Great American Comedy Festival leaves 'em laughing

By Kandra Hahn

11 p.m., Friday, June 19, Norfolk, Neb.

They did it again.

Norfolk rolled out the second Great American Comedy Festival (GACF), June 14–20, in homage to Nebraska’s greatest contribution to humor, Johnny Carson.

Back was Deacon Gray, last year’s winner of the comedy competition. He closed the Festival’s Friday After Hours adult show with a PowerPoint presentation to a room of 300 or so mostly beer-fueled, under-40 working stiffs and stiffettes. 

Gray, the boyish, fresh-brained regular at Comedy Works in Denver, told the well-oiled group he frequently speaks at corporate events. Groups vary, though, so he tries to find out beforehand what topics might offend.

He said he got a memo back recently from a company with a list of no-no’s so long and so explicit, it was filthier than anything he would ever have thought of mentioning. Did we want to see it? The crowd brayed, “Yeah!” Cue Gray’s hilarious illustrated “No A words, no F words” memo. It was a great bit, and his updated Newhartish deadpan sold it. If I ever have a night in Denver, I’ll try to see Deacon Gray, and I highly recommend you do, too.

Thus does the generous work of Johnny Carson continue.

Oklahoma-born Gray seemed at ease, but not all comics were as relaxed. And that is part of the fun. Rudi Rush, a well-credentialed newcomer from Dallas, by way of Def Comedy Jam, Dave Chapelle and Comedy Central, joked that after several days in Norfolk, he saw another black guy who seemed to live there. He said hi to the brother and swears the man replied, “Does Massa know you’re out?”

Comic Dwight York, claiming his “Bob & Tom” roots—and this was definitely a “Bob and Tom” crowd—had opened the evening with a staccato of one-liners:

I just joined the Mile High Club—I had sex on a Greyhound Bus going through Denver

I just took a drug test—it came back A-. I guess that’s good, but my dealer’s got some explaining to do.

I just watched my first porno movie. I can’t believe how much younger I looked back then.

I started dating this woman I thought was wearing way too much make-up—until I saw her without any. I don’t want to say she was ugly, but I got thrown out of the zoo for buying her a hot dog.

The room at Divots Event Center, on the western outskirts of Norfolk—who knew Norfolk had outskirts?—opened around 10:15 p.m. after the selection of the festival winner at the deluxe Johnny Carson Auditorium at Norfolk High School near downtown. Divots, attached to Norfolk Lodge & Suites, is a regional concert venue. Heart and Eddie Money played there in June, Shiloh in July and Foreigner headlines a show in September. This is not your grandfather’s Norfolk.

This event, featuring 12 ready-for-prime-time comedians, cost exactly $10. For that price, not attending makes no sense.

At 10:50 p.m., the waters parted and Eddie Brill entered the room. He’s the lynchpin, the sine qua non of the festival. When he’s not busy coordinating talent for David Letterman, teaching and nurturing young comics, doing stand-up and specials himself, even working with “Reader’s Digest” to supply fresh jokes, he’s the executive producer of the GACF.

In a standing hallway interview later at the Lodge, he will tell me that, even with everything he has going, he said yes to Kent Warneke, editor of the Norfolk Daily News and father of the festival in Norfolk, and Lora Young, hard-working director of the Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, for one reason—Johnny Carson. Everything else followed.

Eddie Brill is tall, wide and vivacious. It takes him a long time to get through the room because he works it. He knows everybody, and everybody wants to talk to him. He’s one of those guys who, when he decides to talk to you, makes you feel like the center of the universe. But you wouldn’t want to be on his bad side. Someone heckled his act and it was like the heckler had tried to French kiss a cobra.

At 1:15, my jaw and my stomach hurt from laughing. It was time to hang it up for the night. Saturday would be the finale of the second Great American Comedy Festival. 

10 a.m., Saturday, June, still Norfolk

If it weren’t for Midwestern work ethic, I wouldn’t have met David Brenner, the man who made more appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” than anyone else and the headliner of the festival. 

I was in the empty hotel breakfast room, going over last night’s notes, when I glanced up and saw him looking just as good as he does on his Web site, slim in black jeans and a trim black T-shirt with toned arms, and that great hair, now shocked with silver and brushed back. He was wearing the tortoise shell “Three-Blind Mice” sunglasses that are part of his current incarnation.

“That’s Mr. Brenner,” I told the lady I’d been visiting with as she tidied up the room. “He’s the big guy this year.” She’d been dishing the dirt on some of last year’s personages of note. I can only tell you this: Do not charm on stage and then treat the hotel staff shabbily.

Brenner sat down at the hotel computer, overhearing the last of our conversation, and offered his opinion on the persons in question, affirming the staff’s observations. That was cool. Later I asked if he would have time to talk after he finished answering his e-mail. He said yes, and we chatted.

He wanted to talk about Johnny Carson, and here’s why. After a successful but low-paying career in documentary filmmaking in the ’60s, Brenner decided to pursue his father’s early profession in comedy. But by 1970 with only a few cents in his pocket, he was on the verge of giving up a sputtering career in stand-up. At that very moment Johnny Carson gave him a shot on his show. The next day his career took off.

Brenner tells everyone, “I owe my life to Johnny Carson,” and that’s what has brought him to Norfolk.

Later on stage, Brenner will tell the audience at the Festival Finale Show that what was wonderful about Carson was his way of yielding attention to the performer guests on his show, in contrast to some contemporary hosts, eager to steal the show from their guests.

One on one, David Brenner wants to reminisce about his “out of the box” family. He grew up in a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia in a home where dinner was for “clever conversation and laughter. My mother was regal, intelligent, a reader, charming and an atheist. She couldn’t cook but, boy, could she feed my ego.”

His father, once a vaudevillian, “was religious,” Brenner said, “We were Jewish but he was tolerant. I had a special shelf in the refrigerator for my ham and bacon.” His father, he says, “was hysterically funny.” His father’s occupation after show business was bookie, with cover jobs as bookkeeper and municipal employee.

When his father died, Brenner discovered videotapes of his TV appearances made by his father. In many cases, they are the only record of Brenner’s early career. He’s transferred them to DVD, and the process has helped him launch his current “Leave ‘Em Laughing” tour, his first since 2001, subtitled, “A life’s journey from birth up to about five minutes ago.”

I didn’t feel I was talking to a bitter man, but I knew he had survived in a tough business. What about that? He tells me what he tells everyone. He was angry about people stealing his material until he realized he could create humor faster than people could steal it from him, and he relaxed. Then he tells a wonderful story.

“This is the very best description of show business I’ve ever heard. Buddy Hackett told me this story. Buddy was in Hollywood to do a film. A studio head, maybe Goldwyn, I don’t know, came up to him and said, ‘Buddy, people look at you and they see a comic, but I look at you and I see a great actor. I want to select the right films for you; I want to select the right roles for you. I want to shape your career. I see myself sitting at the Academy Awards and you are on the stage accepting the award.’ Hackett is thrilled. He can’t believe someone sees his potential. What good luck. A few weeks pass, then a year, two years, five years, seven and a half years. Hackett picks up the phone and calls the studio head and gets the guy’s answering machine. He leaves a message. ‘Mr. Goldwyn, this is Buddy Hackett. I’m just going out for about an hour,’ and hangs up.”

Brenner hit the road after Sept. 11. At a time when TV shows were cancelled, Broadway was closed and comedians were silent, Brenner was on stage by Sept. 13, 2001. He told me he was in his hotel room about a month later. “I had the TV on, and I looked up, and there was this famous comedian holding a press conference. He had about a thousand microphones in front of him, like a World War II newsreel, and he’s announcing that it’s all right for America to have comedy again; it’s okay to laugh. I couldn’t believe it!”

The idea of the current tour—and Brenner thinks in concepts—is drawn from the old shows his father taped. He says he envisions the old shows like so many cans of paint from which he can create his new tour, along with new material. Some jokes work, he says, and some are duds.

3 p.m., Saturday, June 20, long day’s journey into Norfolk

Northeast Community College’s Cox Activities Center is open to the community to see, hear and ask questions of festival honoree Bill Dana at no charge, a regular part of the festival.

Dana was a comedy writer in the great Steve Allen’s stable of young comedians that included Gabe Dell, Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Pat Harrington and Don Knotts.

It was in NBC’s Burbank, Calif., studio in 1959 that Dana’s signature character was born. He was playing around with the idea of a school for Santa Clauses. What if the instructor were Mexican and he taught the students what to say by writing on the board, “Jo! Jo! Jo!”? Funny, right? So when Steve Allen interviewed the character in a sketch and asked him his name, the answer was, “My name … Jose Jimenez.” America cracked up, and the character never stopped. He became a teacher of brain surgeons, rocket scientists and, most famously, astronauts.

In the 1960s, “The Bill Dana Show” sitcom ran for 42 episodes. Jose was the bell captain at a hotel where Byron Glick, the hotel detective, was created with comedian Don Adams. This was the character who morphed into Maxwell Smart in “Get Smart.” Dana invented the “Would you believe…?” joke made famous on “Get Smart” but heard earlier in a bit on a Dana-Adams LP.

Adams: …I have you surrounded by the entire mounted 17th Bengal Lancers.

Dana: I don’t believe you.

Adams: Would you believe the First Bengal Lancers?

Dana: No.

Adams: How about Gunga Din on a donkey?

Dana also invented the Good News/Bad News joke, according to MC Eddie Brill, who told us the very first one was about the Roman slave ship. The slave master tells the oar slaves, “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” The slaves ask for the good news. “You’re all getting an extra ration of water; we’re going to loosen the chains by a link; and there’s an extra ladle of gruel for lunch.” “What’s the bad news?” cry the slaves. “The captain wants to go water skiing this afternoon.”

Brill coaxes all of this out of Dana because, even at 85, all Dana wants to do is crack wise. Chronology? History of comedy on TV? Nah, Bill Dana is on Brill’s case to build next year’s Comedy Festival around the Billionth Anniversary of the Joke. Dana thinks it’s a great idea, and he wants to talk about it, not who he used to be.

A member of the audience wants to know, “Who made you laugh?”

“Louis Nye. He was just the same off screen as he was on,” says Dana, pausing, thinking of the greats with whom he’s worked. “You know, I’m like the last comic standing … so drink me in!”

7 p.m., Saturday, June 20, The Finale Show, expectant in Norfolk

The finale opens with David Brenner. On video, we see the fabled first appearance on the Carson show. The performance begins haltingly but builds into a hilarious extended bit about a New York crowd carrying a corpse along through the streets without noticing or caring. We can understand how his career took off the next day. Then the lights come up and it’s the man I talked to in the breakfast room.

He says he wants to talk about Johnny Carson, but it will be a convoluted monologue before he tells his favorite story about being on Johnny Carson’s show. It goes a little something like this:

“Johnny loved to catch someone NOT watching the “Tonight Show,” especially when they were on it. So one night I was on the show and I did my act and I came over and sat on the couch and, if you remember, sometimes the last guest would be the author of a book.

 “And when I would guest host for Johnny and I had to interview an author, I could hear people all over America start snoring. So this author comes on, and I’m at the end of the couch, and I go off into another world. The book is something like “Leadership in America.” So I’m doing fine, and Johnny sees me, and he knows what’s going on because I’ve got a great big smile on my face.

“Well, Johnny says, ‘Who do you think would make a great leader in America today … DAVID?’ And I snap to and I just start talking and try to talk my way out of it because I have no idea. ‘Well, Johnny, no one is qualified or capable of leading a country such as ours, so we must bring back and reincarnate the bravest man who ever lived.’ And I’m thinking ‘All right! I did it. That worked.’

“And then I hear Johnny say, ‘Well, David, who IS that? Who is the bravest man who ever lived?’ Now I’m thinking the show is almost over, so it’s like school, the bell is about to ring, I can talk my way through this to the end. So I start, ‘Well, Johnny, it’s hard to say of all the people who have ever lived just which person might have the exact combination…’—and time is dragging on and the show isn’t ending and suddenly I get it—‘…but actually the bravest man who ever lived was the first man who drank milk.’

“And Johnny says, ‘The first man who drank milk?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, because can you imagine, they’re all sitting around the cave and this guy says, “Look at that animal over there with the balloon under it. I’m going to go over there and squeeze that balloon and whatever comes out of it, I’m going to drink it.” No. No, wait a minute. The bravest man who ever lived was the first man to eat an egg, because he said, “Do you see that bird over there? I’m just going to wait around and the first thing that comes out of that bird’s ass, I’m going to eat it.”’

“And Johnny by this time is rolling around on the floor and he can’t go on and the show just ends. And that is my favorite story about being on Johnny Carson’s show.” And David Brenner closes to the familiar sound of laughter and applause. 

Later there will be other bright young comedians to light up the stage—host comedian Tom Cotter, the winners of the GACF competition—third place, Joe Larson, New York City; second place winner, amateur Sam Adams from Denver; and in first place Kermet Apio of Hawaii who will be back next year. Big time humor at Nebraska prices. This is one of America’s best comedy buys—right here in the Big Red State.

But was it outdone by the Comedy Legend? Sure, we tried to sober up and pay respect to an all-time great as we did for Dick Cavett in 2008. Eddie Brill had summoned the revered Bill Dana. The lights were lowered, a spotlight on Mr. Dana and the beautiful trophy. Would he weep? Would he thank everyone he’d ever met? The golden trophy was presented. “EBay, here we go!” he said, perfectly and hilariously. 

Dana got time to comment or entertain. Unlike Cavett, who laid out 45 minutes of quotables, Dana wanted to riff on the moment. At the back of the stage were a small desk and couch, à la Carson, where Brill had seated himself. Dana moved to the back of the stage, telling Brill to move over; he wanted to sit down.

“We look like those two old men on ‘The Muppets,’” said Brill. The audience laughed.

“I don’t know about you, but I love this hand up my ass,” said Legend Dana, and the house came down. And that was the finale of the Second Great American Comedy Festival.

 

For more information on the Great American Comedy Festival, visit www.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Additional information on the festival’s Comedy Camp can be found on their Facebook page.

 

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