The Comedian (Playhouse 90)

The Comedian is a 1957 live television drama written by Rod Serling from a novella by Ernest Lehman, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring Mickey Rooney, Edmond O'Brien, Mel Tormé and Kim Hunter.[1]

"The Comedian"
Playhouse 90 episode
Episode no.Season 1
Episode 20
Directed byJohn Frankenheimer
Written byRod Serling (teleplay)
Ernest Lehman (story)
Featured musicFred Steiner
(Music supervisor)
Production code030
Original air dateFebruary 14, 1957 (1957-02-14)
Guest appearance(s)

Rooney's portrayal of a lecherous, vicious comedian who tears down everyone around him was widely praised.[2]

The 90-minute drama was part of the anthology series Playhouse 90 on February 14, 1957.[3] The show was captured on kinescope and is available on DVD.[4]

Plot summary

Egomaniacal television comedian Sammy Hogarth (Rooney) routinely makes fun of his brother Lester (Tormé) on the air, and is constantly bullying his writers for better material. Lester's wife Julie (Hunter) leaves Lester because of his cowardice. Unscrupulous columnist Ellwell (Bissell) publishes a column hinting at an affair between Sammy and Julie, deepening the humiliation.

Chief writer Al Preston (O'Brien), to keep his job, steals material from a writer who died during World War II. Preston is fired after confessing to the theft. Lester slaps Sammy during a performance, but returns to the role of servile brother.



Rooney was cast in the role after a half-dozen other actors turned down the part.[2] According to Frankenheimer, Mel Torme was cast as Lester at the suggestion of Edmond O'Brien.[5] Kim Hunter later recalled that during rehearsals Rooney often varied his performance dramatically, so that "no two days were alike," which might create problems during a live broadcast. However, Frankenheimer, then only in his twenties, was able to work with him to extract a memorable performance.[6] Frankenheimer described him as "the most talented man I ever worked with," while also citing his "huge ego problems" and being "terribly temperamental" and "totally unpredictable." Frankenheimer said that Rooney "stunned everybody" by nailing the performance from the very first reading, while other actors were just getting used to the script. [5]

The model for the central character has been a subject of much speculation over the years, and has included Milton Berle, Red Buttons and Arthur Godfrey.[7] The film has parallels to Sweet Smell of Success, also originating from an Ernest Lehman story, with the same milieu and including one of the same characters in both works, columnist Otis Ellwell.[5] Lehman wrote a profile of Berle during his days hosting Texaco Star Theater, a time when Berle was notorious for his overbearing, dictatorial style, directing considerable venom at his brother, who worked on the show. The magazine that assigned Lehman considered the profile unprintable, fearing a lawsuit. Lehman then wrote a fictionalized treatment as The Comedian.

Critical reaction

In his New York Times review, TV critic Jack Gould praised the performances, singling out Rooney as "extraordinary." He faulted the "long interludes of rudimentary and melodramatic sub-plots that tended to get in one another's way," but said that the "lasting over-all impression was a most powerful commentary.[3]


The Comedian won two Emmy Awards. It won an Emmy Award as Outstanding Single Program of the Year[8], while Serling received an Emmy for Best Teleplay Writing – One Hour or More. Rooney was nominated for an Emmy, his first. [2] Tormé was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy but the category was cancelled.[9]


  1. Schneider, Dan. "Classic TV: DVD Review of The Comedian" (CultureVulture, 2015)
  2. Harmetz, Aljean (April 7, 2014). "Mickey Rooney, Master of Putting On a Show, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  3. Gould, Jack. "TV Review Mickey Rooney Scores as Bitter Comedian" (The New York Times, February 15, 1957)
  4. Kienzle, Rich. "Mickey Rooney Plays A Heavy: Rod Serling's 'The Comedian" (Community Voices, April 8, 2014)
  5. "Playhouse 90:". Archive of American Television.
  6. Hawes, William (2001). Filmed Television Drama, 1952-1958. McFarland. pp. 30–31. ISBN 9780786411320. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  7. Hyatt, Wesley (2006). Emmy Award Winning Nighttime Television Shows, 1948-2004. McFarland. p. 121. ISBN 9780786423293. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  8. Marill, Alvin H. (2004). Mickey Rooney: His Films, Television Appearances, Radio Work, Stage Shows, and Recordings. McFarland. pp. 46–47. ISBN 9780786420155. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  9. Hulme, George (2000). Mel Torme: A Chronicle of His Recordings, Books and Films. McFarland. p. 9. ISBN 9780786437436.

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