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April 16, 2014
Not even T.S. Eliot could have imagined the cruelty of April 2014. This without mentioning my Cubs getting off to their usual lose-twice-as-many-as-they-win start (4-and-8 as of this writing).
They say death always comes in 3’s. The comedy world has lost 3 very funny, very different, very influential people in the past month. I never met any of them, but all played a major role in my professional “career.”
Ventriloquist Otto Petersen passed away. A high school dropout made good, Petersen had an incredible reputation in comedy clubs around New York City. He had a large following for his raunchy, X-rated act, and was known to friends as a caring, decent man. He worked as a street performer for years, moved into the clubs, and when ventriloquism was being written off as “passe” and “old fashioned,” OTTO AND GEORGE still managed to work and succeed. Frankly, without Otto Petersen, my career is much much different.
In comedy the phrase “crowd pleaser” is akin to “hack” or “generic.” It means the performer isn’t niching him/herself, instead trying to broadcast and pander. John Pinette blew that notion out of the water, becoming one of the most popular comics working in clubs, theaters and casinos, while reaching a huge segment of society with his hysterical and oft-quoted routines. Pinette was truly a populist, and comedy clubs are scrambling to find someone to replace his formidable skills and drawing power. GOOD LUCK. I owe John a huge debt of thanks, being a “crowd pleaser wannabe” myself. He has made my kind of act possible. I’m humbled by his work.
I was living with my Aunt Ardie and Uncle Gene back in the 1980s, and we often would watch The Tonight Show together in their living room in Oak Brook, Illinois. The first time David Brenner was introduced by Johnny Carson, my aunt said, “Oh good! I really like him.” Brenner came on wearing a sport coat and his ever-disarming style, ingratiating himself across the airwaves and coaxing loud laughs with stories about the Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up. Aunt Ardie, a speech therapist and teacher, was quick to point out why his act worked so well: no wasted words; an ebb and flow to the 6-minute routine that had a defined beginning, middle and an end (to great cheers and applause); and the ability to introduce himself to millions as if we were meeting at a party somewhere. He was very cool, very smooth and he worked clean. What an impression he made some 30 years ago!
I’ll do my best to honor these fine men with my presentation this weekend in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Come on out to the show!