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For Miltie, I cry ‘Uncle’

Apr 1, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The world was a better place a week ago. It still had an Uncle Miltie in it. If we’d never ever had or known an Uncle Miltie that would be one thing; we wouldn’t know how much we needed him.
When Milton Berle died on, so sadly, the first night of Passover, the national comedian population wasn’t just depleted by one. No. Uncle Miltie was a whole chorus of comedy-a school, a tradition, a couple of genres, a slew of eras. They were all wrapped up in one great nut whose colleagues over a fabulous lifetime ranged from Charlie Chaplin to John Belushi, from the Floradora girls to the Muppets.
Here was a man who not only could always make us laugh but who in fact insisted upon it. He sang a song once that he helped write, one of several on which he collaborated, this one called “Always Leave ‘Em Laughing When You Say Goodbye.” But dammit he didn’t get to say goodbye, and we weren’t laughing.
Perhaps someone can launch an investigation in order to pinpoint, just to have it on the record, the exact date and time of Uncle Miltie’s last laugh. In “The Last Hurrah,” Spencer Tracy says of a colleague, “How do you thank somebody for a million laughs?” But Uncle Miltie gave us a lot more than a million. How do you thank somebody for a lifetime of laughter, for way too many laughs to count?
Comedy pioneer
If you ever met Uncle Miltie, you’d remember it well, and if you ran into him several times, you are bound to remember especially the first. For me it was a lunch at the Polo Lounge many years ago, Milton in full Berle; he was in his element, a monarch who presided over the room from his table.
When he saw his old friend, author Sidney Sheldon, he shouted, “Hey, Sidney, how are you? I read your new book. What a piece of s–!” Sheldon approached the table beaming. To know Uncle Miltie well enough to be insulted by him naturally was considered an honor. Sheldon was delighted.
Uncle Miltie’s interviews could be Mobius strips. He would make seemingly profound, essentially nonsensical statements like, in referring to his crazy days on live TV, “You got what you saw and you saw what you got.” But he’d also point out how he worked without a net-no cue cards, no videotape, no place to hide. Scenery might fall down, guest stars might be drunk, and animal acts might leave what Uncle Miltie called-with a kind of charming redundancy-“manure turds” scattered about the stage.
Screams of laughter
Berle’s audiences didn’t just laugh. They howled. Look at the old kinescopes, many restored and preserved on videotape and DVDs; women scream with laughter, men roar with it. Nobody had to fill voids with fake applause or cries of “whoo!” as happens now. If Jay Leno tells a joke that isn’t funny enough to laugh at, his studio audience will obligingly applaud in order to produce an audible response for the soundtrack. Berle got laughs or he got nothing, and if he got nothing he made a wacky crack that pulled the laughter right out of people’s throats. Right out of their hearts. Right out of their souls.
It was a louder laughter, a deeper laughter than you hear now, sometimes a shocked or scandalized laughter, as when Uncle Miltie donned a dress and minced and flounced. He did that during a cameo in the movie “Let’s Make Love,” and co-star Yves Montand’s scripted reaction was memorable: “And 40 million Americans call you `Uncle’?”
Obit writers pointed out that Berle would get, like, 80 shares in his day (“I Love Lucy” occasionally did that too). He may actually have been the only person to get, say, 110 shares, because not only was every set in every house in America tuned to him, but so were the ones in department stores and appliance-store windows, back in the days when a television screen was still considered a wondrous window itself.
What Berle offered wasn’t just an hour of laughs and songs; he gave us a recap of all of show business up to that moment. It all passed in front of our eyes during those wild Tuesday night binges-vaudeville, burlesque, movies, Broadway shows. Berle was everybody who ever wore baggy pants or accepted a pie in the puss. In rehearsals, Berle meted out abuse, but on the show itself, he endured it-squirted with seltzer, slapped and punched, kicked in the shins by a midget.
And it was wonderful, a city education for those of us who grew up in the sticks, a free ticket to the circus, a Broadway show, a comic opera.
In the ’80s, Berle came to Washington to play a serious role in a bad play being taped for public television. The part was a snap for him, that of a wise if short-tempered old patriarch summoning the family for some kind of forced epiphany. The producers had rented a fancy house in the pricey Foxhall section of D.C., up where the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and Bobby Baker had once lived. And I remember so well the tour Berle gave me of that house-because in each room he’d point out where one of the family dogs had peed or pooped.
He was incorrigible. He was indefatigable. He was Peck’s Bad Boy, and then he was Peck’s Bad Old Man. And when he made you laugh, he’d look into your eyes, as if merely hearing the laughter wasn’t enough. He had to peer into your heart as well.
Mastering the medium
I was there, too, in 1979 when Berle paid his not-too-successful visit to “Saturday Night Live.” John Belushi had been a huge fan and begged Lorne Michaels to book Berle as a host, to bring him back into the RCA Building from which Berle had conducted some of his uproarious seminars in American comedy. But the generations clashed, and Michaels was glad to see the week end. You have to say this for Berle, though, he did not go gentle into that “Saturday Night.” He did not go gentle into anywhere.
Three years later, “Nightline” suffered one of its few debacles when, in trying to report on the death of Belushi, bookers weirdly invited Berle on as a commentator. It grew more and more obvious as Berle was answering questions that he had little personal knowledge of, or insight into, the kind of comedy Belushi personified. But Berle stuck it out and gave a performance. This master of the medium was not about to be undone by anything so rudimentary as a talk show. Hell, in his day, he’d done everything but walk over burning coals to impress us.
Among the other songs he wrote, there was one very sentimental ballad called, “I’d Give a Million Tomorrows for Just One Yesterday.” And I would-especially if that would allow Milton Berle to take one last proud pie before answering the proverbial roll call up yonder.
One hopes Berle got to make an entrance when he arrived. Perhaps preceded by “the men from Texaco” who used to sing him onto the airwaves-first a song for the sponsor, then the quartet, in unison, exclaiming “Mil-ton Berle!” It was a name made to be exclaimed.
And while it’s true he’d been comparatively inactive in recent years, one sensed he was still there, smoking cigars and playing poker and getting laughs, whether from friend or maid or nurse or doctor. Was there “only one Milton Berle”? It seems as though there must have been dozens. One man couldn’t have done all that. One man couldn’t have made that many millions happy. Television wasn’t just his medium, it was his enabler. And vice versa.
I miss my Uncle Miltie.
I want my Uncle Miltie.
I loved my Uncle Miltie.