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Comedy Tonight

May 17, 2012

“I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.” — Buddy Hackett

It was said of Buddy Hackett that he had a face like an unmade bed. The comedian and actor also held the record as “most-booked guest” on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show. He made people laugh. Not me, usually, but there is this one story I think you will enjoy…

Buddy grew up in the Thirties doing standup at the Catskills Borscht Belt resorts where, traditionally, middle-class Jewish families used to summer. He fought as a gunner in World War II, then came home to go into show business.

Buddy became America’s latest incarnation of that uniquely poignant type of clown, the kind who are too ugly to be funny. Like Jimmy Durante, the Marx Brothers, and all Three Stooges, a homely star’s manic shtick often inspires, not humor, exactly, but a protective fondness which makes audiences laugh because they know he wants them to.

Personally, I never saw much in Buddy’s jokes. Unlike most rubber-faced vaudevillians, he underplayed, which made his oddness more expressive but not necessarily funnier. However, I’ve worked in show business, met plenty of entertainers, and I flatter myself I understood his appeal to the profession at large.

We heard him introduced as a show-biz insider, a “comedian’s comedian.” I felt sure he’d been cast in the majority of his movie roles mostly because Buddy was an asset on a set. His special value — quite enough to sustain a modest career even if you aren’t a major talent — lay in this rare happy ability to lighten-up Nervous Time on a shoot or backstage.

How?, you might wonder. How did he entertain all those jaded pros? Ah-hah! My favorite Buddy Hackett gag is not a joke he told but a legendary true story about him out golfing, one day, with some Hollywood cronies.

In the foursome, Hackett was paired off with his agent, an impatient scratch golfer who liked Buddy, personally, but dreaded hitting the links with him because his client was a duffer who could blow shot after shot and take all afternoon doing it.

Today’s play is no damn different, torture sets in, and three  holes along, the agent is already seething. As they walk up to tee off on the fourth hole, the agent, face pale with anger, turns to Buddy and says through gritted teeth, “If you screw up this hole, I will kill you with my bare hands.”

Buddy limbers up his best swing, and his drive hooks into some nearby woods. Dead silence on the tee behind him, Buddy vanishes into the thicket, looking for his lost ball.

Time passes. Nothing. No sign of Buddy. More waiting, waiting, and then, at the very instant when his agent literally begins to shake with fury, Buddy Hackett bursts out from the woods, stark naked, and runs off across the golf course screaming, “LOCUSTS! LOCUSTS!”

Timing is everything.

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