Wednesday, July 29, 2015

An Interview with Will Jordan - Part Fourteen(!)

Kliph Nesteroff: How about The Red Buttons Show in the 1950s...

Will Jordan: Yeah, very interesting thing. It started off so good. But his friends - like Jan Murray - all hated him because he never invited them to appear on the show. And Buttons was a very, very good natured guy. Apparently, Buttons didn't think he was slighting them. His attitude was it just wasn't appropriate to use friends. Another Red - Redd Foxx - wound up using many of his comedian friends from nightclubs like Jack Carter and Danny Dayton.

Berle was very good to his friends. Phil Silvers too. But yeah, Red Buttons was a very nice guy, married a Puerto Rican girl and took a lot of kidding from the guys in the Friars Roasts and apparently was very sensitive about that. He did not like anti-Puerto Rican jokes. Also, Howard Cossell was a very, very nice man who got mad at jokes. They seemed to be over sensitive, I thought. You wouldn't think they would be that thin-skinned. It is interesting that Red Buttons' career kind of fizzled out. He kept trying writers and for some reason they couldn't sustain the show. I'm not really sure what happened there.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you around when that controversy was going on?

Will Jordan: Well, let's start with his stand-up, which was excellent. He had one routine that became a classic. The one he became most famous for was called the Bar Mitzvah Boy. He would talk about the cynical, unhappy Bar Mitzvah boy complaining about his Bar Mitzvah gifts. Traditionally the Bar Mitzvah gifts should be the greatest, the most expensive. This bit, the kid is complaining, "They gave me a fountain pen! It should run from his nose like it runs from the pen!"

That was one of the routines that made Red Buttons famous. He appeared on various shows, Sullivan and whatever. Somewhere along the line someone came up with a pilot and he looked good. He had a few gimmicks like "ho, ho, ho." He danced a little bit. He looked like a kid and he played that up and it worked very well. For some reason or other the material worked. I'm not exactly sure why. It's like trying to explain why all of these people fade. Some fade more quickly than others.

[Decades later] Red Buttons did a Broadway show and it was not a success. I thought, "My God, he's so much more talented than Jackie Mason." But Jackie Mason scored. Again, it doesn't make sense. Other people that don't seem to be anything - somehow build. The first Jack Paar and Johnny Carson shows were terrible. Later on, they built. You can't explain chemistry. I don't really know. Noel Coward was on David Frost and said, "A star is not necessarily attractive or talented." Even Noel Coward couldn't define the thing that made stardom. Still, Red Buttons definitely had something.

Certainly Red had the talent. Remember, Red did burlesque. I think he and Phil Silvers were the only two [stars], although Phil Silvers said he hated burlesque. I don't even listen to that. If it hadn't been for burlesque he never would of thought of his style and he wouldn't have met Herbie Faye. Herbie Faye taught him how to act.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you know anything about the act they did together - Phil Silvers and Herbie Faye?

Will Jordan: They didn't do an act. They just worked together in burlesque. Phil Silvers didn't do a burlesque act. He did a stand-up act, which I saw. Pretty much the thing he did with Ed Sullivan. "Look at this. Round, oval tones. Speak from the diaphragm." He did it great with Berle.

Berle and he were very close friends. Berle was a perfect straight man for him. Of course, his nightclub act was nowhere near Berle's. On the other hand, when Berle tried to do sketches... he was not bad. But I completely disagree on Berle's acting. They all say he was great. Berle couldn't act at all! I couldn't see any talent there. Even Jack Benny when he tried to do anything serious - awful. But great in comedy. Same with Danny Thomas. I never saw any real [acting] talent there. On the other hand, when people like Gleason and Mickey Rooney did serious stuff? Very good. Quite different.

Gleason was far superior to the others. Off hand I can't think of any other great stand-up comedian that could act. They did say that Frank Fay could... but we only have one or two films.

We really don't have any evidence. Frank Fay might very well have been a good dramatic actor. I don't know. People that saw Harvey say it was the best thing they'd ever seen. When they made the movie, nobody could believe they weren't going to put Frank Fay in it. From what I hear, it was a huge mistake and whatever anti-Semitic bastard Fay may have been... if he was that good... he should have been put in the film.

Kliph Nesteroff: Is there a story about Milton Berle attacking Frank Fay?

Will Jordan: Oh, they hated each other! Everyone was on Berle's side, but in actual fact, Fay was much better than Berle. They kind of wanted to have it out, but when they actually went onstage together, Frank Fay would just cut him to pieces. We have no evidence of that either, but that must be what happened. Everybody criticized Frank Fay because of the anti-Semitism and were absolutely right. But if you just talk about his anti-Semitism, you're leaving out the man who was literally the first stand-up comedian. No matter what kind of a bastard he was, you can't dismiss that from showbiz history.

He was the emcee of the Palace longer than anyone else. You listen to some of his ad-libs and they aren't funny. Apparently his ad-libs were so much in the moment that they're not memorable. The old line, "You had to be there." Frank Fay was "you had to be there." I asked Bob Hope about it and he told me some of his ad-libs... and, uh, they still weren't funny. He was kidding Gracie Allen and said a line that doesn't seem funny, but apparently it got screams.

He's looking at Gracie and then he looks at George Burns and he says, "Why the man?" It's not really much a dialogue. "Why the man?" In other words, "Why are you teamed up with this no-talent?" All of that is implied. That's the kind of thing that Frank Fay had. He did Rudy Vallee's shows, he did make an LP, and one bit - which was not his - about making fun of lyricists. Very good bit, but while it was good I get the feeling it was really not Frank Fay's style.

Bob Hope never insulted anyone - when he talked about Frank Fay he was quite concentrated on what he was telling me. He would tell me these stories and every ad-lib that Frank Fay said was not funny. He said, "Let's get someone at the piano." And then Frank Fay would say, "Oh! There's someone there already!" Hope told me these things got screams. It doesn't travel.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard a vague story - something about Milton Berle coming after Frank Fay with a pipe and clocking him in the skull...

Will Jordan: Hmmm, could have been. He hated him enough. I don't know. He was certainly capable of it. Berle would always hang around in the Sportsman Lodge and practice fighting with these guys. He just loved being a half-assed puncher. He would have loved to have done that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You performed at the Slate Brothers club in Los Angeles. What do you remember...

Will Jordan: Oh, it was a disaster! Terrible! Terrible! Rickles became a star there. For me it was an absolute... William Morris' mistake for booking me there and my mistake for taking it. I followed Jerry Lester who was long past his prime, but still a thoroughly trained nightclub comedian. Jerry Lester did very well, but I did not. It was just not a good room for me.

Kliph Nesteroff: What were those guys like themselves - the Slate Brothers... they were an old fashioned dance act that took over this club...

Will Jordan: The Slate Brothers were a tap dance group. They apparently retired and opened this club. Had various degrees of success. With Rickles it just scored big. He did the stuff he had done in Florida. Everyone said, "Don't talk dirty. Don't insult." But even though he was getting hit or miss reactions... what must have happened was he did more good shows than bad.

Because he would have given up the insults if he received nothing but rejection. He did hundreds of shows for this guy Willie Weber before anyone ever heard of him. Hundreds of nightclubs all over the country, hundreds of shows. So it was a slow growth, the insult style. It's nothing like his real life personality, except for the energy. In real life? Tremendous energy.

But a very nice, supportive guy. I tell you that story? Jackson Heights - there was a newsstand there. One day, going into the city there was Rickles [working] out at the newsstand. He wasn't broke. He was doing it as a favor. Something you wouldn't think of Rickles doing, would you? Helping out a poor guy running his newsstand for him, just as a nice gesture. That's what Rickles is really like. Much nicer guy than you would expect, much more gracious than you would expect. 

Berle too would often do unbelievably nice things and you never heard about them. Complete opposite of the image so therefore more impressive. Listen, forgive me, I better get going, but we can set another time... God, I can't imagine you wanting any more. I must have talked... of course, you are such a wonderful audience. I am well aware that I am taking advantage of you. I don't want you to think for one moment that I think I am really that charming. It's just that you're so gracious.

Kliph Nesteroff: No, I appreciate it. Believe it or not, I'm still working off the notes I have from the last time we talked that I never got to. So, I have no shortage of things to ask you about. I have down that you were on the Tonight Show with guest host Arlene Francis in 1962.

Will Jordan: She was wonderful. She was really "what you see is what you get." That was a top to bottom doll of a woman. Really legitimate. Everything about her was great. She was like that all the time. Extremely modest. Unfortunately, it was only when people like Jonathan Winters or Al Capp guest hosted for Johnny Carson or Jack Paar that I got on these shows. 

All of these replacements I got along with fine. My bad luck was that Paar and Carson didn't like me. I've never found out why. I think I told you what Paar said. "The crew says Jonathan Winters is funnier." I said, "Is this a contest? Am I in a contest to see if... are you saying this about everyone that has appeared on your show?" There was nobody funnier than Jonathan. If you use that as a yardstick he would never hire any comedians! That was a very poor analogy. And Carson I never found out why. 

I appeared once on the Carson show with Bing Crosby's wife. She was so horrible to me that if I had any chance of being anything she ruined it. I imitated Bing and the audience applauded and she got so mad. I don't know why. To begin with, I don't think I could imitate Bing that well. I don't think anybody imitates Bing, period. I suppose it could have been better, but it certainly wasn't deserving of criticism. I always said that a bad imitation of James Cagney will go over better than a good imitation of James Mason. And I think that tells you a lot. It's a matter of what's commercial. 

Even Rickles used to say, "Is he laughing? Is he laughing?" It's part of his act, but it's also a real thing. Is it going over? Am I going over? That constant insecurity, even when you're a star, we're all faced with that. People don't realize how insecure we performers are. Even Rickles at this stage would be looking at whoever was behind him. He'd be insulting and then say, "Is he laughing? Is he laughing?"It's funny, but there's some truth in that too.

Rickles was very concerned about being accepted. He also didn't want to stifle his tremendous power of ad-libbing. This huge force that he had inside gave him this great energy and immediate perception of captioning someone. Bing Crosby had this ability to nickname people. Another great talent! He called Hope "Ski Snoot." Guy Marks did that too. He said, "Every performer is some form of animal." He said that about Bob Manning, "A baby hippo!" Interesting observations.

Well, that's what Rickles had. He could look at it and come up with it in an instant. His ad-libs score so direct. He just gets it right on the mark. Dean Martin said he was in Steubenville, not Cincinnati and Rickles ad-libbed, "Is there a difference?" Look how fast his ad-libs were and how strong they were. Not terribly intellectual, although he is a bright guy, but a tremendous comedy instinct. It all came from shutting up these terrible hecklers that you got. But whatever caused it, there was the talent. And it's still there. 

Kliph Nesteroff: We touched on this just briefly last year, but never got into it. The early Rodney Dangerfield. Jack Roy.

Will Jordan: Didn't really see that. No, I didn't see that. I saw him hanging around. I knew him socially. To me he was just an older guy that I respected because he was a little older than us. He was in the category of guys that had been around longer than me. I respected him even though I may have been doing better than him at the time.

I had a respect for [old] guys like Sonny Sands. The rumor was that Sonny Sands was the one that Jackie Mason really copied. I'm not quite sure, but there is something about Sonny Sands that Jackie did copy. I can't be specific. Sonny Sands' line was, "I mind my business." There was something in the rhythm; not Jewish and certainly not the accent. Another guy who really should have scored much more. An ugly little man, but really very funny. I wish I could tell you more about Rodney as Jack Roy. I never thought of him as Rodney. I remember when I heard that name, "It sounds so completely contrived!" 

That's what I thought. I do think that Rodney did more homework than most of the guys... like Dave Barry who should have become a much bigger star. They would spend hours and hours and hours working on jokes. I wish I had that kind of concentration. Lenny Bruce, his talent came from ad-libbing. I never got the feeling that Lenny ever wrote anything down. The responsibility of being on every night in a strip joint where you could be as dirty as you want and making the musicians laugh. Which we [mainstream club comedians] were told was absolutely taboo.

We we were always told do not make the band laugh. He did exactly the opposite and that worked for him because the band sense of humor started to take over. The musician's slang. That really small niche really began to dominate. The expressions became part of American language. It was really started by the musicians. The expression, "He was, like, forty years old." The word "like" in that context doesn't mean like. It means something else. That was the Black musicians, the bebop musicians, kind of slang.

Lenny was definitely playing to that. He did improve. He just had this tremendous energy where he got up every night and ad-libbed. Every time I saw him he was doing something different. This was another reason I could never understand why he would steal from me. He had so much material. So many different things. Still, he would do stolen material. The London Palladium was an old joke, which he embellished and improved. He stole my Sabu bit and added an old joke, "Make me a malted."Those were old jokes. In spite of Lenny's genius, he was not above stealing. And then, of course, got into drugs and everything. None of that hindered his creativity.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a guy named Lenny Kent?

Will Jordan: Completely different. Lenny Kent is strictly the old world, Catskill comedian. Funny, but in an entirely different way. Kind of an odd looking guy. He had this huge head on this little body. His head belonged on a six feet tall body and he was only about five three. He had some funny things and he briefly worked with...

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Miles.

Will Jordan: No, uh, Rose Marie. They did a nightclub act together. He had some very funny bits. He used to make fun of the tourists, "Hot damn, buddy, buddy!" Jack Carter stole that. And then Lenny Kent claimed to originate a routine... when somebody came in during the middle of his act, he would describe all of the performers that had been on before and in doing so he insulted them and everything. It kind of became his trademark. Very good at that and pretty good at ad-libbing. Loved hookers. He constantly had beautiful girls around him.

He would insult me. I came in once with an ugly girl. It was funny, I came with an ugly girl to see Lenny Bruce. Both Lenny Kent and Lenny Bruce both really insulted me for being with an ugly girl (laughs). Kind of funny, but kind of hurtful. Lenny Kent said to me, "Who are you with!? A Polish midwife?" She was kind of a nice little overweight girl. Lenny said something else. We oversexed comedians would jump on anything. Fortunately I had dates with much more attractive women than that. Lenny felt so at ease in the club. He was very successful in the same club as Pat Cooper and Rodney Dangerfield - The Living Room. 

I never liked it and Rodney built his club like it. There's no one in front of you and everyone is on the left and right. Well, for a mimic that's no good. A mimic wants everyone in front of him. Rodney, apparently, didn't mind. To me it's so basic. Why would you want people on the far left and right who will only see the back of your ear? Apparently some people thought that was okay. It may have been that the Living Room was originally created as a musicians room. 

I went there to see my friend Matt Dennis. Several different acts were on the show and each performer didn't know that the previous performer had introduced me from the audience. "Will Jordan is here," and everyone applauded. After the third time one of the guys in the audience says, "Have him get up. We've been applauding the son of a bitch all night."Very nice guy, Matt Dennis. Dick Shawn changed. He had been much nicer. He would still talk to me. Even though he did some things I didn't like, I really felt sorry. He wanted to be Danny Kaye. He was so thrilled he got the part in that remake of The Women [called] The Opposite Sex

Not a good movie. It was prepared like a big movie with June Allyson and everybody in it. Big movie, big songs and Dick Shawn had a bit in an obvious copy of Danny Kaye. Dick Shawn certainly didn't need to copy Danny Kaye. I think when he went with William Morris they were grooming Sid Caesar to be another Danny Kaye.

Fortunately, Sid went his own way. I'm glad about that. If he hadn't been in control there, Sid may have just wound up being a copy of Danny Kaye. Of course, Danny Kaye copied Harry Ritz. You can see that in those shorts, those Educational shorts. You can see Danny Kaye really looking and talking so much like Harry Ritz. Danny Kaye definitely. Although he was better! Jerry Lewis was better than Gene Baylos and better than all the people he stole from. That theft helped form his style. It's just tragic that in order for them to be successful, other people had to be eclipsed. That's the sad part.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about a guy named Bert Stone? Bert Stone and Eddie Shine.

Will Jordan: Hmm, yeah. Those were one of those many comedy teams that were all around. I remember there was one called Davis and Reese. And from Philadelphia there was Fisher and Marks. These people were very good. You know, Fisher and Marks were enormously successful in Montreal. Fisher and Marks. 

Something that was very funny about them and I don't know if this is a precedent. Two Italian guys changed their names to Jewish names. I don't know if that's something you've ever heard before. Italian guy changing his name to sound Jewish. Fisher and Marks sounds so Jewish, but they weren't. They were part of that vast army of people that were going to be the next Martin and Lewis like Marty Allen and Steve Rossi.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes - or Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo.

Will Jordan: Yeah, you know I got a call from a guy that is writing a book, just recently, last week, about Sammy Petrillo. Enormously talented little guy under contract to Jerry Lewis. Again, it may have been a thing where Jerry actually paid him not to appear. I'm not sure of that, but it sounds possible.

I liked him very much. The only thing I didn't like about - very minor point - and I certainly wouldn't like it said that I said anything bad about Sammy - I didn't understand why he always said he was Italian. I said, "Sammy, your mother was Jewish. Doesn't mean to say you're not Italian, but shouldn't you say you're half Italian?" For some reason he wanted it known that he was Italian and not part Jewish. There must have been a reason.

He was a very talented little guy and he made several albums without doing Jerry Lewis. He was a very good ad-libber. He would call people up. Lenny Bruce would do this too. In his nightclub act, you would give him the phone number of your babysitter. Then he would put them on and these babysitters didn't know they were on the air. I forget where this was. Maybe the Crescendo.

Kliph Nesteroff: Didn't you do an album with Sammy Petrillo?

Will Jordan: I did, but I'm not really on it. They hired me to be Richard Burton and I couldn't. I told them I could do James Mason, "Well, then do James Mason." Idiotic casting. Why would you hire me to do James Mason? The whole thing was disaster. Well-intentioned, but completely miscast and completely wrong.

One of the producers was a guy Larry Joachim, who at one-time was married to the gal on the album, Barbara Loden. Beautiful gal who was the mistress of Elia Kazan and had a child by Elia Kazan, whom I think Larry Joachim raised. I don't think I'm telling you anything you can't check on. The things I can't prove are that Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce stole from me. You're going to speak to the one living person... and of course you could say, "You like Will and you lie," but Frankie Ray knew Lenny Bruce very well. He did bits in those cheap Lenny Bruce movies. Very nice, very talented guy, good looking with huge black eyebrows. Just an extremely nice and talented guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mention the idea of putting somebody under contract so that they could not work. I heard the same story about Joe Besser. Peter Marshall told me that Lou Costello put Joe Besser under contract so that he couldn't work elsewhere.

Will Jordan: Hmm. And yet, Joey Faye said they all stole it from him. The guy with the sneeze. Wonderful burlesque comedian who worked with them all. He's in Top Banana. He claims he wrote Who's On First. Very nice Italian guy. Did stand-up and everything else. 

He did the sneeze and of course they compared him to Billy Gilbert. Billy Gilbert didn't work clubs. Joey Faye. That's the guy who claims he wrote Who's On First. I've got old radio shows with Rudy Vallee and there's another team doing Who's On First from before.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Will Jordan: It's an old 1930s Rudy Vallee radio show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember who that comedy team is?

Will Jordan: Hmm. Not Wheeler & Woolsey. Not the two guys from It Pays to Be Ignorant. Well, not a name that you would know, but chronologically they were before Lou Costello. It probably goes back many, many years.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wasn't WC Fields known for getting violent if he caught someone stealing his act?

Will Jordan: Oh, yes, yes. He hit Ed Wynn, but he didn't hit him with the stealing. He hit him for...

Kliph Nesteroff: He hit Wynn for stealing the scene. For upstaging him.

Will Jordan: The scene, yeah. I don't know if Ed Wynn was a big thief. That goes too far back for me to know. Apparently he married this gal who was the daughter of Frank Keenan. Apparently she and Frank Keenan were tremendous anti-Semites. 

Keenan Wynn, in his book, talks about that. When his mother got drunk she would say, "Why did I marry that Jew! You've got his fat, thick Jewish lips!" That's in Keenan Wynn's autobiography. Of course, she was drunk when she said it. My friend Eddie Ryder's wife also became anti-Semitic when she was drunk. 

Kliph Nesteroff: One guy that everyone of your era says was a notorious joke thief is Corbett Monica.

Will Jordan: Yeah, well, I never saw that. I believe it. I never saw it. Everything I saw him do was very good. Very nice guy. Very good looking. Had a gorgeous wife and a million girlfriends. For some reason he scored bigger in Boston and like Totie Fields, known as a Boston comedian.

Just as Joe E. Lewis was known as a Chicago comedian. They were all New York people who became known for the city they became big in. Corbett is a New York guy and everything. He had a brother, I forget his name. Corbett was very good in clubs in Boston. About his stealing? I never heard that before, but I don't doubt it. 

I mean, people stealing material and being hurt by it is certainly nothing knew. It's interesting the extent. They would actually hire guys to beat you up if you stole. That's how important it was. Well, you could ruin a person's life. Forget about his act, you ruin his life by doing his bits!


KING OF JAZZ said...

I hope there will be fourteen more installments.

Bill Peschel said...

Another great interview, with a lot of meat in it.

Kevin K. said...

It's funny that Will talks about Lenny Bruce stealing his material. That newspaper clipping you posted in the interview mentions a bit about Hitler's agent, which I knew only as a Lenny Bruce routine.

I still find it astonishing that it's 2015, and Will Jordan is still alive and talking. You're doing a fabulous job, Kliph!

Dana Law said...

Kliph, You're a national treasure. Both nations.

Thank you for your work. Let us know when we can pay for a long form article again.

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