David Bruce: Comedians Anecdotes

In 2007 and in some previous years, Gabe Kaplan, star of Welcome Back, Kotter, considered himself a D-list celebrity. No problem. No one needs to be an A-list celebrity to lead a life of wit and intelligence. When Mr. Kaplan received an e-mail asking him to fight another D-list celebrity in Celebrity Boxing, he knew that he would reject the invitation, but he wanted to do so in a funny way. Therefore, he e-mailed back a list of silly demands that would have to be met before he would fight. For example, he claimed that he had become a Hasidic Jew; therefore, when he fought, he would have to wear a skullcap and a tzitzit, which Mr. Kaplan explains is “a body prayer shawl worn under a shirt so that only the fringes are visible.” To his surprise, his silly demands were taken seriously. This gave him the idea to see what a D-list celebrity could get away with. He contacted a reputable book publisher, claiming that he had broken Wilt Chamberlain’s record of sleeping with 20,000 women. The book publisher took his claim seriously. He contacted the Postmaster General’s office, saying that he was a good candidate to be the first living person whose image would appear on a U.S. postage stamp. The Postmaster General’s office thought he was serious. He contacted Sioux City, Iowa, to see if they would be willing to throw him a gala birthday parade, complete with floats. The good people of Sioux City, Iowa, were willing. Eventually, he got the idea of putting his e-mails and their responses into a book. Most people were good sports and gave him permission—and the good people of Sioux City, Iowa, let Mr. Kaplan know that they were still willing to throw him a gala birthday parade, complete with floats. Therefore, in 2007 Mr. Kaplan celebrated his birthday with a gala parade in Sioux City, Iowa. (By the way, Mr. Kaplan’s book is titled Kotter’s Back: E-mails From a Faded Celebrity to a Bewildered World.)

British music-hall comedian Ken Dodd made people laugh for over 50 years, debuting in 1954 and still entertaining at the end of 2007. Unfortunately, he did get in trouble with the tax people in the late 1980s because of £700,000 in 20 offshore bank accounts—which he had not declared. Of course, because he is a comedian, his trial (which ended with him being declared not guilty) had some light moments. For example, at one point the judge asked him what £330,000 in a suitcase felt like. Mr. Dodd replied, “The notes are not heavy, m’lud.” Mr. Dodd is a gifted comedian. One of his best jokes is this: “Men’s legs have a terribly lonely life—standing in the dark in your trousers all day.”

Eli Wallach once remarked to Ernest Truex, with whom he was acting in the play Androcles and the Lion, “I sure got a great laugh on my last line out there.” Mr. Truex asked, “You did?” The very next performance, Mr. Wallach said the line, waited for the laugh, and heard only silence. After the play was over, Mr. Truex explained, “You’re not the only one onstage when you get your laugh. Your laugh came about because there are other actors skillfully setting up the situation for you.” Mr. Wallach considers this one of his most important lessons in acting. He made peace with Mr. Truett and started getting a laugh on the line again.

Comedian Joey Bishop was quick with an ad-lib and with a joke. One evening he was performing in a nightclub when glamorous actress Marilyn Monroe came in wearing very expensive furs. Mr. Bishop said to her, “Marilyn, I told you to sit in the truck.” And after he got a small part in the movie The Naked and the Dead, he told an audience, “I played both parts.” Mr. Bishop didn’t mind making fun of his good friend Frank Sinatra, who did mind when people other than Mr. Bishop made fun of him. Mr. Bishop once said about his good friend, “Frank regularly calls Dial-A-Prayer to pick up his messages.”

Early in Lucille Ball’s career, she had a small role in a movie titled The Kid from Spain that starred comedian Eddie Cantor. In the film, Mr. Cantor ducked and one of the glamour girls behind him got hit with a pie that had been meant to hit him. Lucy is the glamour girl who volunteered to get hit with the pie—none of the other glamour girls wanted to do the job. Later, Mr. Cantor told celebrity interviewer Joe Franklin that he knew on that day in 1932 that Lucy would go far in the business. Why? He explained that Lucy “wasn’t afraid to be outrageous.”

Between 1935 and 1940, Buster Keaton was making sound films in foreign countries. Movies had sound then, so he recorded the movies in various languages, learning a sentence in one language and recording it, and then learning that sentence in another language and recording it, and so on. For one movie, he recorded the dialogue in French and in Spanish, and he did OK. But his German language instructor noticed a problem with his German: “Oh, I understand him very well, only he’s speaking with a French-Spanish accent.”

Fred Weintraub owned the Bitter End, a club where many comedians plied their art and became famous. He listened to the audience and let its reaction decide whether he should keep an act. If the audience hated an act, he kept it. If the audience loved an act, he kept it. If the audience members said after a performance, “That’s a nice act,” he dropped that act. According to Mr. Weintraub, the one thing he did not want was for an audience to be indifferent.

Starting out as a stand-up comedian can be tough. Dallas comedian Sherry Belle remembers getting laughs her first time on stage; unfortunately, the audience was laughing at all the wrong places. For example, she finished a joke, but the audience didn’t laugh, so she said, “That was the punch line.” That made the audience laugh.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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