenwriter who wrote two movies for the Marx Brothers. “I loved the nihilism of Groucho,” Brecher told Rosenfeld. Although the eyebrow-raising comedian could be a wild fellow to hang out with, Brecher recalled that Groucho also “defended my scripts against less than talented producers.”Brecher’s other achievements included writing the classic musical film Meet Me In St. Louis (and persuading Judy Garland to take the lead role), creating the radio and TV comedy show The Life of Riley, writing the film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie, and writing and directing an assortment of other films.Rosenfeld spent six years talking with Brecher and recording their conversations. Their meeting was a lucky byproduct of Rosenfeld’s work as a journalist.“I was doing a freelance story about Turner Classic Movie Channel,” Rosenfeld recalls. “They come to LA once a year and interview Golden Age Hollywood figures. So I got to see these interviews and they interviewed some great screenwriters. But it was Irving Brecher who was just taking over the room when he was interviewed.”When Brecher mentioned the Marx Brothers, Rosenfeld knew he had to talk to him and followed him outside to chat. Then he asked Brecher if he could write an article about him.“And he said ‘An obituary?’ “ That’s Irv, he came right out with the smart remarks. He made me laugh about death. I think a lot of our relationship was talking about comedy and death, which were two topics forefront in his mind.”Rosenfeld wrote two articles about Brecher before it occurred to him that this show biz veteran had enough material for a book. Brecher wasn’t initially enthused. “He was like ‘No, everybody writes a book-my gardener wrote a book, the pool guy wrote a book.’” Once persuaded, he and Rosenfeld met regularly at delicatessens and Rosenfeld recorded Brecher’s wit-seasoned narratives.During the last years, Rosenfeld edited his book, reading Brecher the transcripts, while the funnyman gave speeches at film screenings and even did some stand-up comedy. Having lived through the nightmare of the Hollywood blacklisting era into the time of George W. Bush, Brecher told Rosenfeld that he was the man who had “outlived America.”But, Rosenfeld writes, “Two weeks after the election of Barack Obama reassured him that America might outlive him after all, Brecher was admitted to Cedar-Sinai,” where he passed away, at age 95, still cracking jokes.The Wicked Wit of the West is brimming with jokes and serves up anecdotes of a bygone era of show business, but it is above all, a record of a unique friendship between an elderly man and a younger man, a meeting of generations with humor as the binding tie. Hank Rosenfeld will be signing copies of The Wicked Wit of the West on Saturday May 16, at 2 p.m. at the Ocean Park Branch Library, 2601 Main Street. The free event will include a screening of either At The Circus or Go West, the two Marx Brothers films written by Irving Brecher.
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