David Bruce: Anecdotes About Comedians

Very early in his career, Jimmy Durante played piano in a bar called Diamond Tony’s, which was named after the owner, who wore fake diamond rings. Once Diamond Tony was robbed by a man who took his wallet and pocket watch, but who told him, “You can keep those phony diamonds. My wife just bought better ones in a dollar store.” The bar was frequented by prostitutes, whom Mr. Durante always treated with respect. He said, “Sure, I knew they was fallen ladies. But still they was females. An’ to me that’s sacred.” One prostitute went to Hollywood and found some success in legitimate movies. Unfortunately, a fan magazine found out about her past and printed a story about it. She called Mr. Durante, who worried that she would think that it was he who had told the reporter about her past. She said on the telephone, “I didn’t think that for a minute. I knew you wouldn’t do a thing like that. The rat who squealed was an old boyfriend.” Mr. Durante said later, “That poor girl was a good kid who just had a lot of bad breaks.” Years later, she told a reporter, “Schnozzola was the only decent person in Diamond Tony’s. He almost restored my faith in men, even if he kept refusing the freebies I offered him.” Another prostitute at Diamond Tony’s was Gladie, who borrowed from him a ring that his mother had given him; it had belonged to her grandmother. Gladie disappeared for a while, and then she returned. Mr. Durante said, “She tells me she hocked the ring to pay for a certain kind of ladies’ operation but promises to get it back.” Then she disappeared again and did not come back. Years later, when she had stopped looking beautiful and had started looking cadaverous, she saw him again and kissed him. He did not know who she was until she introduced herself. She died — of malnutrition. Her worldly possessions fit in a paper bag: a crucifix, a map of Florida, some torn lingerie, and a bundle of clippings about Mr. Durante. On her paperwork, she listed him as next of kin. He paid for her funeral. Mr. Durante spoke well of most people, including members of the Mafia. He, and other people on the Lower East Side who grew up at the time that Mr. Durante did, knew about many good deeds that members of the Mafia performed. He told a true story about a woman whose daughter was hit by a trolley car and crippled. Next the woman’s husband got the big C (cancer) and died. Then the woman’s son, who painted houses to get money for the family to live on, fell off a ladder and was crippled. The landlord was ready to evict the family. Mr. Durante said, “That’s when the Mafia marches in. Not only do they make the landlord change his mind, but they give the lady each month some regular money to live on. I could tell you plenty of stories like that one. Sure, I know those men do lots of terrible things, but it’s hard for me to hate someone from what I see with my own eyes.’ Mr. Durante, as you would expect, did his share of good deeds. When the stock market fell in October 1929, he lost a lot of money, but fortunately he was making a lot of money as an entertainer. When he read about a mother who was forced to feed her hungry little daughter dog food, he visited the mother and gave her $50 — a lot of money back then.

Comedian Jay Sankey learned quickly that a stand-up comedian does five minutes when the comic is supposed to do five minutes, 20 minutes when the comic is supposed to do 20 minutes, and an hour when the comic is supposed to do an hour. In fact, comedy clubs have a red light that flashes on and off to let the comic know it’s time to wrap up the set. Once, he didn’t see the red light come on, so he was startled when the speakers boomed out with the soundman’s voice, saying, “This is the voice of God! Get off the stage!” Mr. Sankey ran off stage — and bought a wristwatch.

When Carol Burnett made her first appearance on national television — December 15, 1955, on “The Paul Winchell Show” — she called her grandmother so she would know to watch the program. However, her grandmother wanted Carol to say hi to her on the program, something that was impossible. Therefore, Carol worked out a code — instead of saying hi directly, she pulled her left earlobe as a greeting to her grandmother. After her grandmother died, Carol continued to pull her left earlobe — as a way to say hi to her children.

Very early in his career, during an open-mike night, stand-up comedian Greg Dean made the mistake of inviting a heckler on stage to see if he could get laughs. The heckler told a very funny joke, and even though the club manager succeeded in getting the heckler off stage, the manager then yelled at Mr. Dean, “There are tons of people who have signed up to get on this stage. You can’t put anyone you want up here. Don’t ever do that again. Now finish your show.” For the next six months, Mr. Dean was too mortified to do stand-up.

To gain experience as a comedian very early in his stand-up career, Jay Leno used to go into a bar and ask the manager if he could do his act. If the manager said, “Get out of here,” Mr. Leno would whip out a $50 bill and say, “Just let me tell some jokes, and if people leave or I embarrass the customers, you can keep the fifty.” The managers always gave him his money back, and a few invited him back to perform again — and next time they let him pass the hat.

Jack Benny went on radio for the first time in 1932 when he guested on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He told the radio audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares?’”

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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