Friday, July 17, 2009

The Feast of Saint Miltie

My Fellow Comedists,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Miltie on what would have been Milton Berle's 101st birthday. He had one of the longest and most influential careers in 20th century comedy. Beginning as a child actor in silent films, he grew into a successful stand-up who made the jump to radio. But it was when Texaco Star Theater made the move to television, that Uncle Miltie became the first televised superstar.

Berle was successful as a physical, visual comic, appearing outrageous, often dressed in drag. He was big and the only place you didn't want to be on a Tuesday night was between Uncle Miltie and the camera. Berle was all about Berle. it didn't matter who the guest was -- and they all wanted to be on -- you didn't upstage him, he upstaged you. But it worked. The stories are legion about restaurants closing and mass numbers of toilets flushing around his show. He was Tuesday night and television sales skyrocketed because everyone wanted to see his show at home.

Berle was also famous for his book. Every comedian keeps a book, a list of jokes they've written and collected over the years. Berle's book -- like a certain part of his anatomy -- was rumored to be the biggest in the business. But his "writing" often violated the first commandment of comedy, "Thou shalt not steal." Berle was well-known in the comedy world for acquiring other comedians' material. Jack Benny famously said that it wasn't stealing to take a joke from Berle, it was repossessing.

Here's one from the Texaco Star Theater with Basil Rathbone and Berle's longtime sidekick Arnold Stang.

Milton Berle, who said,

I'd rather be a could-be if I cannot be an are; because a could-be is a maybe who is reaching for a star. I'd rather be a has-been than a might-have-been, by far; for a might have-been has never been, but a has was once an are.
Happy birthday Uncle Miltie.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve