Photos courtesy of Donna Kanter
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 06/20/20- “It’s a way of celebrating friendship and life. It’s really just like a group of friends sitting and talking. It’s a need really, and that holds us together.” Those are the words of film and television director Arthur Hiller about the famous group lunches that he, Hal Kanter, Sid Caesar, Monty Hall, Rocky Kalish, Arthur Marx, Gary Owens, John Rappaport, Carl Reiner, Matty Simmons, and Ben Starr all attended together for many years every other Wednesday.
The documentary Lunch, written, produced, and directed by Donna Kanter, the daughter of famous writer and director Hal Kanter, highlights the hilarious group lunches that all of these talented men were a part of. Lunch dives into the directing and writing histories of everyone within it and intercuts their unique backgrounds with their bi-monthly, raucous Wednesday lunch. Originally taking place at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills before finding its new home at Factor’s Deli in Los Angeles, it all began as an annual fishing trip in Mexico.
“I had heard these stories for years. My father had been going to the lunches that started at smaller restaurants, homesteaded at the Friars Club, and then, when it closed, moved to Factor’s Deli. My father had gone fishing every year in Mexico with Sheldon Leonard and Rocky Kalish and then my uncle would come from the east sometimes and go on the trips with them. The way my father explained it is that the lunch group evolved from these fishing trips to get-togethers at restaurants around town and some in the Valley. It launched a tradition as more people came in, some left, some died. All kinds of things changed the makeup, but the core group stayed and the core themes remained, which was to share. Someone who called them the ROMEOS, “Retired Old Men Eating Out”, became the joke they made about themselves, but they all were pretty much still working,” Donna said.
Through an evolution of fishing trips and friendships, the group grew over the years with invitations and connections each one had. Beginning with Sheldon Leonard, also known as the group’s “El Jefe”, veteran member Hal Kanter eventually would invite Rappaport, who lived across the street from him, Kalish invited Owens, Starr suggested Hiller, and so on.
Lunch originally was made as two different films. The first was a short that came as an idea to Donna about featuring the waitress who inevitably stepped on the comedy writers’ punch lines. That group included Hal, John Rappaport, Shelley Berman, Gary Owens, Paul Pumpian, and famed L.A. sportscaster Gil Stratton. Though the men were unsure of the idea at first, they gave it a go, and then Donna shot her second film, twice as long, at Factor’s Deli with a larger group of legends.
“I had been making rather serious documentaries for cable channels and wanted to do something comedic. I tested my original material in a workshop at the Directors Guild. Funny stuff came out of that. So, I said I wanted to do something more and my fellow directors wanted to know more about the lunch gang. That’s when I asked about filming the dozen
intimidating legends at Factor’s Deli and, to my astonishment, the men and the restaurant kindly agreed to let me come capture the tradition that the great Sheldon Leonard had started. John Rappaport was the only participant who had been in the first short film, along with my father and Gary Owens. All of those men had honed their craft, knew how to perform, and to tell jokes. I knew that we had something important to witness. Once we were able to get a camera’s eye on the table and the banter, it became a question of how to let an audience know more about each of those men. They had a rhythm to their joke-telling, informed by a national sense of humor that they had uniquely designed. The entire table of guests influenced me in ways still to be explored in my own continuing work,” Donna said.
Much after college at UC Berkeley and graduate school in Italy, Donna attended multiple workshops to expand her knowledge in the fields of journalism, writing, directing, and producing. She was admitted to director Danny Mann’s inspiring class, to the Directing Workshop for Women Program at the [American Film Institute] AFI, and following two years in a director’s workshop with Chuck Workman called Personal Filmmaking for Professionals, Kanter knew she had a purpose in telling this story about an era of evolving comedy.
“I found that I had a lot of passion for every documentary that I got to make for television, from the [Pope John Paul II’s] Vatican (2004) to the White House (2004). It’s very difficult stuff unless you have a lot of people helping you, as with a license fee from a network. I think that’s why some independent filmmakers only make a couple of films. And why I decided to start making my own, too. I started as a labor reporter, as a journalist in Seattle and then New York, then came back home to California,” Kanter said.
The influence Donna’s father had as inspiration for this documentary is quite remarkable. Through the workshops, she realized that constant observation was most important in fulfilling her goal for the film, along with the ideas of “the way of using imagery to perform with storytelling.” It wasn’t her awareness of these men aging that impelled her to document their lunches, but rather it was the story behind how they each achieved careers and artistic lives full of wit and experience. Several of the men were from immigrant, Jewish families with Yiddish spoken at home. Most had burgeoning careers during service in World War II, expanding their storytelling over time in the 50s and 60s and onward as their senses of humor arose, too, all of which made the idea of joke and storytelling fascinating to Donna.
“[My father] told me that if he hadn’t become a comedy writer he would have liked to have been a journalist. I thought that that was really interesting. I think what he instilled in me was that same curiosity of looking at circumstances and wondering not just who, what, where, when, or why, but with whom and with what reasons. I wanted to be a journalist when I was 12. I read Compulsion, the book about the Leopold and Loeb murder of a boy in Chicago and the great story of their defense attorney Clarence Darrow. But it was a reporter who went to the morgue and questioned the eyeglasses that supposedly (and wrongly) belonged to the duo’s victim, and it blew open the case…that was incredible! That’s what I wanted to do, sniff around, get the facts right, be the front row heckler. There is a lot of joy in making a film on your own, one that you have passion for, and you should have passion for everything you do, even when it’s work-for-hire,” Kanter explained.
With the more joyous ideas of humor and storytelling, much of the documentary highlights the jokes that the men tell each other. With hints of one-upmanship and respectable friendships, the audience can relate to their Jewish humor, as Hal Kanter put it. The table, mainly filled with Jewish men, brought a sense of familiarity and comfort in their conversations throughout the documentary. Though they were put through WWII and lived through times of Depression, these men used humor to turn their lives into positive stories.
“I think that laughing at oneself and humor are universal. My father says in the film that ‘the American sense of humor is a Jewish sense of humor’, and I think that what he meant is that any of us that has had an immigrant experience or struggle of immigration and finally gains access to certain freedoms, we develop a sense of humor as we step outside of our own struggle. That is when you can laugh at some of that. Think of the Jewish sense of humor – laughing at oneself. There are universal truths that I observed about humor when I took the film to places where audiences that were not Jewish laughed wildly with the LUNCH gang. Everyone out there relates, and if they don’t, well, have a nice, unfunny life. But they laughed and laughed at moments less sophisticated or ethnic or less imbued with Jewish history. It gave me pride. It gave me a feeling that our history of humor is relevant, what we do, how we are supposed to behave towards our fellow human beings,” Donna opined.
One story that is quite comical in Lunch revolves around Arthur Marx, whose father was the extraordinary Groucho Marx. Groucho’s favorite writer was Hal Kanter, hence Arthur was invited to be a part of the lunch group. He was writing his book Life With Groucho, and after Simon and Schuster printed the book, Groucho wanted him to rewrite the entire first draft because he hated it. Arthur replied that the book was already printed, but he allowed his father to mark what he wanted to be altered after ordering a copy for him to revise. In return, Groucho marked up the entire copy. Arthur accepted the manuscript, said ‘thank you’, and later threw it out without his father knowing. He said, “..and he never knew the difference.”
“You know, we liked Arthur Marx. My camerawoman and I. We really took to him. I think we found him very moving in many ways, in his honesty. He was experiencing his story of being the son of this iconic figure. I found it very interesting that he was not naïve by any means, but I think if you have had privilege and if you feel trust, you can expose yourself in a way to tell your deeper story. There were a lot of things in Arthur’s life that touched us. I can’t explain it. We loved Arthur Hiller too, his life story and how he crossed over so many categories of work. I liked learning about his approach to his craft. I think in terms of who moved us the most (outside of “family”), it was the two Arthurs,” Donna said.
Everyone involved in these lunches had established credibility in comedy that not many people could ever create. From Arthur Marx and his jokes about his father and his book to Rappaport and Owens explaining they are the kids of the group, “sitting at the children’s table,” as told in the documentary, there is much to learn from these men and their creative genius.
“You know a comedy writer’s belly laugh is when one says, “Oh, good joke.” That’s a comedy writer’s belly laugh even when you can see them respond to one another with a mere nod. There was a touch of one-ups-man-ship…a lot of that in the younger men. They would interrupt, but what I learned from them each was timing. And the necessity of building relationships.. you need collaboration and people to help you as artists…you can’t pole vault with bamboo, you need fiberglass. You have to climb over obstacles, but not over people, pray not. And you do have to have talent. That’s where we distinguish the good stuff from the bad, in the development of talent with relationships and helping one another along the way. I certainly learned a lot about comedic timing from the men and what, of course, constitutes a good joke,” Donna said.
Lunch defines the importance of friendship and the purpose of joke and storytelling, a constant reminder of how humor can resolve life’s conflicts and struggles. It opens up new doors to understanding one another, as we get an unusual view of a dozen men who all understood each other and their individualized backgrounds from radio, television, and film.
“These are minds that are still so incredibly sharp that people in their 30s and 20s can learn a lot from these men. It’s amazing, you know, all of what these guys have. And Gary Owens…Google calls Gary for information!” claims John Rappaport in Lunch.
These lunches prove a great deal in an industry where, amid its hardships, these comedic geniuses could laugh at anything thrown at them and make it worth something greater than its context. Kanter would especially set the example of these men who, sometimes facing a heartbreaking business, could use their senses of humor to capture it and blossom it into something practical and healthier.
“What I sensed in all of them was that my father was a great example of positive insistence as I observed him during the time of making my film. It was inspiring. That camaraderie was very important to him. I think men and their work is also terribly important…self-definition and life career, and not feeling that your work is without meaning. I think that those meetings meant a great deal to all of the gang. Men need more from their fathers. Maybe male bonding has equal value. Clearly, keeping the group together was essential after Sheldon Leonard died. They lost a number of other colleagues, so continuing to meet for lunch was dear to them. I think even when my father got ill, he missed it. He wanted to go. He missed those Wednesdays and they had meaning for him even more,” Donna said.
In Lunch, the idea of learning presents itself on-screen as the men eagerly listen to each other telling a story or a joke. This idea of learning inspired all of them to play an ongoing game of truth or dare, where they all dared to take a chance at telling a joke, ending up being funny, respected, and worthy each time. A table mixed with writers, producers, and directors proved that all sorts of people from different fields can collaborate in a medium, and in this case, Lunch, without the craving for conflict. As Sid Caesar said, “It’s good, you know. When you get to be 86, 87, 88, 89, you appreciate going to meet the fellas and it’s wonderful.” Their lunches were full of wit, intelligence, and patience with each other, which made going to “lunch” worth being something exciting to look forward to.
Humor and curiosity didn’t only appear at lunch, but throughout the Kanters’ home life as well. Donna remembers traveling cross-country with her father and two sisters, similarly going on fishing trips, just as the lunch group originally did.
As Donna fondly remembers “Those were really fun trips. He was great company. We went fishing a lot. He was just really fun company. You know, easy company. I think that my parents were rather both critical, not in a creepy way, but I think that there was “no snoozing at that table”, shall we say. My mother was a great wit, very funny. She was a writer, but she didn’t enter the field in the same way. I think the unexpected punch line is the thing that counters what you were expecting the rhythm of what something should be, and it goes south. Got to have that funny bone.”
The great talents in Lunch have fascinating backgrounds and histories, and those differences make them all unique and worth talking about. As Hal Kanter put it, “Somebody said that the most important meal of the day is breakfast. I disagree. I think it’s lunch.”
The legacy of appreciation and involvement for these lunches continues to inspire others, including that of the current lunch group. Having confidence led them all to manifest the slogan of “The Men Who Made America Funny.”
“I think [my father] is remembered, as we would like. He’s remembered as having great integrity. He was very honest, and he was a great wit and a good person. He was a good father, he was a good husband, he was generous with the community, and with his craft, and he was trusting. I think more people should have those traits of being good people, really good people. I think he was comfortable in his skin. I think he was raised that way. He was given a lot of approbation; a lot of support and love and care, but he courted doubts as well. I think it’s best to be remembered as a gentleman. When I meet people, they say, ‘Your father was really a gentleman,” and that’s it; I guess that’s as nice as it gets, isn’t it?”