The Funniest Comedy Icons of the 20th Century

The Funniest Comedy Icons of the 20th Century


     Two volumes of exclusive, one-on-one interviews with leading comedians and comediennes is about to arrive. Entitled “The Funniest Icons of the 20th Century: Volumes 1″ and “Volume 2,” the books together consist of 72 personalities illuminated by 307 photographs and assorted visuals. Leading off with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca,
“The Funniest” brings you rich moments with such follow-up stars as Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, Joan Rivers, George Burns, the stars of TV’s smash called “M*A*S*H.” And did I almost forget to mention Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Donald O’Connor and Woody Allen.

It’s monstrous in the way that it touches your funny bone . . . I might even call it a roaring delight! But, you ask, what the hell is a one-time TV horror host doing with his time, writing a book about comedians? Allow me, a one-time TV horror host, to explain:

For 33 years I covered the entertainment scene for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Datebook as well as its daily movie review section. Along the way I encountered iconic comedians and comediennes from all walks of the entertainment world.

Fortunately, I saved a clipping of each of those stories and built up a fantastically large scrapbook collection. I once estimated I interviewed around 800 celebrities – and that’s not counting local San Francisco personalities in radio and TV and movies, people whose names you wouldn’t be likely to know or remember.

FUNNIEST-02One night, while nostalgically flipping through the pages of one of those scrapbooks, I suddenly began to realize the massive amount of material I had in terms of human comedy. They came from all phases of show business. Some, like Jim Nabors, Ronnie Schell and Wally Cox, started out as stand-up comics who then moved into TV. Rich Little and Frank Gorshin, for example, were exclusively voice impersonators but eventually they rose up into the ranks of TV and motion pictures. Some specialized in music comedy, such as Liberace and Jimmy Durante.

Durante also spoofed the English language and always brought incredible energy to all of his performances.

It’s amazing how some of them became movie stars, such as Peter Sellers with his bizarre French detective Inspector Clouseau. (And that gave Henry Mancini his opportunity to prove he too was a comedian in a very music composer’s fashion.) How about Moe Howard? He led The Three Stooges to international fame, first in film shorts, later in motion pictures, then in the twilight years in TV revivals of their Columbia-produced short subjects. And don’t forget Woody Allen, the busiest of them all when it came to making motion pictures in the wake of years of stand-up comedy routines. (Take my word for it, my encounter with Allen was one of the strangest of my career, but it resulted in something quite unique, and which you must read on pages 174-180 of Volume 1.)

Almost every interview had unforgettable moments:

* On the set of the motion picture “M*A*S*H” Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould suddenly broke out into a two-man monologue made up on the spot. Gould would say something ridiculous and Sutherland would take that piece of silliness and carry to another level. It went on for several minutes, back and forth, back and forth, and fortunately I was able to record the entire conversation. Call it absurd, but it was funny to me.

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* The most exciting night of all time? In the summer of 1975 when my wife Erica and I were invited to the Beverly Hills home of Lucille Ball, There, we met her and her poodle Ginger. I stood in her backyard next to the pool and learned how much she hated running Desilu Studios after her divorce from Desi Arnaz, and how she just wanted to stay at home and raise her children.

That same evening at Lucy’s home, I met Art Carney. He seemed depressed and rarely allowed a smile on his face and conveyed the image of a man who didn’t want to be where he was, but who had no way to escape. Now get this: That same evening Jackie Gleason showed up unexpectedly, and he told me that night where all those popular catch phrases he used (“Umm, you’re a good group . . . And away we go! . . . How sweet it is!”) (See pages 68-92 in Volume 1 for the full story.)

* After a lengthy interview with Bob Hope on the eve of his 80th birthday, he led me up the staircase of his two-level mansion in Toluca Lake and I stepped into a corridor lined with huge photographs of all the military figures and Presidents of the United States whom he had met during his USO tours that extended from World War II through the Gulf War. It was a startling moment, and I will never forget it. (See pages 22-38 of Volume I.)

* An afternoon at the Friars Club in Beverly Hill introduced me to the official greeter at the door, Milton Berle, and one of the liveliest, most unforgettable interviews I have ever enjoyed. He was as curious to find out who I was as I was about him, and every moment he was bombarding me with punchlines, as if he were performing on stage and I was his straight man. All done with incredible non-stop energy. (See pages 102-116 in Volume 1.)

93dangerfield-rodney&stanley* Meeting Rodney Dangerfield in Hollywood where he was promotion his first major film led to discovering why he didn’t get any respect in his younger years. He saw the world through negative eyes, putting down an indifferent father yet somehow making it all sound like part of a comedy bit. (See pages 156-163 in Volume 1.)

* My first meeting with voice impressionist-actor Frank Gorshin was a laugh-riot as he guested on my “Creature Features” TV show and played to my audience with comic distinction.

A year later he returned for a Chronicle interview during which he complained of not getting any good film roles anymore. The day after the article ran in the Chronicle, a San Francisco produced called up and said he wanted to cast Gorshin in a crime film to be made in Vienna. Gorshin didn’t understand the screenplay but when I told them they had great sauerbraten and sacher-tortes in the Austrian capital, he agreed to take the job, the leading role in Peter Patzak’s “The Uppercrust.” l And all because of the tasty food awaiting him. (See pages 268-285 in Volume 1.)

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* An encounter with Mae West, a controversial actress who always emphasized sexual matters in a less than subtle fashion, began with a knock on the front door of her Hollywood apartment. The man who opened the door was dressed to the nines in suit and tie, but you could see he also had a small holster that contained a .38 pistol. Yeah, it was Ms West’s bodyguard, and did he have a body to guard. (See pages 195-209 in Volume 1.)

01-sidcaesar&imogenecoca-1000* One of the most honest interviews was with Sid Caesar, who had just written his all-revealing 1982 autobiography, “Where Have I Been?” In a San Francisco hotel suite, he confessed to me that he had turned into an alcoholic and drug addict that led to his major downfall after almost a decade of success on two super-popular TV comedy series. He explained to me how he overcame his “shameful” problems and started living a happier life. They don’t come any more revealing than that. (See Pages102-116 in Volume 1.)

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* I met Peter Sellers on the alee side of the island of Oahu in the summer of 1978, not realizing he had only two more years to live. What turned out to be even more important: The next morning I spent two hours with composer Henry Mancini having breakfast as he told me the highlights of his career creating music for movies. I took that interview and repeated it for almost 17 years as part of a classic I did about film music for Elderhostel (now called Road Scholar), playing sequences for my senior audiences pieces from “The Pink Panther.” (See Pages 225-239 in Volume 1.)

* The Smothers Brothers turned out to be an unusual double interview because I ended up talking to Tommy Smothers on the phone, as he was in Hollywood making an episode of “The Love Boat,” and then, almost immediately afterward,  having lunch with Dick Smothers at Bardelli’s Restaurant in San Francisco. I’d tell Dick what his brother Tom  had said on the phone, and Dick would give me his opinion. A unique moment I have always cherished.

So it went for me for 33 years as an entertainment writer.

“The Funniest Comedy Icons of the 20th Century: Vol.1″ is now available in hardcover, paperback and e-book formats from Bearmanor Media, P.O. Box 71426, Albany, Georgia 32708. The websites are and

Both volumes are ready to be scanned by your eyeball sockets. A wonderful form of exercise, not to mention what it will do to  your brain.




SID CAESAR (How He Stopped Being a Drunken Pillhead)

BOB HOPE (Relaxing at Home in Toluca Lake)

BING CROSBY (At Home in Hillsborough on a Rainy Day)

KATHRYN GRANT CROSBY (A Moment When Bing Wasn’t Looking)

GEORGE BURNS (In His Hollywood Office, Filled with Career Memorabilia)

LUCILLE BALL (With Ginger Her Dancing Poodle–But No Sign of Desi)

ART CARNEY (An Almost Silent Man With a Face So Dour)

JACKIE GLEASON (How Sweet He Was . . . And Away We Go!)

AUDREY MEADOWS (Just Back From the Moon as Mrs. Kramden)

MILTON BERLE (A Wave of Energy Hosting at the Beverly Hills Friar’s Club)

JACK BENNY (Still 39 in Beverly Hills, Spying on Hugh Hefner’s Ladies)

DENNIS DAY (Who? Him? Yeah, at Lake Tahoe, Nevada)

SHELDON LEONARD (Mugging It Up[ at His Hollywood Office)

MEL BLANC (Haunted by the Voices of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck)

HILLIARD MARKS (He Was Holding a Book About Jack Benny)

RODNEY DANGERFIELD (Learn Why He Got No Respect From Dad)

JOAN RIVERS (Yocking It Up at Home in Beverly Hills)

WOODY ALLEN (The Interview That Failed . . . But What a Manifesto!)

DONALD O’CONNOR (Dancin’ All the Way to My Dining Table)

MAE WEST (A .38-Caliber Pistol at the Door, Carried by a Bosom Buddy)

JIMMY DURANTE (Full of Duh Fire ’n Catasta-stroke in Sparks, East Reno)

LIBERACE (Light the Candelabra–He’s Off the Plane at the Reno Airport)

PETER SELLERS (In Oahu, Hawaii, Spying on Inspector Clouseau)

HENRY MANCINI (The Mastermind Behind the Pink Panther music)

MOE HOWARD (Throwing Verbal Banana Pies in My Face at Columbia Studios)

WALLY COX (Meeting Mr. Peepers at a Motorcycle Shop in Frisco)

GREG GARRISON (The Producer Just Out of Sight of Dean Martin)

ELLIOTT GOULD (At 20th Century Fox, making the movie “M*A*S*H”)

DONALD SUTHERLAND (Next to Gould, Ad Libbing with Wise Cracks)

ALAN ALDA (Piercing the Wall Around Dr. Pierce, Hawkeye  of TV’S “M*A*S*H”)

LORETTA SWIT (Intimate with Hotlips in Her Sheraton-Palace . . . Gulp . . . BEDROOM!)


LARRY LINVILLE (Getting Fired Up With Major Burns of TV/s  “M*A*S*H”)

SALLY KELLERMAN (It’s That Movie Version of Hotlips, Singing Her Heart Out)


“CREATURE FEATURES” YEARS (Visuals Designed to Evoke a Few More Laughs)




SHELLEY BERMAN (Not Always Funny, Reliving His Moments of Horror)

CARL CHANNING (Hello! It’s Oddball Frisco Dining With a Gal Named Dolly)

JIM NABORS (His Historic Purple Onion Night Club Debut – Before Gomer Pyle)

RONNIE SCHELL (Encounters With The Fastest of the Slowest-Rising Comedians)

RICHARD KIEL (Grinding Jaws and Crunching Teeth With the Spy Who Devoured Me)

CHUCK JONES (Bugs Bunny Again – With a King of Warner Bros. Animation)

TOM HANKS (A Bosom Buddy Who Became a First-Class Movie Star)

CARL BURNETT (Playing Choo-Choo at the Fairmont Hotel – What Steam She Made)

JAMES COCO (The One Who Got So Ego-Angry, He Walked Out on Me)

ADIRENNE BARBEAU (The “Maude” Co-Star Who Busted Out as a Sex Symbol)

CONRAD BAIN (Liberally Sitting Down With Maude’s Conservative Neighbor)

SALLY STRUTHERS (A Lousy Day for Her But a Great Interview for Me)

JEAN STAPLETON (Meet One Very Intellectual “Ding-a-Ling”)

BARBARA FELDON (Probing the Lure of Secret Agent 99 With a 100 % Solution)

ED PLATT (Breaking The Cone of Silence With the Chief of CONTROL)

DON ADAMS (GETTING Extra Smart With Agent 86)

PAT PAULSEN (Into the Ice House With the Stag Party Candidate)

THE BROTHERS SMOTHERS (How Each Brother Thinks About Show Biz)

MARY TYLER MOORE (Meeting the Queen of TV News)

VICKI LAWRENCE (Becoming Part of Mama’s Family)

HARVEY KORMAN (A Serious Lunch With a Comedy Great)

TIM CONWAY (Making a TV Series Called “Ace Crawford”)

ERNIE ANDERSON aka GHOULARDI (How to Scare the Hell Out of a Horror Host)

GALE GORDON (The Mayor of LaTrivia Who Was Almost Lucy’s Neighbor Fred)

PHYLLIS DILLER (How She Shoed Me Into Her Private Bedroom)

KEN CURTIS (Waving Away the Gunsmoke, Festus Was Still Mighty Funny)

DOM DELUISE (The Wise-Cracking Master of Ad Libs, Trapped on an Elevator)

JERRY COLONNA (Bob Hope’s Second Banana Comes in First)

BARBARA EDEN (Revealing Facts About Jeannie’s Naked Belly Button)

GEORGE CARLIN (Hopping Along With the Hippy Dippy Weatherman)

FRANK FONTAINE (What Beautiful Songs From the Crazy Guggenheim)

CLORIS LEACHMAN (She Gave Me a Hand Up the Stairs – Severed!)

DICK SHAWN (The King of One-Man Shows Who Stayed Under Cover)

BOB NEWHART (The Stand-Up Monologue King Who Became a TV Sitcom King)


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