Milton Berle started his long career in 1913 at the age of 5 as the boy model in the famous Buster Brown shoe advertisements. By the time he was 15, Berle had his own vaudeville act, and in 1948 he jumped into the then-risky business of television, hosting the young medium's first variety show, the "Texaco Star Theater."
On Saturday, Berle will be the first inductee into the newly formed Comedy Hall of Fame at the Montreal International Comedy Festival. Showtime will air the festival's Saturday-night program, which will include an appearance by Berle.
In an interview with Sharon Bernstein, Berle--who turned 83 last week--said he is particularly pleased by his induction into the Hall of Fame, because the honor came from young comedians who weren't even around for his glory days in vaudeville, radio and early television.
What have you been doing lately?
I'm still appearing in cabarets and gambling casinos and nightclubs. And I've been doing a lot of writing, short-story writing, for the magazines, for Cosmopolitan, for Ladies Home Journal. And we're producing a Broadway musical about the story of my life, to open in the fall of '92. It's a musical, tentatively titled "Milton and Me." The "me" is my mother--she was my guiding star and my arm and she helped me.
How has humor changed over the years? Could you do the same show now that you did 50 years ago and still get laughs?
I'm doing it. Funny is funny. The subject matter changes, but the joke doesn't change. If you (used to) talk about F.D.R. or Truman, all you have to do is change the name and talk about Bush. The joke will fit if you know how to do it.
The comedy hasn't changed--it's the people who do it.
Then what you see in comedy clubs and on television is no different from what people saw in vaudeville, or on TV years ago?
I'll tell you what's changed--style and attitude.
We always asked ourselves, dramatically or comedically, "Who am I? What am I doing here, and why?" You must have an individual personality and a style that will sustain. But the young people today at a Comedy Store or Catch a Rising Star, some of them haven't got a point of view or a style.
Is it more difficult to get started in comedy today than in the old days?
It's more difficult to develop an act and a personality that will last, for this reason: When I and all the top comedians were in vaudeville, we had a place to break it in. It's like a ballplayer who gets sent down to a farm club--they have to start out as a rookie.
We had places to play. Unfortunately, today there aren't any vaudeville theaters, there aren't any nightclubs--with the exception of gambling casinos--and there's no place to hone your act and cut out and edit what doesn't get laughs. It took me a few years to finally get to playing the big time, the Palace in New York.
"Just for Laughs '91: The Montreal International Comedy Festival" will air Saturday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.