David Bruce: Comedian Anecdotes

By David Bruce (Comedians)

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

  • Ed Sullivan could be a good man to work for. For one thing, he was a good editor. If a comic routine needed to be shortened, he could tell the comedian where it should be cut. Once, Shelley Berman performed a comic routine that ran 12 minutes in rehearsal. After rehearsal, he received a call to see Mr. Sullivan. He expected that the sketch would need to be shortened, but Mr. Sullivan instead suggested that a line be added. That night, when he performed the sketch live on TV, Mr. Berman noticed a change in lights, and the addition of violin music, both of which enhanced the poignant tone he set in the second half of the sketch. And when he went backstage following his live performance, a telephone call was waiting for him — Mr. Sullivan’s wife had called to congratulate him on his performance.
  • Stand-up comedians need to have a lot of confidence that they can “get” an audience — that is, make an audience laugh. When Judy Carter worked as the opening act for Loggins and Messina, sometimes the music-loving audience did NOT want to hear her. Once, the opening of the show was delayed for an hour, so the audience was even more impatient than usual to hear the band. Things got so bad that a druggie member of the audience came up on stage, threw a tablecloth over Ms. Carter’s head — then SET IT ON FIRE. As Ms. Carter was being carried off the stage to safety, she kept saying, “Put me down. I know I can get them.”
  • The British comedy duo French and Saunders — Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders — disliked facing hecklers, and when they thought hecklers would be present they hurried through their act so they could get off stage and avoid them. Once, they went through their 20-minute act in five minutes. On another occasion, they didn’t get off the stage on time, so Ms. French used her day job as an educator to put down the heckler by using the persona of a strict teacher: “Excuse me, you prickhead there — now come on! If you don’t think it’s funny, then leave, but I’m not going to have this talking!”
  • The Marx Brothers once ordered their writers to show up at 9:30 a.m. for a meeting. The writers pointed out that they were always at work by 9:30, so Groucho responded, “Well, then, come in at 8:30.” The writers did come in at 8:30, but the Marx Brothers didn’t show up until 11:45. The writers complained, “Where were you? We were right here!” Groucho said, “How do you like that? They were right here. We go out of our way to have a meeting and they just sit here!”
  • Ben Blue was a funny comedian, but he never achieved the stardom that Ed Wynn achieved, Mr. Wynn knew and liked Mr. Blue, but he was able to explain why Mr. Blue never became a big star: “There’s a problem with Ben. The reason he’s never become a star is that if Ben has to be on stage and be funny at 8:15 p.m. he starts getting funny at about 8:12, in the wings — three minutes before he has to go on. If I have to be funny, I start getting funny at four o’clock in the afternoon.”
  • Country comedian Jerry Clower became a professional entertainer by accident, but he had plenty of practice because he was always telling stories and making people laugh while relaxing at home and while working as a fertilizer salesman. Someone once asked his wife, Homerline, how long her husband had been an entertainer, and she replied, “I’ve known Jerry Clower since I was 13 years old, and I’ve never seen a day when he wasn’t entertaining someone.”
  • As a beginning stand-up comedian, Phyllis Diller got some good advice from other comedians. Stan Freberg once advised her, “If there’s a line you love, and you try it three times, and it doesn’t make it, toss it.” Ms. Diller says, “So now, if they [the audience] don’t get a line, no matter how much I adore it, it’s out.”
  • As a famous comedian, Phyllis Diller sometimes resorted to trickery to guard her privacy. For a while, she travelled incognito. She dressed as a nun, complete with a habit, no makeup, and rimless glasses. One day she laughed, and her fellow passengers recognized her famous cackle and thus discovered her identity.
  • Comedians and comic actors need confidence to do their jobs, but they recognize that this confidence may be misinterpreted as arrogance. Belfast, Ireland, comic Leila Webster was once asked, “What is it about a comic character that makes it funny?” She replied, “This may sound really dreadful — me.”
  • Sam Mayo was a British music-hall comedian who was popular for a time, but whose comedy fell out of favor and forced his retirement. After retiring, he used to stand outside of music halls listening to the applause given to other performers as tears ran down his cheeks.
  • Lenny Bruce once performed his act while wearing a raincoat. Why? The police had recently arrested him, and Mr. Bruce explained, “I’m not going to freeze my balls off down at the police station anymore. I’m going to do my act in a raincoat. Let them come for me in my raincoat.”
  • As a boy and as a young man, Will Rogers constantly practiced his roping. While at home, he roped calves. While at school, he roped girls. Eventually, he performed his trick roping — and comedy — for audiences attending the Ziegfeld Follies.
  • Peter Ustinov once laughed at one of his own jokes, then apologized, “I don’t laugh at my own jokes unless they’re very good. That one was particularly good.”
  • All of us have been asked many times the question, “How are you?” According to comedian Richard Lewis, he has never answered that question by saying “Fine.”
  • Comedian Dick Gregory was sometimes introduced as “the Negro Mort Sahl.” He would reply, “In the Congo they call Mort Sahl ‘the white Dick Gregory.’”

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