Why are Jewish divorces so expensive? Because they’re worth it.... I’m so unlucky, if they sawed a woman in half, I’d get the part that eats.... You show me a milkman in drag and I’ll show you a dairy queen. . . .
Milton Berle was in sharp form for a seminar at Universal Studios on Monday night where Stage 42 is this year’s site for the Museum of Broadcasting’s tribute to the career of a man who so dominated his medium that no one has yet been able to wrest from Uncle Miltie the sobriquet Mr. Television.
“It was a new medium with no history,” said the museum’s president, Robert Batscha, introducing the 77-year-old Berle to an audience of about 175. “He turned a TV set into more than a piece of talking furniture.” The Berle canon is so voluminous that the museum has had to divide it into decades and subdivide his dramatic work and appearances with other comedians.
At Universal, the TV monitors lit up with selections from the Texaco hour and other shows ranging from the late ‘40s through 1959.
Berle was as corny as they come, but even from our 1985 vantage you could still feel the excitement he generated when he first appeared on the “Texaco Star Theatre” in 1949, and began shutting down Tuesday night America.
Berle was instant party time. He was the long-deferred birthday cake for a country beginning to feel chipper after a postwar convalescence, and he played that sense of giddy, goofy relief to the hilt, gussied up in those dumb costumes, chasing people in the audience, cracking up with his guests, forever charging into our living room tranquillity with those jug ears and that brash, sybaritic leer. (He was to the ‘40s what Steve Martin was to the ‘70s.)
In one clip, dressed in a woman’s blond wig and an elegant blue sequined dress, he smokes a cigar and croons, “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you . . . or would you rather be a pig.” That merging of lyrics from different songs doesn’t quite make sense, but it’s funny somehow, the way things are funny when the mood strikes you and you can’t re-create it--until next Tuesday rolls around again.
When the house lights came up and Berle stepped out, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. This was not an industry group conditioned to ceremonial Hollywood idolatry. It was virtually a white, heartland America vacation crowd in shorts and summer slacks, often families with young kids in tow, trammed in from the gate. Most looked too young to have known Berle from the early days. And it was peculiar to hear them laugh at his old New York Jewish vaudeville shtick, much of it risque--it was like seeing a group of earnest Kansas City Jaycee families cordoned off to observe the shmoozing at Nate ‘n’ Al’s. (Even Berle’s cigar looked like something none of them would ever touch.)
But laugh they did. Berle was ready for them. He wasn’t about to bask. It was bup-bup-bup: “I’m very thrilled to be part of the Museum of Broadcasting. Better than the wax museum. . . . My audience made me what I am today--a rerun. . . . I wanna thank the museum for sending me that beautiful basket of fruit. How they got all those guys in a basket I’ll never know. . . . Don’t laugh so loud--they have to use that seat again. . . . I’m getting so bad. Last night I dreamt Dolly Parton is my mother and I was a bottle baby. . . . Hey, kid! Don’t move around when the king is on.”
To someone who offered a feeble heckle: “Don’t start with me. This is my racket. I wouldn’t go to where you work and steal your plunger.”
The earlier film clips had shown Berle working with an increasingly sophisticated guest lineup. (One episode shows him, as a member of a Metropolitan Opera sextet, breaking out a jeweler’s eyepiece and appraising the diamond earring of a female chorister standing next to him.) Frank Sinatra had guested a couple of times. Berle mentioned early Sinatra, to segue into “Any Italians in the audience here? Where’s Jimmy Hoffa? Great--you don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa is. Look him up in the phone book. Under concrete. . . .”
While it was clear that Berle felt a mandate to perform, he also had a few more serious things to say as well. He told us that he broke television’s color line in 1949 by having the four Step Brothers on (Macio Williams, one of the brothers, was in the audience and Berle saluted him), a decision that NBC and Texaco didn’t approve until three minutes before air time. He said he received 300,000 pieces of mail protesting the affectionate gesture of putting his arm around Lena Horne.
For the first two years of the show, he said, his budget was too tight to hire writers and he hauled out virtually every current routine from the material of his already lengthy nightclub and stage career. (As a kid he worked in the Ziegfeld Follies.)
When someone asked if a variety show like his could ever run again, he replied, “The answer is no. I like to work with an audience and have the rapport of a one-on-one feeling. We don’t have that today. And the expenditures are too great. If I told you I swear on Henny Youngman--he’s famous for that line, ‘Take my wife--please!’ He doesn’t know that everyone did--if I told you what the first year of ‘Texaco’ cost, you’d say, ‘Milton, you’re out of your mind.’ But with costumes, actors, labor costs, the show cost $15,000. For that price today, you couldn’t get Patti Page to sing four bars of a song.”
Of comedy in general, he observed: “There are no old jokes, shtick, plots--just older audiences. If you haven’t seen it before or heard it before, then it’s new.”
To prove his point, he stuck his cigar behind his upper lip, so that it resembled a badly stained tusk, and leered at a 4-year-old, crossing his eyes. The kid laughed. Of the days before laugh tracks, he said: “You saw what you got and got what you saw. . . . I’d forget lines, which was the worst thing, because I knew everyone else’s act.”
He had some insightful notes about the difficulty for young comedians in finding proving grounds, and how important it is for a comedian to establish his own identity (“indelibility,” in Berle’s terms).
He offered candid notes on younger comedians. On Robin Williams: “A genius.” On David Brenner: “I like David Brenner, but I don’t know who he is.” He discussed Woody Allen’s nebbishy persona versus his prodigious sexual fantasies and how that juxtaposition makes fertile ground for comedy that doesn’t belong to anyone else. (Berle said he found Allen very skilled as a 16-year-old writer, but couldn’t use his stuff because it didn’t translate into the Berle style.)
Like many other older comedians, Berle takes a dim view of today’s television environment, where creative control in a corporate setting is not principally left in the hands of artists. “You know what an associate producer is? Anyone who’ll associate with a producer. They’re so young. Mr. Tartikoff is having his bar mitzvah next year. I may go to hell for saying this: They don’t want any writers over 30. So where’s the expertise? Where are they learning? (The producers) are doing a rough job on actors and writers.”
But Berle isn’t one to worry. “Sex after 75 is terrific. Especially the one in winter.” Armed with his computerized joke file of 6 1/2 million jokes and his allegedly new PBS documentary “Poland, Gateway to the Orient,” Berle is sitting pretty. He hopes 400 of his one-hour shows will be syndicated this fall. Then the rest of us can see what all the fuss was about.