Wednesday, October 15, 2014

An Interview with John Barbour - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1966 - Art Linkletter introduced you on the Talent Scouts show.

John Barbour: The producer was a guy named Perry Cross. He booked me because he heard my It's Tough to Be White [comedy] album and he loved it. He called me into his office, "How'd you like to do Talent Scouts?" I said, "Really? Do this material on the air?" He said, "No, no, no. You have to write something else, but I'd love you to be on the show. Maybe in some way it will help your album." I wrote some material and the guy who introduced me was a wonderful comedian named George Gobel. Gobel was an alcoholic, but had one of the great, early comedy shows written by a friend of mine - Hal Kanter.

He was the best one-line joke writer in America and he wrote for the Academy Awards for twenty years. Anyway, George Gobel comes into the dressing room with a bottle of booze and two glasses. "Would you like to share one with me before you go out?" I said, "Mr. Gobel, I don't drink." He said, "Not at all!? Jesus! How can you go up there all alone?" I was one of two people invited to do a second shot on Art Linkletter's Talent Scouts. In one corner seat was Art Linkletter's wife. In the other corner was his girlfriend. That's all I remember!

Kliph Nesteroff: March 1966 your were on The Louis Lomax Show.

John Barbour: Ohhh... yes. Louis Lomax was a Black newsman who had a show in Los Angeles. He had me on to talk about the It's Tough to Be White album and my experience performing at the California Club in Watts. 

Kliph Nesteroff: And then you wrote a few sitcom scripts with a guy named Whitey Mitchell. The Tammy Grimes Show and...

John Barbour: Whitey Mitchell was the brother of Red Mitchell. They were both bass players. He was introduced to me by my downstairs neighbor Mort Lachman. Mort Lachman became the headwriter of The Bob Hope Show. He called me one day, "This kid Whitey Mitchell is tired of being a musician. He wants to be a writer. Can I send him up to talk to you?" I was a struggling stand-up comedian barely making a living. Whitey came up and told me he wanted to be a writer. His real name was Gordon. I said, "Gordon, I don't want to write sitcoms or any of that stuff."

He said, "Yeah, but you're not even working half the time! Do it for me, will ya?" So the first thing we did was a Get Smart script. We wrote a script about counterfeiting S&H green stamps. The producer loved it, but for some legal reason they couldn't do it so they asked us to write something else. So we did that, a Gomer Pyle and The Tammy Grimes Show. I got tired of it, but then we got a call. The Writers Guild used to have this terrific awards show. We were called to come work on it with Hal Kanter and a bunch of others. Hal Kanter had this opening for the Writers Guild show. Thanks for the Memories plays and the curtain opens and Groucho Marx comes out saying, "Ain't it great to hear that music and then not have that guy show up?"

It was a pleasant opening - and Groucho refused to do it. So Hal wrote a different line about Lew Wasserman. "I don't want to do any jokes about Lew Wasserman tonight because I hate to kick a dog when he's up." Another cute line! And he refused to do that. Hal Kanter said, "Groucho, you're a star for Chrissake. Why are refusing to do it?" He said, "Because I like Bob Hope and I don't want to offend Lew."

Neil Simon wrote a thing that night for Walter Matthau. Walter Matthau onstage was so funny and so charismatic. He didn't even need joke lines because his whole attitude was so wonderful. Anyway we did that show and afterword I said, "You know, Gordon, I can't do this anymore. Find another partner." He found a guy named Lloyd Turner, a one-armed writer, and they were eventually on staff at Mork and Mindy.

Kliph Nesteroff: May 1968 - you were scheduled to play the Copacabana, but I don't think it happened...

John Barbour: Oh my God, what a... Yes, absoloo... how did that get... where did you find that information? My God. Yeah, I had just worked at a place called Bimbo's in San Francisco, which was sort of a "hood-ish" club. I worked there with Dionne Warwick. There was some guy from the William Morris office who took umbrage at one of my jokes and talked Dionne Warwick into canceling me from the Copacabana. My agent was a guy at William Morris named Murray Schwartz. Murray was the only agent at William Morris who believed in Merv Griffin.

When Merv was dumped from NBC he ended up playing dinner theaters in the Midwest, but he would sell out. Murray Schwartz went to NBC and talked them into rethinking Merv. He hosted a game show and then ended up with Westinghouse. He became Merv's personal agent and ended up having to sue Merv years later when Merv sold his company to Coca-Cola. Anyway, at one of the agent offices, they had a direct line to a guy named Frank Costello.

He was one of the major mobsters in New York. The guy who ran the Copacabana was named Jules Podell and he talked like [gruff voice]. He really talked like that. Anyway, they booked a girl named Caterina Valente. She had this gorgeous high range voice, was extremely popular and Italian. She was rehearsing and at the end of her first song she puts her arms way up as she hits the high note - and what do you see? Hair under her arms. So Murray gets a call from an associate of Frank Costello's on the private line. "Call Jules Podell." Podell says, "You get somebody down here and tell that broad she has to shave!"

Murray's boss comes in and says, "Murray. You have to go to the Copa and tell Ms. Valente that she's in America now and she has to shave under her arms." Murray says, "I can't do that!" He says, "Murray, if you don't do it then you are no longer with William Morris!" So he goes down there and goes into the dressing room. She's fixing her make-up and you can see the hair under her arms. He goes to Jules Podell, "Please Mr. Podell. I can't tell her to shave. I just can't." "Kid, you do it or I'll see to it you're no longer with William Morris." He said, "Then I'm no longer with William Morris. I just can't do it." Podell says, "Screw you, you coward! I'll do it!" So Podell goes into the dressing room, "Ms. Valente!" "Yes, Mr. Podell?" "Tonight! You... you... you wear a sweater!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

John Barbour: (laughs) Anyway, I had really been looking forward to working the Copacabana, but because of the Morris office taking offense at one of my jokes I never got to play it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played Las Vegas - The Fremont, with John Gary.

John Barbour: Yes I was John Gary's opening act. In 1969 I was Bobby Darin's opening act at the Landmark. He was recovering from a long depression after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. That's when he wrote If I Were a Carpenter. He wanted to wear jeans onstage and the hoods resented that. They made him wear a tuxedo. Working Vegas in those days was an absolute joy.

Kliph Nesteroff: We talked about your minor feud with Johnny Carson. At one point when you had your own commentary show with Metromedia you were called out in the Los Angeles Free Press by the great writer Harlan Ellison. He was calling you "a poor man's Joe Pyne."

John Barbour: Oh God! Yeah! Harlan Ellison wrote a column called The Glass Teat. It was a very literate and well-written column. Well, the night I sat in for Merv Griffin I interviewed Jean Claude Killy, a famous skier. I did my monologue and all the rest. Anyway, Harlan writes this scathing review of me. He came close to calling me a fag... that's how offensive it was.

When I was doing my show for Metromedia, I wanted to be like Jack Paar. In other words, I wanted to find people who were bright and interesting and bring them on the show. I didn't care if they were known or unknown. It made no difference to me as long as they were interesting. I thought, "God, this guy Harlan Ellison can really write." I got the number of the Free Press and I called him. He answered the phone, "Ellison here!" I said, "John Barbour here." He said, "Holy shit!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

John Barbour: I said, "How would you like to be on my Metromedia show?" He said, "You're shitting me. After what I wrote about you?" I said, "I think you're wrong, but if you can talk as well as you can write then you'd be interesting." I brought him on the show to talk about television and his article The Glass Teat. After the show he went to the Channel 11 program director and asked for my job (laughs). But Harlan and I became friends and I booked him for years. Every time I had a show I booked him.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about a couple other Los Angeles based personalities, one of whom you already mentioned - Joe Pyne.

John Barbour: Joe had a radio show and he called a guy named Chuck Young who was manager of Channel 11. He screamed into the phone. "My name is Joe Pyne and I'm going to be on your station!" Well, Chuck was so taken with that - he put him on. He was the first Rush Limbaugh, the first Sean O'Hannity, the first Bill O'Reilly. He had one leg. When I did his show he sat at one end and I sat at the other end. When it was over he said to me, "John, I'm sorry, but I didn't want you to sit next to me because I like you." He always had to be sort of confrontational, but he was very nice to me. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that Bob Hope was instrumental in your getting a contract with NBC.

John Barbour: No, he had nothing to do with that. But the reason Bob Hope came on my show was because I saw a Bob Hope special and it was absolutely dreadful. I was on NBC and I said, "At sixty-five I have to retire because, like those who work in factories, it's compulsory. Well, they should have the same law for comedians - or ex-comedians - like Bob Hope." His show was awful and it looked like he was reading his jokes off of idiot cards. Well, people scattered at NBC! The phone started to ring.

His lawyer called, his agent called and then the general manager comes over to my little shell of an office. "John, you're going to have to talk to these people soon because I'm tired of defending you. I can't do it anymore." The phone rings and this voice says, "Hey, pal! What I ever do to you?" It was Bob Hope. I said, "You bored me, that's what." And I just talked about it. There was this long silence and I said, "Mr. Hope, you were one of my favorites when you were in radio and movies. I absolutely loved you! But you were just God awful on your special and shame on you for not being more professional."

So he said to me, "You know, NBC doesn't want me. You know how I got that hour? I went out and played golf with the head of Exxon Oil." He told me that he was too old for NBC's demographic, so the only way he could get the time slot was if the oil company bought the hour. I said, "My God, you're kidding?" He said, "Yes, that's how it works." So we ended up having this wonderful conversation and talked about his early days in vaudeville. He said, "I have some money, but I'm not as smart as people think. When I was in vaudeville, I thought it would last forever. And it didn't. When I was doing radio I thought it would last forever. And it didn't. But you know what lasts forever? The land they build the vaudeville stage on. The land they build the radio station on. Whenever I negotiated my contract with NBC, I didn't ask for more money. I made them buy land. That land you're sitting on is the land I made them buy."

I said, "Mr. Hope, you know how interesting this is? This is better than any of your jokes. Why don't you come do my show on KCOP? We do it live. Come down and talk about this stuff." He said, "Okay, pal. I'll see ya." When he came down he was with a make-up guy and he brought this case, put it down on the counter, and started to do his own make-up while the make-up guy watched. I said, "Mr. Hope? Why do you do that when this guy is here?"

He said, "John, I've been doing it for fifty years. I used to do five shows a day and not always at the same theater and I'd sometimes do this on the bus or the streetcar. I carried this around with me and it's my good luck. I do my own make-up." Bing Crosby called in. Bing Crosby could remember the first girl singer he had on his show, but Bob Hope could only remember his first sponsor


John Nelson said...

Great usual !

mackdaddyg said...

Lots of great anecdotes. Thanks for sharing.

KING OF JAZZ said...

Imagine Hope hearing what he needed to be told!

Kevin K. said...

Fantastic stuff about Bob Hope. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

I'm very curious what joke Barbour told that lost him the gig.
Probably something that sounds completely harmless today.

Anonymous said...

Bobby Darin had a hit with "If I Were A Carpenter" in the Fall of 1966, almost two years before the RFK assassination.

Jay Pearlman said...

Bobby Darin didn't write "If I Were A Carpenter"; it was written by Tim Hardin.

Halpeary said...

I never knew how Barbour helped Red Foxx our that he told off Bob Hope or that he was soooooo smart and sooooo wonderful until he told me all about it