Monday, March 11, 2013

An Interview with John Barbour - Part One

John Barbour: I came to the United States in the early sixties to track down my father. When that didn't work, I ended up at a place called the Castle Theater. I was there for nearly a year, but then I decided I didn't want to escape reality - I wanted to face reality. My two heroes in television were Edward R. Murrow and Jack Paar. Jack Paar was by far the best of all the people who hosted The Tonight Show. He would have people on that no one else would. I remember when he discovered Nichols and May. They had come out of the Second City and he had met them at the Russian Tea Shop. 

Their manager was Jack Rollins. They did this little routine, they were intellectual and low key... and on that first appearance they bombed. Jack Paar literally got up from behind his desk, pointed at them and said to the audience, "These kids are funny and I am going to keep bringing them back until you get it." 

Johnny Carson would never have done that. Not in a million years. Paar had Jonathan Winters on the show, the Smothers Brothers on the show, he had intellectuals on the show. When I started doing stand-up... I bought all the comedy books full of jokes and funny anecdotes. Most of it was absolute crap. The stuff that was good in them, well, everybody knew about those bits. So I decided to write my own material.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were booked into the Hungry i fairly fast...

John Barbour: Yes, it was my second professional job, the first week of November 1963. I did a lot of political material, but remained objective and never took a position. I remember one of Jack Paar's lines. He said he never voted because it only encouraged them. I was so successful for that first engagement at the Hungry i that they booked me back for the last week of November 1963. 

Unfortunately John F. Kennedy was murdered on the 22nd, so when I went back it was empty. The following week I was booked in Fresno - and there were a thousand people there every night celebrating his assassination. That was when I became aware there were people in this country that were glad John F. Kennedy was killed. There was a pathological hatred of Kennedy the way there is now a pathological hatred of Obama. That was extremely disheartening. 

Of course, I could not do my political material in that atmosphere, so I had to write a whole bunch of new material. I remember my opening line. "Nice to be in Fresno, the agricultural capital of California... where the largest crop is Armenians." Half the audience was Armenian and I was a big hit, but I was also very saddened.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the club in Fresno?

John Barbour: You know, I don't remember the name, but it seated a thousand people. It was huge. It was like a barn. It was absolutely massive.

Kliph Nesteroff: One early gig of yours was the Versailles Room in Verdugo Oaks.

John Barbour: Yes, that's it. The Versailles Room was in a place called Pikes. It was a huge restaurant. Where did you find that? That's absolutely amazing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another early gig - Angelo's in Anaheim with a woman named Phyllis Inez.

John Barbour: Yeah, I did a couple of shows with her. One in San Francisco. I met my wife in San Francisco. She was quite friendly with Dick Gregory. Dick Gregory and Redd Foxx were friends. Redd was the only comedian I ever saw other than Jackie Mason who never bombed. It wouldn't matter if there were six people in the room or six thousand. 

He never bombed even if he was filthy. He sort of became my mentor. He was so smart. I said to him one day, "Redd, I get so much from watching you." He said, "What you get is me plus six other guys." His real name was John Sanford, hence the title Sanford and Son.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Crescendo on Sunset several times...

John Barbour: Yeah, the Crescendo. There was one stage downstairs and one stage upstairs. I worked with a great girl singer there named Joanie Sommers. Redd Foxx worked upstairs and that's where I saw him perform that one time to only six people. Tina Turner worked up there and there weren't too many people for that either, but boy was she a phenomenal performer. 

During the rise of the Black Power movement in the sixties, I came up with an idea for some satirical material called It's Tough to Be White. I wrote it and I went to Redd. I told him, "I have this idea to do this material, but I don't want anyone to think I'm a bigot..." He said, "Shit, man! Write it first - then explain!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

John Barbour: We did it at World Pacific Jazz Records, which was the best jazz label in America at the time. It was an invited, integrated audience. Some of the material was good, but I was new as a performer. As I relisten to some of it... I don't sound very relaxed. I sound nervous at times. I ended up on The Merv Griffin Show and Westinghouse signed me as Merv Griffin's replacement. They were paying me six hundred a week for something like six months just to remain under contract. 

My manager Alan Bernard also handled Andy Williams, but I got signed by Westinghouse all on my own. I told Alan I wanted to take a full page ad out in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter that John Barbour has been signed by Westinghouse as a replacement for Merv Griffin. He said, "No, John. You don't want to do that. Your wife is pregnant and you better save that money." I didn't know it, but Alan also represented Bob Newhart and he was negotiating with Westinghouse to have Bob Newhart replace Merv Griffin instead of me. They had me host one show and I got higher ratings than Merv. 

I think that happened because people enjoyed my monologue at the top of the show. Merv didn't do monologues. Maybe he'd play the piano or sing a song or something, but I did a decent monologue and people liked that. You know, I never got to do Merv's show again until years later when I was doing Real People. Anyway, they hired David Frost to be Griffin's replacement. 

I went to Westinghouse and I said, "You can't hire an Englishman or any foreigner to host an American show. Because then he can't be talking about politics or the economy or the culture without sounding like a stranger." I said, "Listen, you have two other guys under contract." They had Al Hamel and someone else. I said, "Let the public make the choice. Give us each a week and let us audition. It will create more interest in your show!" But the main producer of the show wanted to hangout with the Prime Minister and the Queen of England. 

The show bombed. Metromedia wasn't sure that it would work so they hired me to do a Saturday night type of show. I was the first person to put Redd Foxx on the air. Hugh Downs had done a brief interview with Redd when Hugh was host of the Today Show, but I booked Redd on my show. 

I tell you, he got the biggest laugh I have ever heard from a studio audience under any circumstance. The biggest laugh in radio, you probably know, was Jack Benny and "your money or your life." Redd came on my show with Jack Carter and a guy called the Crying Comedian... can't think of his name...

Kliph Nesteroff: Rip Taylor.

John Barbour: Rip Taylor, the Crying Comedian. Charo was also on the show. Anyway, Redd comes out and sits down. I said, "Redd, what do you think of this Black Power movement?" He said, "I don't care about Black Power or white power. I just care about green power." I said, "Green power?" He said, "Yeah, then you got the money to buy the places where they hold their meetings." The audience chuckled slightly. 

Without thinking about it I said to Redd, ad-lib, "Redd, why do you think money is green?" Wthout missing a beat Redd Foxx said, "Because the Jews pick it before it gets ripe." Well! That audience just collapsed in laughter. We couldn't continue! We tried to continue and then Jack Carter would jump up and take his wallet out flash his money and made it like a running gag. I tell you, it was great

Redd then went on to do a movie [Cotton Comes to Harlem] and Norman Lear saw that and cast him in Steptoe and Son - and changed it to Sanford and Son. When Redd Foxx had his argument with NBC a couple seasons into Sanford and Son, he walked out and he came to my house. That's where he was hiding out. But unfortunately for Redd, success went to his nose.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you connect with Pacific Jazz records? I bought your comedy LP at a garage sale years ago and that was my first introduction to you. Dick Gregory contributed the liner notes.

John Barbour: Dick was a huge fan and a very dear friend of my wife. It was Redd who introduced me to a guy - I think his name was Richard Balk - who owned Pacific Jazz and that's how it happened. We were going to tape it at the Crescendo or some place like that, but Richard said, "No, we'll just bring a couple hundred people in here," so that he could control the acoustics. "It's a sterile facility, but we'll just do it here." 

I had this idea. I was a very big fan of Lenny Bruce's album covers. They had the Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce and on the cover he's having a picnic in a graveyard. So, I had an idea for mine of an elegantly dressed Black man on a horse whipping me in a cotton field. They took the picture and it was really funny, but Richard got very nervous. He said, "We can't have this." So then he just wanted a regular picture of me on the cover. They made the cover and I looked at it, I said, "Jesus Christ, Richard. I look like Billy Graham!" So they stuck a cigarette in my hand! And I don't smoke! 

I hated the cover but I loved the liner notes and I liked some of the material on there. If you research the reviews you'll see that the LA Times called it the height of bad taste in albums. But remember the star of Hogan's Heroes? Bob Crane had a radio show on KNX, which was probably the most popular radio show in LA. He had me on and he played clips from the album. The only other guy who had me on was Joe Pyne! 

Joe Pyne loved the album, Bob Crane loved the album, but anywhere else I couldn't get it played. But - everywhere I went around the country Black deejays would play it and interview me. I tell ya, I was booked at the Playboy Club at the time the album came out and then the Watts Riots hit. We had a Black guy named George who was the manager of the room. People were nervous, but they still came to the club about a week after the riots. They would introduce me, "Ladies and gentleman, John Barbour." 

I'd come up and there was this huge picture window in the club that overlooked the whole city. "There's still smoke!" I'd point to George and say, "Before the riots, George here was just a bus boy, but they no longer trust him around the knives and forks." It was a huge hit, but the manager of the Playboy Club - Lee was his name - called me into his office. He pulled out this fucking magnum! He said, "You were out of town when this all happened. You don't know how bad it got." I said, "What? It's okay for you to shoot someone, but not okay for me to make jokes?" 

I got so upset about this that I called the editor and publisher of Ebony. I said, "You book me in the darkest club in the middle of Watts and I'll come down and do my act." So they found a place called the California Club. I went down there with my wife and followed this guy who was sort of a Black Jerry Lewis. I went up and I said, "I'm here tonight under the auspices of the NAACP. The National Association for the Advancement of Canadian People." They chuckled a little, but there was a lot of tension and talking and rumbling. About four minutes in I got them. And I got a standing ovation when I was finished! They took pictures. The editor of the magazine came to me and he said, "I can't wait to run this story. This is going to be terrific."

It was like when Dick Gregory was first booked into the Playboy Club in Chicago. He was only getting fifty dollars to fill in for a night. Time magazine picked up the story and it gave him a career. I thought, "Well, let's see what happens." I got a call three days later telling me that the publisher felt it was just too controversial. I didn't have any controversial material, but it sounded controversial. 

I got a call from Jack Rollins. Jack Rollins and Charlie Joffe were the two best managers in all of show business. I mean, they shaped a weatherman who didn't have an act - David Letterman. His act was talking to an audience. Jack Rollins called me and asked if I would do a set at the Bitter End. I said yes. The Bitter End was owned by Freddie Weintraub. 

He was the guy responsible for doing the documentary Woodstock a few years later. I got up and did twelve or fifteen minutes. I did fairly well, but I didn't do any of the It's Tough to Be White material. I did the kind of stuff I did on Merv Griffin or whatever. When I got off he said, "You should have done the Tough to Be White stuff." I said, "Jack, I keep bumping into resistance." He said, "Yeah, but John, that stuff is what is going to make you different." 

I said, "Maybe I don't want this label. I want to be more like Jack Paar." He said, "Come to my office tomorrow and we'll make you the next Jack Paar." I went to his office and he had a contract ready for me to sign. He said, "You know what John... I can't sign you." "Huh?" He said, "I represent another kid and... I don't think he's as funny as you or as good as you or as likable as you... but I think he's more likely to make it on television." He meant Dick Cavett. I'd heard of him because he'd been a writer for Paar, but that was all I knew about him. 

He said, "But I'll get you booked into a club in Chicago. Mister Kelly's." And he did. I went into Mister Kelly's with Dionne Warwick and it was extremely successful. George Marienthal was the owner and Jeff Wald was sort of his lackey. Jeff Wald discovered Helen Reddy and years later became her manager. Unfortunately, when he got to be a multimillionaire, it also went to his nose. Anyway, he came to the dressing room with George. He said, "You know, Woody Allen was here three weeks ago and he bombed so bad he turned around and did his act to the wall." 

Same thing happened to Woody Allen when he went into the Hungry i in San Francisco. He was always in New York because he was always "New York." Woody said once that he only saved one out of every ten jokes that he wrote. I saved nine out of the ten that I wrote. I trust what I write. All Woody wanted was to be a writer, but Jack Rollins turned him into a stand-up. He said, "No, you're going to do stand-up. Once you become established as a stand-up, then I can get you into films." 

And the first film he did was some absolute piece of crap. Woody said when he handed in the script that the guy dropped it on the floor and the pages went all over the place. Then he shot the film in the same sequence as the pages he picked up off the floor at random (laughs). He told Jack, "Next time I'm going to direct it myself." That's how he got started. I think Woody is amazing. Sometimes he does stuff that is total crap, but much of his work is brilliant.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you remain with Jack Rollins...

John Barbour: Jack never did sign me. He stuck with Dick Cavett. I returned to Los Angeles. I was trying to work as an actor in Los Angeles. I got an offer from Freddy de Cordova who was producing a pilot for ABC called Manley and the Mob. A friend of mine named Chris Hayward, who was co-creator of The Munsters and responsible for Barney Miller, called me. He said, "They're testing a bunch of people and I've recommended you to Freddy de Cordova because they want a guy who sort of resembles Bob Newhart." 

They called me up the day that George Carlin was auditioning. He bombed. The next day Barbra Streisand's husband, Elliot Gould, was auditioning. He bombed. Anyway, this pilot script was written by these two guys Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso. God, I don't know how I remember that. They used to write jokes for John Kennedy. Anyway, this script was supposed to be about a bumbler. A bumbling detective. But there was nothing in the dialogue that would indicate he was a bumbler. 

There were thirty-three people on the list and thirty-two tested and bombed. Freddy called me and said, "You're testing tomorrow." I said, "Freddy, you don't really know me and nobody has made it yet, right? There's nothing in the script to indicate he's a bumbler. Before I have my first line - do you mind if I invent some business that indicates I'm a bumbler?" "Yes, do whatever you want." Anyway, I did it, the crew laughed and the test was a hit! ABC brass said, "Hey, the script does work!" And they hired Paul Lynde in my place! 

Now I was broke and desperate for a job, but I knew what would work. I said, "Make him the second banana." They said no. They gave him the lead and gave me the second lead and of course the whole thing absolutely died. America wasn't ready for Paul Lynde to be the lead in a series. I said to myself afterward, "I don't want my fate in somebody else's hands. I'm going to stick to stand-up comedy." I was doing that and there was a real nice guy in Los Angeles who was a radio announcer who bumped into me one day. He said, "You know they're auditioning people for the AM Show at ABC." 

They wanted to win points with the FCC. I thought, "Yeah, I'll go." I was extremely knowledgeable about current affairs because of the type of act I did. I went and auditioned and, Christ, there were three hundred people. The guy auditioning us was named Brad Lachman. His only talent was being tall. Anyway, I got the job! I took the AM Show - and you can probably google this - I took it from a .03, which is a nothing rating, to a 5. We bumped heads with the Tonight Show! I had Muhammad Ali on for an hour when no one in the media would talk to him other than Howard Cosell. 

I was the only show that Cesar Chavez would do when he was in town to testify at a trial. The show gave me my first contact with Jim Garrison, the New Orleans DA. I had read his book Heritage of Stone and booked him on the show, but they fired me before we had him on. We had won an Emmy for the show, but I remember saying to Brad, "Listen. I need to have three minutes three times a week to say what is on my mind about movies or television." I did a lot of that kind of thing in my act. I said, "I don't want to do politics or anything like that, but I'd like to do reviews and I want to take phone calls." John McMann, the general manager, called me into his office with Brad. 

He said, "This isn't San Francisco. Los Angeles is a bunch of dummies. No one is going to call into your show." I said, "Mr. McMann, just give us a shot. If we have interesting guests on and interesting conversation, people are going to want to contribute." He said, "You're not going to do reviews. It's intellectual crap and nobody cares." I said, "Nobody cares, but they all talk about celebrities. Let me do it." "You're not doing it." In spite of what he said - I did it. As a result I was invited by LA Magazine to be their film critic. I replaced the two best critics in America. One was a guy named Gary Deeb who worked for the Chicago Tribune. 

He said the very best thing about American television. He said, "American television is the only business where competition does not improve the product." The other guy I replaced was a real good critic for Los Angeles Magazine and he had the funniest one-line review I ever read. It was for the movie Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. He said, "The movie starts with a bang and ends up Chitty." Great line. The news director wanted me on the six o'clock news to do reviews, but John McMann said, "No. Just stick to the morning show."

But we had the best show in television. A friend of Tommy Smothers, a young guy in his thirties, who was a Federal Communications Chairman, wrote a book about the FCC called How to Talk Back to Your Television. He wrote a letter to Leonard Goldenson, the president of ABC and said, "You have the brightest, smartest guy in television on your local station in Los Angeles." Then he phoned me from Washington and apologized for writing the letter (laughs). He said, "I probably I cost you your job." Because it was shortly after that, when I was trying to book Garrison, that I was replaced. I ended up at Channel 11 in 1972. I was doing reviews when the Munich massacre occurred. 

We used to get the feed for The Tonight Show. Everyone got it because they were feeding it back to New York. This was the day of the massacre and Johnny Carson came on and I thought, "My God. He's going to have to say something about what happened to those athletes." He didn't say a bloody word! He was telling jokes about Doc Severinson's plaid jacket and Ed McMahon's beer drinking! I was so offended! 

So instead of doing a review I did a piece about what it must be like to be Jewish in the world today. Within a week we had five thousand requests for it. We were just on a local station! For two years it was used as the official fundraising film for United Jewish Appeal and they made me an honorary Jew. A few years later when I was at NBC they invited me to speak at what they call a performer's synagogue. Walter Matthau and Neil Simon and people like that would come and tell stories. 

They booked me for that - but as soon as I did my review of the Jerry Lewis Telethon they canceled me there! (laughs). But as a result of that I ended up at KNBC for five years where I won the Emmy - and that's how I ended up on the revival of Laugh-In...