Alan King, The Ever-Evolving Artist

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Today is the birthday of Alan King (1927-2004). When I was a kid I thought of him as the archetypical, old-school, middle-aged Borscht Belt style comedian. Now that I look at old clips I can see that he was transitional, and, like a true artist he kept evolving.

He’d started out at age 15 on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour. He did a national tour, then divided his time between working the Catskills and a Canadian burlesque house (a concept that immediately inspires jokes), and trying his luck as a boxer. His real last name was Kniberg; he took the name King from the last boxing opponent who defeated him.

His early material was lots of one-liners and mother-in-law jokes. That’s what I’d always associated him with (the omnipresent cigar certainly helps reinforce the impression that he was that kind of comedian). But after watching Danny Thomas  perform in the 50s, he began to change, becoming more of a storyteller, like most modern stand-up comedians.

And he kept evolving. The clip below looks to me like it was from the 1980s. His routine — masterful, it seems to me — definitely shows the influence of younger, contemporary comics. Richard Pryor springs to mind — he’s doing lots of acting and pantomime in addition to the funny lines. King kept growing. Over the years he took many film roles, many of them surprisingly dramatic, and he was terrific in them. This 1975 TV movie showcased King in four different roles, written by Hollywood’s top writers:

When I saw him in Enemies, A Love Story (1989), the effect was completely disorienting, and forever changed the way I thought about him.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

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