Ladies and germs, direct from Las Vegas… Harry Ritz!
by Harry Stein


Harry Ritz will say it himself, but he prefers that others say it for him.

"As far as I'm concerned," says Mel Brooks, "Harry Ritz was the funniest man ever. His craziness and his freedom were unmatched. There was no intellectualizing with him. You just hoped there were no pointy objects in the room when he was working 'cause you were down on the floor, spitting, out of control, laughing your brains out. Harry Ritz always put me away. Always."

"This man gave comedy a whole new dimension," says Sid Caesar. "Harry was the great innovator. His energy and his sensibility opened things up for all of us. He had to be the funniest man of his time."

"Harry was the teacher," says Jerry Lewis. "He had the extraordinary ability to deny himself dignity onstage. Harry taught us that the only thing that mattered was getting a laugh ‑whether you did it with a camel or with two rabbis humping a road map. Harry spawned us all. We all begged, borrowed and stole from him, every one of us. Without him, we wouldn't be here."

Almost to a man, comics adore Harry Ritz; they tirelessly tell stories about him, they dissect his style, they imitate his routines. If the world was made up of comedians, Harry Ritz would be the biggest star you ever saw.

But it isn't, and he's not. The recognition Harry did receive‑as the top banana among the three Ritz Brothers‑was relatively scant and short‑lived. During his heyday, in the late Thirties and early Forties, his particular brand of comedy was not thought of as art, and when it came time to list the immortals of that period, no one thought to include Harry's name among them. Today, thirty‑three years after the Ritz Brothers starred in their last feature film, it is very difficult to find anyone under the age of forty who has even heard of them.

Which says a good deal about the impermanence of it all, because there was a time when it was impossible to avoid the Ritz Brothers. Between 1934 and 1943, they turned out fifteen features and three shorts; they also performed in theaters and clubs. Before a contract dispute with Darryl Zanuck ended what had been a mutually beneficial relationship, they were the comedy kings of the Twentieth Century‑Fox lot, hauling down $7,500 a week.

The Ritzes were what Jan Murray calls "tumult" comedians. Subtle they weren't. There was always a lot of running around in their routines, and loud noises, and rolling of eyes, and gags about homosexuals and busty women. They were masters of movement and, in addition to dances so extraordinarily well‑timed that the three of them looked as if they were sewn together, they were capable of a dozen comic walks and runs.

For those not attuned to such things, it was easy to dismiss all of this as lowbrow nonsense, crude and obvious. But others saw the Ritzes' choreographed chaos as inspired. Sure, their partisans acknowledged, a lot of comedians ran around and acted crazy, but no one else did it with quite the same joy, the same abandon, the same self‑satisfied mindlessness. The Ritz Brothers, they insisted, were funnier than anyone.

And Harry was the funniest of the Ritz Brothers. There was no doubt about that. Though theirs was ensemble comedy ‑they almost always dressed the same and were generally indistinguishable as characters- Harry, the one in the middle, always had the most to do. He rolled his eyes better than the other two, and walked funnier, and did funnier pratfalls. Indeed, it often looked as if his brothers' prime function was to set up business for Harry.

Harry so obviously dominated the act that the other two made light of it onstage, one of them suggesting that the trio should be renamed "The Ritz Brother and His Two Brothers." Al and Jimmy, the brothers, later began singing a mock‑bitter song, directed at Harry, entitled The Guy in the Middle: "The guy in the middle, /we hear people say,/the guy in the middle is the funny one./The other two,/the other two are just a pair of bums./One belongs in a penthouse,/the other two belong in the slums."

The definition of a rotten agent, went one Hollywood joke thirty years ago, was one who handled all the Ritz Brothers except Harry.

Harry, people in the business knew, dominated the act offstage as well as on. He created most of their best routines and staged their dance numbers. It was his imagination, as much as his elastic face and spindly legs, that kept the act going.

Indeed, some of the bits of business Harry created were so strong that they have survived wholly independent of the Ritz Brothers. There's a guy in New York, a small‑time impressionist named Will Jordan, who can go on for twenty minutes, ticking off the shtick others have appropriated from Harry: Danny Kaye's Russian gibberish, Milton Berle's way of walking on his ankles, Jerry Lewis' crossed eyes and dumb look, Jackie Gleason's "And away we go" walk, everyone's German professor. Then, too, there are pieces of Ritz Brothers madness in the films of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and Woody Allen. The notion of a nervous sperm waiting to be launched into God knows where, for instance, later used so successfully in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex…was a Ritz original.

None of that ever bothered Harry, who took it as flattery. He didn't complain when others, using his material, started playing better clubs for more money. Through the late Forties, the Fifties and on into the Sixties, the Ritzes went blithely along their way, performing regularly, satisfied to be making more than enough to get by.