Kliph Nesteroff: Your comedy record came out before anybody even knew who you were.
Franklyn Ajaye: Well, it was a lot of luck. I started in New York City in 1971 after I dropped out of Columbia law school. I went to the Village. I went to Los Angeles when the Comedy Store was picking up momentum. People liked what I did fairly quickly. Wally Amos, who later became Famous Amos, was a professional manager. I was working as the opening act for Jerry Butler at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard.
He recorded it one night at the Comedy Store and he had all the people from A&M Records in the audience. They were in the city for some giant meeting and they arranged a show for me at the Comedy Store. Very nerve wracking. The album was done all in one night. I could have done all that material better down the road. They sent me on a five-week tour with all expenses paid and that's how that happened.
Kliph Nesteroff: How long had you been doing stand-up?
Franklyn Ajaye: A year.
Kliph Nesteroff: A review from that night said the early show was packed with A&M record executives followed by a late show.
Franklyn Ajaye: I don't remember the second show. Isn't that something? Wow.
Kliph Nesteroff: Preceding you onstage for the late show were Denny Johnston and Kelly Monteith.
Franklyn Ajaye: Yeah, I like Kelly quite a bit. He's a good comedian. His career went south, but he was really clever.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the Comedy Store like in those early days?
Mitzi Shore really turned it around. Redd Foxx and Freddie Prinze came through. Foxx always came through after shooting Sanford and Son. I saw Pryor a lot. Everybody. A lot of young comedians at the time. Kelly was clever. His style was similar to what I was trying to do. Who else was there? Letterman. Leno. It was hot until the Melrose Improv opened.
Kliph Nesteroff: You felt a strong kinship with Leno back then.
Franklyn Ajaye: I liked Jay quite a bit back then. I still do. He was a straight shooter as far as I was concerned. Very down to earth. Not neurotic like a lot of performers can be. He was never that way. Always kind of clear and working class, but smart. Very able to see through the BS of showbiz and not get sucked into it. We were on the same wavelength.
Kliph Nesteroff: You joined The Flip Wilson Show...
He couldn't work, but he was an underground hero. So it was his last year and Flip said, "Hey, I'll bring Richard on." Richard promised to behave. He was brilliant and his career took off again. I came on for my network debut, a stand-up performance. I never worked as a writer or anything, I did one stand-up performance that last year. Monte was a strong comedy manager. Anthony Newley and Jack Klugman were on the episode I did. Very nice guys. I was nervous and young. Jack Klugman was very down to earth.
Kliph Nesteroff: October 1973 - you played the Bitter End.
Franlyn Ajaye: I did it while still in Columbia law school and I used to do a lot of Hoot Nights at the Troubadour. Everybody was a singer except for me. I would do the Tuesday nights at the Bitter End. October 1973, I was doing the tour for that album. I did the Cellar Door, Paul's Mall in Boston, the Bijou Cafe in Philadelphia. A&M Records paid for that whole tour. In Denver I was with Taj Mahal and my brother, a musician, was with them. I did not know that my brother would be part of the headline act. That was a complete surprise. That was real great, I got to play a week with him.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Troubadour was important for some comedians. Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong got followings out of it.
Franklyn Ajaye: The Troubadour was Elton John and Springsteen. It was massive in terms of the rock and folk during the 1970s. More so than the Bitter End, which was bigger in the 1960s. The Troubadour was part of that David Geffen scene. You'd find Steve Martin, Albert Brooks and Robert Klein there. Richard Pryor did an album there. Steve Martin did a great show there. I was the only comedian from the Comedy Store going there to work. None of the other comedians were.
Kliph Nesteroff: Long before Richard Pryor was a big star he made his own movie and you were in it.
Franklyn Ajaye: He did write a movie and I was in it a little bit - although no, he didn't want me to be in it. I was in college at the time. A friend of mine said Richard Pryor was doing a little movie over here about veterans. He rented a house and was paying two dollars an hour - would I want to be in it? The movie never got released or done. It was very strange and very angry. I played a guy who was washing a white man and was judged by a Black jury. I worked seventeen hours for two dollars an hour - and the check bounced. He mentioned the movie in a Rolling Stone article with him and Lily Tomlin. It never got done or released and I never saw it.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did he remember your being involved in it years later?
It could be alcohol and drugs or his own personal demons magnified by cocaine. Who knows. I was never someone who wanted to be around a genius just to be around him. Some people tolerate that craziness just to be around talent. I was never that type of person. If you were difficult, I didn't want to be around you. But he was definitely the height of what I was trying to do. He was the guy. I asked him for advice on the set of Stir Crazy and he said, "Don't try to be funny, just try to be interesting." I think there's a certain desperation with comedians trying to be funny.
Kliph Nesteroff: 1974 - you did your first Tonight Show. It seems like you didn't do it again for a very long time.
I couldn't remember my act backstage. Monte said, "Don't worry, the minute you walk out, you'll remember it." And he was right. I really blanked out right before. I was dressed in a dashiki if I remember. I'm not sentimental about my career in any way. I wasn't getting a lot of national TV. Make Me Laugh did more for me than any of my Tonight Show appearances.
Make Me Laugh - I was on for five straight nights and those five nights had far more impact on my career than talk show performances. Talk shows were always spaced out and even if you had a really good one, you couldn't return for another three months or so. You couldn't build momentum the same way. Make Me Laugh made more people aware of me and I was able to get better bookings. It did a lot for comedians. If you were funny five nights in a row you could really pick up some momentum.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were cast in Chico and the Man after Freddie Prinze died.
I remember thinking at the time, "That's a mistake. That's a mistake. Richard is not a good influence on life." He's a great influence on comedy, but if you're a candidate for self-destructive behavior, he's the worst person for you to hang out with. Once Freddie started hanging out with him, it meant there was going to be a lot of cocaine. They had the same manager - Ron DeBlasio.
Chico and the Man hit and that was huge, but Freddie wasn't happy. That wasn't what he wanted to do. It changed in the 1980s, but in the 1970s comedians were looking at stand-up as an art form in and of itself, mainly because Pryor and Carlin made it into an artform. You got into comedy to be a great comedian, a great stand-up, not to have a sitcom. So even though he had the television show and was making gobs of money, it took him from what he really wanted to do, which was be a rebellious, groundbreaking comedian. He was very influenced by Lenny Bruce and that is really what he wanted to be.
I remember being very affected by his suicide. He got married quickly to that vegas showgirl. I don't know if that was a good or bad thing. Things were moving fast and I remember hearing he wasn't happy people were trying to turn him into Bob Hope. I remember thinking I wish I had talked to him. I don't know what I would have said, but I felt I could have talked to him before things got too extreme.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were actually under contract to NBC at the time.
Franklyn Ajaye: I got some kind of holding money or something. I did Della and Son - it was an episode of Chico and the Man which was a pilot. Jack Albertson was in it, and it was supposed to be a spin-off to save Chico and the Man. I wasn't doing a lot of the late night talk shows. People think I did more of them than I did because each time I did pretty good - but I couldn't get them as often as other people. I was in Richard Pryor's shadow. My style, that laid back style, was tough for a Black comedian. It wasn't loud enough. It wasn't Black enough for the Black audience and it wasn't Black enough for the white audience!