from the archives

Looking Back at Anne Meara (and Jerry Stiller) Throughout the Decades

Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller in 1979. Photo: Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

Sadly, we lost yet another comedy legend this week with the passing of Anne Meara at age 85. In her time she was a playwright, actress, and one half of the comedy duo Stiller & Meara, the other half being her husband Jerry Stiller. Today we look back at a few different television appearances of the Meara over the years, both with her husband, and without.

Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller met in 1953 at a talent agency where Anne was looking for a partner for a vaudeville act. She found precisely that in Stiller, as well as a husband, marrying him a year later. The pair would go on to make numerous appearances on television on a wide variety of shows, while continuing to pursue acting as individuals as well.

The duo’s earliest appearance on television available in the Paley Center comes from an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show which aired on June 9, 1963. This was their second ever appearance on the live program, having just made their debut on the show a mere two months prior which, I’m assuming, must have gone pretty well if they came back to the stage that quickly.

Anne introduces their material with a very light and airy voice performing already as a bit of a character to highlight the difference between the many brash and bold New Yawk accents she’s about to put on. “Jerry and I would like to bring you what we call a ‘moment of truth’ behind some commercial messages you may have seen on your TV.” In this series of short sketches, Anne and Jerry take a number of 60s commercial tropes and put a few little twists into them. In their first they immediately jump into a makeup commercial. Anne explains that she met her husband four years ago when she stepped out of her apartment and realizes she locked herself out. Jerry’s character steps in and asks if she needs any help, and Anne covers her face lest a strange man see her without any makeup on. “You’re lovely,” Jerry counters. “You don’t need any makeup.” A beat passes. “A dress, maybe, but no make up.” “TAH DAH!” says the Ed Sullivan orchestra.

The next two examples of commercial parodies follow the same tone. Anne sends her kids out to play and Jerry, as a disembodied voice, asks her if she’s forgotten to tell them to brush their teeth. But rather than simply respond to the voice as one would in a commercial, Anne freaks out and then threatens to call the police if the voice doesn’t leave. In the third and final parody, Anne’s washer has broken down and a repairman enters to help her get it running so she can get the grit, grease and grime out of her husband’s shirts. The two trade washing machine jargon back and forth until Anne interrupts: “You can stop now. My husband’s gone…” Alone at last, the two embrace passionately.

As their final sketch, Anne and Jerry take us to the ending of a first date which happens to have been between a boss and his employee. Mr. Sellman really wants to get inside Natalie’s apartment, but she’s throwing every excuse she can at him. When she tries stalling by thanking him for a lovely time she says, “I’ve never been to the Rio Cabana. The decor was so chick (her pronunciation). From the stage to the floor show to the drinks, it was…” Mr. Sellman cuts her off: “Thirty-five dollars. But you don’t mind paying that kind of money when you’re out with somebody you like…” Nothing works, and suddenly out of desperation, he grabs her, dips her and kisses. He’s shocked at his own behavior and apologizes, “What kind of man grabs girls on the street like that! I wouldn’t do that to my wife! Not to you! Not to my kids!” Natalie is won over by this new side, calling him “over sensitive” and offers to take him inside and make him some coffee. Which is exactly what he wanted…

Their second appearance went well (Sullivan gave them an outro by saying “They’re just fine,” which is glowing for him) and from 1963-70 they would appear on the show a total of 16 times. Jumping ahead to October 25, 1964 we see their fourth appearance on the show. Unfortunately the crowd was a little bit rowdy that night. Y’see, also appearing on that show were The Rolling Stones, and every time their name was spoken on the show a cacophony of screaming teenage girls would rock the studio. Their passion was so intense that when someone was brought out that wasn’t the Rolling Stones, like Stiller & Meara for example, there would be a few tiny voices crying out “no!” protesting the fact that they weren’t currently seeing Mick Jagger.

In spite of this instant rejection, the duo soldiers on, once again making fun of commercials. In this case taking American-style commercials and putting them in other countries. Their German version of a dish detergent commercial is pretty difficult to describe in words because it’s mostly comprised of German doublespeak, and phrases like “Mine sinken schtinken!” At the end when Anne’s character announces she’ll get some at the store tomorrow, Jerry forcefully corrects her: “Today!”

Their second bit is a weird sketch in which a woman goes into a toy store to buy her daughter a doll from a very passionate doll salesman who insists on finding his dolls a good home, to a point where he warns her of a six-month checkup, and refuses to allow the doll to leave the store until it’s had its shots. Maybe this is parodying the nursery/doll shop of FAO Schwartz, or maybe it’s just a weird sketch. The teenage girls seem to like it, but it doesn’t get them out of their seats like Mick and the Boys.

Let’s jump ahead into the 70s, where Meara appeared on a CBS Don Rickles Special entitled Alive and Kicking. In it she appears without Jerry, as the new wife of Chester Hinkley, played by Rickles: a fragile, nervous wisp of a man, who despite being newly married begs his wife to “take it slow.” She’s rather hot to trot, and the instant they’re alone in their suite, she’s all over him, no matter how many times he squirms away from her, saying “D-don’t, Lilah.” Each one of her advances falls on its face, and her attempts to get him on the waterbed are unsuccessful because he’s worried about getting seasick. “I better go get my Dramamine,” he says. “How ‘bout that!” she responds. “We’re both on the pill!” Chester falls to his knees and guzzles an alcoholic drink she’s ordered him. Now full of pep, he’s gotta get another one, right now! Not even stopping to change out of his pajamas, he runs out of the room and before long we hear a loud crash off-stage. Two bellboys carry him back in and Lilah tells them to put him on the waterbed. Chester meekly cries, “Don’t rush me, Lilah.”

Anne performing in a duo without Jerry may not feel as natural, but through no fault of hers. She’s a master on stage, and knows exactly how to milk the laughs out of the audience. Unfortunately, with the decline of the variety show, Stiller & Meara had a lot fewer opportunities to appear on television. The last special we look at today is an unusual one, and also probably one of their rarer TV appearances.

1983 saw the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge, and so for some reason on May 21st of that year, NBC devoted half an hour to do a special about a bridge. It’s mostly historical facts and a hell of a lot of aerial footage of it, but somewhere in the middle of it we get Stiller & Meara, who appear to have been stopped by someone with a camera in a lobby somewhere, talking about the bridge. They each manage to get one thought into the special, so I’ll just reproduce exactly what they said here.

Jerry: The greatest thing about Brooklyn was to move OUT of Brooklyn into another strata. And the Brooklyn Bridge, which we’re so aptly dealing with tonight, was the gateway to heaven. At the same time, when we got there, memories of Brooklyn were the strongest and most influential in all our lives. Governing us and shaping our feelings.

Anne: But the bridge also offered us a gateway back to Brooklyn, for those that did not meet their dreams on the other side.

Is it comedy? Nope. Is it something unusual and worth the time you took to read it as a curiosity? You tell me!

The world lost one more comedic treasure with the passing of Anne Meara. Over her decades of performing and creating she left us hundreds of hours of comedy gold (and some feelings about a bridge) to cherish and enjoy. With her partner Jerry, they created insightful bits that are in many cases, just as relevant now as they were then. Thanks for the laughs, Meara.

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara Throughout the Decades