Dismembering Norm Crosby

There were a couple of levels to Norm Crosby’s (b. 1927) act. His routines were littered with malapropisms of a wide variety of kinds: he either used incorrect words, or correct words mispronounced, or accidental variations on the correct words that weren’t words at all. The deeper level of the act (one that often gets forgotten) is that it was rooted in character. His speech was often ungrammatical in a more conventional way, which combined with his Boston accent, made him sound like a working class guy, the kind of person you might meet someplace who drives you crazy while they pontificate about everything under the sun from a place of zero knowledge. He would philosophize about things like history or current events, like a drunk at a bar, and this is what gave the act direction, and kept it from being a complete doubletalk or nut act. I’d be very shocked to learn that John Ratzenberger didn’t use him as at least a partial model for Cliff on Cheers. 

You’d think such an act, wouldn’t take him far, but Crosby was pretty much ubiquitous on TV in the ’70s when I was a kid, on things like beer commercials and Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. The act had taken him years to develop, in night clubs and Catskills resorts. He was nearly 40 before he began appearing regularly on television in the mid-’60s on programs like The Garry Moore Show, The Hollywood Palace, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Kraft Music Hall, The Joey Bishop Show, The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show (on which he was a regular), The Mike Douglas Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Dinah!, Hollywood Squares, The David Frost Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and The Merv Griffin Show. He hosted a variety show called The Comedy Shop from 1978 through 80.

Corsby was rarely given an opportunity to act but occasionally he did get guest shots on things like Adam-12 and The Love Boat, and later in life the occasional cameo as himself. In 1977 he was in a movie called The Great Balloon Race with the fascinating cast of Diller, Ted Cassidy, Cab Calloway, Bert Parks, and Frank Gifford, et al. In the mid ’90s, when he was pushing 70, he did more acting than usual in a concentrating period of activity that included the movies Amore! (1993), Greyhounds (1994), and The Misery Bothers (1995), a recurring role on Carol Leifer’s show Alright Already (1997-98), and guest appearances on L.A. Law, Roseanne, The Larry Sanders Show, and Diagnosis Murder. His most recent credit was a cameo in Grown Ups 2 (2013)

To learn more about variety entertainment, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,