Ever since socially marginalized arena performers were given a "thumbs down" by emperors, accompanied by ear-piercing cries of "Slay him" from the audience, entertainers have been dealing with hostile crowds; none more than stand-up comedians.
Jerry Seinfeld tells the story of when, in 1979, while he was onstage at Catch A Rising Star in NYC, a heckler threw a drink glass at him, just missing his head and shattering on the brick wall behind him. Expecting the guy to be escorted out of the club, Seinfeld was surprised when the emcee came up on stage and said "Jerry, come on, let's go! You gotta get off." The righteously indignant comic said "Me? I'm not going anywhere!" The audience supported him, yelling "Throw that guy out. Not Jerry!"
The emcee was insistent and finally Seinfeld, realizing that his set had been ruined anyway, left the stage. The club's bouncer hustled him outside, where he explained to Seinfeld that the person who threw the glass was a hit man for the mob. Nobody wanted to throw him out, so Seinfeld had to go.
A few months later, Joe Piscopo confronted the same guy from the stage, who ended up grabbing Piscopo and breaking his nose.
Jackie Mason was a comic who often seemed to invite loathing and violence. In 1964, he was banned from the Ed Sullivan Show after he was accused of giving Sullivan "the finger" when the host, afraid that Mason's set was running too long, gave him the one-minute signal from offstage.
Veteran comedian Jack Carter knew him very well; his wife, Roxanne, even handled Mason's publicity for a while; but he didn't have a high regard for him. "He's schmucky. He's nasty with women," Carter said.
London "Times" writer Philip Collins tells the story about Jackie Mason making a joke in a Vegas club in 1966 about Frank Sinatra's marriage to the much younger Mia Farrow:
"Mason received a threatening call and three shots through the balcony window of his Vegas hotel. Undeterred, Mason said on stage that he had no idea who fired the shots. All he had heard was someone in the background singing "Doobie, doobie do." A few weeks later, Mason was attacked and left with a broken cheekbone."
Carter had his doubts about the hotel shooting: "When he got shot in Vegas he went out and shot the window out himself. Supposedly someone was shooting at him. He planted the whole thing."
On another occasion, in Miami, Mason was pulled out of his car and beaten up in a parking lot. "Everybody wanted to hit him, Carter said. "You gotta stand in line to hate him."
Often, the vitriol directed at comedians was by other comics.
Actor and comedian Dick Gautier tells of an encounter with Irwin Corey whom he says is "incredibly brilliant and I knew him pretty well, but he is a terrible human being."
Gautier was sitting in a NYC club with Enrico Banducci, owner of Frisco's legendary "Hungry I" nightclub, helping him look for some new acts. "Irwin Corey walks in with his manager. His first words were, "What the [expletive] are these guys doing here! I mean, that's how we were greeted." Corey ripped into Gautier, insulting him. "I grabbed him by the lapel," said Gautier, "and I picked him up off the floor. I said, 'Keep this up and I will throw you out the window.' There was an open window and I carried him over to it. From then on he'd say, "Hi Dick, how are you?"
Gautier also had a run-in with Buddy Hackett. Gautier had appeared in bit parts on Buddy Hackett's TV show "Stanley" in 1956, said he was "mean from the ground up." In 1960, Gautier was starring in the musical "Bye Bye Birdie." Hackett had just starred in a Broadway show called "Viva Madison Avenue" which had closed after only two performances. When he found out that Gautier, who had been an extra on his TV show, was now the lead in "Birdie" which was getting rave reviews, he was furious. One night, when he crossed paths with Gautier at a restaurant, "He took his keys and he threw them at me,' said Gautier. "He said, 'Hey, Dick, bring my car around, would ya!' I said, "Certainly, Mr. Hackett." I took the keys and went back to my theater; back to rehearsal. He looked around everywhere for his keys and couldn't find them. Four hours later he comes storming in, "Where are my [expletive] keys!"
Hackett not only had a volatile temperament, but he was also an avid gun collector; not a great combination. Hackett once shot out the windows of a car that was parked in his reserved spot at the Sahara Hotel when he was performing there.
Hackett also seemed to have an ongoing problem locating his car keys. After leaving a Vegas bar one night with Shecky Greene, both drunk, Hackett started insulting him. During their argument, Hackett pulled out a gun. Greene knocked him down on the ground and, putting his foot on his throat said: "If you get up, Buddy — I'm going to kill you."
He took the gun and Hackett's car keys, threw them into the desert, and drove away. A few hours later, he gets a phone call from Hackett. " I said, "Buddy? Where are you?" He said, "I'm in the desert. I'm looking for my car keys. I can get another gun. But I need my car keys."
In the early 1930s, Ted Healy, the vaudeville performer who created The Three Stooges, tried to shoot comedian Georgie Jessel backstage at a Chicago theater. He thought that Jessel, who allegedly was the original architect of the hangover cure called a Bloody Mary, had named his concoction after Healy's girlfriend, wealthy heiress Mary Warburton. A drunken and enraged Healy fired a pistol at Jessel, narrowly missing him. Shortly after, the Stooges, tired of Healy's violent behavior both on the stage and off, left him and formed their own act.
Too violent for the Stooges?! I think a lot of their detractors owe the Three Stooges a big apology. Dragging a saw across Curley's head is starting to look like a reasonable approach to a difference of opinion.
— Rick Conety is a stand-up comic who has performed all around New England and western NY. His past columns can be seen on his website at www.ConetyComedy.com