American TV viewers finally said “Ahhhh, shaddap!” to Milton Berle. But for a few years, he really was Mr. Television. Sales of sets zoomed shortly after the debut of the Texaco Star Theater as people stayed home on Tuesday nights to see what outrageous thing Berle would do next.
But the problem with outrageousness is you have to keep topping yourself and there’s only so far you can go before people have had enough. And that’s what happened to Milton Berle. Within a few years, his show was off the air. But he took his routine to Vegas and made guest appearances on other variety shows as “himself”—the self-satisfied, attention-grabbing comic with corn in his trunk. He survived to eventually become a nostalgic representation of a kind of show-biz long dispatched to the past.
In 1950, Berle was still at the top of his TV game. NBC would sign him to a 30-year contract the following year. So it’s no surprise National Enterprise Association radio-television columnist Dick Kleiner would feature him as one of the “funnymen” in a series of articles. This appeared in newspapers on February 19, 1950.
From Flop to Hit:
Milton Berle Finds That TV Takes to His Talents Very Well
By RICHARD KLEINER
New York—(NEA)—The Milton Berle television show is perhaps the nearest approach to totalitarianism this side of the Iron Curtain.
Berle is the show. And the show is Berle.
Berle picks out the guest stars. Berle plans the routines. Berle checks the music. Berle supervises the set design. Berle masterminds the costumes. Berle runs the rehearsals. Berle plots the camera positions.
Berle does everything to bring out the best television performance out of his cast. And he then sets out, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to steal the show from them.
His dictatorial tendencies are tolerated by his guest stars and his associates for the basic reason that the guy knows what he's doing. He proved it when he hitched his Hooper-rating to a skyrocket and zoomed to the top of the video heap in not much more than a year.
BUT THE STRANGEST thing about the most-rehearsed show in the business—it averages 36 hours of rehearsal a week—is that there is no script, as such. Berle himself comes on in a wacky costume, and ad libs his way through about five minutes of what he calls “heckler jokes.”
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Do you like this costume? Don’t laugh—I only look this way for an hour, but what can you do? I’ve seen some of your faces before—on a bottle of iodine. That's a nice suit you're wearing, Buster. That style's coming back now.”
That, accompanied by posing and mugging and occasional trips into the audience to snip off a stooge's tie, has made Berle the highest paid personality in television.
But, actually, Berle isn't doing anything on television that he hasn't done before.
THAT'S BECAUSE he is primarily a visual comedian: Like most comics, be does have writers to supply him with verbal gags—in addition to the ones he is accused of swiping. But his jokes are not extraordinary. Here are a few typical samples:
“I'd like you to meet our band leader, Allen Roth. His band played at the Barkley wedding—Shirley and Irving Barkley of Brooklyn. I don't know what I'm doing today—this morning I got up and gave my seat to a lady in the subway.
“Thanksgiving always reminds me of my brother—he never thanks and I keep giving. That brother of mine spends my money like it was going out of style tomorrow.”
But Berle's biggest laughs come from his clowning. One of his pet routines is to stick his hand in a guests's mouth and lead him off stage.
On one program, the guest was Bert Gordon, the Mad Russian. Berle pulled the hand-in-mouth business, and out came Gordon’s false teeth.
BERLE IS, of course, highly pleased with his success. When he first went on the Star Theatre, back in June, 1948, he was to be master of ceremonies for four weeks. The policy was to have the MCs rotate.
It continued for a few weeks—night club comedian Henny Youngman (Berle calls him Henny Oldjokes) and George Jessel had cracks at the job.
But the people wanted Berle back. By September, he had the show for keeps, and had won awards as the top TV comedian and master of ceremonies, to boot. By now, he glories in the label he himself helped to popularize, “Mr. Television.”
The self-styled Babe Ruth of television—or, perhaps, Sultan of Swipe—has some definite ideas about what brought him to the top and how to stay there. For one thing, he feels that a successful show must have a “cog” (in this case, Berle) around which to revolve.
For another, he insists on variety from week to week, so that the audience won't get tired of seeing the same thing, repeated endlessly.
He should know about surprises—his video success, to television executives, is one of the biggest surprises of all time.