David Bruce: The Funniest People in Comedy — Contracts, Costumes, Death

Contracts

• Comedian George Burns recognized Jack Haley’s talent—Mr. Haley played the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz—and kept introducing him to a producer who ignored him. After Mr. Haley made it big in show business, the producer came up to Mr. Burns and said, “Why didn’t you tell me you knew such a talented guy? I could have put him on contract years ago!”

Costumes

• Benny Hill’s relationship with the beautiful women who appeared on his show was professional, although he did form friendships with some of the women—and their husbands. He also listened to their complaints when they had any. For example, one day the actresses on his TV show complained about a costume design that had only a couple of inches of material across the crotch. Colleague Bob Todd told Mr. Hill of the complaints about the costumes, and Mr. Hill—without even looking at the costumes—ordered the wardrobe mistress to change them. According to Mr. Todd, “He was like a Dutch uncle to those girls.”

• Famous vaudeville comedian Bobby Clark was seldom recognized unless he was wearing his trademark spectacles—which weren’t real spectacles, but were merely drawn onto his face. Even his barber, who had been cutting his hair for years, didn’t recognize him. One day, his barber told him that he had seen a comedian with the same name as Mr. Clark on a vaudeville stage and he wondered where the comedian had thought up the crazy things he did. Mr. Clark replied that he had often wondered the same thing.

• In Hollywood, a costumer brought Terry-Thomas his articles of clothing for a scene, dumped them on the floor and said, “These should fit you. I’ve seen you on TV.” Terry-Thomas, known for dressing immaculately, was shocked. “Oh,” he said, “so this the way you measure, by looking at people on the TV.” He pointed to the shoes. “I told you I needed a size 11. Without trying those on, I can tell you they’re a size 8.” The costumer replied, “Don’t worry. I’ll give them a shine.”

Death

• Harpo Marx had a very poor education, but the geniuses of the Algonquin Round Table liked him because he was good at games such as croquet. However, he was not so good at the murder game that was sometimes played at critic Alexander Woollcott’s house. In the game, a “murderer” would approach the “victim” and give him or her a written message saying that he or she was dead. The victim was supposed to lie down until discovered, and then Woollcott’s guests would use their detective skills to discover the murderer. Once, Harpo was the murderer, but the guests realized that immediately because Harpo’s written message to his victim was, “You are ded.”

• Buster Keaton’s movie masterpiece Steamboat Bill Jr., contains a memorable gag. A hurricane blows the front of a house over on top of Buster, and he escapes unharmed only because he is standing in the exact spot where he will be safe—the spot where the house has an open window. The gag was carefully planned: Buster had exactly three inches of clearance over his head and beside each shoulder. The front of the house weighed two tons (it had to be built that heavy so that it wouldn’t twist in the wind created for the movie), and if it had actually hit Buster, it would have killed him instantly.

• While serving as a soldier in World War II, Spike Mulligan knew an eccentric soldier who occasionally went AWOL for a few weeks, then turned himself in. The eccentric soldier was sent to see a military psychiatrist, to whom he complained about being made to wear a uniform. The psychiatrist asked why he didn’t like the uniform, and the eccentric soldier explained, “It’s dangerous. Germans shoot at it on sight.” The psychiatrist’s report stated, “There is nothing wrong with this man. He has a wholesome fear of being shot by Germans.”

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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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David Bruce: Comedians Anecdotes

Lenny_Bruce_arrest

LENNY BRUCE ARREST

By Examiner Press photo (RR Auctions) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“I’m sorry I haven’t been funny. But I’m not a comedian—I’m Lenny Bruce.”—Lenny Bruce

Comedian Lenny Bruce took comedy into controversial areas it had never ventured into before. He was concerned about language, and he once asked a nightclub audience, “Are there any niggers here tonight?” Of course, the crowd was shocked, but Mr. Bruce argued that such words as “nigger” were shocking and insulting because they had been suppressed. According to Mr. Bruce, “If President Kennedy said, ‘I’m considering appointing two or three of the top niggers in the country to the cabinet,’” the n-word would soon lose both its shock value and its ability to insult. (In the audience was a shocked African-American comedian named Dick Gregory, who later titled his own autobiography Nigger. He also told Mr. Bruce’s publicist, “This guy is the eighth wonder of the world. You have to go back to Mark Twain to find anything remotely like him. And if they don’t kill him or throw him in jail, he’s liable to shake up the country.”)

The world’s strangest comedian could very well be Andy Kaufman. One of his alter egos was Tony Clifton, an obnoxious jerk. While co-starring on Cheers, Mr. Kaufman wanted Tony Clifton to appear, but he insisted that he and Tony have separate contracts, separate dressing rooms, and separate parking spaces (although Mr. Kaufman, of course, was Tony Clifton). The good people at Cheers liked Mr. Kaufman, so they granted his wishes, but they soon discovered that Tony Clifton was not the right character to have on the show, so they decided not to use him. Mr. Kaufman, in the character of Tony Clifton, was outraged, and he yelled, “If you’re going to fire me, you better bring security guards, and I want to be fired on stage.” The good people at Cheers liked Mr. Kaufman, so they granted his wishes, and they fired Tony Clifton on stage. Mr. Kaufman, in the character of Tony Clifton, put on a great act, yelling at the Cheers head honchos, “You’ll never work in this town again.” Of course, security guards escorted Tony Clifton out of the building (just as Mr. Kaufman, in the character of Tony Clifton, had wanted), and soon afterward, Mr. Kaufman, in the character of Mr. Kaufman, walked in the building, acted like nothing had happened, and did not mention Tony Clifton.

Who wrote the world’s funniest joke? English comedian Spike Mulligan did. No, that’s not personal opinion. A professor has studied this subject. Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire, posted several jokes online, then asked people to vote which was the funniest joke. Over 300,000 people from all over the world did just that. Later, after the results were tallied, Professor Wiseman saw some 1951 footage of the Goons in their very first television appearance. The footage showed the Goons doing a version of the joke voted funniest in the world. And the jokes in that footage had been written by Spike Mulligan. So what is the funniest joke in the world? Updated for modern times, it is this: Two people go hunting, and a terrible accident occurs, severely injuring and perhaps killing one of the hunters. The uninjured hunter gets on his cell phone and calls 911, then sobs as he says, “There’s been a terrible accident, and the friend I was hunting with is dead!” The 911 operator replies, “Please be calm, sir. The first thing we need to do is to make sure that your friend is dead.” The 911 operator hears silence on the telephone for a moment, then he hears the sound of a shot, and the hunter says, “OK. Now what?”

Comedian George Burns once told movie critic Roger Ebert about a fellow comedian named Joe Jackson who used to wear huge shoes in his stand-up act. After the curtain came down, he would stand so that the audience could see his shoes poking out from under the curtain. However, he would slip out of his shoes and go to the side of the stage. The audience would clap their approval of his act, and at exactly the right time Mr. Jackson would walk out from the side of the stage without his shoes, surprising the audience in the early days although the audience soon grew to know, appreciate, and expect the joke. One day, Mr. Jackson did his act as usual and slipped out of his shoes as usual, but then had a heart attack and died at the side of the stage. The audience, of course, knew the joke, and they applauded and applauded, giving Mr. Jackson the biggest ovation of his life, but he was no longer alive to hear it. When Mr. Burns told this story, some people actually cried. When that happened, Mr. Burns told Mr. Ebert, “I hate to break the news to them that I made it up.”

Wikipedia is completely written by its users—volunteers all. Of course, as you may expect, some users try to post incorrect information. Often, this is funny misinformation. For example, in late October 2006, this information appeared in the entry for Essex High School: “At EHS students are free to do whatever they wish in their time after school. This policy has led to the creation of the Zombie Killing Squad, the Pro-Zombie Acceptance Committee, the Zombie Hate Club and the Debate Team.” Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), this misinformation was noticed quickly and deleted quickly.

Comedians Jimmy Durante and Don Knotts once co-hosted a Kraft Music Hall special on TV. During rehearsal, the director said that when they were introduced, he wanted both of them to walk onstage doing the famous Jimmy Durante strut. In other words, Mr. Durante was supposed to be himself and Mr. Knotts was supposed to imitate Mr. Durante. However, Mr. Durante was forced to ask Mr. Knotts to show him the famous Jimmy Durante strut. He requested, “Hey, Don, do me! I don’t know what I do!”

Someone at Google Maps has a sense of humor. An editor of the website Nevada Thunder asked it for directions from Chicago, Illinois to Amsterdam, Netherlands. Step 20 said, “Swim across the Atlantic Ocean: 3,462 mi.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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