Milton Berle: three generations of laughs. A hard-pressed stage mother's push launched his durable career
New York — `WHEN I was 12 years old,'' says Milton Berle with a glint in his eye that is half reflection and half working comic, ``I was a pretty flippant kid with the one-liners, like `That's a lovely suit. Who shines it for you?''' The gag receives the same devastating delivery that's been typical of the great comedian all his career, though it's recalled across some 67 years as he leans into an armchair while we chat in his hotel suite. He's telling of the time Eddie Cantor brought him to the Friars, a show-business club renowned as the haunt of ``name'' performers.
``Cantor liked me,'' Mr. Berle remembers, ``and he said to my mother, `Let's see how funny he is. I'll mix him with the big boys and watch how he does.'''
How he did with the big boys - and with almost everyone else - for the next three generations is one of the great chapters in America's popular culture. From thousands of stages, on millions of minds, he stamped his indelible image as a clownish wise guy in shameless quest of laughs. And if laughs didn't come, there was always a ``save,'' like ``I know you're out there. I can hear breathing.''
The laughs hit a crescendo in 1948, when Berle began raucously ushering America into the television age with his ``Texaco Star Theater,'' a Tuesday-night ritual of epic slapstick that virtually defined comedy-variety for a then TV-innocent country.
Samplings from this epochmaking program can be seen on ``Milton Berle: The Second Time Around,'' a syndicated program hosted by him and airing in many cities over the next couple of weeks (check local listings). Berle also co-stars in ``Side by Side,'' a made-for-TV movie that will air on CBS in the spring. Meanwhile, he's been seen on many a TV show promoting his latest book, ``B.S. I Love You'' (McGraw-Hill), an account of six decades with ``the famous and infamous'' at the Friars. In addition, he plays Las Vegas each year. He teaches college seminars on comedy. And he's writing a novel.
For him it's been nonstop like this from the start - including that day as a 12-year-old when he sat at the Friars with Cantor, surrounded by show-business legends. Milton made good use of his time.
``Little did they know that I was listening to everything around the table,'' he says, ``and when somebody said a funny line, I would write it down on a little slip of paper, crumple it up, and put it in my pocket. Today I have a file of stock jokes - 6 million - in a computer. It's a hobby.''
Yet jokes were only one side of Milton's life - the brighter side. When he was born, home was a five-flight walk-up on New York's West Side. It was a decent place, but the family wasn't always sure where the food was going to come from. Milton still has memories of evictions and of moving out by tiptoe at night. He still grows cold when he sees himself as a young boy crying in the street, surrounded by household possessions.
But when he won a ``Charlie Chaplin'' contest at age 5, his mother suddenly smelled a new shot at life. A loving but inexorable force, she began hustling Milton - and sometimes his brothers and sister - into any shows she could. She once risked arrest by actually shoving him onto the stage where the great Al Jolson was performing so Milton could do his Jolson impression. She was always out front leading the laughter when Milton was doing jokes.
But he forfeited his childhood for this show-business education. His past is a blur of hotel rooms and nightclub floors and one-liners, with his mother surreptiously cooking food in their room against boardinghouse rules. ``I just told the truth,'' he says of his autobiography describing these years.
The brand of humor such a background produced has proved durable. ``Jokes should work at any time,'' Berle asserts. ``When they pay to come and see you or they turn on the television set, they're either going to laugh at you or not. I don't believe in seasonal humor, like the idea that during a stock market crash people want to laugh and forget themselves. That's quite true, but funny is funny.''
He sees audience laughter as a collective shudder of relief - a safe way to acknowledge life's pitfalls while keeping your own ego intact. In his giant lexicon of searing quips, he goes far beyond philosopher Henri Bergson's definition of humor as a social sanction against inflexible behavior. Berle sees it rather as one's own world staying in tact while someone else's tumbles. ``I can define comedy very simply,'' Berle says. ``When Chaplin, who was the greatest, slips on a banana peel or walks across a manhole and falls in, audiences laugh because it's not themselves doing it. It's because Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy got a pie in the face, and it wasn't them. If it happened to them, it would be terribly serious.''
His theories got their biggest test when Berle was asked to try TV in 1948. He already had a successful radio show and decided to use the same style in the new medium. He hoped it would work but had no idea he'd soon be known as ``Mr. Television'' and spearhead America's entry into a new era.
``Texaco Star Theater'' began on a tiny budget and put merciless pressure on all hands, especially its star, to pull together a complex, live, hour show each week. But within two months of its historic premi`ere on June 8, 1948, the show's national impact began to be felt. Some nightclubs and theaters, acknowledging the inevitable, closed on Tuesday night and gave over the evening to Berle fans. His show was the only one not preempted for the Truman-Dewey presidential election returns of 1948.
Although it was a time of vastly fewer TV sets, ``Uncle Miltie'' - a title Berle had picked up - became a national institution for eight seasons, and his program occupied America's attention in a way no show has since. Berle's outrageous costumes, when he emerged through the curtains at the show's start, became the next day's conversation point in American homes. And there was lots else to talk about - Berle's furious mugging, and his bent-ankle duck walk, and his wild routines, and....
What made it all work so well?
``It's because I can immediately think the way my audience is thinking,'' says Berle, an avuncular figure recalling these manic moments in a tone that is reflective and perhaps faintly wistful. ``I can go different ways according to the first four or five laughs I get - I'm telling you secrets now. I have test jokes, and if the audience is a little sophisticated, I'll go high-voltage. If it's middle-of-the-road, I'll go that way. If it's what we call `on the nose' - when they laugh at a red hat - Did you ever hear that saying? Meaning `Here it is, folks; you can't miss it' - I'll go that way.''
Do comedians today operate the same way?
``Today we have non sequitur comedians,'' Berle says. ``Robin Williams, for instance, is a genius, but he'll jump from one subject matter to another without creating story line. I do that, too, but I found the formula for it. We'll call it the `suck in,' like saying, `Oh, I got to tell you this true story.' You got to prepare within your own mind and not let the audience say, `Well he's going to tell a joke now.' I may get silent for 45 seconds.''
The uses of silence mean a lot to Berle. ``My idea of a comedian is one who is not afraid of silence,'' he says. ``He's not a rapid-fire joke-teller, a one-liner. What I represent comedically - the flippant, put-down artist, energetic, happy, sometimes the butt - that is not the type of comedy I like to watch myself. I was a big fan of No"el Coward and easygoing comedy like Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Jack Benny was my idol. The antithesis of what I am, I watch.''
He doesn't watch TV sitcoms, either. ``Trouble is, if I see an opening of a sitcom, I know what's going to happen for the next two acts,'' Berle points out. ``They're young, good-looking people. Audiences accept them. But I know the formula, because it's my profession.''
It's a profession he has no plans to leave. Any plans for retirement? I asked. Berle turned and said - borrowing a line from George Burns: ``Retire? To what?''