Joey Bishop: Joker in the Rat Pack

Joey Bishop (Joseph Abraham Gottlieb, 1918-2007) was born on this day.

Bishop was primarily a nightclub and television comic, although he also dabbled in acting in his own sitcom and a handful of films. In addition to originating a number of bits that have come to be thought of classic stand-up stuff of the Las Vegas sort, his trademark was a dour, worried, almost sad-looking face. He delivered his material looking almost like he was about to cry or as though he was afraid you were about to hit him. He didn’t work hard to sell a joke; he worked hard not to sell it, and you had to listen. Bishop was also extremely fast with ad libs, poking fun of the audience when they under-responded to his material. When I first heard Jackie Mason, I thought “His voice sounds like Joey Bishop’s, only even more Joey Bishopy”. Alternately, you could say that Joey Bishop’s voice sounds like Jackie Mason’s, only less Jackie Masony.

Bishop was born in the Bronx and raised in South Philly. His parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants. He started out in a two-act with his older brother Maury in the ’40s following army service in World War II. He premiered as a stand-up on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1949. Other shows Bishop frequently appeared on throughout the ’50s included Kraft Music Hall with Perry Como and The Arthur Murray Party. He appeared on The Tonight Show hundreds of times during the Jack Paar and Johnny Carson tenures (from the late 1950s through the late 1980s), both as a guest and a guest host. In 1959 he appeared in three movies: The Deep Six, The Naked and the Dead, and Onionhead.

Things dialed up a notch or three in the 1960s. Cast in the original Ocean’s 11 (1960), he spent evenings during the shooting period horsing around for live audiences at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas with fellow cast members Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford. This was the gelling of the famous “Rat Pack”. Two years later, he appeared with the same bunch in the western Sergeants Three. In 1966 he played an Indian in Martin’s comedy western Texas Across the River.

By that time, Bishop’s recognition factor was very high — from 1961 through 1964, he’d starred in his own sitcom The Joey Bishop Show. The show was a spinoff of The Danny Thomas Show, and produced by Thomas. Much as in Seinfeld three decades later (and seemingly a partial inspiration for it), Bishop played a fictional version of himself, a nightclub and TV comic. Portions of the show consisted of stand-up, supplemented by variations on formulaic sitcom plots. At various times cast members included Marlo Thomas, Joe Besser, Joe Flynn, Bill Bixby, and Guy Marks, among others. In 1967 he appeared in two high profile movies: Valley of the Dolls (he essentially plays himself as the awards ceremony MC), and the all-star comedy Who’s Minding the Mint? with Jim Hutton, Milton Berle, Dorothy Provine, Bob Denver, Walter Brennan, Victor Buono, Jack Gilford, Jamie Farr and Jackie Joseph. In 1967, he launched his second Joey Bishop Show, this one a late night talk show on ABC, designed to compete with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. His second banana on the show was Regis Philbin. The show ran through 1969.

The sixties proved to be Bishop’s most visible period as an entertainer. When I was a kid in the ’70s, I would see him from time to time on guest spots on TV, which is how I knew who he was, but I little dreamed how omnipresent he had been just a few years earlier. After that, his appearances were more sporadic. In 1986 he had a role in the movie Delta Force, high concept stunt casting not unlike Carl Reiner’s in the Ocean’s 11 reboot. He’s also in the 1990 Alan Alda comedy Betsy’s Wedding with Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy — history’s only Rat Pack/Brat Pack team-up. Bishop’s last appearance was in Mad Dog Time (1996), written and directed by his son Larry Bishop, featuring Michael J. Pollard, Henry Silva, and Gabriel Byrne. His character’s name is his natural one: “Mr. Gottlieb..

To find out more about the history of show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.