Saturday, April 30, 2011

An Interview with Joey Bishop's Gag Writer - Don Sherman - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You played The Cave Supper Club back in the day.

Don Sherman: Yes, it was very interesting when I played The Cave actually. It was back in the early sixties. I was working with Frankie Laine and I was always a fan of his when I was a kid. I figured he was long past his fame. I said, "Gee, I wonder if anybody is gonna show up." I went up to The Cave and there were lines around the block. Yeah, they were real fans. Vancouver really liked old fashioned show business; the stand-up comics and the big band groups. It was a good show business town. Another time I was working Isy's and Jack Carter was working at The Cave. That was the time that I started to switch to original material. I was phasing out all the old standard jokes that I originally put in my act when I was trying to break in. I was starting to write original stuff because Jack Rollins who managed Woody Allen, he would only sign a comic that had an original act. So I started to write all this original material and even though it wasn't going as well as my old jokes, I stayed with it. I was really proud of it as it was developing. At that time, people would go over and see the show at The Cave and then after the first show at The Cave, a lot of the audience would come over to Isy's.

They used to come over all the time and rave about what a fantastic comic Jack Carter was. I wanted to go over and see what they liked so much. I snuck over one night and saw his act and he was doing all the old jokes that I had thrown out of my act (laughs). I said, "Really? Is that the way it is?" So when the audience came in for the second show I went on and I said, "You know, I was just over there to see Jack Carter and you really like all those old jokes?" So I started to do those old jokes and every joke got a bigger laugh than the last joke. "And I knock myself out to have original material? I do another old joke and you people laugh? What's the matter with you people?" It was so funny, but it was so true. Then I was so perplexed. What do I do for the next job? Do I keep pursuing the original? I couldn't do the old stuff. I had to get to where my inner side was at. Thank God I did. I got to work with a couple of stars and I worked college concerts and then it really paid off well, because they knew what I was talking about. That was when the era was changing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Carter was a mainstay at The Cave in Vancouver.

Don Sherman: People really forget that Jack had one of the first prime time variety shows. It was a half hour show and it came on right before Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, which was the big comedy hit. He had a half hour show and you know Jack does everything. Not that he does anything well. But he does everything. He sings, he dances, he does faces, he does impressions - and you don't know who he's impersonating - but his energy is so exhausting and so over the top. He works so hard that whether the audience is appreciating it or not, they've got to get with that energy and he always goes off a hit. In those days a comic died for twenty-five minutes and then he went off with a song, "So you keep on smiling..." and the audience would applaud. He was a master of every trick and God bless him he's still going. He's in his nineties!

Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky Greene was saying to me that all the comedians expected Jack Carter to have a heart attack onstage because he was going so fast.

Don Sherman: I'm sure he's had a couple of 'em! But I'm sure he'll give people a heart attack faster than he'll get one. He was a great spirit. He did something once I always wanted to ask him about. There was a comedian named Jackie Kahane. Jackie died and I went to a memorial service for him. As it was winding up, I forget who was on, one of the other comics was talking. In the back of the temple walks in Jack Carter, completely disheveled in golf attire and he starts to scream at the audience.

Now this is at a funeral! There's a body there! He says, "This is how I find out my best friend died!? Jackie Kahane! I'm driving in my car on the freeway in the traffic..." and he did a couple jokes about the traffic. "...and I see Jackie Kahane died - I don't get a call that Jackie Kahane died!? Nobody told me!" He had people hysterical.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky Greene told me that waiters hated Jack Carter because there was never a plate of food ordered that didn't end up being sent back to the kitchen with a complaint.

Don Sherman: Oh, yeah. Constantly! I wrote a special once for Don Ho in Hawaii and I flew over with Jack Carter and I told him, "Jack, it's a luau. We've written you a couple jokes about it, but if you don't like it don't do it. Do anything you want." And he drove me crazy about those jokes! He told me, "They don't make any sense." I said, "Don't do them then!" And he grumbled. In the end he did the jokes and they all worked, but that was an era of complainers!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Don Sherman: All the old, great comics like Jackie Miles who played the character always losing at the track... I kind of miss that. We evolved to a more intellectual level of comedy and it's proven to be very productive. Most of the comics around today are from a college background, they all write their own material. In those days the comics never got out of high school. That's how I got in the business. I wrote for a bunch of these comedians. I was shocked that not only did they want the joke, you had to do the jokes for them! Word for word, they would study so much, you had to show them how to do it. They'd panic. They'd memorize every line and every movement... but every joke worked.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why was every comedian named Jackie?

Don Sherman: It was a street thing, you know? Jackie! Lenny! Bobby! Jerry! Billy! Buddy! Get Jerry to run to the store! It was just a term of affection, I guess. The name Jackie doesn't ever really work after the age of thirty, y'know. Or Skip. Cruise directors are like that. Someone should do something on them. Most of them are former entertainers who really couldn't make it and found this medium place. They're really great because they help with the entertainment, but even though some of 'em are seventy or eighty they're still all called Nicky and Skippy and they have their little pompadour still going.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Don Sherman: I remember the brothers that owned The Penthouse in Vancouver. What was it? The Phillippone Brothers or something? They used to come in there a lot. What is The Cave now?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, it doesn't even exist anymore as a building. That's all long gone.

Don Sherman: Ah, that's a shame.

Kliph Nesteroff: But The Penthouse is still there.

Don Sherman: Yes, well that goes on forever (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the fellows that ran it was assassinated. There was a hit job. He ran the burlesque houses all the way up the coast - Vegas, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver.

Don Sherman: I didn't know that, but one thing that always fascinated me about your town was the one street. What is it - Main? I used to go to a Chinese restaurant on Main and Pender or something near the police station. There's one street where there's a lot of drug addicts and.... I always thought that was the most interesting two blocks that you could walk in your entire life! Now I see we have a series based upon it that they're running here [in Los Angeles]. It's about a Canadian squad that's just involved around that street. I always thought, "Gee, I hope they film this before it disappears because it can't be around forever." Sure enough, they have that series now.

Kliph Nesteroff: DaVinci's Inquest is the name of the series.

Don Sherman: I love it! It brings you down all the alleys and stuff. Vancouver is a great walking town. When I originally worked there, I worked it with that black group that did Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, oh God, not The Drifters but...

Kliph Nesteroff: The Platters.

Don Sherman: The Platters! Right! We stayed at The Bayshore Hotel by Stanley Park and I met my first black squirrel (laughs). Yeah. I loved that town. Spanish Banks, White Rock, the University grounds, the whole town.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you get started in stand-up? I read that you had been a mountain comic before the Korean War and that after the war you were writing for comics and eventually started doing that material yourself...

Don Sherman: I had done a little performing in the army. They said if I got into special services I could avoid KP. At that time I had no idea I would be a professional stand-up comic, but it was personal therapy for me. These things would happen to me and they would be very funny, so when I was in the army I discussed the physical indoctrination and all you go through and people started to laugh. They eventually asked me to entertain some of the troops once when it was raining and we were in the back of a truck. They got me into special services and I started to entertain. I ran into the famous Robert Orben books. Robert Orben books helped stand-up comics. He would break down a monologue. He'd talk about driving to a nightclub and then he'd have down fifteen different driving jokes. Through that you would construct an act. When I got out of the army I really didn't have the courage to try and become a comic. Thankfully I was a young kid in New York and lot of the kids in New York worked in the Catskill mountains as busboys and waiters. I had a great feeling for comedy so I would rush to finish my job to go and see all these great comics like Alan King and Joey Bishop and those people.

When I got out of the army I was going to go back to the mountains. I went to an employment agency one day where they were looking for busboys and I overheard the guy on the phone say, "No, we don't have social directors!" I said, "Who was that?" And he gave me the name of the hotel and I went over there. There was an old man digging in a ditch and I said, "Can I talk to the owner?" He said, "I'm the owner." I said, "No, you're not." He said, "How do you know?" I said, "Because no owner is digging in a ditch. The owner is up the hill in the hotel in an air conditioned office!" He said, "What are you some kinda comedian?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I'll give you fifty dollars a week and your room." That's how I got my first job. My room was the dressing room where the acts were on Saturday night, so I got to meet all these stars that came in. It was so exciting for me and I ended up writing for a bunch of those guys. One guy recommended me to Joey Bishop. Joey Bishop came down to the Village one day to meet me.

He said, "How would you like to go to Las Vegas?" I said, "I'm in a coldwater flat, my rent is due and I'm broke. Why should I want to go with you?" He took me to Las Vegas and that is when the merry-go-round started.

Kliph Nesteroff: What year are we talking about?

Don Sherman: That was around nineteen fifty-eight or fifty-nine. He was an established supporting act. He opened for Frank and Dean and he was a well-known Catskill mountain act. Those guys usually ended up opening up for the big name singers of the day. Then he got a little popular because Johnny Carson liked him and Ed Sullivan signed him up. He did his first Ed Sullivan and he did great. I came over and I said, "Joey! I think Ed really likes you." This is when I was hipped to what Joey Bishop is. He said, "You don't understand. It's not a question of whether Ed Sullivan likes me. The question is: Do I like Ed Sullivan? Attitude, my friend. Humor is attitude."

And I never really knew what he was talking about. Attitude. Attitude? It kind of dawned on me. Attitude. I explored that word for the next forty years. I still don't have an exact definition, but that was the secret of his humor. I remember when I'd go to him in Vegas... he was working with Tony Bennett and Tony Bennett was a big star. Joey got equal billing. I thought that was real good, but he was real angry that he didn't get star billing. It was interesting working for him.  I remember we went to Chicago once and the comic didn't show up. He said, "My writer is funny. Why don't you put him up?" They put me on and I went over just having some fun, really, got some laughs and it was one of those nights. A lucky night. Hefner was there and a whole bunch of people. They said, "Why don't you go on the road?"

Kliph Nesteroff: So that was at The Playboy Club.

Don Sherman: Yeah. And then I worked for Hefner and opened up his Florida club.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, what was Joey Bishop like to work for? Was he difficult?

Don Sherman: Yeah, he was. In his own way he was a taskmaster. I tried to analyze this because it happens with a lot of comedians when you work for them. When you write for a comic, the last guy he wants to see around when the routine is a hit is you. You remind him that this came from somewhere other than his own genius. I had a different attitude. You pay me two thousand dollars, God Bless you it's yours. I'll go to my grave swearing it's yours. It won't bother me at all. But there's this thing they get in their mind. I had a deal with Joey where I'd get ten percent of anything he used of mine on television. We had parted and I'd been away from him for a year or two and one night he's on The Andy Williams Show and he's doing this routine that I wrote for him. I was really excited to hear my stuff. I called him and he said, "What routine? You just gave me an idea, a suggestion."

There had been actual stuff written, on paper, he was reading it, but God bless him. A comic wants you to write for him, but once you've written for him he doesn't want to remember that you've written for him. That's why the new kids all write their own material. It's a whole different ballgame now. It's the personal... the person is coming through, whereas years ago they were very skillful entertainers, but there was a bit of a facade that the audience was never hipped to. Now it's a great world. Every comic is a critic and every comic is an artist.

Kliph Nesteroff: Somebody described Joey Bishop to me, one of the other nightclub comics of that era, they called him the consumate politician. I guess he was good at.... greasing the wheels... in terms of sustaining his career and working to become very big... he played the game...

Don Sherman: Yes! He was very skillful and knowledgeable in that regard. You're right. He kept his television show on the air for an extra year just because of his ability in that area. But he was an interesting guy. I always wondered why he was attracted to me because we always had, I can't tell ya, battles. We went to the wall! Yet the next day we'd be hugging each other. He was very astute with knowing what he should do. He could hear something that was funny and yet know that it wasn't for him. One day I complimented him on the way he was dressed. He said, "Yeah," he said. "It's my own style. You don't understand the business. I studied being casual." I was trying to get at the humor of this - how ridiculous it is to have studied being casual. Sometimes you can create a character and then you have to live up to it. This character that evolved naturally and then they try to contain in unnaturally.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you also writing for other comics?

Don Sherman: I was writing for a bunch of them until... I really had to learn the art of writing for a living. This was amazing. It had happened by accident. I was brought up in an era of Broadway when they had about ten theaters that had first-run pictures and a live variety show. For fifty-five cents you could go to The Paramount Theater before noon and you saw the Count Basie band, a line of girls, Joey Bishop and Frank Sinatra - and then the movie. Can you imagine that?

And there were five or six of those shows going on at the same time with the major stars of the time. It was five shows a day. In between shows they would hang out at this luncheonette, a famous showbiz place called Hanson's. It was a theatrical drugstore sort of like Schwab's. All the acts would come there inbetween shows in their make-up. When I saw my first show as a kid and I went over there and saw those people... there they were actually having a grilled cheese sandwich like a human being! I was so excited! They were all talking to each other and laughing! After my going there a few times this guy came up to me, a guy named Larry Leslie who was part of a comedy team called the Leslie Brothers and he asked, "What do you do for a living?" I said, "I don't have a living." He said, "You know what you should do? You're a funny guy - tell 'em you're a writer!" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Tell 'em you're a writer. What're they gonna do? Make you write on the spot? They can't do that. Tell 'em you're a writer - watch what happens."

And by God, I'm sitting in the booth one day with Larry and in the next booth is a William Morris agent talking to a singer about her act. I happened to be so rude - from the Bronx, y'know. I interrupted him and I threw a line. The guy said, "That's funny! What do you do?" I said, "I'm a writer.""Really? Would you join us?" 

We went over there and we talked to her and he told me she was opening a new act at The Blue Angel and "Do you have any ideas? Do you have any special material? Have you ever done that before?" I came up with a line for this gorgeous girl. She had very large breasts. I said, "A great opening line for her would be: Life is just a front." He started to laugh. "Could you write lyrics for that?" The two of us made a deal there for five hundred dollars and he wrote a cheque for two hundred and fifty down. I said, "This is marvelous!" I went home and I wrote her act.

I started in the game with confidence. Being in this environment, comics eventually come over to you and say, "You wrote that thing for Larry - could you blah, blah, blah." You'd sit down and talk with them and if they started to laugh you had to know when to stop. Because some of them were so smart... you wanted to qualify for the job, so you'd be pouring out your heart. You pour out your heart, they pay for your grill cheese, and you're left there wondering what happened, and the comic would simply steal the material. I learned the mechanics of it. It was very interesting and I learned how to make a couple bucks out of it, but the whole thing was basically a labor of love. I tried to convert to business thinking but...

Kliph Nesteroff: Now we mentioned briefly, Jackie Miles. What do you remember about Jackie Miles?

Don Sherman: Well, I remember his character. It was always an unfortuate guy, sitting in the corner, all depressed, on his way to the track. He had this character. Most of those guys when you think about it - Jackie Miles and Phil Foster - they were like street guys. Even Alan King who talked so big, was really a short guy. They were these little guys in the neighborhood dealing with the adversity and the poverty and of being Jewish. I would indentify with them because those struggles were real and here would be this guy up on stage having a great life, yet talking about the struggles and laughing about them. This is what was endearing about these guys. It's a shame that not many could transfer those characters into acting. Phil Foster could... but even that wasn't totally Phil. They had to reign him in. That character seems difficult to act, but easy to be. I never bought Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce. I liked what he did, but Lenny was a comic. A comic is a natural being.

Kliph Nesteroff: Every movie I have ever seen when they try to re-create stand-up, whether it's the movie Lenny or that junk Punchline with Tom Hanks... they'll show an audience in hysterics, while to the filmgoer watching it - it's not funny at all.

Don Sherman: Right.

Kliph Nesteroff: It just doesn't work. It just... you lose that...

Don Sherman: I know. It's amazing. You really can't think of anyone who was able to do it. I've done a couple of films and I was just amazed how you spend the whole day learning the script and then you do it and they stop in the middle... When I did Rocky... I did five of the Rocky movies where I played the bartender. Stallone liked the comedy horror show I did here in Los Angeles. He liked that character and that's how I got the job. They'd stop you and then you'd do it again and they'd film twenty other versions of it. How can it be real? How can it actually be the character? They'll keep you waiting and won't get to you for ten hours. So, it's very mechanical. The genius of acting is making the mechanical look natural.

Kliph Nesteroff: I was wondering if you worked with or remember Gene Baylos.

Don Sherman: Yes! Gene Baylos! The last time I had met with Gene Baylos was in the Friar's in New York and I had not seen him in many years. He was in a wheelchair and I didn't even know it was him. I walked by and out of nowhere he says, "You back from the ocean?" I hadn't seen him in years! How did he know I was working the cruises? He looked up at me and he could not even open up his eyes - he was almost dead I think, and he said, "Get me on the cruises."

He was the guy... he was also just a natural. He woke up in the morning and he was funny. You'd walk down the street of Broadway and I'll never forget... there is a classic story. One day Buddy Hackett was over and Gene was packing up a package. Buddy said, "What're you going to do with that?" He said, "I'm going to give it to someone." "To the Goodwill or something?" "No, I have a guy that I bring my clothes to." "Really? Let me go with you." So he goes with him and he sees this bum in the street. "Gene! Oh, how are you?" He says, "Listen, this is for you." Guy goes, "Oh, thank you so much, Gene." Buddy said, "Oh, that's fantastic! You found a guy and you give him all your old clothes... I'm going to do the same thing." "Oh yeah? Well, get your own bum!" Gene Baylos was an amazing guy. He was just naturally funny. He didn't know any other way to do it. That's what a comedian is. That's not easy to find.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now how about Buddy Hackett. You hear different stories. People say that he was extremely funny, but also a bit of a jerk.

Don Sherman: Well, this is just my opinion but... Buddy, I met him through Joey a great many times. I never could crack him personally. But what was great about Buddy Hackett... and Phil Foster... they were maybe the first of that era that weren't just jokes. It was a funny person. The way they told a story was even funnier. What happened to him is the same thing that happened to a lot of them. After a while that character was so successful that he was catering to it rather than letting it emerge. He was writing material that would bring him off as Buddy Hackett rather than being Buddy Hackett and letting the material come from that.

Kliph Nesteroff: It stopped being natural.

Don Sherman: Yes. When he got older, that funny little fat character... the bloom of youth was gone and I think that threw him into a little panic. So he tried to contrive himself into being a young old guy. He got really dirty. Not that it wasn't funny. He couldn't help but be funny! I think he lost the fact that he was a funny looking guy and that people enjoyed the fact he wasn't acting. Gradually he was acting and that hurt his stuff...

Kliph Nesteroff: I always felt that he was in his element when he appeared on Johnny Carson.

Don Sherman: Yeah. They found those priceless stories that he could tell and he was guided [by Carson]. It's funny how times change. I remember I was writing for Super Bowl Saturday Night. It was a Super Bowl special and it was Dallas vs Pittsburgh. Don Rickles was a guest and OJ Simpson was one of the hosts. This was in the seventies. The times had already changed somewhat. Rickles got a little tipsy and he did some of the old school black jokes that the guys really got offended by. He came to me very apologetically at the end. He said, "Gee, I don't know what I said. Please tell those guys I'll do it all over again and to change it in the editing." Things had been changing. The same old jokes no longer worked. That's the terrible thing and the marvelous thing about the constant evolution of humor.

Kliph Nesteroff: The early sixties saw the big paradigm shift in comedy when the new school of comedians emerged; Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman... But some of the old school style comics were, really, not that much older. A guy like Jack Carter is only four years older than Mort Sahl.

Don Sherman: Yeah, right. When we heard so much about Bob Newhart... I had emerged just a little bit after Mort Sahl. I was still in that corner. We heard so much about Bob Newhart. He had just worked Texas and as a matter of fact I followed him into that club. They were raving about "the guy who just played here." He was going to do The Ed Sullivan Show - his first appearance. 

There were a bunch of people at The Friar's Club, all older vaudeville comics, and they were watching this new kid come on stage. The Sullivan Show... you had to go on stage and right away get a laugh. And here was this guy, he was going two minutes and no laughs, just setting up a routine. This was unheard of in the mountains. If you didn't get the laugh in the first eight seconds, they'd be walking out. They were all saying, "Ah, he's going into the ground! He's going into the ground!" Finally he set it up that he was a so-and-so type of character and he did the first line in the monologue and it was a scream. But to wait that minute and a half, the old guys couldn't believe it. They couldn't believe that a comic had the balls to wait that long to set-up a routine. I saw that and I said, "Wow. There's a whole new deal here." There was a maverick change.

Thursday, April 28, 2011