Poking into the Past: Three Funny Men

By Tom Morrow

Of the many celebrities I schmoozed with during more than four decades of writing and interviews, three comedians pop out: Jack Carter, Henny Youngman, and Milton Berle

Carter, born June 24, 1922, in Brooklyn, was a comedian, actor and television personality whose long-running act was similar to his rapid-paced contemporary, Berle.

In 1984, I’m sitting in the Pacific Southwest Airlines (remember their jetliners with the smiles on their faces) waiting area to catch a flight from San Diego to Los Angeles when I realized a very familiar face was sitting alongside. He was frantically searching his pockets for something.

“Buddy, can ya spare a dime?” he asked me. It was famed stand-up comedian Jack Carter. Luckily I did have a dime. He took the coin over to a pay telephone and made a call. When he returned it was time for the flight to board.

“C’mon kid, you’re my valet,” he quickly told me as he faked a “limp” toward the gate. He went up to the agent and informed her I was needed to help him board the plane. I went along with it. We were boarded along with the women and children and had our pick of seats. It was small talk over the next hour, but big in my memory.

Carter hosted an early television variety program called “Cavalcade of Stars” on the old DuMont Network. He was lured to NBC to host his own program titled “The Jack Carter Show”. He made dozens of appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Carter died on June 28, 2015.

Henry “Henny” Youngman was born March 16, 1906, and grew up to become a comic with a violin who mastered the one-liner: “Take my wife … please.”

At a time when many comedians told elaborate anecdotes, Youngman’s simply poured out his terse remarks broken up occasionally with interludes of violin playing.

His brief barbs depicted simple, cartoon-like situations.

A couple of examples:

“My wife said I should take her somewhere she’s never been, and I said, ‘Try the kitchen.’”

“My wife is crazy about furs and said she wanted something different. So, she went to a furrier who does his own breeding. He crossed a mink with a gorilla. She got a beautiful coat, only the sleeves are too long.”

Youngman’s friendly style made it inoffensive and kept his audiences laughing for decades. During my interview with him, I asked how many jokes he had amassed over the years. “Millions,” he replied. I then asked if he was afraid other comedians would steal them? “Only as long as Berle’s alive,” he quipped. (They were close friends).

Youngman died Feb. 24, 1998, and bequeathed a collection of 6 million jokes to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Berle, who was born July 12, 1908, was a vaudeville-style comedian and actor. As the host of NBC’s “Texaco Star Theater” that ran from 1948 to 1955, he was the first major American television star and was known to millions of viewers as “Mr. Television.” 

Because of his huge popularity, his show boosted TV-set sales nationally to double to more than 2 million.

In Detroit, an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the city’s reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05. It turned out that everyone waited until the end of Berle’s “Texaco Star Theatre” before going to the bathroom.”

He earned another nickname after ending a 1949 broadcast with a brief ad-libbed remark to children watching the show: “Listen to your Uncle Miltie and go to bed.”

Berle risked his newfound TV stardom at its zenith to challenge Texaco when the sponsor tried to prevent black performers from appearing on his show. Berle broke that colour barrier.

I interviewed Berle in 1979 for a front-page feature for the newspaper that employed me at the time and got to chatting with him at a dinner in 1994. I reminded him of our interview 15 years earlier, adding “you probably don’t remember me.” He quickly quipped, “Of course I do … now, what was your name?”

When he was at the height of his popularity at NBC, the network gave Berle a lifetime contract for $1 million a year. Ironically, shortly thereafter, his star began to fade, but he got his money every year until his death March 27, 2002.

-Mature Life Features