Archive for the Stand Up Category

R.I.P. Professor Irwin Corey: Dead at 102

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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There’s been lots of chatter on social media since last night and I finally got definitive word from Bob Greenberg: Professor Irwin Corey has passed away at age 102.  Those old enough to remember him from tv, may justifiably ask, “Professor Irwin Corey is still alive???” But here in New York he remained very much present and visible in at least two of the circles I run with. The subset of the comedy community that respects its old timers knows him well, of course. As does the progressive activist community. Irwin was very active well past the century mark, still going out, still being “public” amongst those two groups, attending their dinners and functions and parties and meetings, interacting with people, cherishing the limelight. And, as always happens when you approach and then pass 100, he’s gotten more press than usual in the local papers in recent years.

Irwin’s schtick was very vaudeville: he affected the distracted, disheveled look of the academic intellectual much popularized by Einstein: ill fitting clothes and long, messy hair. He was a kook who would spout nonsense, confusing the convulsed audience while purporting to enlighten them. He started this bit at night clubs and cabarets in the ’40s. In the ’60s, he caught on with the counterculture and tv. By the ’70s, since he was so well recognized, he got lots of bit parts in movies.

At the same time, he was extremely left wing, a radical of the type that had become quite rare in America by the turn of the 21st century. He surely must have been flipping out these last few weeks.

Bob Greenberg, who was his good friend, posted this message last night:

“Irwin passed away at 6:27 PM tonight in his home. He had just eaten Vanilla Ice Cream Swirl followed by Egg Drop Soup. (The Ice Cream didn’t satisfy him so he sent his son out to get the soup.) After the soup he complained that the covers were too heavy on his feet. (This was odd since he usually complained that there wasn’t enough covering him.) His Nurse adjusted them and when she looked up he was gone. “

Farewell to the “World’s Foremost Authority”.

Jack Waldron: The First Stand-Up?

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd

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Brooklyn’s own Jack Waldron (Jack Kestenbaum, 1893-1969) was born on this day. In vaudeville days, Waldron was a comic, singer and dancer with a team called Lockett and Waldron; he later worked with a succession of others partners including Betty Winslow, Myrtle Young, Emma Haig, and Harry Carroll; and was also briefly teamed with Shemp Howard in 1925.

Waldron had spots in four Broadway shows in the twenties: Flossie (1924), The Great Temptations (1926), Hello, Daddy (1928), and Woof Woof (1929-1930). He made two Vitaphone picture shorts: A Breath of Broadway (1928), and Radio and Relatives (1940). Throughout the 30s and 40s, he was mostly a night club comic and m.c., prized for his one-liners. As such he was highly influential; some have gone so far as to claim him as the first stand-up comedian, although the same claim has also been made about many earlier performers. Jack E. Leonard claimed to have patterned his rapid-fire insult style after Waldron, quoting him as saying to a heckler, “Let’s play horse. I’ll be the front end, and you just be yourself!”

In 1948 Waldron did The Ed Sullivan Show, his one tv spot. and then three Broadway shows in the 50s: Pal Joey (1952-53), The Pajama Game (1954-56), and The Vamp (1955). In 1961, the Sobels included him in their A Pictorial History of Vaudeville. And in 1969 he became Shepherd (president) of the Lambs, a post he held until he died.

You can see him in action in his Vitaphone A Breath of Broadway here.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

R. I. P. Nat Hentoff

Posted in Comedy, CULTURE & POLITICS, Jazz (miscellaneous), Jews/ Show Biz, ME, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2017 by travsd

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Boy! How’s this for symbolic timing? The great journalist Nat Hentoff has passed away at age 91. We need as many men and women like him as we can get at the present moment; and yet I can well understand him, after a 70+ year career, looking at the result of the last election and the challenges ahead, despairing at the impact of his life’s work and refusing to go another step.

When I moved to this city 30 years ago, he was the Great Lion of the Village VoiceI read him weekly there, and pored over a few of his many non-fiction books. His influence on me ended up being enormous. There is no doubt, NO DOUBT in my mind, that my strong reverence for the U.S. Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular, is a result of Hentoff’s hammering that message home in his writing, week after week after week, for decades. It’s central to who I am. Though I never met him, he imparted that wisdom to me, to such an extent that I find myself bewildered that everyone doesn’t possess the same understanding of the document’s frailty and preciousness. It is our only bulwark against tyranny; it has always been under assault even in the best of times; and given the rhetoric of our President-elect, one can only imagine that it about to be gutted and trampled with unprecedented fury. I’m glad to know Nat Hentoff won’t be around to see what’s going to happen to his beloved Constitution.

Hand in hand with his near-worship of our Founding Document was Hentoff’s deep, profound appreciation for America’s national music, jazz. He was of the generation that went for bebop and musicians like Coltrane, Mingus and Roach. In fact, Hentoff may have been our best known jazz critic, and I have always been fascinated by the pairing, the relationship between his music writing and his political writing. Among its myriad and assorted pleasures, jazz was for Hentoff a metaphor for America’s political ideals. Jazz and related improvisational forms (blues, soul, gospel, rock, hip hop) is based on an aesthetic of freedom, but freedom with rules. The musicians need to play together; the solos can be quite far out, but the players always return to the theme and give their bandmates a chance to take their own solos. Anarchy isn’t the point; freedom is. Musical anarchy sounds terrible. (It’s safe to say my making a political metaphor of vaudeville in No Applause was ultimately inspired by Hentoff doing the same thing with jazz.)

The other great theme of Hentoff’s life was education, and he was always very vocal about how he himself was a product of his teachers and mentors. Though he was an atheist himself, it is instructive to me the extent to which he was influenced by two great world religions, Judaism and Catholicism. A Jew himself, he was educated at Boston Latin, where many of his teachers were Catholic. One of his heroes was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The area in American politics where Jews have made the biggest impact has been in the courts, which Hentoff believed to be an extension of the great tradition of Talmudic interpretation and disputation. In our system, we argue it out and come to consensus. We don’t give and follow orders from a single individual at the top. At least, that’s the way it has always been.

Some of my readers will find the Catholic influence less fortunate, but to my mind it makes Hentoff even more interesting and valuable and unique and worth emulating, not for the beliefs themselves but because he could not be put in a box. From the Catholics came his absolute reverence for human life, which for him meant 100% opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia, war, torture, and, yes, abortion. I’m not here to defend or argue the latter stance (with which I happen to disagree), but it does make him among the most anomalous abortion opponents ever, an atheist Jew from the Northeast, a strange bedfellow indeed amongst all the Bible thumpers.

This combination made Hentoff among our foremost libertarians, and one equally at home (and not at home) among the left and right. This is the kind of independent thinker I cherish a great deal; there are so bloody few of them.

Another take away from Boston Latin — that excellent classical education made Hentoff a terrific writer. There is so much to be said for this. Unlike many of my favorite critics, I’m not sure I would ever call Hentoff a “talent” or a “wit”. He wasn’t, for example, funny, which makes him one of the few writers I love about whom that can be said. I would call him a “thinker”, someone whose thoughts and ideas were unique and logical and original and passionate. He was less about the words themselves than about expressing his thoughts as clearly as he could. His education allowed him to do that. This meant that, despite the fact that he wasn’t a flashy, poetic, memorable wordsmith, that I still read him all the time for the sake of what he had to say alone. And this meant that I was introduced to tons of subjects I might never have otherwise encountered. The greatest example I can think of is the life and work of independent journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone.  Stone died in 1989; Hentoff eulogized him at the time, and wrote about his example on many other occasions. Stone was an American hero, a guy with a mission to uncover and communicate the truth, whatever the cost to himself, all day, every day, until the day he died. Hentoff’s admiration for such characters was always infectious.

Someone else I associate with Hentoff is Lenny Bruce. They had so much in common: Jews born in the twenties, verbal guys, whose work embodied the twin themes of jazz and the First Amendment. They knew each other of course. I just found this great clip of the two of them in conservation shortly before Bruce died in 1966, framed with later commentary, circa 1972. Watch it here. Nat Hentoff interviewing Lenny Bruce; that’s pretty much everything. Neither of them believed in heaven, but I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, they’re both there anyway.

Mike “King” Kelly (Slide, Kelly, Slide!)

Posted in Comedy, Irish, Sport & Recreation, Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Mike “King” Kelly (1857-1894).

Irish-American Kelly was one of the first sports stars to go on the vaudeville stage. Baseball right fielder, catcher and manager Kelly played for the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago White Stockings, the Boston Beaneaters, the Boston Reds, the New York Giants, and Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers. Kelly first went on the vaudeville stage with the encouragement of Nat Goodwin when he was playing for various Boston teams in the late 1880s. Billed as “King Kelly, the Monarch of the Baseball Field”, he would make his appearance in ill-fitting, mismatched clothes. Critics and audiences praised him as a natural comedian. One of his acts was to recite a butchered version of “Casey at the Bat”.

In fact, vaudeville may be said to have been responsible for Kelly’s early death at age 36. He caught pneumonia while traveling by ferry to an engagement at the Imperial Theatre in Boston with the Gaiety Girls in November, 1894. But he lives on in the 1889 tin pan alley song about him “Slide, Kelly, Slide”. And there was a 1927 silent comedy film based on the song, directed by Eddie Sedgwick. 

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Happy 101st Birthday, Professor Irwin Corey!

Posted in ACTS, Comedians, Comedy, Stand Up, Television with tags , , on July 29, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the 101st birthday of Professor Irwin Corey! He’s still alive! I guess he’s still waiting for Socialism.

Corey’s is essentially a vaudeville act, although he introduced it two decades too late for vaudeville. (He launched his act in the 1940s). Billed as an “The World’s Foremost Authority” he would unleash a meandering stream of doubletalk. His appearance, with the air of distraction, the messy suit with tennis shoes, and the Einstein-esque tousled hair was what sold it.

When I was a kid in the ’70s Corey was a staple of television talk and variety shows like Merv Griffin and The Tonight Show, and he had cameos and small parts in movies like Car Wash (1976).

Here he is in his heyday 1966 on The Smothers Brothers Hour:

To find out more about the history of show business, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

Posted in African American Interest, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Stand Up with tags , , , , , on March 10, 2015 by travsd

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Thanks to a tipster who let me know that both me and No Applause are cited in this book, I ran out and got a copy of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him (2013), by David and Joe Henry. This came as great news, on the heels of my more recent mention in Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century.  If this keeps up, I may start believing the widespread misconception that I know anything about vaudeville!

Boy, did I enjoy this book, on every conceivable front. I really don’t even know where to start. Yes, it’s highly factual, and yes, the Henry brothers got up close and personal interviews with many of the key players in Richard Pryor’s dramatic life story. Much MORE than this they demonstrate a deep and thorough knowledge of Pryor’s cultural significance and an intimate knowledge of the sources from which he sprang.

As is well known, Pryor was a poor, urban black from Peoria, Illinois. He grew up in a brothel, and got his start performing on the chitlin’ circuit with people like Redd Foxx and LaWanda Page, often opening for jazz and blues acts.  While black music had been crossing over to white audiences for decades by the mid twentieth century, honest-to-goodness genuine black COMEDY had not. Pryor took this underground stream of American culture and shared it with everybody else. He was able to do this because he was an improvisational comic genius, the likes of which rarely come along. He was able to conjure voices and characters and personalities on the spot and weave tragicomic narratives that shone a light on a corner of America that had never been represented in the mainstream before, and he made them universal to boot. Bob Newhart compared him to Mark Twain. 

A digression: this is strictly anecdotal, but it is my solid belief that more than any other single person, it is Pryor who was responsible for the modern acceptance of previously forbidden words in polite society. This is based on nothing but personal observation over the course of a lifetime. I’m from the working class; my parents both swore like sailors at home when I was growing up, but never in mixed company. Naturally, the F word existed but it was used so rarely in public that the few incidents of its occurrence were famous: Norman Mailer, Lenny Bruce, Abby Hoffman, The Fugs, and the MC5. It had such power to shock that you could count where and when it had been publicly used.  Somewhere down the line it became socially acceptable for everyone: black or white, male or female, old or young to use words like “fuck”, “dick”, “cock” and “pussy” in business settings, college classrooms, social gatherings. This may well still NOT be the case in, say, rural Alabama. All I know is that it has been the case in my experience during my entire adult life in cities like New York, Boston, and Providence. Young ladies now use language in business meetings that would have caused gruff male CEOs to blush with embarrassment a few decades ago. Naturally, Pryor wasn’t the only source for this change, but when I think of his concert records and films, and how popular they were and how influential, and how young people quoted them — he seems a very pivotal figure on this major social shift. And if you think about it, that is a seismic shift…from a culture more Puritan in orientation, to one that is freer, franker and more open. (The battle continues to rage, of course. Wasn’t it just a few months ago that some women were expelled from some state legislature for using the word “vagina”? And not as profanity, but as a technical anatomical description on a point directly related to the law they were discussing? As Lenny Bruce said, if you’re not allowed to say “fuck”, you’re not allowed to say “Fuck the government.” )

The Brothers Henry don’t gloss over any of the ugly stuff, and there is a lot of it. While affectionate, Pryor was often mean and nasty to everyone he loved, a major abuser of drugs, he neglected his children, and he fired guns at people. And worse than all that, he made all those terrible movies in the 80s and 90s! He earned millions doing it, but in the long run it tarnished the purity of his reputation (The Henrys very astutely compare it to Elvis’s god-awful bubble gum movies. Pryor’s place in cultural history is so VERY much like Elvis’s. The man changed everything).

One last thing before I go ahead and give this tome five stars on Goodreads. This book is damn well written — one of the best written show biz books I have ever read. I’m talking about the style of it, how these boys put words together. Frequently beautiful, poetic, boldly and unashamedly going for metaphors and similes and analogies to describe their quicksilver subject, and with a frame of reference ranging from classical literature, to movies, to American popular music. The Henry Brothers not only conjure Pryor’s art, but like the title says, his world: from the pool rooms and bars of his native Peoria to the coke-fueled sink-swamps of Hollywood. David Henry and Joe Henry are formidable fellows and, as far as I’m concerned, brothers in arms.

Do I recommend that you read this book? I COMMAND you to read this book! Buy it here.

Celebrations of New York, Uptown and Downtown

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, PLUGS, Stand Up with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2015 by travsd

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Last night the Mad Marchioness and myself had ourselves a double header. The first leg was the book launch event for Kevin Fitzpatrick’s new tome The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide. Kevin’s the head of the Dorothy Parker Society, the author of several books (including this and this), and was the prime mover of the galactic phenomenon known as Marxfest. I’m told “my copy is in the mail”. Rest assured I’ll report back on the contents once it’s in my hot little hands. The party was held — where else? — at the Algonquin.

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Me and the Fitz

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Me and Darkly Dapper Don Spiro, of “Wit’s End” and Zelda Magazine

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These two ladies are Dorothy Parker’s nieces. They shared with me a scrapbook containing Dorothy’s letters home to her father from summer camp. Many were written in verse!

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Me and the Marchioness

Also present were WFUV’s Michael Haar  (who said he was dressed down, but we couldn’t tell), the Illustrious (and Illustrated) Dandy Dillinger, Bob Tevis (one of my cohorts from the Fields Fest committee — stay tuned!) and of course the aforementioned  Mad Marchioness. Someone took a pic of us together — as soon as it gets posted I’ll add it here. Buy Kevin’s book here.

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From thence we hied us southward to Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety Hour at UCB East.  We’ve been hearing the praises of this monthly show for what seems like a year or two now — sung principally by the lad’s father John Towsen, author of the seminal book Clowns, a rich resource I first discovered when I was about 19 years old. It was definitely an important source for my book Chain of Fools.

The younger Towsen, the host, is a droll, Woody-like presence, a unique combination of Nerd and fashion-plate. We were drawn to last night’s edition of his show by the big marquee names, starting with the beautiful and brilliant Janeane Garofolo, once the poster-girl for anarchism (not to say anarchy – -or maybe it’s the other way ’round) on the stand-up stage, but now as welcome and comforting a sight to this old slacker as, I dunno, a Janeane Garofolo movie. I was once on a bill at Caroline’s with Garofolo about 20 years ago. Or rather, was I just near the stage? Or maybe I just watched her on television? Nah, through some fluke we performed in the same room. Anyway, this would seem like a knife in her heart (I don’t mean it to), but I had a lot of ’90s nostaligia watching her last night, and for me that’s an entirely new emotion. In this room of hipsters half our age, Garofolo came off as a wizened, grizzled veteran, which she is, and that’s kind of a cool role to get to play in life and show biz, I think! Anyway, Two Boots (adjacent the UCB East Space) just named a pizza after her, that was the touchstone of her routine, and so there was a lot of Lower East Side love in the room, and that also took me back.

Then a young gent named Matthew Katz did a sort of slideshow wherein he waxed rhapsodic about key NYC landmarks like the Apollo Theatre and Warhol’s Factory. It was at such an introductory level that it made me fear for the future of America. If young, nightlifey New York adults — presumably the sophisticates among the sophisticates — need a second grade primer about these legendary New York institutions, then we all ought to be very afraid. And they do, I guess, so go ahead and be very afraid. I know I am.

The headliner was Michael Che, a new SNL cast member who reads the jokes on their ancient, ossified “Weekend Update” relic. The gist of his routine, that he is too busy playing video games to care about anything, was…ironic I guess? What it was not, was hilarious.

Ironically, the greatest comedian in the room, I am certain, was sitting to my right. Hilary Chaplain came by with a posse of her clown buddies to take in the show. I’d have paid another $6 to see them perform! (That’s what we call a Scottish compliment).

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