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Jewish World Review April 1, 2002 / 20 Nisan, 5762

Steve Young

Steve Young
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My Uncle Miltie | As the owner of a comedy club in Philadelphia, I worked with likes of Jay Leno, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey and many, many other young guns of comedy. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, comedy history was everywhere: Joey Bishop, David Brenner, Bill Cosby, the Phillies, Frank Rizzo. But as I think back fondly to all my comic influences I realize that Milton Berle may not have been the only reason I went into comedy, but he was at the front of that line.

Berle had two huge reputations, both of which he was equally proud. One cannot be mentioned in a family-friendly webzine. The other spoke to his admitted stealing of other comics' material. Perhaps stealing is a bit harsh. Berle said that he never stole a joke, but that he "found them before they were lost." Uncle Miltie garnered that seeming dishonor long before he was crowned, Mr. Television. Back then there was no television to be Mister of. With no TV, a comedian could spend years traveling the country's night clubs and resorts without worry of changing their material...unless, of course, you saw Milton in the audience.

He once said of a comic's show, "I laughed so hard I nearly dropped my pencil."

If Florida is G-d's Waiting Room, then The Friars Club is where G-d goes to get his comics to play the Room. This is where the funny and the think they're funny meet, greet, kibitz, roast and generally attempt to be funnier than the last one who spoke.

It was at the Friar's Club in Beverly Hills, where I first met Uncle Miltie. It was there that he held court, where he made up a hundred times over for all the jokes he may have stolen. In a room filled with new stars, comedy legends, wannabees and already beens, it was Rabbi Miltie's table who consistently drew the largest congregation. Fans and students of the art, in the biz or knew a cousin who knew someone to get them into the Friars and surrounded him like a bunch of salivating Platos around the cigar-chomping Socrates.

Yes, Uncle Miltie had a reputation for ego as big as, well, as big as his other reputation, but it was here that the TV's King of Comedy shared unabashedly his stories and myths of days long gone, days of show biz history that he had been there to witness and be part of. Ego was nowhere to be found. He didn't have to know you to allow you into that day's circle of admirers. He shared tales and meted out advice to any who asked. Anyone. Even me. And believe me, I was about as anyone as one could get. Just off the boat from Philly. I mentioned that I ran a club called The Comedy Works. He went on to tell me about night clubs 50 years earlier. We spoke for about an hour. If he was a taker, he seemed just as comfortable a giver.

Berle's impact reached far beyond your standard joke-telling universe. If they don't put up a statue to Berle in West Hollywood, they might as well close the bars right now. I don't think any Gay Pride parade would have become as "well-dragged" as they have without the influence of Auntie Miltie. Who else in the early fifties would have been able to waltz around the "Texaco Star Theater," in front of millions of viewers as the country's first acceptable cross-dresser? Tell me that didn't get generations of future drag queens in the Midwest and other far outskirts of New York and L.A. screaming, "Honey, I can do that!" Somewhere, you know there was a young Larry Gelbart thinking, "I bet Dustin Hoffman would look great in that."

Thank you, Uncle Miltie, for all the laughs. Now where did I put that dress?

JWR contributor Steve Young, Prism Award winner and Humanitas Prize nominee for his television writing, is contributing editor at the Writers Guild of America's "Written By" magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming "Great Failures Of The Extremely Successful," Tallfellow Press, 2002 Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Steve Young