Category Archives: Showbiz Stories
My older brother Bruce was a U.S. attorney and thus had contacts and friends in the FBI. So one day I get a call from an official there asking me to participate in the FBI golf tournament in San Diego, California, and hopefully perform a show at their dinner afterward.
I happily accepted the invitation, not only for the chance to perform for such an important government organization, but mainly to get to play golf for free at a hitherto exclusive private golf club.
The day was fun and the dinner event was held outdoors under the stars, right outside the clubhouse. But when showtime came around, the director of the event, an FBI agent, informed me that they had no microphone, and that I would have to use a bullhorn to do my show.
I always say in show business just when you think that you’ve seen it all, something happens and you realize that you indeed haven’t. But I’ve always been able to make the best out of every bizarre circumstance that I’ve faced doing shows. So I took the bullhorn, and proceeded to perform.
“Good evening,” I started ingeniously. “I hope you can all hear me okay. And if you are still eating your dinner, please drop your forks and come out with your tongues up!”
I was off and running, and I proceeded to do about 10 minutes just on having to perform with a bullhorn, after which I continued on with my act, as if it were a non-issue. Somehow I made it work, and the crowd was great. But I’m happy that it was a once-in-a-career occurrence.
And hopefully I’ll be even more prepared if I ever get asked to work the Secret Service Golf Invitational.
Early in my career I had the good fortune to tour with and open for many of the top singing stars of the day, including Tom Jones, Paul Anka, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Although each one was terrific to work with and treated me with kindness and respect, I found that Gladys and her Pips were the friendliest and the ones I got to hang out with the most.
We were performing for a week at Harrah’s Hotel in Lake Tahoe, one of the premier casinos in the country. Harrah’s gave me a wonderful hotel suite, but the headline stars always got to stay in the hotel’s palatial estate right on Lake Tahoe, with it’s magnificent views and first class decor, including pool and tennis court.
One night after the show, Gladys invited me to play tennis with her and two of the Pips the next day at the house. I was humbled and surprised by such a wonderful invite, and I quickly accepted and looked forward to a great time.
The next day I went over there and met them at the court. We were about to play a set of doubles tennis, and they determined it would be Gladys and me versus the 2 Pips. As funny as this may sound, it was perfectly logical. Let’s face it, you can’t split up a couple of Pips on the tennis court. They did everything together and were always in perfect sync.
But something was about to occur that I hadn’t anticipated, something so nerve racking and startling that it was about to affect my psyche for years to come. As is the case in doubles tennis, everyone rotates serving, and it came to my turn. I took my usual practice bounces and looked up, only to see Gladys Knight with her back to me in front of the net, ready to react to a Pip return of service. Suddenly my hands started to perspire – which never happens. You see, I am a good athlete but my tennis game – especially my serve – can be very erratic, due to lack of practice. And all I could think of was, “Please don’t hit Gladys Knight, THE Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, in the back!!” I could see my career flashing before my eyes.
I hit my serve, and naturally the ball bee-lined right toward the back of Gladys. And then, zap! The ball hit her flush in the back of the head; she yelled and fell to her knee, clearly dazed. Mortified, I ran toward her, while the 2 Pips ran and jumped over the net – in sync of course.
We helped her up, and though she was not very happy, she graciously told me she was fine and not to worry about it. They decided to end the tennis match out of precaution, and we went inside the house for some lunch, while Gladys got an ice pack put on the back of her head.
The rest of the week of that engagement was a blur, and while always friendly to me, I noticed that they didn’t offer any more invitations to the house on the lake. Gladys survived my errant serve, and I made a promise to myself not to play any more doubles tennis.
To this day I still feel guilty about that misguided ball that almost maimed one of our biggest music icons. But it could have been worse. If they had been really angry with me, I easily could have ended up on a midnight train to Georgia.
I remember the first line of Johnny Carson’s first introduction of me the night I did my initial Tonight Show.
“Comedy is the hardest commodity to find,” he informed the audience.
Having had some good fortune and success in my over 30 years doing stand-up comedy, I’ve always known that what he said was true. Yet with all the ups and downs of the business of being funny, it had always come fairly easy to me.
Many people have said to me, “You’re doing the hardest thing I could imagine doing, getting up on a stage and trying to make people laugh.” One time in the 1970’s Dustin Hoffman saw me perform in a club in New York, and afterwards he could not stop remarking how he admired that I could do something this difficult, saying he couldn’t even contemplate doing it.
But as easy as it was for me, there were two nights when I found myself on a stage and about to do the hardest thing in my llife: make people laugh right after a national tragedy.
The first was on 9/11. I was scheduled to open an engagement at Harrah’s Hotel in Lake Tahoe, and that morning I woke up to the news of the attack, as did everyone else in the country. I assumed all shows would be cancelled; I mean, how could anyone laugh at a moment such as this? But I was informed by the hotel that the show would go on that night, as the hotel guests were stranded and unnerved and didn’t know what to do with themselves.
I knew I had to address the issue when I took the stage. It was too devastating to try to ignore it. And I wondered how people would be able to laugh. I felt tremendous guilt on having to do my job.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I somberly opened, “for years everyone has always said I was doing the hardest job imaginable, but I’ve always told them it was in fact pretty easy for me. But tonight folks, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
The audience broke into applause, and I went on with the show, and to my surprise they laughed like they desperately needed to, in order to assuage the pain of that day.
And then the other hardest event came on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, when I again I had to perform my comedy show after the horrific shootings in Connecticut. This time the emcee held a moment of silence, so I decided to just do my show as always without alluding to it. The crowd voraciously absorbed my medicine which they so obviously needed this day. Again I could not help but feel twinges of guilt as I went through my 55 minutes of material; the paradox of tragedy and humor was one that my heart and soul could not ignore, even as the funny words poured out of my mouth.
After the show many people thanked me for giving them some respite from the sorrow that they all were feeling. I am glad I was given this gift to help ease people’s pain even in a small way. I pray that I do not have to do funny shows on any more tragic days in the future.
On one of my Tonight Show appearances another guest was the great opera singer, Luciano Pavarotti. For some reason we had an adjoining dressing room, separated only by a flimsy sliding door. I was already in the make-up room when Pavarotti arrived late, and he apparently went into my side of the dressing room and changed into his tux, leaving his humongous gray slacks on a hanger.
I really didn’t give it much thought, being totally engrossed in what was about to be my 20th appearance with Johnny Carson, something I could only have dreamed about. My set went exceedingly well, even getting belly laughs from the great Pavarotti when I unwittingly did an obese joke, forgetting he was sitting over on the couch next to Johnny.
After the show was over and I said my thanks to Johnny and the staff, I retreated to my dressing room, to be joined only by a writer friend who was my guest. By this time everyone who worked on the show, including the other guests, crew, staff, etc. had gone home. It was just me and my friend and nobody else.
As we were getting ready to leave, my buddy noticed Pavarotti’s ratty old gray pants on a hanger. The opera icon apparently had left in his tux in a rush and never bothered to grab his pants.
“We should take them for safekeeping,” he said. “Maybe he just doesn’t want them, but at least they won’t get lost if Pavarotti ever needs his pants back.”
We went to the parking lot and got in my car, and when I looked over I noticed that he did indeed have Pavarotti’s pants. However, by the time I dropped him off at his apartment he decided they would be safer with me.
“I’m leaving them in your car,” he said. “You keep them.”
So I took them home and put them in a drawer. For years I had dreams that Pavarotti’s people were going to notify authorities that his pants were missing, and were last seen in an adjoining dressing room he shared at NBC with Bobby Kelton.
To this day I’m not sure if they have value or what to do with them. However, I do have some peace of mind knowing that if I ever go on a weight-gaining binge, I won’t have to go to a Big and Tall Men’s store for some pants. I have all I need sitting in my drawer. And just in case, I’m learning the words to “Figaro.”
I’ve never been much of a drinker; an occasional glass of wine or a beer would always suffice. But hard liquor, especially scotch or whiskey, is almost impossible for me to get down. It’s always amazed me that there are people who actually like that stuff, and I can certainly see why it was used as anesthesia in the wild west.
So imagine my conundrum when I found myself backstage after I opened a show for Tom Jones, and he offered me a drink. It was always customary for Tom to have an all-night party in his dressing room after a show, with his cadre of band members, back-up singers, groupies and hangers-on, and of course as would be expected, his opening act.
“Would you like to try some special Irish scotch,” Tom offered. I didn’t want to say no and be uncool or unparty-like. “I’ll try a little, I guess,” I reluctantly yet cheerfully replied. Tom poured some into a shot glass and handed it to me.
“This scotch is a thousand dollars a bottle,” he warned. “It’s called ‘Usquebah.’ Make sure you drink the whole thing!”
I held the glass firmly and took a tiny sip, nodding my head and feigning appreciation for this unique drink. It might as well have been three dollar street whiskey, or whatever the cheapest thing is. For me it was like drinking brake fluid, and I had to get rid of it.
Fortuitously for me, right at that moment Tom was pulled away by some of his partiers, and I quickly made a bee-line into the bathroom, where I promptly disposed of this glass of thousand dollar scotch in a modest fifty dollar toilet. When I went back into the room, there was Tom waiting for me.
“What did you think of it?” he asked.
“It was phenomenal,” I replied. “All I need now is a thousand dollar Cuban cigar. Let me know if you have one.”