Comedians: The Great Masters
In Loving Memory of Jonathan Winters
By: J. Marlando
I have devoted this article to Jonathan Winters because he was my first inspiration to test the waters of show business when I was a young man. Yep, that’s right, I gave comedy a try when I was first starting out and didn’t know if I wanted to be a neuroscientist or a farmer. I also wrote comedy for a while and, trust me, that’ll take the real writers out of the stable.
In all the years that I’ve now been writing, writing comedy was the most challenging job I ever had and doing comedy, the most frightening. I remember way back when being hired by Frank Well’s Orchestra to M.C. for the group. We opened in a big auditorium in Georgia and I stepped out before the 3 thousand people attending and opened with my fist funny line. There was deadly silence then someone way…way in the back of the theater yelled out, “Ha! Ha!” I flopped that night and let me tell you, when you flop as a comedian you know what “flopping” means.
Anyway, as I say, when I was a kid I would watch Jonathan Winters on television and I thought, wow, he’s really funny, I wish I could do what he does. The truth however is that no one has ever really done what Winters was able to do—not even William Robins
On the other hand a lot of people believe that satire no longer works. I agree with Robin Williams, however, who tells us: “…Satire is dead; it’s alive and well in the White House.
I of course can’t cover every great comedian in this article as to do so would take volumes. I will have to admit it, then, I will be writing about my all-time favorites with hope that you enjoy them too.
The artist/actor/comedian and all around funny guy was born in Dayton, Ohio. His mother was a radio personality and his father an investment broker.
It seems that Jonathan’s childhood was pretty unhappy as he describes his father as being a drunk and going from one job to another. In some reports it is said that Dad Winters could be mean when he drank. In any case, Mom and dad divorced when little Jonathan was seven and she took him to live in Springfield Ohio.
Young Jonathan quit school in his senior year of high school and joined the U.S. Marine corps. He served two and a half years in the South pacific during World War II. Returning home he attended Kenyon College and later went to art school in Dayton where he studied cartooning. This is when he met his bride Eileen Schauder. They married in 1948.
The couple was poor in the beginning and it was during this time that Jonathan lost his wrist watch. He couldn’t afford to buy another one but his wife, Eileen read in the newspaper about a talent contest being held with the first prize being a watch. Eileen encouraged Jonathan to go, he did and he won. Thus launched one of the most successful comedy performers of all times!
The characters that Jonathan Winters’ developed mixed with his delivery of lines were truly genius.
My favorite Jonathan Winters lines:
I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it.
If God had really intended man to fly, He’d make it easier to get to the airport.
But I think where we discover the comedian’s heart is in the almost mystical line below:
Throughout my life, I've been gratified that I've been able to keep the child in me alive and inspire others.
November 11, 1925
April 11, 2013
I remember seeing Lenny Bruce on TV and sometimes wonder what he was talking about but loving the delivery anyhow. Lenny was born, Leonard Alfred Schneider in Minneola, New York. His parents divorced when he was five years old so he lived with various relatives until joining the Navy at age 16.
He saw action during World War II fighting off the USS Brooklyn in Northern Africa and Palermo, Italy. Lenny however was not the type to settle in to a military routine so he entertained his buddies by doing a comedy routine and dressing in drag. The Navy did not appreciate his humor but Lenny saw it as a ticket home so he convinced everyone that he was homosexual—he was dishonorably discharged. Afterwards he applied for an honorable discharge and was awarded a discharge “under honorable conditions.”
He stayed in California for a while after the service but then move to New York hoping for a career as a comedian. It wasn’t until 1947 that he changed his last name to Bruce. In 1951 he married Honey Harlow, a stripper from Baltimore in 1951. In any case, Lenny’s humor, like the more recent Bill Hicks
It has always interested me that both Lenny Bruce and Hicks died at such young ages. Lenny was 41 and Bill Hicks 34. They were both drinkers and dopers and Hicks was known for his chain smoking but I believe that negative thoughts manifest in the body in all sorts of negative ways and both Lenny and Bill’s humor was dark and angry. Nevertheless, they acquired absolutely faithful fans and Hicks became a big hit in England of all places. This is almost an irony since Lenny had been barred from England as an undesirable alien.
My Favorite Lenny Bruce lines
All my humor is based on destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.:
Communism is like one big phone company
But my all-time favorite is the Lenny Bruce observation below:
Every day people are straying from the church and going back to God.”
October 13, 1925
August 3, 1966
Jack E. Leonard
I am aware that a lot of younger readers will have never heard of Jackie Leonard but I loved him. I first saw him on the old Jack Parr show. He had Parr and all his guests actually belly laughing. My sides were hurting I was laughing too hard and that’s how great a comedian he really was. I later went to Vegas just to see his act.
His style was outrageous aggression and hilarious insult humor. Perhaps the reader has seen Don Rickles
I know less about Jack Leonard
A line of his I like is:
There’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure.”
But about being a comedian can be important to anyone wanting to break into the comedy business.
To be great in this business you have to be able to walk on stage and have people laugh just because you’re you. That doesn’t come in two days you know.”
Jack E. Leonard
April 10, 1910
May 10, 1973
George Burns and Gracie Allen
I first heard this comedy team long before television was even heard of by most people. We’d all gather around the kitchen table to listen to the Burns and Allen show on the radio and have the best time.
Later on when television did enter American life, we’d see them appearing on variety shows and they were always wonderful. If you remember them I am all but certain you’ll agree with this.
*There were other syrup makers of the same age and so when they got bored, they would practice singing harmony. I’ll let Geroge tell his own story: We were all about the same age, six and seven, and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with, 'no more chocolate syrup. It's show business from now on'. We called ourselves the Pee-Wee Quartet. We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons, in brothels, and on street corners. We'd put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats.
The singing for handouts and the feeling of pleasing audiences inspired the young Nathan to pursue a career in show business. It is said that it was not very long after singing with the other boys that he took the professional name of Geroge from his brother and burns from a local coal company he used to steal coal from.
In the meantime, young Gracie Allen was attending the Sea Convent School in San Francisco, California but in 1909 she would join with her sister. Bessie, Hazel and Pearl in a vaudeville routine called the “The Four Colleens.” Gracie was a great dancer but beneath it all she had a real flair for comedy.
While this was going on Geroge Burns was doing whatever it took to stay in show biz. He worked with a trained seal, he did trick roller skating and even taught dance. Yep, he was quite the hoofer himself. He also had a flair for comedy however and he often teamed up with lady performers. Growing older he married Hannah Siegel a dance partner. The problem was Hannah’s parents wouldn’t her go on tour with Geroge unless they married. So they married, toured for 26 weeks and then divorced.
Somewhere along the path Geroge and Gracie met and teamed up. At first Gracie played the “straight man” with Geroge delivering the comedic lines. What was noticed, however, was the audiences were laughing more at Gracie’s dumb question that George’s witty answers. So George and Gracie switched roles. George became the straight man and Grace the lovable but stupid female partner; the stereotyped mindless, illogical women. For example,
George: Gracie those are beautiful flower. Where did they come from?
Gracie: Don’t you remember, Geroge? You said that if I went to visit Clara Bagley in the hospital, I should take her flowers. So, when she wasn’t looking, I did.
This was the humor that put Burns and Allen on the map and people loved them for it. They married on January 7, 1926 and remained together for the rest of their lives. If, as is sometimes said, if there had ever been a match made in heaven, this was it.
Some of my favorite lines are from Gracie:
I was so surprised at being born that I didn’t speak for a year and a half
I read a book twice as fast as anyone else. First I read the beginning, and then I read the ending, and then I start in the middle and read toward whatever end I like best.
But beneath all that Dumb Dora act was really a brilliant woman. Here’s one of my favorite Gracie quotes:
Never place a period where God has placed a comma.
As for George, he had some whopper lines too:
Happiness? A good cigar, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman—or bad woman; depends on how much happiness you can handle.
If you ask me what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.
But my favorite George Burns line comes from him when he was in his nineties:
If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d taken better care of myself.
July 26, 1895
August, 27 1964
January 20, 1896
March 9, 1996
I first saw George Carlin on TV during the 1960s and accidently sat down at the same Hollywood bar with him a few days after. He was born in Manhattan and raised as an Irish Catholic mostly by his mom. Mom left his dad when young Carlin was only two months old. His brother Patrick was five at the time. Anyway, the future comedian did not have a great relationship with Mom Carlin so he’s run away from home a lot. He soon enough joined the U.S. Air force and became a radar technician. While serving he began working as a disc jockey at radio station KJOE in Shreveport, Louisiana, a town not far from the base.
Akin to the temperament of Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, he did not finish his Air Force enlistment and was labeled an “unproductive airman.” During his stay in the military he was court martialed three times and was given a number of disciplinary punishments.
George did not, as said, lose any sleep over his early discharge. He was busy teaming up with a friend, Jack Burns, creating a comedy routine. They began testing their act out in the Fort Worth’s beat coffeehouses. Because Texas is known for its prison executions, Carlin once said, “You know the good part about all those executions in Texas…Fewer Texans!” Carlin did not like bureaucracies or authority. His air force record attest to that and so will so many of his gag lines.
In 1960 Carlin and Burns arrived in California and quickly put together an audition tape for KDAY in Hollywood. The team worked there for a few months while they honed their material in coffeehouses at night. The psychedelic world of hippies was just around the corner then but not yet in sight.
Soon enough Burns and Carlin went their separate (professional) ways and the rest is history.
My favorite Carlin lines are:
If the Cincinnati Reds were really the first major league baseball team, who did they play?
No one knows what’s next but everyone does it.
I knew a transsexual guy whose only ambition is to eat, drink and be Mary.
The quote I like best however is the following sardonic comment:
I used to be catholic…Now I’m an American…you know, you grow.
May 12, 1937
June 22, 2008
While there are exceptions, I have noticed throughout the years that some of the funniest performers I have worked with have this in common with most comedians and comediennes: A lot of unhappiness and heartbreak in their past. I am in good company when I make this observation. In a Psychology Today report I read that Samuel Janus and colleagues made an intense study of the intelligence, educational level, family background and personality of 69 comedians all known and successful. What was concluded in that study is that comedians tended to be of higher intelligence but also felt “misunderstood, angry, anxious, suspicious, depressed and concerned with approval.”
Another interesting observation made was that most comedians come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and sometimes, I will add, from broken homes and hearts.
It is my own analysis that kids who are class clowns are probably prime to choose comedy as their field what if they do or not. Playing the clown, which in many ways all comedians do serves to ease the psychological pain that lingers in the unconscious.
Laughter also releases tension and nervous anxiety; there are certain health benefits that arrive with a good belly laugh. Why then do so many comedians have such tragic endings. For some, like the truly genius talented, John Bilushi
Again, while there are exceptions, it can be said that behind the mask of every clown falls a great many tears of despair.
Rodney Dangerfield was without doubt one of the funniest human beings on the planet-like Jack E. Leonard once said, a real comedian had to be able to walk out on stage and get a laugh just because he is who he is…Dangerfield was such an admired and beloved comedian that his entrance alone put smiles on his audience’s faces.
He was born Jacob Rodney Cohen in Deer Park in the town of Babylon, New York. He used to say that his father was never home…he was out to make other kids and that his mother raised him all wrong. No one has ever created or delivered funnier lines than Rodney and this began when he was only 15 years old. After his father abandoned the family, his mother moved Rodney and his sister to Kew Gardens, Queens where the future comedian would attend Richmond Hill High School where he graduated in 1939. But before he was sixteen years old he was writing for standup comedians and began performing, under the name of Jack Roy at age 20.
It wouldn’t be until the 1960s he’d devotedly launch his professional career as Rodney Dangerfield though. Before that he had married and primarily made his living as a salesman. The marriage did not work out, however, so after the divorce in 1961 he began his long trek to stardom. In fact, gigs came so hard he once said:
“I played one club…it was so far out, my act was reviewed by Field and Stream.”
Fate was on Rodney’s side. After years of struggling on March 5, 1967 The Ed Sullivan Show needed a fast/last minute replacement for an act that had been booked.. He became the unexpected hit of the show and his success story as a comedian was launched. He became best known for his wife jokes. For example he would say, “Once somebody stole our car, I asked my wife if she saw who it was. She said, ‘No, but I did get the license number.’ ” Or another wife story he told was that, “With my wife, I don’t get respect. I made a toast on her birthday to ‘the best woman a man ever had.’ The waiter joined me.”
After the TV success, Rodney began headlining shows in Las Vegas—I saw him perform there once and he was…well, as I say, there was never anyone funnier.
He was seen many times on the Ed Sullivan show, became a regular on the Dean Martin Show and appeared on the Tonight’s Show 35 times.
He made a few movies along his way too. If you’ve never seen Easy Money or Back to School—run out and rent it.
There are too many funny Rodney Dangerfield lines to list here but here are just some of my favorites:
My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.
I remember the time I was kidnapped and they sent a piece of my finger to my father, He said he wanted more proof.
I told my wife the truth. I told her I was seeing a psychiatrist. Then she told me the truth. She said that she was seeing a psychiatrist, two plumbers and a bartender.
One of my all-time favorite lines, however, is
A girl phoned me the other day and said, ‘Come On over. There’s nobody home.’ I went over and nobody was home.
November 22, 1921
October 5, 2004
Phyllis Diller was born Phyllis Ad Driver in Lima, Ohio to elderly parents especially for those times. Her Dad was 55 and her mother was 36. After High School she studied piano for three years as the Sherman Music Conservatory of Columbia College Chicago then transferred to Bluffton College. She married Sherwood Anderson Diller and was a housewife and advertising copy writer During World War II. (She would marry a second time to Ward Donovan but professionally she kept the name Diller)..
While she loved music, she had a natural flair for being a comedienne and started that career in 1952 at KROW radio in Oakland, California with her own show: Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friend Maker. The “Friend Maker” show was a Bay Area Radio-Television production directed by ABC’s Jim Baker. She would do other media along her way but her first stand up was at The Purple Onion, a top club to perform in at that time. She opened on March 7, 1955 and remained there for 87 weeks. I frankly never thought that Diller’s lines were that funny but her delivery was brilliant.
Actually she was not at all a homely person but she played a witchy looking housewife and created herself to look unattractive. I believe that beneath all that crazy, wonderful humor of hers
He lines include:
We Californian are constantly accused of not having seasons, but we do. We have fire, flood, mud and drought.
A bachelor is a guy who never made the same mistake once.
One of my favorite lines, however, is:
If it weren’t for baseball, many kids wouldn’t know what a millionaire looked like.
July 17, 1917
August 20, 2012
I am well aware that to many readers these people I have named will not hold any meaning and certainly they will probably have comedians that they favor and are fans of. Those I’ve mentioned, however, were among the funniest people in the world as the 40s, 50s and 60s unfolded into the future; they were the innovators of standup comedy and the inspirations for such wonderful talents as Woody Allen
I would like to think that when Jonathan Winters walked through the Golden Gates that he was immediately taken to the Comedy Club there where he was greeted by Geroge and Gracie, Lenny, Geroge Carlin and others like the hilarious Benny Hill
And of course there are those great comedians still kicking like the unpredictable Mort Sahl
In view of all the above, I wondered what the heck would be appropriate to end this article with; what would summarize the feelings I felt while writing it and how I wanted the readers to respond. Then I thought of Jimmy Durante and how he used to end his act. I don’t know, it just felt right to say
A Great Book for anyone interested in Stand Up
A Perfect Gift for the Funny Gal or Guy
Amazon Price: $17.00 $5.99 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 15, 2016)