SAN DIEGO — "Hey! How about this one: 'Frankie Laine's so dull you go to stay with him when you want to be alone . . . ' "
"OK. Stick it in the Dull module. Any more Dull jokes?"
"Uh, just a minute . . . Oh boy. How could we fit this in: 'There are no two ways about Ted Leitner . . . you either hate Ted Leitner, or you are Ted Leitner.' Just change the name . . . naah. Wouldn't work. Everybody loves Frankie Laine . . . could be a problem. How do you roast a guy everybody loves?"
That's Gary Beals' and Bob Ross' problem. The two are sitting in Gary's house/office in East San Diego, sweating over how to roast one of San Diego's most famous immigrants. Chicago native Frankie Laine has agreed to be roasted for this year's Rolf Benirschke Celebrity Roast, the seventh annual, which will be held Kona Kai Club Wednesday night to benefit the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis. Chargers kicker Benirschke, who has endured colitis, is honorary chairman of the foundation.
Beals and Ross are semi-professional comedians. There's something of the Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum in them. Beals is lean and mean and nervy with a black Sheriff of Nottingham jawliner beard and a wicked twinkle to the eye. Ross is all ginger-haired, roly-poly and cuddly, but with the pressure of the man of middle years who plays his sports too hard.
Each man has his hoard of jokes. Beals on his computer discs; Ross in an array of small card files and joke books.
They're working together, but there's just a little sense of competition, too. Each has his own stock, as well as his own sense of humor. Both are members of the National Speakers' Assn., an educational forum for public speakers. Gary Beals offered his skills to act as "humor engineer"--a behind-the-scenes organizer--for this roast. He called on the skills of his friend Bob, who's known as "Mr. Roast" in San Diego.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, they were brainstorming jokes to offer to Frankie Laine's tormentors for the night: Jonathan Winters, Bob Crosby, San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender and radio personality Don Howard.
It's a little delicate. There are the roasters' professional egos to consider. People with individual senses of humor, with their own relationship with Frankie to draw on. But Beals, in particular, is determined that the evening shall not become a boring line of in-jokes, or too blue, or too personally injuring to Frankie Laine, who has been generous enough to lay himself open to personal slings and arrows all evening.
"I've been to so many roasts where people either ramble or get too risque for a mixed audience or tell stories that only the roastee would appreciate," Beals said. "Roasts are mainly for audiences . . . That's why long stories should be out. One-liners. That's what it should be. A string of one-liners with the roastee's name attached. Of course sticking to the real events of his life--and more important, his actual foibles--is important, but above all the roastee acts as a kind of catalyst, an excuse for an evening's fun."
Beals and Ross have been hunched up around Beals' MacIntosh computer in a corner of Beals' office most of the morning. "Dull Jokes" heads the list on the computer screen. Ross leans uneasily out of an easy chair, fingering through a plastic card-file labeled "Dull." Another box sits nearby labeled "Fat." Next to that is "Aging." Another file is color-coded: green cards, jokes heard on TV; yellow cards, "Savers," and blue cards--for blue jokes.
"How about this one," Ross says suddenly, " 'Frankie's so dull that when he used to play 'doctor' as a kid, he always wanted to play the . . . optometrist . . . ?' No?"
Beals shakes his head.
"Well, maybe 'Frankie's so dull he went to Halloween dressed as an insurance salesman.' "
"So's the joke," Beals says without looking away from his screen, "What about Age?"
Ross fiddles into the Age box.
"Uh, 'When you talk to Frankie about a rock group he thinks you mean Stonehenge.' 'Frankie drinks his martini with a prune in it.' Oh. How about this: 'Frankie's so old he doesn't even dare buy green bananas.' "
Roasts have been getting more popular in San Diego in the last few years. Of course, they have been around for a long time. Humorously insulting after-dinner speeches became a tradition in Europe and the Americas around 1850. Mark Twain is suspected of being an active advocate of them about a century ago. In this century, the Friars Club in New York brought the roast to its present state of refinement--with recent help from Dean Martin.
"The main thing," says Beals, "is that material should have a bit of a bite to it--we call them 'mild zingers'--but that they should be at heart good-natured. Not really wounding. Insults should be parodies of insults. There should be an illusion of friction. The spirit of the event should be sassy.