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Groucho Marx and S. J. Perelman both agreed: the fastest quippers, the best wits able to come back with "one line impromptus" were George S. Kaufman, Oscar Levant, and Irving Brecher. Irving Who? Brecher was behind the camera or behind a typewriter most of the time, but the subtitle of his memoir will tell you that he had connections: _The Wicked Wit of the West: The Last Great Golden-Age Screenwriter Shares the Hilarity and Heartaches of Working with Groucho, Garland, Gleason, Burns, Berle, Benny, & Many More_. The book is by Brecher "as told to Hank Rosenfeld", and for once the collaboration seems genuine and meaningful. Rosenfeld is himself a comedy writer, and he spent seven years hanging around the elderly Brecher, in plain hero worship. Much of the book is a transcription of their conversations, and it works well as a documentation of a friendship between two men who like bantering and kidding. It also includes some of Brecher's standup routines, but best of all, it has his stories of working and laughing with comic stars all through the twentieth century. Brecher died last November at 94, and didn't get to see the publication of the memoir he and Rosenfeld had been working on, but this merry book is one of the best last laughs you'll ever read. "So here it is," he says near the beginning of the book, "I'm saying it. I admit I am very funny. I don't like to quote myself, but unfortunately everybody I know who should be quoting me is dead. Fine friends they turned out to be."
Brecher was one of those Hollywood denizens that got his start the classic way, as an usher in New York City. As a teenager he would send in gags on postcards to columnists Walter Winchell or Ed Sullivan who would credit him by name. He got a long-term assignment of writing gags for one of the most visible comedians in the business, Milton Berle, and this material brought him to the attention of Hollywood. Brecher was astonished to be working with stars he used to see in the Nickelodeon when he was a kid, including his idols, the Marx Brothers. Brecher helped punch up _The Wizard of Oz_. And then he was assigned to write the Marx picture _At the Circus_; with that and with the later _Go West_, he was the only writer to get sole credit on Marx movies. There are wonderful stories about the Marxes here, anecdotes any fan will adore. Brecher went on to write movies like _Meet Me in St. Louis_ and _Bye Bye Birdie_. While writing movies, he also wrote the radio sitcom _The Life of Riley_.
Brecher became a widower from one long-term marriage and then entered another. He does not seem to have used his wit against his wives but rather as a palliative during arguments. He remembers an argument with his first wife who was so upset she said, "That's it! I'm leaving you!" He gave her the reply, "That's OK with me. But if you go, I'm going with you." Looking back at that bit of dialogue forty years later, he remarks, "It worked." Brecher never really left show business, though he pays tribute over and over again to the comics he worked with whose funerals he had to attend. He was attending tributes through his last years and doing stand-up when just standing up was difficult. In fact, he would get to the podium with a walker; his wife called it "The Rolls". Asthma was a problem, too: "For about ten minutes I'm all right. And then I'm gasping. You can't ask the public to spend money to see an old Jew gasping. It's not nice." But his material was still good: "Yes, I did have eye surgery. I knew I needed it when the other morning, I woke up and my vision was so bad, I couldn't find my hearing aid." _The Wicked Wit of the West_ (the title comes from a designation Groucho had given him) is full of wonderful stories and laugh-out-loud jokes from a jubilant joke-maker. "OK, so maybe I don't look at the world through rose-colored implants", the elder Brecher observes, "In fact, I really like the world. It's the putzes in it! And I don't resolve to change. If I've said anything snide, I'm sorry. Unless it gets a laugh."