As an actor, the (now in his Eighties) comedian was Major Major in Catch-22 and Papa Elf in Elf, but his stand-up is what made him. After the war he worked as a copywriter in New York, and then became the first wave of performers to really make an act as a solo straight-man – he’d do one end of a conversation (usually a phone call), playing the straightest of comedic straight men and implying what the other person was saying.
Several of his routines involve hearing one half of a conversation as he speaks to someone over the phone. In a bit called King Kong, a rookie security guard at the Empire State Building seeks guidance as to how to deal with an ape who is “18 to 19 stories high, depending on whether we have a 13th floor or not”.
But then he also did more…obvious stand-up, taking on things that irked him about the day to day. This is a good MP3 of him getting stuck into English expressions that wind him up (spot the ex-copywriter!):
All I can say about life is, ‘Oh God, enjoy it!’
I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’.
I’m most proud of the longevity of my marriage, my kids, and my grandchildren. If you don’t have that, you really don’t have very much.
I don’t know how many sacred cows there are today. I think there’s a little confusion between humor and gross passing for humor. That’s kind of regrettable.
Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.
Funny is funny is funny