“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” For anyone who has stood before a group of people with the intention of making them laugh, those words are not a quote. They’re an epitaph.
In surveys about panic and anxiety, no less than 75% of North Americans list public speaking as their number one fear while death comes in at number three. Number two is the terror of being trapped in an elevator with Celine Dion when she feels a song coming on.
Currently I’m reading this brilliant book The Comedians — Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. Meticulously researched and cleverly written, cult figure and former stand-up Kliph Nesteroff created a 400-page ‘fable of the funny’ that informs, entertains and coughs up a laugh-out-loud gem on almost every page.
Best said by the New York Times: “The way he traces the evolution of comedy is fascinating… these forgotten comedians became almost romantic figures, the stars of a secret history of laughter.” Drawn to the dark side of humour some bits leapt off the page and reminded me of lessons learned as an ‘after dinner’ speaker.
All comedians crave fame and in the early 1900s, in Kansas City, vaudeville comedian Rube Dickson finally found it. Standing out front of the newly-built theatre having a smoke with his name surrounded by bright lights, Rube was likely grinning from ear-to-ear when the massive wooden marquee collapsed and killed him. Dead by the weight of his own name and I thought — be careful what you wish for.
When comedian Red Foxx suddenly grabbed his chest while shooting The Royal Family everybody on the set laughed. It was the same fake heart attack gag he often used on Sanford and Son. No fake, no joke — Foxx was dead when he hit the floor.
Just before organic food guru J. I. Rodale had a heart attack and died on the couch during a taping of The Dick Cavett Show, he had boasted “I’m so healthy I expect to live on and on.” When Cavett noticed that Rodale’s eyes had closed he asked the obvious question: “Is there a doctor in the house?” This got a big unwanted laugh from the studio audience.
Similarly when British actor Sid James gasped for breath and fell backwards onto a couch while performing in the play The Mating Season, the audience laughed and laughed and even his fellow actors thought he was hamming it up a bit too much. Dead.
Struck down while performing is not as rare as one would think. Crocodile wrestler Steve Irwin got the wrong end of the stingray’s barb. Gilbert Genesta drowned during a magic trick. Raphael Schumacher changed the play’s script without telling anyone and accidentally hanged himself on a stage in Pisa, Italy. Said Indonesian pop star and snake charmer Irma Blue as the room went dark: “I thought the cobra had been defanged.” Sadly reminiscent of actor Alec Baldwin and a gun that was not supposed to be loaded. Microphone, podium, lights —check, check and double check.
Musician Bruce Hampton died after collapsing on stage during his “70th Birthday Concert” at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. He had exited the stage to a standing ovation and returned to give his adoring audience an encore. Sometimes less is best.
Comedian Harvey Stone, on the downside of his career died while performing on a cruise ship. The cruise company called his wife to deliver the bad news, not knowing they were estranged at the time. They asked her how to handle the body — keep it until the ship returned to New York or fly it back immediately?
“Oh, well” said the wife, going for the last laugh, “few people knew this, but Harvey always wanted to be buried at sea.” (That might explain the estrangement right there.)
Said fellow comedian and friend Jack Carter: “Here’s a Jew from Detroit who never saw a boat in his life. They dumped him in the ocean. And that was the end of Harvey.” Now, both Harvey Stone and Luca Brasi: “sleep with the fishes.”
Milton Berle once zinged a guy in the audience with the insult line: “Oh, it’s Novelty Night — you’re here with your wife.” Mobster “Pretty” Amberg was not amused and buried a fork in Berle’s chin. After being spirited out of the club and receiving eight stitches to close the wound, Berle must have recalled the number one rule of public speaking — know your audience.
Similarly, when comedian Joe E. Lewis was offered more money to play a competing Chicago nightclub, he cancelled his gig at the Green Mile Cocktail Lounge which was owned by Machine Gun Jack McGurn, an Al Capone associate. Sam Giancana was sent to ‘slice Lewis from ear to ear’ which he did. Somehow Joe E. Lewis lived and since he refused to name his assailants, the Mob, which owned pretty much all the clubs in America, was very pleased with him. Although he struggled with his voice, Lewis’ career flourished after the attack.
Harry “Parkyakarkas” Einstein was an A-list star comedian in the 1940s who fathered comics Bob “Super Dave” Osborne and Albert Brooks of Broadcast News. After the greatest performance of his life, roasting Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Einstein was enjoying the deafening applause when Milton Berle told him to stand up and take another bow. He stood, he waved, he sat back down and died.
Screaming and crying, everybody panicked, so host Art Linkletter tried to calm things down by telling musical entertainer Tony Martin to sing something. The first song that popped into his head was “There’s No Tomorrow.”
Giggles and The Grim Reaper, belly laughs in bleak times — I’m here to cheer you up!
For a comment or a signed copy of
The True Story of Wainfleet