Myron Cohen: Raconteur

Myron Cohen (1902-1986) performed the sort of act that’s largely extinct from the mainstream entertainment landscape nowadays. The closest I can compare him to from his own time is George Jessel. He was kind of like a dinner speaker. He told carefully crafted, polished humorous stories and jokes, most of them in dialect, and most of them Jewish, although he also did Italian, Irish, and a few others. To be more specific (for I realize that all comedians tell humorous stories and jokes) Cohen’s manner was formal. The bits were not delivered conversationally and colloqially, but carefully written, in complete sentences, as though they were taken from the pages of Reader’s Digest, and were always delivered the exact same way. This is what has passed by the wayside. For well over half a century, pretty much all American comedians have been compelled by popular tastes to seem natural and off the cuff. To be blunt, that’s not the only way to do it. In the vaudeville days, natural talkers (like, say, Will Rogers) were rare. Most comedians were more like Cohen.

Ironically, Cohen, though old enough, seems never to have been in vaudeville. For most of his working life, he was in the garment business in New York City. (He’d immigrated to the U.S. as a child, from what is now Belarus). He didn’t go into show business until he was quite a middle aged man, and then he worked nightclubs and resort hotels like those in the Catskills and Miami. He made comedy records and released joke books. And he did routines on the major TV variety shows from the early 1950s through the late 1970s, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Kate Smith Hour, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Joey Bishop Show, Mike Douglas and Merv. He only did one acting role (and scarcely that): he, along with Jackie Mason, provided the voices of the robot tailors in Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973).

For more on the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.