Saturday, June 4, 2011

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

Kliph Nesteroff: So which of the two stand-up genres did you feel closer to? Do you feel you evolved from being an old school mountain comic into one of the new generation; those comics that were performing original, progressive material?

Don Sherman: I identified with Mort Sahl. My first big shot in show business was at The Playboy Club in San Francisco. That's when I got on board - just about the time of Bob Newhart. I was emerging toward that until I got involved with Danny Arnold who later produced The Barney Miller Show. I wrote up a page for him and he liked that and he paid me some money and I felt like I was back at the booth at Hanson's. I wrote a treatment and a pilot for him and I drifted off into writing again. The strength of my career came from Johnny Mathis whom I toured with for about six years and Sergio Mendes for about four years. I was with Jose Feliciano for about two years. From 1963-70 I worked strictly one-nighters in colleges.

Kliph Nesteroff: The earliest mention I could find of you was an Earl Wilson column from August 1959 and then September 1960 - an ad for the Gatineau Club in Ottawa with The Brothers Four.

Don Sherman: Wow! My God! I had forgotten about that date!

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember anything about that gig?

Don Sherman: Yeah, that's the first place I bought my wife a pair of mink snowshoes. What a place that was! A winter wonderland. Man, we were up there around Christmastime and it was just amazing. They were amazing. I think it was that job at The Gatineau... it was just when I was starting and it was one of the first high class places... an agent came in there and he told me he had two jobs for me. I had never been offered a job from left field before. I said, "Great!" It was at the Casa Loma in Luanne and another club in Valdor. Four hundred miles further north than Montreal and it was all miners. French miners. They wanted to hold me over and yet nobody spoke English! It was just amazing. The whole town was four blocks long and the biggest business was the cab business. If you walked more than a block you were doomed - it was that cold. I was there for a week and it was amazing. They had a jazz group from Manhattan hiding out there.

It was a great experience and they warned me to not leave the club because it was snowing so bad. So I stayed there and they invited me nearby to a little party about four in the morning. I got drunk with some kid and we drove there. I left the party and I got stuck in the snow about four-thirty in the morning. Nothing but snow. I panicked. I did the worst thing. I got out of the car and I started to walk. Before I knew it I couldn't even see the car - nothing. All of a sudden I saw a stone embankment. I didn't know what it was, but I went up there and there was a door. I rang the doorbell and [religious chimes sounded]. I thought, "Oh my God, I've stumbled on a convent." I would have died had I not found this convent! The nun came running up and she started talking to me in French, before you know it she got on the phone, and found someone to get me home. But I'll never forget that. I thought I had died for a second when I heard that music. Every time I worked Canada I had a pretty good experience. I just fell in love with that whole society. I remember when I was angry at them - it was when I was in the army. The Canadians got paid better than us. And they got booze and cigarettes.

Kliph Nesteroff: April 1961 - you were playing The Playboy Club. At one show Peggy Cass was in the audience, loved you, and wanted to help get you on The Jack Paar Program.

Don Sherman: Yes. I loved the expression she used. She said to me, "You have the guts of a burglar!" At that time I did a lot of political material. Some of it was very, very funny and I was very interested in politics.

Kliph Nesteroff: You have a comedy album - Don Sherman at the Playboy Club. It is on Moe Levy's Roulette Records.

Don Sherman: Yeah. That's a story that to this day... I would like to resolve. I got up one bright day in Manhattan and walked downtown feeling happy that I was in show business. I walked by Colony Records, a record store, and I saw this window full of Don Sherman at the Playboy Club albums. And I had no albums out! I had no deal! Someone said to me, "Well, go talk to them [Roulette Records]." Then I heard that they were people that you don't fool around with. I built up the guts. I went up there. He said what happened was that a friend of mine had taped some of my shows somewhere and eventually they were sold to Roulette Records and they put it out. They didn't even bother getting in touch with me. Eventually I put another album out on Jubilee Records, but the only thing I ever got out of it was a box of albums.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's interesting that you tell me this story because...

Don Sherman: Because you happen to be from Roulette Records!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Yeah, that's right, I'm a close, personal friend of Moe Levy's. We're gonna be payin' you a visit.

Don Sherman: Ah, I knew it would come around!

Kliph Nesteroff: We're charging you for all those records we gave you...

Don Sherman: I wouldn't be surprised.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your story is not unique in terms of comedians that were pressed by Roulette Records.

Don Sherman: Oh, really?

Kliph Nesteroff: Bill Dana, Jose Jiminez, had huge sellers on Kapp Records. But he also had two albums pressed by Roulette. He says that Moe Levy and the boys that ran Roulette Records just recorded his act off of TV - pressed it to vinyl - and sold it! Never spoke to Bill Dana or any of his people, never made a deal, nothing.

Don Sherman: Oh, God. What did he do about it? I'd like to know because I did nothing.

Kliph Nesteroff: He and his manager phoned whoever to try and get it taken off the shelves. But then Dana and his manager started getting phone calls at three and four in the morning at home. They were told, "If you know what's good for you... lay off."

Don Sherman: And he had some big managers. Who the hell were they? Mace and Neufield?

Kliph Nesteroff: That's right, yeah.

Don Sherman: I went up there in an elevator that opened up in the back. That got me nervous right off the bat. You know? I went up there and they brought me through a little record area and it was very pleasant with a lot of laughs. "What are you worried about? If it's a hit, you'll be a hit!" I was of that school at that time and still am, goddammit. I believe in fairy tales. The whole thing, the whole forty years in show business was a fairy tale. It just happens and that's why my business practices were real horrible - but I just believed that it would all work out. That's the way it happens. So I wasn't going to get too technical about it. It was silly what I did and no business man would have done what I did, but it made sense to me.

Kliph Nesteroff: They owned their own nightclub as well in Manhattan. It was apparently called The Roundtable - and upstairs was where a comedian named Jackie Kannon always played.

Don Sherman: Yeah, they had something called The Rat Fink Club. Yeah, right. Boy, you're really into this stuff here!

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, well. I love show business for some reason.

Don Sherman: Did you ever do any of it yourself?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, I did stand-up for just under a decade. Now I just write.

Don Sherman: Really? Well, wow, that's a long time. Did you ever work any ships?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, I never did. I have a lot of friends that did cruise gigs, but no I don't think I would have gone over with that crowd. There is a chain of comedy clubs here that had a deal with a cruise line to use their comedians exclusively, but I never bothered.

Don Sherman: They tried to switch over to that, but it was unsuccessful. Now they've made a dent where they adapt their rooms. Last tour I did was for the Princess Cruise Line and I doubt I'll do it anymore. They really converted nice nightclubs into little lounges where people walk by. Rather than have a main show where you were working for seven hundred people, they put you in little lounges with three hundred people - some coming in - some going out. The circumstances weren't really... for the ship it generated extra activities.

It used to be that the comics had to adjust their act for the ship because at first they were coming on and they were getting fired. I was getting calls to come in and substitute for the guys. Enough of them have risen to prominence where they're recreating that Comedy Store kind of circuit on the sea. It's smart because the buffalos are going! The audience loves it. They always say to me, "Why don't I see you at Yuk Yuk's? How come I never see you at The Comedy Store?" I tell them, well, I figure I am now passed that [era], you know?

Kliph Nesteroff: Some of those audience members are now of that age where...

Don Sherman: I know. My college audience back in the day... I worked Kent State three days before those kids were shot. I guess my audience now is 60-65 at these shows at sea. They talk in terms of Yuk Yuks and The Comedy Store like I used to talk about The Copa and the Chez Paree in Chicago. That was such a great era. That's what I really loved, although I didn't get too much of it - maybe two or three years. Working two weeks in a different city each week.

They'd have a show and a band and you got to know the owner of the club and the hatcheck girl and the guys in the band and the local eateries where they'd ask to put your picture up on the wall. Each city had a different show business hotel and there were about three or four of these different clubs in each town where you'd work and other acts would be working. It must be the same thing with the comedy club circuit, I don't know.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, not to that degree. That's an era that I missed, but would love to have been a part of. Perhaps I am romanticizing it too much, but it just seemed like a classier time.

Don Sherman: No, no, you're right! It was a great, great time to be an up and coming entertainer because it was very lavish. They really played the game of dressing up and going out on the town, smoking your smoke, drinking your drink. It was a wonderful experience. Nobody has ever really ever done a proper film about it and nobody has ever really duplicated it in any way, shape or form - and that stresses me.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the ways I became obsessed with show business of that era - especially as it pertains to comedy - was when I started buying used comedy records as a teenager. Now I've got well over one thousand comedy LPs...

Don Sherman: Wow.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oddly enough - none of yours. But everyone put out a comedy record. Didn't matter if you were a huge star or a totally nobody - everybody pressed an LP. That's how I got my education in this world.

Don Sherman: Yeah. Don't they still do that? Don't comics still put out...

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, sure, some do, but back in the old days you could put out a comedy album and it would sell. That Shelley Berman or Vaughn Meader thing does not sweep the country...

Don Sherman: Right.

Kliph Nesteroff: On that note - your comedy album on Jubilee - Don Sherman Goes Back to College... how did that come about?

Don Sherman: It was another one of those strictly Don Sherman business deals. I was on the road with Johnny Mathis. We were playing a college in upstate New York. I would do the first half, my forty-five, and then Johnny would come on. Johnny would get five hundred thousand dollars and I would get a hundred bucks. During the half hour that he was on I went up to the sound booth and I saw a tape. I said to the guy, "What do you do with that?" He said, "Oh, that's your act. We tape all the acts." I said, "Really? Could I have the tape?" He said, "Sure, if you buy the tape." Two dollars and eighty cents. That was my recording costs. I gave that tape to Jubilee Records out here in California and I gave it to Jerry Blaine.

A very interesting, very Jewish guy. I used to joke about him saying a Jewish prayer which is called a berakah. I'd say, "Boy, all you have to do here is sing berakah." Because he had this black record company in this real dangerous part of town. He had all the black acts; Richard Pryor and all the black acts. Jerry Blaine. He reached in his drawer and he took out all the religious sacraments. He had the yamuka and all these things. He said, "I like that tape!" I said, "Why don't you make an album of it?" "It's already an album!" And he put it out and it was a big Califonia hit. I really made some money. I was shocked. But you know what killed it? There was another album that came out at the exact same time. Guess what the name was? My Son, The Folk Singer by Allan Sherman. I got booked for dates where they'd demand, "Sing Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" But I got the concert money.

I got to know Allan Sherman pretty well, actually. I was at his death bed. As a producer he was such a successful, happy-go-lucky guy. As a star he became obese and slovenly and ate and drank himself to death. My first Jubilee Record sold great and there was one radio station in California that devoted the whole weekend to just playing that album. Then my next album was on Jubilee again and it was called Let There Be Grass.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now wait. Wasn't that on Laff Records?

Don Sherman: Laff Records. Sorry, you're right, Laff Records. That was a series of bits from talk show appearances I did like Della Reese and The Woody Woodbury Show. They faded fast, those talk shows. I had tracks of those appearances. I did the CBS Talent Scouts show. I was just breaking in as a comic and I got a call from the producer of CBS Talent Scouts which was hosted by Merv Griffin. Stars would supposedly see an act in a club and discover them and bring them to Merv and Merv would put them on the show.

I was assigned to Zsa Zsa Gabor; she brought me on. But I got a call from the producer who said he wanted me on the show. I said, "Why?" He said, "I heard this one line you do. I want America to hear that line." His wife was Jacqueline Susan who wrote Valley of the Dolls. I used to do a line about politics. "I don't go into politics because I remember once I hated the Germans and the Japanese and I liked the Russians and the Chinese. Then after a while I hated the Russians and the Chinese and I liked the Germans and the Japanese et cetera." The producer wanted to hear that and he said, "Do anything around that and do about five minutes." So I did a routine and, I think, had I run it by the producer first - it never would have got on the air. It was about a beatnik hippie talking to Khrushchev at the summit instead of Adlai Stevenson.

His speech to him was, "First of all, don't holler. It's a peace conference, man. You ever smoke this? Who told you it's no good? Castro? That's my connection, Nikki!" I think it was the first time there was ever a marijuana joke on television. It was 1961. I'm sure I never would have been able to say it [had they heard it beforehand]. I remember I did The Steve Allen Show and I did a bit about exotic foods and the most expensive one was "swan sweat." They wouldn't let me say "sweat." Finally I backed down and they said, "Try saying swan perspiration." But it don't make sense! Swan perspiration? You know? It's not as funny. I came up with a different routine and went on with that. Had I not gone on I would have been in trouble. I had traveled all the way to California with my wife and a baby for this one TV shot. After the show they said, "Can you be available for thirteen weeks?" That's what started it at all.

Kliph Nesteroff: So you were the first person to do a marijuana joke on national television.

Don Sherman: I think so. I would say so. I don't know what the reaction was to it, really, at that time. I remember I closed with that old line, "Don't worry. There's a new kind now with menthol. You get high and stay cool at the same time." Everyone was doing that joke.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you a bit more about these record labels. You mentioned that Jerry Blaine at Jubilee had all the black acts and was in a bad part of town - but aren't you getting it confused with Laff Records? Laff had a mostly black roster and was on Jefferson Avenue in Los Angeles...

Don Sherman: Yeah, no, I meant the guy from Laff Records.

Kliph Nesteroff: So that would have been Lou...

Don Sherman: Lou Drozen. Yeah, he had Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx and a lot of big name black acts. He was a beautiful, old fashioned record guy. He lived in the most dangerous part of town, but he treated everyone like he loved everyone and he was a great man, Lou Drozen. His kid took over the company although I don't know that he exactly followed in his father's footsteps.

Kliph Nesteroff: They fell into all sorts of legal trouble as well.

Don Sherman: Did they?

Kliph Nesteroff: Not to the extent of chicanery pulled by someone like Morris Levy, but they had a similar circumstance with Shecky Greene. They pressed an unauthorized album of his material in 1979 and Shecky sued them. Also Richard Pryor sued them in a high-profile case.

Don Sherman: Did Shecky collect on that?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, they settled it somehow. They pulled it off the market, I guess, and it's a hard album to find for that reason.

Don Sherman: It was tougher than the film business, the record business. It's probably mostly out of sight now. That was a tough business. It was not an easy business. I don't care what anybody says. The mechanics of that business are really laden with intrigue.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did another album titled The First of the Sit-Down Comics for Laff.

Don Sherman: That was the last one. I pumped them for another album and it was a mistake. I worked with one of The Limelighters, Glenn Yarborough, took me on the road with him to work the colleges. Glenn was a big folk act and he wanted me to work sitting down on a stool. Which I thought was ridiculous because I loved running around the stage. But I did what he said. He was the boss. I did it and it worked. Years later, I was old, I said, "Hey, why don't I sit down now?" So I did that album called The First of the Sit-Down Comics and did my same act sitting down. But it didn't work out so well. It really didn't sell too well at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know any of the other comedy acts that were on these labels? Jubilee had Rusty Warren...

Don Sherman: Rusty Warren I had met. She was a big star at that time. No, I really didn't. I just knew Drozen and his kids...

Kliph Nesteroff: You did two albums for Laff Records, primarily a black record label, but run by a Jewish father and son. Also you had played the Apollo Theater in the early sixties.

Don Sherman: Dinah Washington. She fell in love with my act in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was doing my act and was working with Juliette Prouse and I hear this laugh. Turns out to be Dinah. I said, "Dinah Washington! You have no idea! We have little clubs in the Bronx, little cellars, where we take innocent little girls down, where red and blue lights flicker. Nothing happens til we put on the Dinah Washington! You don't know how many girls I've bedded to your music!" We became such good friends. I was opening for her at The Copa. She said, "We're going to be at The Copa and we're going to sign you up."

She signed me up to the Queen Booking Agency, which has become one of the world renown showbiz booking agencies... which she gave to her maid - Lucy Bowen. Dinah said, "We're going into The Apollo, not The Copa. My people can't afford The Copa." She had been offered both jobs. She took The Apollo. The first line I did when I walked out was, "I'm here under the auspices of the NAAWC. The National Association for the Advancement of White Comedians." Great audience! I loved that experience. I went with Dinah on what they called the Chitlin' Circuit. It was a fantastic experience for me - playing for the black audiences.

Kliph Nesteroff: Had there been any other white comics that played The Apollo other than you at that point? It was desegregated in the thirties so there were plenty of white comics playing it when it was a "whites only" venue... but the time you did it... were you the first white comic to play there in thirty years?

Don Sherman: I was a little insulted that they never mentioned it in any of the shows I have ever seen about The Apollo. Never mentioned a thing about Don Sherman. I was writing for The Bobby Darin Show and into the production meeting comes Flip Wilson. Flip Wilson says, "Don Sherman! You didn't know it - but I was sitting in the audience the night that you, that white man, got up onstage! I never heard a white man talk to my people in that way." I'll never forget that. And nobody on The Bobby Darin Show had known that I was a stand-up comedian; just a comedy writer to them. They were taken aback. So was I, because I had no idea Flip Wilson had been there for that show. But I remember the audience was phenomenal. I had a great show and I did this flagship bit I did about getting stopped by a cop in Windsor, North Carolina. They really took to that. Yeah, that was a great, great experience. Have you read anything on that? Do you have any press on that one?

Kliph Nesteroff: That's the thing. There isn't, but as far as white acts at The Apollo go, I was under the impression that a great comic named Dick Davy was the first white comedian to play it - and that was around 1966 or so. But you played it in 1963...

Don Sherman: Yeah. How'd you find out that I played The Apollo?

Kliph Nesteroff: I read a review of Dinah Washington and it was mentioned...

Don Sherman: Do you still have that clipping? That would be something. I got a couple of calls when they did some films about Dinah. I'm sorry I didn't get involved with them more. She was a very interesting personality. I used to do a bit about, "The white people always try to help the minorities, but it was the minorities that really helped me." Johnny Mathis took me on the road, Jose Feliciano took me on the road, Sergio Mendes took me on the road and Dinah Washington was the one who took me into The Apollo. Billy Eckstine gave me a lot of work. For some reason I had a kinship with black audiences. I guess because I was semi-hip. I was with the Modern Jazz Quartet and Carmen McRae, but jazz never really paid any money. They were great. Jack Rollins always said, "You've got to have an original act" and I always thought about that. I got a gig at a jazz club in Atlantic City with Carmen McRae.

Kliph Nesteroff: Since you were playing a lot of the top black clubs - did you encounter some of the top black comics like Moms Mabley?

Don Sherman: Oh, yes. Yes. Yes, I loved Moms Mabley. Redd Foxx and I were also fairly friendly and he was the same guy onstage and off if you were his friend. We went through the same record company. We had met at The Comedy Store. Mitzi Shore had me in as one of the first acts in The Comedy Store. She had me as the emcee, the house emcee there, although I couldn't identify what was happening there at that time. It was amazing what was happening there. Did you ever meet Mitzi? I understand she doesn't know what's going on anymore.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now, Redd Foxx never did marijuana jokes on television, but he had a lot of them in his act back in the fifties.

Don Sherman: Oh, yes. Well, he spoke his mind the same way onstage as off stage and that takes courage; that takes balls. He did it to white audiences that weren't sure where he was coming from. He did what that the real great comics do. He'd say lines that other people think, but don't say. That's what breaks the tension and God bless those who do it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Pigmeat Markham...

Don Sherman: Pigmeat Markham was a funny guy and he was in a comedy team too, wasn't he? A big fat guy...

Kliph Nesteroff: He had a few different partners...

Don Sherman: I met John Bubbles, of Buck and Bubbles, when I was in the army. I was in special services and my job was to meet the acts that they brought in and interview them for The Stars and Stripes [newspaper]. That's where I met all of these acts.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm gonna throw some names at you and see if you have any reflections. Jack E. Leonard.

Don Sherman: Jack E. Leonard was great. Jack E. Leonard was the kind of guy that had such a funny aura about him that once he's got you into rhythm, he didn't even need a joke! It was Jack E. Leonard who came to me at a point when I was a young comic. For him to talk to me - it mesmerized me. I was just starting to go with my future wife and he said, "Get rid of him, honey! Comics don't get married, they're too self-involved. Find a decent man while you're still young and pretty!" I think part of his taunting maybe made me marry this woman who I've been married to for fifty years. I felt very close to Jack E. Leonard. And Henny Youngman too. What a character he was. God bless 'em. I was so honored to be playing Chicago the same time as Henny Youngman

Kliph Nesteroff: He was a savvy businessman and he worked right to the end.

Don Sherman: He didn't know any other way! He didn't know any other life. Like Jackie Mason. Jackie Mason has no other life. Jackie Mason once followed me at a nightclub at the beginning of his career. He arrived at that job with one little black suitcase and in the suitcase was a black tie and a shirt. No change of clothes, no change of underwear - for a week. That was him. Once he comes off stage life stops for him. That's why he has to do his act off stage. He has no actual life!

Kliph Nesteroff: What did you think of him as a person?

Don Sherman: I think Jackie Mason is one of the single most creative comedians I have ever met in my entire life. He's got a funny bone and an instinct and a need! The need is the biggest thing, I think. His need wears out an audience. I've seen him wear out audiences where you couldn't wring more laughter out of them. He has that capability.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of my favorite Jackies is Jackie Vernon.

Don Sherman: Jackie Vernon. I gave him an overcoat one day in Baltimore. We never got to see him achieve the national acceptance he should have got. He did get acceptance... on a very low level. He was the mobsters favorite comic and he was great in strip joints. They weren't attuned really to what he was doing but... and his material was so perfect for TV. Television was the slow medium and he knocked out joke after joke after joke. He was an interesting guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had such a unique way of speaking...

Don Sherman: Dry. Dry. Totally dry. You never knew if he was being serious or sarcastic. A deadpan guy and he was just a funny character.

Kliph Nesteroff: Someone I just finished writing an article about is Joe E. Ross.

Don Sherman: Yes! Joe E. Ross from Car 54, Where Are You - a man who lived as a single guy, you know? The hotel room and the stripper. The track, girls, booze and a funny guy. Very slow, but a funny guy. He was finally getting it together with Car 54, but he was like... remember Charles Bukowski?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Don Sherman: He was like a real street type person. Almost like a Tiny Tim. I met Tiny Tim at a birthday party and I felt sorry for him. I didn't know he was a legendary character in the Village at the time who sang in falsetto voices. I thought they were really making fun of this guy at this birthday party and then I realized that was his persona.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a guy who Joe E. Ross was in a comedy team with. A dirty comic named Dave Starr.

Don Sherman: Dave Starr... Dave Starr. Yeah. Sure. Short guy with a cigar and a hat. Yeah. I never knew he was in a team with Joe E. I remember Dave for doing a single. Of course, there was that great place of which I've been trying to finish a script about for years called Hanson's at 51st and 7th where all the acts would meet. It was the oldest show business building in New York - 1650 Broadway. All the offices above it, I think it's fourteen stories, were agents!

There was a back entrance to Hanson's. The front was for food and a make-up area and the back, if you came through the back, that meant you were coming out of one of the agent offices. Every Friday, any act that came in, you knew whether he got booked that weekend or didn't get booked that weekend [based on the look on their face]. It was an interesting game all the acts would play. The weekends would all be confirmed on Thursday or Friday morning. Then the Daily Mirror would come out with all the acts in it that were working. That was the era when I used to hang around until the newspaper came out at two in the morning and you'd read Walter Winchell and those guys. That was real interesting.

Kliph Nesteroff: Steve Rossi spoke to me reverently about Hanson's.

Don Sherman: Steve Rossi! Wonderful guy!

Kliph Nesteroff: He talked about the encouragement he'd get from Phil Foster in that place.

Don Sherman: Yeah, that was a wonderful place. There was another place. They used to have Schwartz here and now there's a place called Silver Spoon, which is more actors and below the line stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about B.S. Pully?

Don Sherman: Ahhhhh, yeahhhh. He was a really dirty comic, yeah. It's all a part of the track... if it wasn't for horse races and gambling, I don't think we would have half the comedians. Las Vegas did the same thing. Any place you're risking your life and limb! That's where humor came in.

Kliph Nesteroff: And speaking of Vegas - Shecky Greene.

Don Sherman: Ah, Shecky is marvelous. Shecky is great. We've been friends for years. It's amazing to think, only in show business can you think of a man could look that uninhibited and that unafraid [yet] was experiencing the fear of going out onstage. He had to take [anxiety] drugs for ten years to cure himself of that. The last thing he looked was frightened to that audience. I mean, he attacked them when he was working The Riviera. He did something that should be commended. I, at that time, at that stage of my career when I was just working jazz clubs and not really making money, I was on my way to play the Hungry i, which was another not-too-profitable experience. I stopped off in Vegas because my wife was working in Vegas at The Dunes Hotel. She was a dancer in the George Burns show. We went over to see Shecky Greene as he was the king of the lounge at The Riviera. At the end of his act he said, "We have a guy in the audience, he's a friend of mine. He's on his way to the Hungry i in San Francisco." I'd never even been in a commercial club in Las Vegas and he brought me up onstage and he gave me his audience. I should have been terrified because he used to fucking kill his audience, but, by God, I was so excited to get up onstage because I knew I could work those clubs as good as I could work those jazz clubs. I got up and I killed 'em. That gave me my confidence and I was working Vegas shortly thereafter. Not too many stars would give you their audience and their stage.

Kliph Nesteroff: He's a pretty humble guy.

Don Sherman: Yes, he's very humble. The funny thing is, my daughter who has become a fine TV writer - she wrote and directed The Gilmore Girls - I took her and her husband Dan Paladino who wrote for Family Guy and Who's The Boss - I took them to see Shecky Greene. He was just coming out of his sickness stage for his first concert and they didn't get it. They didn't get his act. I didn't see them laughing. "Oh, he's okay." They didn't understand and I thought, "Gee, it's a whole different appetite." It was... enlightening.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you played The Band Box...

Don Sherman: Billy Gray's Band Box with Dave Barry...

Kliph Nesteroff: Dave Barry, yeah...

Don Sherman: He was a wonderful comedian, Dave Barry. Great mimic. Dave was a strictly vaudeville guy. Vaudeville people are vaudeville people. He called me up and told me he had an acting job and a club date, but he didn't want to blow the club date. So he wanted to take me along for the acting job in case he couldn't come back and do it - maybe they would take me (laughs). That was his whole thinking, that everything was the variety act. The rest of it was bullshit. We went out there and the director was incensed. "Do you know I cast you!? I cast a particular character! I put thinking into my productions and you bring me somebody else! What are you doing!?" We went home and... it was funny. But that's the way those guys thought. "So what? I can't make it! Use somebody else! Meantime, I can do my club date. I got my two fuckin' lines. Anybody can do those lines!" In a sense he was right because anybody could do those lines. We'd get parts where the lines were, "Put those crates over there." It was so funny to see that conflict of values between the two people. No, but he was a very, very nice man and he always worked.

Kliph Nesteroff: And he did voices for cartoons.

Don Sherman: Great, great voices and got a job that broke my heart. I worked with Wayne Newton in Sydney, Australia when they opened the Chevron Hilton Hotel. When he came back, his manager called me up and flattered me. He said, "You know, we got a deal at the Vegas hotel, but you're too hip. We got Dave Barry instead." And Dave Barry had that job for fifteen years doing twenty minutes before Elvis Presley came onstage and Wayne Newton... and they said they were doing me a favor because that was too square a job for me. Jesus! What money that man made on that job. It was tough, though, because he came out and they were waiting for Elvis Presley. But you know, when I got my first job with Johnny Mathis they'd announce, "And now... bump-badda-bummm! Don Sherman!" And ten thousand people would groan.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Don Sherman: I mean actual groans. Can you imagine? Your first time - great, big concert. They helped me, though. I would say, "Oh,  you're waiting for Johnny Mathis? That's a big deal? I'm nothing? He's backstage - petrified - because they're paying him a lot of money! I don't have to worry about that!" They groaned every place I went. I jumped on that groan, man. "You sons of bitches! What about me? I'm a human being!" But I didn't go off completely, but it is a matter of how much you open up as a human being.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever play The Copa?

Don Sherman: Oh, yes, I played there with Johnny Mathis.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about Jules Podell?

Don Sherman: Ahhhh (laughs). Well, you see, I was raised by a man named Willie Webber. You know the actor from Wings... Webber? His father was Stu Webber and his grandfather was a guy named Willie Webber. At the time that I was breaking in they had all singing stars like Frankie Avalon and Connie Francis and comics. All the comics would open up for these stars. Willie had all the clubs tied up. In order to get into that circuit, you had to be signed up with Willie Webber. Joey Bishop was chaperoning me around town and Willie thought I might have something, so he signed me. He would sit you down in a chair and give you rules: "You have to wear a tuxedo. You don't say hell or damn. You don't talk to the girls in the band. Keep your nose clean." So they had you trained like that. All the clubs were all owned by mafia guys - so I followed all the rules.

When I came to The Copa, I never said a word to Jules Podell. "Don't talk to the boss until they talk to you." Finally after a week I got my cheque and I needed some money so I went to Jules Podell who was sitting at the bar. And they had said, "Never talk to him!" I said, "Excuse me, Mr. Podell?" "What do you want!?!?" I said, "I have this cheque and I would like to know if you could cash it for me." He looked at me like he was going to kill me and he said, "This look like a fucking bank!? You see tellers here? You see tellers here? This is a fucking nightclub! We take money! We don't give money!" Then he said to the bar, "Cash his cheque."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Don Sherman: That was my Copa experience. I thought I was so hip and I didn't wear a tuxedo. I wore a very expensive black jacket with white slacks and a black tie. He was insulted that I didn't know enough to wear a formal tuxedo to The Copacabana.

Kliph Nesteroff: I was talking to someone a few weeks back who got their start thanks to Willie Webber.

Don Sherman: Yeah, he started all the comics.

Kliph Nesteroff: I was talking to Pat Cooper...

Don Sherman: Pat Coop-pah! Funny guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: He credited Webber with getting him his first TV gig, which was The Jackie Gleason Show. Now I won't keep you much longer, Don, but I do appreciate you spending so much time with me...

Don Sherman: Well, it's easy to talk to you. You've got so many things you bring up it just boggles my mind.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a couple of episodes of Hey, Landlord which was Sandy Baron's failed sitcom. What do you remember about that experience and what do you remember about Sandy Baron?

Don Sherman: Sandy Baron, God, I carried his oxygen tank around when he was... Sandy Baron experienced the same thing as Bobby Darin. As big as he got, it was not big enough. Sandy Baron, as many breaks as he got he felt that it wasn't happening fast enough and he kind of ran himself into the ground. There is a beautiful story, although it makes me sad to bring up. I had a daughter who had brain cancer and she was in the last stages of her life and the hospitalization was running out. Garry Marshall was nice enough to give me that job so the hospitalization wouldn't run out. I met Penny and she was very sweet. It was a very touching act of the heart when those two people came to my aid at that time. I'll never forget that and that's what I remember about Hey, Landlord.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Don Sherman: I never took those little acting things seriously. I never thought those were the jobs. I felt the job was me, the mic and the audience.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also landed a job writing for Steve Allen and The Steve Allen Show.

Don Sherman: Yes. I started out doing stand-up on that show and I gave him some sketches and I did a little writing for him. He was really good that way.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you actually in the writers room at one point or were you just submitting things?

Don Sherman: He was trying to recreate the old "Man in the Street" routine with me, Bernie Kopell and Gabe Dell, so I was writing stuff for my Man in the Street. I had never worked with a microphone over my head. Only a stand up microphone. I kept looking up at the mic and jumping up at the mic. Finally they gave me a mic that I could hold in my hand because I was so used to that. Even now I can't work with those mics around the neck. I need the mic in my hand. At least I think I do. I could probably do it without it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sometimes if I am every telling someone about my old stand-up act and am trying to convey the crux of an old routine, I instinctively clench my fist as if I am holding a microphone and it goes below my chin. I don't even realize I'm doing it.

Don Sherman: Yeah. When you're a natural comic it's a wonderful life. Whatever goes into the make-up of that personality... it helps you navigate this existence, which can be very difficult.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Gabe Dell. When I spoke with Bill Dana he said that he always got the impression that Gabe was haunted by internal demons.

Don Sherman: Yeah, you're right. He had a dark side. He was Shakespearean in nature, really. He had a motorcycle and... yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: What an odd path he had. Starting out as one of the Bowery Boys...

Don Sherman: Yeah, he was. He was one of the Dead End Kids. He never quite got with the Man in the Street thing. They had Louis Nye and stuff. He was a secondary guy. They had Dayton Allen. Remember him?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, of course.

Don Sherman: But they never took off. Louis Nye was so funny. He was a buddy and we used to go for walks.

Kliph Nesteroff: Louis Nye had that great face for comedy. He didn't have to say much to be funny.

Don Sherman: Yes, he was real funny like that. When I was writing the Super Bowl special Louis Nye was there. So was Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was so funny because he was that guy in real life. OJ Simpson and those guys, they were hip guys and they were avoiding him. He was always trying to hang out, "Hey fellas!" And they were all trying to hide from him. It was so funny. He was really that character! 

Kliph Nesteroff: Before Mary Tyler Moore he was a serious narrator in superhero cartoons and stuff.

Don Sherman: It was like that guy who ended up in all those Naked Gun movies, Leslie Nielsen. He was a great serious actor and then became this great comic foil.

Kliph Nesteroff: Great deadpan. I have great respect for masters of deadpan. Leslie Nielsen, Zach Galifianakis and you know who else is a master of deadpan? Bob Einstein.

Don Sherman: Oh yes, Jesus. Super Dave and Albert Brooks. They're brothers right?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Don Sherman: Totally opposite people. Neither could make it as a stand-up. Even Steve Landesberg who was a buddy of mine. He just couldn't get that act together. He had bursts of great humor and great characters, but no consistency at it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Albert Brooks left stand-up voluntarily. There's a Rolling Stone article about Albert Brooks from the eighties that has a great title. Referring to his reclusiveness and the fact that he only surfaces about once every seven years with a new project - the article was called The Howard Hughes of Comedy. 

Don Sherman: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that Peter Fonda had hired you to do some comedy writing.

Don Sherman: Yes, when I first came out here to Los Angeles a friend of mine named Shep Sanders, who was an actor in The Sand Pebbles, told Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda about me. They wanted to form a production company and do a movie. They came to my house in the pouring rain. It was two o'clock in the morning. They were knocking at the sliding glass door on my patio. I came to the door and there were these two guys soaking. They said this guy sent them to see me and they wanted to do this movie. The reason they came so early was because they wanted me to see the sun rise. They were on acid. We went to this donut place; it was the first place built with a gigantic donut [sign]. They wanted to see the sun rise over this giant donut and that was going to be the opening shot of their movie.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Don Sherman: That was the grounds for the movie and he borrowed ten thousand dollars and rented a house on Mulholland Drive where we were going to write this thing. I worked with the two of them, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. That was when I didn't understand the film mind. Everything I wrote they said they could get rid of with two pictures. I didn't understand it at all. I was getting paid a thousand a week for ten weeks to develop this movie. 

We wrote a movie called The Yin and The Yang. When the script came down it was Pando Company Presents a Dennis Hopper Film. Produced by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Don Sherman. By the time they got to my name I was so frustrated because I thought I was doing all the work. But I didn't realize how valuable their visual contributions were. I also didn't realize that writers are always the last man on the totem pole. We got in a big argument after that. Then they split and took the script and got the fairly well-known writer Terry Southern and they made Easy Rider. A lot of The Yin and The Yang is in Easy Rider.

Kliph Nesteroff: So, in essence, Easy Rider was written by Joey Bishop's gag man?