Buy The Book
By Barry Dougherty
It’s seven o’clock in the morning and here I sit at my desk waiting for radio station WCMF out of Rochester to call. They want to interview me about my book New York Friars Club Book of Roasts. They’ll probably say the same thing that WGN in Chicago mentioned yesterday or the station in North Carolina told me last week–“Barry, you wrote a dirty book so be careful what you say on the air.” I write one book about the Friars Club and suddenly people think I’m Milton Berle with a mouth full of so many four-letter words that even my tonsils must be blushing.
As for being Berle–well, there’s only one. I found that out the minute I set foot in the California Friars Club to interview him for the book almost a year ago. At 92 he had all his eggs in one basket and not a cracked one in the bunch. Ornery? Of course, it’s Berle, he’s earned that. Boisterous? Hell yea, it’s Berle. Opinionated and controlling? Duh! Ask him anything about the Friars Club and his brain goes into overdrive. “I gave my life to the Friars because I believed in it. I believed in the fraternity, in the fellowship,” he told me. Suddenly ornery, boisterous, opinionated and controlling–none of that mattered. I was talking to the comedy legend who did indeed pull this Club out of obscurity into the entertainment phenomenon it has become today. He was just as impassioned during our chat as he was sixty-four years ago when the Friars were struggling. That quote alone and the passion behind it made my 5,000 mile trip to LA worth every turbulent moment on my journey of writing a book about the Friars Club.
The Friars decided it was time to come out of the closet, so to speak, to open the doors one more time (the other times being the televising of the Roasts on Comedy Central and Dean Ward’s documentary Let Me In, I Hear Laughter). They wanted an honest, informative account of the Club’s history, and more important, of its legendary events. Those events, mind you, are not exactly what this Irish catholic former student from Holy Trinity High School was necessarily prepared to review. But then again, I have been hanging around the Monastery long enough to have learned a thing or two about real life–like how to flick cigar ashes off my pants from a passing Friar’s stogy; or how to weave around the jolly folks during happy hour.
When I agreed, last January, to Executive Director Jean Pierre Trebot’s request to write the book, my first comment was, “Just point me in the direction of the archives so I can research the Club’s rich past.” (Okay, the first thing I said was, “Are you out of your mind?” But then I’m sure I calmly asked about the archives.) I’m not sure if it was Jean Pierre’s blank stare or quietly stammering “Archives?” that clued me in to the fact that asking to see the Friars Archives is like asking Mia Farrow to introduce me to her kids. They’re around somewhere, but where exactly is another story entirely.
Oh yea, I also found out that the publisher, M. Evans, wanted the book ready by October’s Roast of Rob Reiner, so I put the history on hold for the moment and high-tailed it out to California to interview those Friars “that were there.” Berle, of course, was there. Steve Allen, who recently passed away, was the Toastmaster for the Red Buttons Dinner wasn’t aware that he was there, but he certainly had a lot of other useful information about Friars events. Red Buttons was aware that he had a Dinner, but wasn’t aware that Steve Allen was the Toastmaster–so they sort of cancelled each other out in the “don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings” department.
Someone at the California Friars suggested I stay at the Beverly House Hotel, which is not to be confused with the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Beverly Hills is 5-star; the Beverly House is more a 5-black-hole. I knew I was in trouble when the telephone was missing a face–the buttons were sort of hovering in the middle. When I tried to set up an appointment with Ryan Stiles, who served as Roastmaster at the Drew Carey Roast, he suggested coming to my hotel “suite” at the Beverly Hills. As I looked down at my broken phone I explained that I certainly didn’t want to put him out and I could surely come to him. How ironic that that particular interview would eventually occur over the phone when I got back to New York. But at least my phone at the Friars has a face.
I admit, one of the reasons I like to consider myself a “New Yorker” is that I can conceivably go my whole life without ever having to get behind the wheel of a car. The downside of that is my sense of direction is pretty much the same as a subway engineer–if it’s not right in front of me, I ain’t gonna get there. I spent a week driving around, over, under and through the Hollywood hills, California freeways and Boulevards far more elaborate than Sunset. “Just go past Santa Monica Blvd., over to Copa de Oro Rd. and past Beverly Glen Blvd.,” is how Red Buttons told me I should get to his home. Huh? “Oh, I’m just a ways past Coldwater Canyon and once you get there hang a right somewhere around that fork by the gates,” was the easy route Ed McMahon told me to take. Um?
I left the hotel so early for Norm Crosby’s trek into the mountains that I arrived curbside an hour ahead of schedule. And that was after killing time by shopping at an expensive boutique at the bottom of the hill. It’s not easy expensing a pair of silk boxers and a pinstriped ascot for a business trip–that is, if you’re not Hugh Hefner. Norm was so gracious, especially after his son showed me into his den and left me there to die. He didn’t know Norm was home. A few days later I ran into Norm at Cafe Roma–a/k/a Friars Club West. He spotted me on the sidewalk as I was waiting for my appointment to arrive and yelled, “You can’t stand there on the street like that, you’re Barry! You wait here with us until your guest arrives!” There I sat with Norm and Jackie Cooper and their cronies, as they threw out one-liners and sparred with jokes and quips.
I found myself on a couch in Jason Alexander’s office as he recalled his cheerful disbelief over the cast of characters assembled at the Jerry Stiller Roast. He compared the experience to a Fellini movie. David Hyde Pierce told me on the set of Frasier that he was aghast at being “Roasted” himself on the dais of the Kelsey Grammer Roast where he served as Roastmaster, “I thought I was in protected territory. It never even occurred to me that I was going to be the subject of a Roast.”
I sat mesmerized as the stories poured forth from Buddy Arnold, Don Rickles, Jim Morris, Rita Rudner, Steven Seagal and Neil Simon. I snagged Jack Carter backstage as he waited for his cue to appear on an episode of an NBC sitcom, Stark Raving Mad. Whispering behind-the-scenes into my tape recorder he chatted about Johnny Carson and Berle and Buddy Hackett.
I caught up with Drew Carey, Phyllis Diller, Bernie Kamber, Alan King, Freddie Roman, Soupy Sales and Jerry Stiller. By the time I finished I’d heard every tale, every moment, every comment made by these personalities at events that spanned over six decades. “I said that?” Commented Carol Burnett when reminded of a remark she made at her 1973 Dinner. “Was I there?” said Dick Cavett of the same event–the event where he served as Master of Ceremonies. Okay, so a memory or two had to be jogged, but eventually the stories flowed and the events fondly recalled. Of course, I’m sure with some of these guys, the blanks were filled in with the same flair they use to punch up their....well, their punch lines.
Soon I turned to the daunting task of perusing what the Friars laughingly refer to as their archives. Personally, I think they should call them something else, like “the stuff over there....and there....and there....oh, and try over there too.” I sent my intern Michael Matuza under stairwells, behind creaky doors and through tiny openings in the walls to gather photos, tapes, papers and anything that resembled something “historic.” Of course, to a college kid, that also included my back which I suppose he didn’t think I used much in the “lifting and shoving” portion here. We popped audio tapes into Walkmans, viewed shaky videos, scoured hand-written pages of notes, old Dinner journals and ancient Epistles–to piece together a definitive history of a Club that Joey Adams had once written was “scotch-taped” together. Joey was truly the master of understatement.
Regardless of exactly where the information came from it was my own personal manna. Every handwritten note, torn program, dusty memory and yellowed newspaper clipping brought me closer to placing all of the jigsaw puzzle pieces together. I also stepped into the Friars time machine as I listened to the voices of yesteryear–Jack Benny saying FU; countless jokes about Berle’s schlong; and dirty song parodies. Almost a century of the most memorable moments in show business were at my disposal, just waiting to take center stage, once again.
October finally arrived as did New York Friars Club Book of Roasts–pretty much the same time my Valium prescription ran out. From Barnes & Noble to Amazon.com the Friars Club’s foibles, follies and frolics are there for all the world to read about.
Entertainment Tonight brought up the Barbra Streisand Dinner; CNNfn’s Business Unusual had to mention the Whoopi Goldberg Roast; Joe Franklin was dying to hear about the Friars first dinner in honor of Clyde Fitch in 1907; and ABC World News Now made me tell them my favorite joke. My appearance on Joey Reynold’s WOR Radio show at 4:15 AM helped solidify sales among the insomniacs and new mothers demographic.
It’s a journey that is only beginning–reviews, appearances, book signings, even the squeaky wheels who apparently don’t like alleged nobody’s being funnier than them have become my world. In any case...I gotta run. Brother Wease in Rochester will be calling any minute and I have to practice taking a clean approach to talking about my dirty book.