David Bruce: Anecdotes About Comedians

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of “The Scarlet Letter,” is not usually thought of as being funny, but he had his moments. When he finally felt that he could no longer write, he wrote his editor James Fields in February 1864 and announced his retirement. He also gave Mr. Fields this suggestion for announcing his retirement in the “Atlantic Monthly”: “Mr. Hawthorne’s brain is addled at last, and much to our satisfaction, he tells us that he cannot possibly go on with the Romance [“The Dolliver Romance”] announced on the cover of the Jan. magazine.” Mr. Hawthorne added in his note to Mr. Fields, “Say anything you like, in short, though I really don’t think the Public will care what you say.” As a young boy, he complained in a letter about his grandmother forcing him to eat rotting oranges: “We have to eat the bad ones first, as the good are to be kept until they are spoilt also.” Mr. Hawthorne died on 12 May 1864.

Pete Barbutti is a musician as well as a comedian, and one of his routines is of a cool musician who plays a broom. In one routine, he announces that he will play “Tenderly,” and then, accompanied by real musicians, he moves the broom across the microphone and plays the melody of, yes, “Tenderly.” On the second chorus, he uses a cup as a mute for the broom. Once, he could not find his broom, so he sent his musician friends out to search the club for a broom. One of his friends found a vacuum cleaner and brought it to Mr. Barbutti just to see how he would react. He looked at it, sneered, and said, “No, man. I don’t play Fender broom.”

Comedian Red Skelton served as a private during World War II. On leave, he stopped to see Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who asked, “How is Army life?” Red replied, “I don’t like it at all.” Mr. Meyer asked, “Don’t you get fed well?” Red replied, “Three square meals a day.” Mr. Meyer asked, “You have a roof over your head?” Red replied, “We always have a roof over our head. Barracks. Tents. Whatever. It never rains on us when we are sleeping.” Mr. Meyer asked, “Clothing?” Red replied, “Wool clothing in the winter. Nice cottons in the summer. We have nice uniforms.” Mr. Meyer asked, “What is it about the Army you don’t like?” Red replied, “Bullets, Mr. Meyer.”

Bob Hope spent decades entertaining the troops. They liked his comedy, and they also liked the pretty female entertainers he brought with him. For some shows in Korea (and no doubt in other countries), newspaper columnist Irv Kupcinet remembers that Mr. Hope brought the beautiful and Irish Erin O’Brien. When she walked out onstage, a GI shouted, “My name is Tom Coughlin.” Ms. O’Brien said, “A fine Irish boy like you deserves a kiss,” and she kissed him. Immediately, the other GIs started shouting, “My name is O’Callahan … My name is Shanahan … My name is Kelly.”

Before Johnny Carson was a really big star, he went to Jilly’s bar and restaurant, the hangout of Frank Sinatra, who was a really big star. When Frank walked in, Jilly’s went quiet. Frank was king there — and everywhere else, too. Johnny, however, said in an exasperated voice, “Frank, I told you 11:30.” Johnny was present for the launch of the rocket that took Neil Armstrong to the Moon. He was impressed as the rocket took off and quietly said, “Jesus Christ.” In the seat ahead of him was a representative of the Vatican, who turned around and said, “Name-dropper!”

Jack Benny, persona was that of a cheapskate, was funny in real life. At a World Series game, he was supposed to throw out the first pitch, but he held the baseball a moment, and then he put it in his pocket and sat down. The crowd laughed. He was also supposed to be a bad violin player. Once, he approached the White House gate with his violin in a case, and a guard asked him what was in the case. Jack replied, “A machine gun.” The guard laughed and said, “You can pass then. For a minute, I thought it was your violin.”

Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers worked together on “The Goon Show,” and they were good friends. Mr. Milligan remembers that Mr. Sellers liked cars, but that he used to change them frequently — he would have a new one every month or so. Because of that, Mr. Milligan called Mr. Sellers’ cars “metal waistcoats.” By the way, Mr. Milligan once answered a knock on his door. When he opened the door, Mr. Sellers was standing there, wearing nothing but a hat and shoes. Mr. Sellers asked Mr. Milligan, “Do you know a good tailor?”

Some comedians are funny all the time, not just while they are on stage. Comedian Shelley Berman once said that Jonathan Winters was “the most ‘on’ comedian I know.” Mr. Winters proved that in 1988: He collapsed, and a male paramedic had to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive him. When Mr. Winters regained consciousness, the first thing he did was to tell the paramedic, “You’re a very attractive man.” (Mr. Winters also once said to comedian Pat McCormack on a crowded elevator, “You don’t think we tied him up too tight?”)

George Burns was Jewish, and his wife, Gracie Allen, was Catholic. They raised their adopted children, Ronald and Sandy, Catholic. Every Friday, the Burns family ate fish, as Catholics at that time did. Sandy did not like fish, so she ate elsewhere on Fridays and told people that she was a Catholic only six days a week.

Ed McMahon idolized the great comedian W.C. Fields, about whom he knew many, many stories. One story was about a writer who requested permission to write Mr. Fields’ biography. Mr. Fields told him, “Please do. Capital idea. Do it right away. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.”

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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