When you mention the Golden Age of television comedy, people think of Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, Red Skelton and perhaps Ernie Kovacs--comedians who were prominent in the '50s.
Less apparent is the figure of George Gobel. Perhaps his low voltage, deadpan manner doesn't carry in memory with the same glow as some of his more frenetic peers, but "The George Gobel Show" was at or near the top of the ratings from 1953 to 1961, and Gobel remained a popular guest performer until he tapered off in the '70s.
He didn't have sex appeal. He didn't make funny faces or do impersonations. And he wasn't--or isn't--very slick. At least on the surface. But Gobel is a first-rate storyteller with a shrewd eye for what suits him and an impeccable sense of timing. He's one of the very few comedians of the past couple of decades who has carried the American heartland into big time media success without being a flag-waver or an unconscionable pitchman.
On Saturday at 8 p.m., Gobel will open the Celebrity Series at Wilshire Auditorium in Fullerton, and you'll get to see for yourself how well he's worn.
"I'll talk about my opening night at the Palmer Hotel in Chicago," Gobel said in an interview. "I'll tell how I was nervous. I started getting ready two hours before the show. I came out of the shower with no clothes on, which is what I always do, shower with no clothes on. It's much cleaner that way. The room was steamed up. I went to open the window and fell down 14 floors. The fall didn't bother me. The walk through the lobby did. . . ."
He trailed off. He had told as much as he intended to in order to demonstrate the subtle peculiarity of his style, in which a somewhat hapless fellow tells stories where endings keep collapsing into other endings, and he turns commonplace phrases on their ear. (For example: "My father said, 'Son, sit down. I want to talk to you.' I didn't think much of it. I'd talked to him before.")
Gobel is a crafty caretaker of the form--deceptively so. Although he had done some summer replacement work on Hoagy Carmichael's "Saturday Night Revue," his real TV debut came on the 1952 special "Lights Diamond Jubilee," a program celebrating the 75th anniversary of the electric light bulb and Thomas Edison's birthday. He played a lecturer who was going to explain an electronic brain to the common man. He was devastatingly funny.
His style then, as later, was to convey the genteel stuffy earnestness of a small town druggist trying authoritatively to explain, in a prairie flat voice, esoteric matters that weren't very clear to him in the first place.
"It was this intricate . . . thing," Gobel recalls. "As the common man I had to be as common as you can get and still be sober. I'd look at it and try to explain one part or another and then say, 'Well it's a knob, is what it is. . . .' "
That face as plain as dough turned to us with an expression of such inscrutable perplexity that we couldn't resist. He was modern man hiding his sense of abandonment in the wake of his own proliferating gadgetry. The routine was a sensation, and he was so good at it that he even had the show's executives convinced that he was a boob trying to ad-lib his way through ("They were thinking, 'Oh, the poor bastard,' " Gobel recalls).
Gobel was never a cutup, or a big laugher. At 66, he still isn't. Show business was not something he had wanted from the start--had everything gone his way, he would have lived his professional life as an airplane pilot. But he grew up during the Depression and took to show business the tools and growing catalogue of skills a conscientious pilot-mechanic would apply to the successful function of his flying machine.
"I was born in Chicago," he said earlier this week at his Encino home. "My folks were in the grocery business. I sang when I was a kid. I was a boy soprano, which is not a thing for a kid. In school the music teacher, Miss Burdick, thought it was just great. In assembly she'd say: 'Boys and girls, George Gobel is gonna sing, "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." The kids'd go: 'Oh, Jesus.' It was a hard thing for a kid.
"I did some acting. I was Jimmy on the 'Tom Mix Show' on radio when I was 15. I never liked show business. In the summer, I could make $15 at the county fair, which would help out with the grocery store. The folks had a lot of customers, but nobody could pay. Everyone was on the rim. At 16, I sang commercials for Ralston for $140 a week. That's not spit. I wasn't gonna squander. I bought an airplane, a 40 horsepower for $100. You could see I drove a hard bargain."