by Brett Harrison
I guess we all have our celebrity stories. I have a few of my own. Like the teen idol who went to my high school and played in a band with a future member of the Patti Smith Group. Or another classmate who went on to star in “Dynasty” and later reemerged as a cast member on the cult TV series, “Heroes.”
But another story trumps both of them with both hands tied behind its back. And it involves two American comedy legends. Well, sort of.
The first one is the time I talked to Henny Youngman on the phone at the Friars’ Club. It was the fall of 1991. It was Yom Kippur, and although I’m not super-religious, I do have this image of God aiming lightning bolts at my head if I don’t at least try to honor “The Big Holidays.”
So I took the day off from work and went to services at The University of Pennsylvania. After services, with hours of fasting ahead of me, I decided to take a bus into town and go to the Free Library that’s right off Rittenhouse Square. After browsing a few books, I chose Henny Youngman’s autobiography, “Take My Life, Please,” and sat in the square to read. It was a beautiful day.
As autobiographies go, it was no great shakes, but there was one thing that grabbed my attention. Youngman mentioned his longtime affiliation with the Friars’ Club and went on to say he has been known to do favors for people from time to time and doesn’t mind taking calls there.
I was several years into an unsuccessful standup comedy career and had a lightbulb moment. “Self,” I said to myself, “what if I were to call Henny at the Friars’ Club and ask for advice? He might admire my gumption and try to help me.”
Images of a tour with the aging but still highly respected comic icon danced around in my head. You know that old saying, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched?” There’s a reason these sayings last hundreds of years.
The first time I called, he wasn’t there, but I was told he could usually be reached there in the early part of the afternoon. So, I called back the next day and was told he wasn’t there but to please try tomorrow. This went on for at least a week. When I could get away with it, I called from my desk at work, but I also spent quite a few quarters at the pay phone in the hallway. Finally I got in touch with him. The conversation went something like this.
•Henny: Who’s this?
•Me: Hi, Mr. Youngman, my name is Brett Harrison. I’m an aspiring standup comic. I read in your book that people can call you at the Friars’ Club and ask for advice.
•Henny: Do you have any money?
•Me: Not that much.
•Henny: How do you expect to buy material if you don’t have money?
•Me: Um, I write my own material, Mr. Youngman.
•Henny: You don’t sound too serious, young man. Stop wasting my time.
I was quite devastated at the time, but when I related the story to a fellow comic, I realized how funny it all was. First of all, the guy was in his mid-80s. (He died at 91 in 1998.) Secondly, it was foolish of me to expect to even talk to him, much less get a jump start on my floundering career, such as it was.
It’s probably that the publisher of his autobiography (which was one of those “As told to” fluff jobs) caught a miniscule anecdote about him talking to somebody on the phone at the Friars’ Club and blew it out of proportion.
Around that same time, I was in Atlantic City when Robert Klein was performing and asked if I could talk to him between shows. Surprisingly, I was instructed to walk over to where the freight elevator was and was met by a hotel employee who graciously took me up to the floor where Klein’s dressing room was. Klein, wearing a white terry-cloth bathrobe, met me at the door.
I’m a big guy, about 6’1” and was pushing 300 pounds at the time. The first thing he asked me was, “Where’d ya play ball?” as he was convinced I must have played some college football in my day. After I explained I wasn’t much of an athlete, the rest of the conversation revolved around standup comedy and how I could turn things around. He noticed that I stuttered and felt I should use it in my act.
I told him I did, but he felt I should do it even more. The last thing I asked him, “How do I know when it’s time to quit?” He didn’t mind the question at all, as if it wasn’t the first time somebody asked it. He thought for a second and said, “Well, I’d say do it as long as you want to until you have nothing more to give” or something like that.
Then, being the master comic that he is, he couldn’t resist a humorous addendum. He smiled and added good-naturedly, “But that doesn’t mean I want to see you at the open mikes in 25 years, either.” I laughed, thanked him for his time, shook his hand (pretty firm handshake for a comedian) and took my leave.
In the fall of 1997 I traveled to Boston to audition for The Aspen Comedy Festival at the Comedy Connection, a club located in the historical Faneuil Hall area. I’ve done better, and after my set the manager gave me a look that said, “You came all the way up here for this?” Not long after, thinking about Klein’s parting advice, I decided to move on. Being a 55-year-old open miker was not my lifelong goal.
Of course, I could always take Henny’s advice and buy good material.
Brett Harrison is a freelance writer who has lived in Philly for more than 30 years. At various times he has written film reviews, humorous pieces and light journalism. He is currently working on a loosely autobiographical play. He was a finalist in Philly Pitch in 2006, where he got to pitch his screenplay, “Mark of the Loser,” to a panel of industry pros.