A Postwar Everyman, Comedy’s King Perfected Voice of Middle-Class Angst
This week, the country lost one of its greatest spokesmen: Alan King, who, over six decades, perfected the voice of the frustrated American dealing with inefficient institutions.
“The other day my house caught fire. The insurance agent said, ‘Shouldn’t be a problem. What kind of coverage do you have?’ I said, ‘Fire and theft.’ The insurance agent frowned. ‘Uh oh. Wrong kind. Should be fire OR theft.’ Apparently, the only way I can make a claim with this coverage is if the house is robbed while it’s burning down.
“When I made fun of Eastern Airlines on the Gary Moore Show, their chairman, [former World War I hero] Eddie Rickenbacker, sued. To this day, when I see a World War I movie, I root for the Red Baron. At the preliminary hearing, the judge laughed and threw the case out. He had flown Eastern.
“When I was in the hospital they gave me apple juice every morning, even after I told them I didn’t like it. I had to get even. One morning, I poured the apple juice into the specimen tube. The nurse held it up and said, ‘It’s a little cloudy.’ I took the tube from her and said, ‘Let me run it through again,’ and drank it. The nurse fainted.”
Perhaps even more amazing than the facts of King’s enormous success — he appeared in dozens of movies (often as a rabbi or a gangster), performed as a Broadway actor, and was a political activist, a philanthropist and chairman of the Friar’s Club — was the philosophy behind it. To King, the Jewish American no longer was the outsider, and it was his right to feel good about his hard work and revel in its attendant success.
Somehow, King managed to make the Jewish man into the Everyman and, as a monologist — the precursor to the “stand-up” comedian — he marked the transition from the riff comedian to the storyteller, thereby paving the way for scores of young comedians, including Robert Klein, George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld.
“There’s a charm, there’s a rhythm, there’s a soul to Jewish humor,” King recalled in an interview with me in 2001. “When I first saw Richard Pryor perform, I told him, ‘You’re doing a Jewish act.’ He said, ‘I know.’”
Early in King’s career, a critic wondered how he would do “west of the Hudson River,” implying that his Jewish appeal would not extend beyond the Catskills. Over the next six decades, until his death last Sunday at the age of 76 from lung cancer, King proved that critic wrong by becoming a frequent guest of variety shows — logging 93 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — and a national fixture.
Born Irwin Alan Kniberg in 1927 in Brooklyn, he grew up in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was to Jewish comedians in the first part of the 20th century what Paris was to artists in the late 19th century. King learned early on that he could entertain people. After a short stint as Earl Knight he became Alan King, singing and telling jokes. He also had a brief career as a boxer, but stopped because he recognized the greater power that came from making people laugh — “and because I kept getting beaten up in the ring.”
He was fired from his first job in the Catskills over an improvised line: “When you work at the Gradus that’s what you get paid,” which made everyone laugh except the hotel’s owner. King became a fixture on the New York nightclub scene and a protégé of Milton Berle. He was Dean Martin’s roommate, and was present the night Dean Martin met a young Jerry Lewis. But it was the night he saw Danny Thomas perform that changed his life.
“Danny didn’t do jokes. He told stories. He talked about his wife, his job. Reality. At that moment, my life and my career changed. I became a storyteller,” he said in an interview.
King elevated storytelling to an art form, and despite little formal education, he became a voracious reader. “The ability to absorb a book and make someone else’s words and story your own was exactly was I was doing on stage,” recalled King. Literature reinforced what he was doing. “When I read Dickens for the first time, I thought he was Jewish, because he wrote about oppression and bigotry, all the things that my father talked about.”
He crafted comic images that thinly disguised the post-World War II prosperity that was sweeping the United States in the 1950s, and the participation of first-generation Americans in that prosperity, based on his own life with his wife of 57 years, Jeanette. One routine recounted the tireless preparation for his son’s bar mitzvah, right down to the ice sculpture. “After the first week, the maid was singing the haftorah; after the second week, the dog was singing the haftorah, but my son was still working on it.”
One of King’s other “sons,” Billy Crystal (the two first worked together on the 1988 movie “Memories of Me,” in which King played Crystal’s father) spoke lovingly of the comic at a service at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan on Tuesday. “There are two people in my life I called Pop — my own father and Alan,” Crystal told the crowd. “He was the perfect blend of humor and hostility onstage. Offstage,” Crystal paused for a moment and smiled, “he was exactly the same.”
Eddy Friedfeld is the co-author with comedy legend Sid Caesar of “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy with Love and Laughter” and is a regular contributor to the Joe Franklin Memory Lane Show on WOR Radio. He is currently working on a book on the history of Jews and comedy in America.