Discovering George Kirby

This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.

I was young when when George Kirby (1923-1995) hit the peak of his fame (1972), and his plunge to obscurity thereafter was so rapid and so drastic that his existence completely escaped my attention. A few months ago, when I came across the 1972 TV Guide spread from which these photos were drawn, which advertised his new comedy variety show Half the George Kirby Comedy Hour, I had never heard of him. And by that I mean, I had never seen any fellow entertainer refer to him, and I hadn’t read about him anywhere. And I read about show business history A LOT. I had seen a couple of his later performances in minor supporting roles, without knowing his significance. He was significant.

I have watched a bunch of old clips of Kirby in performance now, and I’m comfortable using the word “genius”, at least a show business genius. Kirby was very old school show biz, and he did a bit of everything: he was a gifted jazz piano player, a great singer, a stand-up comedian (a sort of African American Alan King). But above all, his greatest gift was as an impressionist. Most dazzlingly, he did uncanny musical impressions, performing standards in the style of other famous singers, like Pearl Bailey, Joe Williams, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. This was a major show biz subcategory back in vaudeville days; if only vaudeville had still been around to showcase him!

Kirby started out at Chicago’s legendary Club DeLisa in the 1940s, during the heyday of blues, swing and jazz. One factor that broadened his appeal beyond the many talents we’ve already listed was that he included impressions of white stars in his repertoire. He did Humphrey Bogart, Wallter Brennan, Kirk Douglas, and John Wayne, and later, such familiar TV characters as Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker (an effect reinforced by the fact that Kirby himself was a portly guy).

Kirby was on TV as early as 1949 on The Ed Sullivan Show and over the next two decades-plus he was a frequent presence on such programs as The Tonight Show (under Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson — all three), Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Jerry Lewis Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Hollywood Squares, The Pearl Bailey Show, The David Frost Show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and The ABC Comedy Hour. He also did the occasional acting turn, in films like Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad (1967) and on TV shows like Love American Style and Julia.

Then came his TV variety show (1972-73) which lasted for only 22 episodes, despite a supporting company that included a young Steve MartinMarilyn Michaels, and Gregory Hines.

After the show’s demise, Kirby gave in to a sporadic problem he’d had over three decades: heroin addiction. To  support his habit and his lifestyle, he took to dealing, which landed him an arrest and prison sentence in 1977. So THIS is why there’s a big hole in the ’70s where George Kirby ought to have been. Ironically, on TOP of that, his career was hampered by the fact that he was pretty unhip. We mentioned how old school his act was. The mid ’70s were all about the new ground being broken by Richard Pryor. Though heroin is the ultimate downbeat, authentic, street level, jazz musician’s drug, it’s kind of the worst of all possible worlds if you let smack ruin your life in the middle of doing Walter Brennan imitations.

Kirby did manage to pull himself back (in fact there’s a great clip on Youtube of him doing a terrific rendition of a moving anti-drug poem called “King Heroin”) but thereafter he was mostly a bit player. He had guest shots on TV shows like Fame and 227. He’s in movies like Bill Cosby’s Leonard Part 6 (1987) and Beverly Hills Brats (1989). Also: he’s the voice of one of the dogs in the Disney movie The Shaggy D.A. (1976), which is undoubtedly one of the first places I ever encountered his work, although I could hardly have known it at the time. His last credit was in a 1992 TV movie called You Must Remember This with WKRP’s Tim Reid, and Benson’s Robert Guilliame. He also continued to perform live in nightclubs during his last years. 

To find out more about the variety arts, including television variety, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,