Comedian and impressionist John Byner (John Biener, b. 1938) reached his peak of visibility when I was a kid in the 1970s. Like his rough contemporaries Rich Little and Frank Gorshin he had a repertoire of old time stage, screen and recording stars whom he imitated. And though he played Vegas night clubs like those guys, he kind of seemed hipper, more in the vein of George Carlin (note shoulder length hair). And he was a terrific sketch comedian and comic actor, which increased his utility and the number of kinds of shows one saw him on.
A New York native, Byner started out at the Village Vanguard during the be bop era. Crooners were a staple of his repertoire — he did impressions of singers like Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby, and some very old time stars like Al Jolson and George Jessel. From here he got booked at night clubs all over the country and eventually on tv, starting with Talent Scouts (1963), and The Ed Sullivan Show (numerous appearances beginning in 1964.) He also did his act on The Steve Allen Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Dean Martin Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Hollywood Palace, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Hollywood Squares, Kraft Music Hall, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The Carol Burnett Show, Dinah!, The Bobby Vinton Show, The Captain and Tennille, and dozens of others. He had his own summer replacement variety program The John Byner Comedy Hour in 1972.
Also as a kid I was very much aware of of one of his most high profile (yet low profile) gigs: he provided the voices of the Ant and the Aardvark in the eponymous segment on The Pink Panther cartoon show. I was a bit older when I figured out he was doing these characters as celebrity impressions. The ant is Dean Martin. For many years I thought the Aardvark was Joey Bishop, but it was actually Jackie Mason.
As an actor he did prominent guest shots on shows like The Odd Couple, Love American Style, When Things Were Rotten, Maude, Soap, and The Love Boat. He starred in the TV movie McNamara’s Band (1977), had a bit part in What’s Up Doc? (1972), and appeared in such films as The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977), Stroker Ace (1983), and Transylvania 6-500 (1985).
From 1980 through 1986 he hosted the Canadian comedy show Bizarre — which to my mind explains why he sort of disappeared from American TV in the ’80s (after being kind of ubiquitous in the ’70s. From 1988 to ’89 he hosted the game show Relatively Speaking.
Byner is still working all the time, of course, his credits stretch all the way to the present day. And from time to time, there’s still demand for his very old timey show biz impressions. In 2002 he played Ed Wynn in the TV movie The Big Time. Okay, that was 17 years ago. Never mind!
To learn more about variety history, including TV variety, where John Byner was ubiquitous, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,