What in the World is a Woody Woodbury?

I first became aware of Robert Dennis “Woody” Woodbury (b. 1924) from his rather protracted and oddly prominent performance in the 1964 youth film For Those Who Think Young. Though he plays a character (“Uncle Woody”) most of his screen time is devoted to his night club act, a routine so lame and alien to the modern sensibility it will cause a cloud of question marks to form over your head. The only explanation is changing times, children.

Woodbury was a marine vet of WWII and Korea who began performing in Miami nightclubs in the late ’40s. It took him a decade to reach national recognition; his peak roughly coincided with the decade of the 1960s. From 1959 through 1964, he released no fewer than eight comedy records that capture him in live performance. Technically, at the time, these disks passed muster in the genre of “raunchy comedy albums”, although unlike those of salty old Jewish gals like Belle Barth, Rusty Warren, or Pearl Williams and black comics from the chitlin’ circuit like Redd Foxx or Skillet and Leroy, they are hard to recognize as such by modern ears. Woodbury was originally from St. Paul. He’s got a “gosh, gee”, bowdlerized, almost formal manner of presentation that takes the starch out of every bit he does, makes it sound corny. The tales are often about boozers at country clubs, that sort of thing, but they are so canned that it sounds like he’s reading one of the joke columns from Reader’s Digest, or if you prefer Sex to Sexty, or Playboy — which would still make it pretty polite to modern ears. In addition to his lengthy patter, he played the piano and did songs.

At any rate, like I say, for awhile Woodbury had a national audience. In 1962 he took over for Johnny Carson on the ABC game show Who Do You Trust? when Carson left to take over for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. That year, Woodbury also appeared several times on The Tonight Show, and had a bit part in the quirky film Safe at Home, starring Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Marris, as well as William Frawley in his last movie role. In ’64 the aforementioned For Those Who Think Young. In 1966 he co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show for a week, which led to his own syndicated talk show The Woody Woodbury Show (1967-68). He also appeared on George Jessel’s Here Come the Stars, Philbin’s People, The Joey Bishop Show, etc.

In the ’70s, he made numerous appearances on the syndicated The Bob Braun Show and one appearance on Hee Haw. He also had bit roles in several more movies: Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (1975), Jerry Lewis’s Hardly Working (1980), and three Italian movies starring Terrence Hill: Sergio Corbucci’s Odds and Evens (1978) and Super Fuzz (1980), and Enzo Barboni’s Go For It (1983).

Most of his career was devoted to live performance, though, especially, at Florida resort hotels. As this is being written, Woody Woodbury still lives among us at the age of 98. You can hear clips of many of his comedy routines on Youtube.

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For more on variety entertainment, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous