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Q & A

MILTON BERLE: First in Comedy

July 14, 1991|SHARON BERNSTEIN

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 FDR 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.

In the comedy clubs, which they have to get away from, they all open the same way. They introduce Johnny Jones, who has a certain amount of time to stay on--about seven minutes. They all walk out and they get to the mike and they'll stand there. There will be no movement, there will be no blocking, there will be no energy. They have to know who they are.

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.

You carried a vaudeville style into radio and then into television. Could that kind of approach work today?

I think if it's done right it can be. As I said earlier, funny is funny. When you did a vaudeville show, you did a melange of a juggler, a musician, a dancer, a singer, a ventriloquist, a magician, a comedian. It was a variety show.

Unfortunately, it's not on the boards today. It's expensive. And producers think audiences are too sophisticated for it. I don't want to sound hammy, but if they saw a good all-star vaudeville show, they'd think differently.

What did people like about vaudeville?

It was always entertaining; it was clean family entertainment; you could bring the kids. When the comedians were on they were very clean and very funny. They had a lot of what we call visual sight acts, like circus acts--the word is diversified. It wasn't the same sitcom every week. And the prices were right.

What was the most fun job you ever had?

The most fun was the Texaco show or any live show that I did. I'd rather not be on tape. I'd rather do a live show and play to a live audience. It's not mechanical; it can happen at the spur of the moment.

Heard any good jokes lately?

I was in a drug store the other day and, to show you how times have changed, I was standing there, and a man rushed in and shouted at the pharmacist, "Give me two dozen condoms." Then he looks around and whispers, "And a pack of cigarettes."

But the best joke going around now is about a guy walking on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills with a sandwich sign. There's writing on each side of sign, and it says, "Will write, direct or produce for food."

It's funny, but it's sad. I know a lot of great writers over 60 and they are not hired because (producers) think they are too old. The same thing happens to women. But who cares if she's a woman as long as she's bright. Why, some of our great songwriters are women. Take Francis Scott Key....

"Just for Laughs '91: The Montreal International Comedy Festival" will air Saturday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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