David Bruce: The Funniest People in Comedy ‚ Actors, Ad-libs


• While studying theater at UCLA, Carol Burnett took a course in acting, where she prepared to recite a speech in front of her class. Unfortunately, she didn’t recite it very well. For one thing, she didn’t bother to read the rest of the play to find out the context of the speech. In addition, she spoke the speech in a low monotone while pantomiming a waitress wiping a table. Her classmates didn’t understand the speech and thought that she was pantomiming ironing a shirt. Carol’s grade? D minus. Fortunately, a short time afterward, she was given some funny words to say. Her classmates laughed, Carol stuck to funny roles, and she earned an A-minus in the course.

• On The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dick’s younger brother, Jerry, made a few memorable appearances as Stacie Petrie. One pair of episodes about Stacie’s sleepwalking had their genesis in real life. Dick Van Dyke says about Jerry, “As a kid, he was a somnambulist—the world’s champion sleepwalker. He could get up, walk, and talk to you, and you’d never know he was asleep.” After Jerry was cast for his guest appearance, series producer Carl Reiner asked Dick if his younger brother could act. Dick said yes. When Mr. Reiner asked him how he knew Jerry could act, Dick replied, “Because if he can’t, I’ll kill him.”

• Not everyone wants to act. During the 1970s and 1980s, a wild and crazy comedian named Ron Sweed, aka the Ghoul, hosted several mostly bad movies on a television program airing in Cleveland, Ohio. Frequently, in between segments of the movie he was showing, he did short episodes of “Spencer and Mongolia,” a parody of a sitcom. Several women played Mongolia over the years—one woman quit because she regarded filming the episodes as a waste of her lunch hour.


• Jackie Gleason’s TV series The Honeymooners was shown live, and mistakes did happen. In one episode, Mr. Gleason, famous for the character Ralph Kramden, missed his entrance. Art Carney, who played sewer worker Ed Norton, simply went to the Kramdens’ icebox, took out an orange, and began peeling it until Ralph Kramden arrived. Whenever you see Jackie Gleason patting his stomach on the show, it’s a sign to the cast that they’re in trouble, and somebody better think of something to say or do to get them out of the jam. Audrey Meadows, in her character of Alice, Ralph’s wife, once snarled, “If you get any bigger, Gasbag, you’ll float away.” The line was an ad-lib, rendered necessary by circumstances.

• Henry Morgan was hired to do a radio program in Canada consisting of ad-libs. However, very quickly, the producer of the show complained that Mr. Morgan was cheating him because the show had no structure—no beginning, middle, or end. So on the next show, Mr. Morgan paused to point out to the audience the beginning of the show, then later he paused to point out the middle of the show, then finally he told the audience, “This is the end—I quit.”

• Much of Jack Benny’s humor came from his writers, but at least once he got off a funny ad-lib. During a radio show with Fred Allen—who was funny with or without writers—Mr. Allen kept peppering Mr. Benny with comic ad-lib insults. Finally, Mr. Benny protested, “You wouldn’t say those things if my writers were here!”

• Vaudeville comedian Ted Healy once came on stage just after a bear act left. The smallest bear left a dropping as it exited, and the amused audience members called for the return of the bear act. Mr. Healy looked at the dropping, then he told the audience, “If that’s the kind of crap you want, I’ll do it myself.” The audience laughed.

• British stand-up comedian Marti Caine once performed her act in front of a group of drunken rugby players immediately after some strippers had performed. A rugby player saw that Ms. Caine was not taking off her clothes, so he yelled, “We want tits!” Ms. Caine replied, “You’d look bright with tits.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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