Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Sometimes Jolly Jack

He appeared on game shows, variety shows, late-night talk shows. He was interviewed by Ed Murrow on Person To Person, filled in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight show, and hosted one of the earliest variety shows in network television.

Jack Carter did an awful lot of television over a very long career. Carter has passed away at the age of 93.

As did a number of stars, he came out of one of the Major Bowes units in 1941. His career resumed after an interruption for World War Two. Television was lumbering toward expansion from a handful of stations on the East Coast (and a few others dotted across the U.S.). NBC, CBS and ABC began assembling legitimate TV networks by 1948. There was another network, DuMont, which had the disadvantage of not being flush with radio stars like the other three. It had no radio. It had look elsewhere for talent, and nightclubbing Carter was perfect for the vaudeville-like early TV variety shows. Carter didn’t stay at DuMont long. NBC tapped him for its huge Saturday night variety extravaganza, hosting an hour from Chicago before the cameras switched to Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca for 90 minutes. Caesar and Coca went on to huge success. Carter got cancelled.

Here’s a story from the American Weekly, a weekend newspaper supplement, of October 14, 1951. It sums up Carter’s career to date. It also shows Carter’s propensity for whining (a trait shared by another ex-GI comic, Jack Paar, in the ‘40s). He should be more famous, he’d say. He wasn’t getting ahead fast enough, he told Hearst columnist Jack O'Brian (he was 24). He got screwed out a gig, he’d gripe. Quite true, it could have been, but if so, he wouldn’t have been the only one in show biz that ever happened to.

TV’s Jack of 80 Faces

JACK CARTER is really proud of himself at last and here's the reason why. It happened on a Hollywood golf course. A small, serious-faced man approached him. "You're Jack Carter, aren't you?" he asked.
Carter swallowed hard and said he was. His heart beat faster, like a schoolboy's on his first date.
"I just wanted to tell you I think you're great," the stranger said. "I watch you on television. You're a comer."
The little man, whose name was Harpo Marx, walked away.
"It was like a shot in the arm," Carter told The American Weekly.
"Nobody ever knows me. They just know the people I imitate. I'm the man of 80 faces—79 of them you can't miss, the 80th—that's mine—you'd never guess."
IF YOU don't know Jack Carter when you see him it's not because he's shy about his identity. From the time he was a kid hanging around the amusement park at Coney Island he was shouting it out to the world.
He was raised in the shadow of the roller coaster and the ferris wheel. He could sing and dance a little, ape the raucous voices of the Coney spielers, imitate Cantor and Durante. His relatives applauded.
"This kid's a natural," they said. One summer he got a job as locker room attendant at one of Coney's bathing beaches. The proprietor saw him clowning for the other kids. "Here's a straw hat and a cane," he said. "Be funny for the boardwalk customers."
Those two "professional" seasons on the boardwalk were Carter's indoctrination into show business.
The people seemed to like his cocky grin, his quick shift from one imitation to another. The audience that heard him on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in 1940 liked him, too. He was a winner and spent a month touring with three other hopefuls: Robert Merrill, Frank Sinatra and Ventriloquist Paul Winchell.
Often in the later months when he worked as a Single in clubs around New York City Carter became discouraged.
"Who knows my name?" he lamented. "I'm a guy who does 80 imitations. But nobody's imitating Carter!"
He had a chance to build up a better act when he went into the Army and was assigned to the "Flying Varieties" show. Out in 1945, he had his first real success as a featured comic in the hit Broadway musical, "Call Me Mister." Then television and its search for new talent came along. In 1948 he became interlocutor on the "Pick 'n' Pat" ABC-TV show.
ALL the big-timers were getting into TV: Berle, Durante, Cantor, Hope. Carter kept plugging away. He got better shows. He did guest shots for Berle and headed the "Cavalcade of Stars" over WABD. Last year NBC-TV put him under long-term contract and starred him in the "Jack Carter Show" from Chicago.
At the age of 29 the kid from Coney Island was making $1,000 a week, had a pretty wife (ex-model Joan Mann), a nice apartment, a nice car. TV was hard work but he loved it.
It was show business.
He was in Hollywood testing for a comedy role in a Lana Turner film (he got the part) when Harpo Marx made him so happy.
"Imagine him recognizing me!" said Carter. "And then being nice enough to talk about it. I'd always thought he COULDN'T talk!"

The early TV Carter wasn’t universally liked by critics. John Lester of the Long Island Star-Journal declaimed in1950, when Carter was still at DuMont, that Milton Berle, Morey Amsterdam, Sid Caesar and Carter “None...have the ‘warmth’ and the humility without which no comedian is ever really great.” Lester’s comments are not quite fair. “Warm” was not the kind of comedy the four were doing. With the possible exception of Caesar, they were loud, boisterous and vaudevillian. Lester had been comparing them to Keaton and Chaplin, who were working in a different medium with a different approach.

Carter’s NBC show lasted a little over a year. There were rumblings in Variety in March 1951 that NBC was not happy with the show losing ground to Ken Murray on CBS, even though ratings were still decent. Sponsors jumped ship. Finally in May, the network decided to try something else in Carter’s slot. (Carter spent late August doing a show at the Chicago Theatre, ironically replacing Ken Murray).

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s TV columnist wasn’t impressed with Carter’s show. He put only part of the blame on Carter. This column is from February 14, 1951.

Jack Carter Falls Short As Comic, Hurt by Writers
By Merrill Panitt

One of Jack Carter's sponsors on his Saturday night opus is a company that produces dog food, which is appropriate enough since most of the show seems to come out of a can.
Carter himself is an amiable enough young fellow. It is only that he has one rather serious fault as a television entertainer. The boy lacks talent as a comedian. He has nerve, a fine appearance, and good stage presence. It's only in the comic department that he falls flat.
Every comedian should have some style, some trademark of his own. With Durante it's the schnozz and his pretended boastfulness. With Lahr it's a rubber face and a buzzsaw singing voice. With Berle it's brashness and the ability to steal material carefully. You could go down the list and find characteristics that set each comedian apart from his colleagues.
Like Hope, Carter tells gags in rapid-fire succession—only Hope's usually are original and are beautifully timed. Carter's (and this may be his writers' fault) are not new and his timing misses. Like Berle's stuff, his material has a reminiscent ring. Like any of a thousand night club comedians he urges the audience to laugh it up. But he doesn't seem to have anything of his own.
Last Saturday night Carter's guest was ex-movie queen Constance Bennett, who is now making the rounds as a guest star. Her sister, Joan, is also making the circuit. Isn't it a small world? Carter and his writers, may their tribe decrease, had Miss Bennett, Constance that is, in two sketches, one as the chief of a government bureau testing women's products and the other in a takeoff on the movie, "King Solomon's Mines."
The first sketch, real high class stuff, ended with Carter climbing into a woman's girdle. The second had Carter doing a fairly amateurish takeoff on Groucho Marx—with no credit line to Groucho. It was all about a gorilla and a diamond mine, and as far as I know had no ending.
To Carter's credit, he knew Miss Bennett's part as well as his own, and a couple of times was called upon to speak them when the lady's memory lapsed.
There was another sketch, without Miss Bennett, in which Carter was a barber and—you guessed it—cut all the hair off his victim's toupee. Why, by the way, are toupees always supposed to be funny?
During one musical interlude Donald Richards sang a song titled, "Johannesburg," which led into the "King Solomon's Mines" sketch and the one joke that sticks in my mind. It had something to do with making king size cigarets for pygmies who like to pole-vault.
Considering the cost of the program and the fact that it precedes Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, it would seem that NBC would expect and demand more for its sponsors' money. Carter might be all right if his writers (the credits listed four of them) turned out presentable material. He is not comedian enough, however, to carry a program by sheer weight of personality.
To Carter's credit he can carry a tune and do a time step. He also, it is said, has the knack of being able to read a script once and know it by heart. So can a couple of the Quiz Kids.

Panitt’s opinions proved to be without merit, if one uses longevity as a yardstick. Carter’s guest appearances on television over the following decades seem endless. He was quick with a quip on game and talk shows. He was in constant demand. Carter may not have been “warm,” but he could be pretty funny.

If you want to know more about Jack Carter, there’s no better person to ask than author Kliph Nesteroff, who spent a good chunk of time in the comedian’s good books and bad books. Read here.


  1. Bernie West, who often performed comedy routines with his partner Mike Ross, later became a TV sitcom writer/producer [with Mike, and a fellow named Don Nicholl]. Among his credits were "ALL IN THE FAMILY" and "THREE'S COMPANY".

  2. Eugene Levy did a great impression of Jack Carter on SCTV, about thirty years after Carter noted that no one ever imitated him. I wonder if he ever saw Levy's impression...