Wednesday, July 8, 2015

An Interview with Jeremy Vernon - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Latin Casino with Peggy Lee - February 1967.

Jeremy Vernon: Not a hip audience. It was a huge room. I think it held 1200 or something, but it was okay. The owner was a guy named Dave Dushoff. He picked up the tab and everything. I told him, "God, you're real nice to the acts." He said, "It takes a lot to get 'em to come down here to Cherry Hill, New Jersey."

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Mob element in nightclubs in those days. Did you have any memorable encounters?

Jeremy Vernon: I did. All these clubs in places like Springfield and Chicopee Falls... I didn't realize at the time that they owned all these places. Somebody would say, "The Boys are coming in tonight." They'd come and sit at a table and I would rib them. I assumed if I was onstage I could say whatever and they would know that it was all in fun. One time I was working the Highway Casino in Providence, Rhode Island.

These guys came in while I was already onstage. They walked in single file. They all had those hats with wide brims turned up. This was the late 1950s. I said, "Here they come! They're marching in line! All in uniform in their camel hair coats!" They all looked identical. I said, "Oh, wait a minute! One guy is out of step!" They glared at me and said, "Go on. Go on." That's all they said, "Go on." They were waiting for the stripper.

I did have an encounter at the Bon Soir in New York. I didn't realize it was part of the Mob too. Ernie Sgroi was connected somehow. I had just broken in a new bit about Italian singers who changed their last names to an initial. I said, "You have Frankie B and Joey G and Johnny D." After the show, the maitre'd called me over. He said, "You see those two guys at the ringside table?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Those are two of the roughest hit men in Brooklyn. They told me you made fun of their guy Johnny Dioguardi." He ruled one of the New York Families at the time. I had heard him called Johnny Dio, but never Johnny D. He said, "You want us to get you a police escort? You want us to walk you to your car?" They had asked him, "How long is that comedian going to be here?" He told them, "Two more weeks." And they told him, "Don't be surprised if he don't show up tomorrow."

Kliph Nesteroff: Whoa.

Jeremy Vernon: I said, "Hold on, hold on. Let me talk to these guys." I approached their table and they said, "Come over heeyah, comedian!" I started spewing nervously. I was just going, going, going. I said, "I didn't pick that initial for any particular reason! It could have been B, D, G! I was just going through the alphabet!" I went on and on and on. They said, "Hey! Dats okay, kid! We're just puttin' ya on!" And they gave me a punch in the shoulder.

Kliph Nesteroff: So the Bon Soir - sort of an intellectual club - was connected to the Mob.

Jeremy Vernon: So, that was my experience with the Mob.

Kliph Nesteroff: You always did airline material. Today it's considered the hackiest of all topics. Were the first comedian to do airline material?

Jeremy Vernon: No, there had been other comedians that did airline stuff before. Shelley Berman did his stewardess bit, "Coffee, tea or milk? Coffee, tea or milk?" And various guys did airlines. I was the first one doing a thing on foreign airlines. I saw Peter Ustinov on a talk show and he was the first I ever heard do that filtered microphone sound where he covers his mouth.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Copacabana again with Al Martino.

Jeremy Vernon: That's right. He was very pleasant.  It was good. The Copa was always good. Al Martino was hot and he had good crowds. Jack Jones came backstage and complimented my act. He had just married a beautiful stewardess so we talked about that.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was the end of the 1960s, so this is the time of the cultural shift that killed off most of those old school supperclubs. It really, kinda, destroyed the Copa. So what was the atmosphere like? It must have been on its last legs...

Jeremy Vernon: Yes. When I worked it with Peggy Lee it was the last time they had a chorus line. When I worked it with Al Martino they didn't have the Copa girls anymore. The big clubs started to go under at that time.

Kliph Nesteroff: So did you enter the comedy club racket at that time? Were you playing the Comedy Store when it first opened?

Jeremy Vernon: I was. I was one of the first people in that. I was with Sammy Shore when he decided to open it. Here's a funny thing about that. Lou Alexander came up with an idea before all the comedy clubs. He said, "We oughta get a store front and make it a club. You and me and Jack DeLeon and Howie Storm can all work there, at our own club, and we can alternate. When one guy is doing the road, the other three will be there. We can get producers to come and see us." I remember how I laughed when he said producers. Lou Alexander said, "We'll call it... we'll call it... the House of Comedy!" I thought to myself, "Jesus, this is corny, wow."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jeremy Vernon: But the Comedy Store was a hip name, more up-to-date and modern sounding. So when Sammy Shore opened it we hung out there. What happened was he wouldn't call on us standard acts. Once in a while he would call on us, but he preferred to call on young amateur people who were goofy. There was one girl who came onstage holding a bunch of celery for no reason. Somebody else came on with a carrot stuck in their ear. 

Jeremy Vernon: There was this guy Charles Fleischer who came on swinging a rubber tube around his head that made a noise like, "Whrrrrr, whrrrrr, whrrrr." Someone else came out with a toilet seat around their neck. Sammy Shore, by doing this, started attracted a crowd that made it impossible for him to break in his material. So when Sammy wanted to break in material he had to go to the Horn [nightclub] in Santa Monica!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jeremy Vernon: I used to work the Horn in Santa Monica and it was a great room. Sammy would say to me, "Why do you go to the Horn? Why don't you come here? Why don't you come to the Comedy Store and work?" But he himself never worked there when he wanted to break in stuff! Sometimes he and Rudy De Luca would get up and do stuff ad-lib. They'd do opera take-offs with Rudy pretending to be an opera singer and it was very ad-lib. I worked the Improv when they had one in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you work the Improv in New York early on?

Jeremy Vernon: Oh, yes. I used to hang out at the Improv in New York. I worked it when I was breaking in material for the Sullivan show. I would go in there and try out stuff and it was great because Richie Pryor was always there and Bobby Klein was always there. And Whatshisname from Philadelphia was always there.

Kliph Nesteroff: David Brenner.

Jeremy Vernon: Yes, exactly (laughs). Very good. He'd come in at two in the morning and he didn't do well. He'd go on and people would leave the room! They'd say, "Oh no, this guy." And they'd leave. I asked his manager, "What made him stick with it? How come he didn't just quit?" He said, "Well, he was just determined." His manager was a guy named Rick Bernstein. Before he came to the Improv he was going to all the other little clubs in New York and I think he must have been doing well in those other clubs because otherwise he would have dropped out. He probably did well elsewhere and then came in late at the Improv because I never saw him do well there. I thought it was because Budd didn't want to put him on early, but that probably wasn't the case.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about the early Richard Pryor?

Jeremy Vernon: I saw him a couple times at the Living Room. He was trying out different stuff and I saw that he would eventually develop. I knew he had something going and was headed in the right direction, but he certainly was not there yet.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about your experience doing The Ed Sullivan Show?

Jeremy Vernon: I did it twice and then the show went off the air soon after that. Vince Callandra saw me my second time at the Copa. Lee Solomon said, "I'm bringing in Vince Callandra. He's a fan of yours from Vegas." He came and he said no. Next day Sullivan comes in. Calls me over. "Jeremy, you're a fine comedian. Where are you staying?" He called me up the next day. I never thought he would call me up in person.

I said, "Is this Will Jordan?" "This is Ed Sullivan and I want you on our show next Sunday." Well, fine! He had to tell Vince Callandra to book me (laughs). Anyway, I did the afternoon rehearsal and it went great. They would do a full dress. Then it started to snow. I went out with a friend of mine. He's a rabbi now, but at that time he was a manager, Jerry Cutler. He accompanied me and we went and had supper and then came back to do the show. Sullivan came on just before me and says, "Well, you know, you're all going to be record holders because right now it is a record snowfall. We're in for three feet of snow tonight."

I'm thinking, "Jesus, he's telling these people they're snowbound and will have no way to get back to New Jersey! My God!" As I'm walking out, and I'm sure you've heard these stories many times, someone said to me, "Cut one minute." Holy mackerel. As I'm walking on - cut one minute! What am I gonna cut? I couldn't think of what to leave out so I just worked very fast. I stepped on my laughs and so on. It was okay, but it wasn't as dynamite as the dress rehearsal.

They wanted me to come back, but the Sullivan show was losing it's audience. This was around 1971. They asked me, "Do you have anything that's more like a sketch?" I had a bit that was a take off on the movie The Longest Day. It was something like a sketch where I do a character on the phone calling Hitler. Just to get on the show I said I'd do it. I remember breaking it in at the Improv and (laughs) one of the comics, I think it was Marvin Braverman, said, "Do you have other material?" I said, "Yeah, lots." He said, "Then why are you doing that?"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Jeremy Vernon: I said, "That's what the Sullivan show wants!" They had me put on a German officer's coat and a hat. Instead of having me do the sound effects of bombing and shelling myself they inserted sound effects...

Kliph Nesteroff: God, no.

Jeremy Vernon: Yeah, it was silly. The first time I was on, Sullivan called me over and shook my hand, "Let's hear it for Jeremy!" This time they said, "When you finish, do not go over to Ed." Like they knew it was not going to be a big hit (laughs). Ominous! So that was my experience doing The Ed Sullivan Show, but I will say that Sullivan was very nice to me. Very kind. Whenever he saw me on the street, "Hello there, Jeremy. How's your lovely wife?" And I didn't want to say, "I'm not married." 

Kliph Nesteroff: How about your experience doing The Joey Bishop Show?

Jeremy Vernon: It was good. I got to sit on the panel and Georgie Jessel was there. Every time that I started to speak, he would interrupt. I'd say, "The other night I had chicken and..." "Oh, chicken, I love chicken. I love the seasoned chicken at the restaurant..." And he'd go on and on. So there wasn't much conversation.

Every time you started talking George Jessel would interrupt so I didn't get a chance. At the end of the show Joey asked everybody on the panel, "What are you working on next?" I said, "Oh, I'll just be hanging around like I did here tonight." Joey tended to be a little abrasive. I'd say, "See you later." He'd say, "Thanks for the warning!"

I did a show called 90 Tonight and Cleavon Little was the host. He had just finished making Blazing Saddles. The working title had been Black Bart. He talked about it at the beginning of the show. At one point he asked me what I had coming up. I told him, "Well, I auditioned for the part of Black Bart, but they told me I was too tall." The place came down. It was an all-Black audience. They were the best audience. They laughed at everything.

Kliph Nesteroff: April 1969 you did a Jerry Lewis luncheon at the Deauville in Miami Beach. Dais included you, Jack Klugman, Don Cornell, Jan Peerce, Lou Marsh, Sonny Sands and Eddie Schaeffer.

Jeremy Vernon: My God, yes. I think Eddie Schaeffer was the emcee. I guess that was when I was at the Eden Roc. They sent me a telegram to come down. I asked someone, "Is this an invite for me to be in the audience or what is it? "They said, "No, if you're getting a telegram that means you're on the dais." I did some dirty jokes, naturally, as it was a Roast and it was pretty funny. Jerry Lewis then came to see my show at the Eden Roc.

He said, "You do some silly stuff!" I took that as a compliment and I started dating his assistant. He said, "I might put you in a picture that I'm doing. I can't promise you, but I might have a part for ya. Keep in touch with stupid here." That's what he called the girl. So I never heard from him about it and I was very glad because the film was Which Way to the Front. I think the movie opened and closed on the same day.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, with Jan Murray.

Jeremy Vernon: I never saw it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of Playboy After Dark in 1969.

Jeremy Vernon: You stood in a living room with Playboy bunnies and sat around on the floor. It was like working someone's living room. It wasn't a killer show, but I guess it was okay.

Kliph Nesteroff: If my facts are straight, you did a guest appearance on The Flying Nun.

Jeremy Vernon: I did. Something odd happened there. I was supposed to play a tourist in Puerto Rico. I'm at a table with my fictional wife and Sally Field is trying to sell a parrot that talks dirty because they can't keep it in the convent. I was supposed to be embarrassed about the situation. It was shot in the San Fernando Valley and it was very hot. I was wearing a suit and was looking for a place in the shade. I found a chair and sat down. When I got up I noticed the back of the chair - it said Sally Field. I should have gone and apologized. Anyway, we do the scene, about four takes and the director says, "Okay, good. Cut. Print." She says, "I want to do one more take." During the last take Sally Field took the parrot cage and knocked over a mixed drink, a cocktail, off the table and all over my suit pants. I don't know if it was intentional but...

Kliph Nesteroff: You didn't do too many acting roles.

Jeremy Vernon: I did a Love, American Style. I did a Mork and Mindy. I was booked on The Monkees, but got a Vegas job at the last minute so I got out of that and had a long run in Vegas instead. It was good money and I had a fifteen month run in Vegas in 1968.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Desert Inn.

Jeremy Vernon: Yes. It was a production show. It was called Pizazz '68.

Kliph Nesteroff: We were talking about working the supperclubs during America's cultural shift. You opened for Connie Stevens at the famous Coconaut Grove, but they had renamed it the NOW Grove.

Jeremy Vernon: Yeah, that's right. Sammy Davis took over the operation. The guy who reviewed the show was named Art Murphy, from Variety. He especially didn't like me. Connie's manager told me he gave the show a bad review because he had to wait a half hour for a table. I wrote a letter to him where I said it was unfair for him to review the show poorly based on how he was treated. He wrote me the most scathing letter back full of profanity. "You blame other people because you're no good!"  

Before I went on Larry Wilde came in and he was talking to me. He went on and on and on and all of a sudden I heard my introduction. I had to run the whole length of the room to get onstage and I was out of breath. So my timing was a little off, I have to admit. Because of that it probably didn't go over that well, but this guy wrote a real vicious review. We wrote back and forth and he got real vile. I read his obituary and he was not a well-liked guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were on Norm Crosby's Comedy Shop. That show was sort of interesting because it combined all the old school comedians with all the new Comedy Store comedians. It was the first stand-up comedy television series.

Jeremy Vernon: That's right. It was a mish-mash. I also did a TV show called His Honor, which was on for a season. That was around the same time I did Mork and Mindy and then I emceed the porno awards.

Kliph Nesteroff: What?

Jeremy Vernon: Yeah, the erotic... Jackie Gayle was on the show and he did his act. I felt I should do special material so I got together with Don Sherman and we wrote some jokes together. Linda Lovelace had just quit the porn business. She was the one that made Deep Throat. So the line we wrote was, "She quit because she had it up to there." There were people outside picketing the event. My first line was, "If you can't lick it - picket." That got a big scream, but after that it went downhill.

Believe it or not, it was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times and I was panned. I got a real bad review. "Woeful attempt. You can't do dirty jokes to dirty people," or something like that. I did all jokes about the porn industry. "One expression you never hear in the porn industry is come in." It was a goofy experience.


KING OF JAZZ said...

I like reading about the cultural shift in the late '60s; for those who lived through it, like I did (albeit as a kid) it was quite memorable. Especially the way the older crowd tried to repaint themselves as "groovy," which was already dated if it was said on "Family Affair."

Anonymous said...

The cultural shift meant that comedians and actors from the 1950s and early '60s had to adopt a "mod look" by 1968.

Thus we get Shecky Greene and Buddy Hackett looking like old guys who just recorded "Sgt. Pepper's" while wearing outrageously ugly leisure suits and nehru jackets.

Kevin K. said...

I dunno, I thought those porno award jokes were pretty funny.

The strange thing about "Which Way to the Front" was that it was a huge hit in Germany, and might have won its equivalent of the Academy Award for best picture.