Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Human Joke Machine

“The only thing I can turn on around my house without getting Morey Amsterdam,” Fred Allen once declared, “is the water faucet.”

Allen may not have been far from the truth. At one point in 1948, Amsterdam was doing two shows on WHN radio and “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This” on both NBC radio and TV; it was the network’s biggest television show at the time it began airing that March. He was performing in a nightclub he had a part interest in and was about to launch a revue called “Hilarities of 1949” (It never reached 1949. It closed after 16 performances in 1948).

That was kind of the second phase in his career, which also included writing some popular songs. People are generally familiar with the third phase of his career, when he was a regular on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the first half of the 1960s.

The first phase of his career goes back into the 1920s when he appeared on the vaudeville stage, and while in San Francisco, connected with comedian Al Pearce, becoming part of his gang around 1930. He, his wife Mabel Todd and orchestra leader Tony Romano left Pearce in summer 1936 and soon had their own radio show. Naturally, because Amsterdam was everywhere, the show was broadcast out of Los Angeles on the NBC Red network one night and the Blue network another night. Along the way, the three of them ended up in New York and took up residence on WOR/Mutual by the end of November 1939.

The corny jokes Amsterdam spouted on the Van Dyke show were a good indication of the kind of humour he used on stage and on radio. Critics’ feelings about him were mixed. The ones who didn’t like him dismissed him as being loud, hokey and unfit for the big time. Audiences evidently disagreed or Amsterdam wouldn’t have been as ubiquitous. Still, when the 1950s came, his stardom was eclipsed by others, despite a quick wit and a bottomless barrel of laugh material.

Let’s pass on a few clippings about the man once known as the Human Joke Machine. The first is a profile in the Los Angeles Times of October 14, 1934. Among a number of things, it confirms his age. In later years, he shaved a few years off it.
Ether Etchings
Morey Amsterdam is short in stature and long in satire . . . has a good memory for bad jokes . . . never remembers their source . . . never tells the same joke twice—on the same program . . . is one of Al Pearce’s favorite comics . . . helps routine Al’s daily operas . . . has a flair for high-waisted trousers and low-brow humor . . . does everything on a big scale . . . insisted that Al use six people in the quartet from Rigoletto.
Was born in Chicago (no reason given) December 14, 1908 . . . his father a musician with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra . . . has two brothers—one a pre-possessing pianist—the other a repossessing auto financier.
Went through San Francisco schools . . . entered university at age of 14 (an inspection tour) . . . did his first broadcast in 1922 as a boy soprano; then his voice changed . . . which was a lucky break—for the listeners.
Singing and playing his ‘cello, he was booked for vaudeville dates around California with his piano-pounding brother . . . first time his parents heard him they brought him a one-way ticket to Chicago and told him to get the ‘cello outa here!
Mastered the ceremonies in a lot of Middle West “hot spots” and theaters . . . was shot by gangsters in Milwaukee (after they heard him) but he insisted on continuing to sing . . . returned to California and to more receptive radio audiences.
“You Lucky People” was phrased around this time . . . after a period on a local rebel radio station went to San Francisco for a year’s engagement at the Warfield . . . met Al Pearce and did several programs for him . . . returned here and did some movie work.
Met Mabel Todd and lost his heart as well as his voice . . . now writes most of the material used by Mabel . . . directs and coaches her . . . every time he remembers a good joke he tosses a coin in the air . . . if it stays up he lets Mabel use it (the joke) . . . If the coin falls—he uses it . . . if it stands on its edge---it’s original (the joke.)
Amsterdam and Todd broke up but he kept plugging away in New York City. He was part owner of a trade rag there (the Broadway Reporter) as well as a nightclub, in addition to his radio work. He received a visit from columnist Earl Wilson and radio writer Hal Block in 1947. Wilson wrote about it in his column in the Post of July 1st that year.
A Call on Amsterdam Finds Him Master of the Switch
By Earl Wilson

Morey Amsterdam, the One-Man Gag Factory, screams out his yaks every night in a cellar cafe that I hereby name "The Jokebox."
"Welcome to our saloon, under a saloon," he says, in his little coal mine, the Playgoers Club. "Eighty-five per cent of the people get in here by mistake thinking it's the subway. Have you ever been to the Copa-cabana? Lousy liquor. Stinkin' ventilation. Outrageous prices. Just like this place, only larger." Comedy Writer Hal Block and I stumbled down there and told Amsterdam we'd come to study his type of humor. This meant we'd come to steal it.
"You guys talk so much," he said, "my voice is flat from trying to get a word in edgewise."
* * *
His rapid-fire delivery can make you laugh in the middle of a yawn. He mentions a house without plumbing—"it's uncanny." He introduces the 2 ½-piece band. ''Here's our band," he says. "They need no introduction. They know each other very well."
Block and I decided Amsterdam, one of the funniest men alive, is a master of the switch or surprise joke.
Morey wrote "Rum and Coca-Cola," "Tucson," also "Wyoming," and he won't let you forget it. Starting to sing "Rum and Coca-Cola," he says, "I'm sure you all know the words, so when I come to the chorus, kindly keep your damn mouths shut."
* * *
Another sample is "Did you see a guy in here with a bad eye named Joe?” . . . “I don’t know. What was the name of his good eye?”
Morey doesn't use puns—even famous ones like Ed Wynn's when he heard a man ordering some lamb chops and cheese and called out to the chef, "Cheese it, the chops!"
* * *
He avoids most of the "I had a hotel room so small that" jokes but don’t worry, he doesn’t discriminate against hotels. "In my hotel they change the sheets every day—from one bed to the other."
He works effectively with absurdities such as "Joe Louis hit me so hard that they counted me out while I was still in the air. My wife's so troublesome that she'd give an aspirin a headache. When they gave her penicillin, it got sick."
* * *
"Summer is here—this morning I found a Blue Jay sitting on my corn," he announces. He had to tell about a golfer who chose the wrong club every time against the advice of his caddy, managed to get on the green in 20 strokes, and then, insanely using a driver, put the ball in the cup from the force of the wind stirred up by his swing.
Turning to the caddy, he said, desperately, "Now I'm stuck. I don’t know what club to use."
I sat around in Lindy's with Amsterdam while he ordered a Monte Cristo sandwich—a ham, cheese and chicken between white bread, dipped in egg batter, and fried like French toast. Even Lindy hadn't heard of it. In fact, Lindy asked him, "What kind of bicarbonate of soda you want?"
But it was right good! Lindy had made a special effort to listen to Barry Gray's radio spot, to see how he sounded with his new nose. Amsterdam was guesting. "You were foolish to pay to get your nose fixed," he told Gray. "I know 18 guys who would have broken your nose for nothing. You look like a fellow who fell in front of a steam roller side-ways." According to Amsterdam also, "an education is something you get so you can work for guys with no education," while California, to combat the influx of unwelcome people, will post signs, "Bums not allowed, except those who have contracts in pictures."
So there you are—a funny funnyman. It may be corny but the best humor is the kind people laugh at.
Network television was still very small in fall 1948 when Milton Berle became a phenomenon—for NBC. CBS must have thought it needed its own version of Berle, so it looked around on its talent roster, found Amsterdam, then gave him a variety show it ended up cancelling after four months. Du Mont must have thought it needed its own version of Berle, so it hired Amsterdam. That’s where he was on November 8, 1949 when this story hit the news wire.
Free Advice Out, Says Funny Man

Associated Press Staff Writer
New York—"I grew up," said Morey Amsterdam, "the day I discovered you can't give people good advice—you have to charge them for it."
Amsterdam is one of the top funny men of television and radio. This is the new Amsterdam. The old Amsterdam was just a gag writer for other comics.
As a youthful vaudeville performer Morey — he joked and played a cello—used to try to suggest to the stars he hero-worshiped ways they could improve their routine.
"They just laughed me off," he said. "Then I went into professional gag writing. And five years later they were paying me $3,000 to $5,000 for the same material I had tried to give them for nothing."
He himself got an excellent bit of advice from one star for whom he wrote movie dialogue — Will Rogers.
"Don't offend anyone," the genial cowboy wrote on one of about 1001 postal cards he mailed Morey over the years. "I get by because no matter what I say about anyone I always wind up saying something good about him also."
At 37 Morey, one of the best ad libbers in the trade, figures he has coined himself some 10,000 gags.
“For a while I was doing 78 shows a week and had to throw 200 jokes a day,” recalled Amsterdam, who now has his own program on the Du Mont television network. “I believe I really know a million jokes. Some comedians keep a file. I don’t. It’s a waste of time.
“I think it’s easier to make up a new joke or remember one that fits the situation than it is to dig through a file.”
Morey likes ridiculous humor—but humor that also carries a thought behind it. His best gag?
“I like the one I wrote for a Bob Benchley movie short. Benchley picks up the phone and says:
“ ‘Hello, honey. Get the kids off the street—I’m driving home.’”
Morey has a theory that what defeats most comedians is a lack of confidence in their own jokes.
“You have to tell them like you think they’re funny yourself,” he said.
“Old material alone never really killed a comedian. No matter what joke you tell—it’s new to a large part of your audience.
Amsterdam’s run on Du Mont lasted 18 months. Perhaps the height of his stardom came in June 1950 when he was picked to be one of the alternating hosts of the late-night show Broadway Open House. The gig lasted until late November. There had already been talk of Jim Hawthorne from Los Angeles replacing him. The descent began. By February 1952, we find Amsterdam hosting a post-Today show on local morning TV in New York. He returned to late nights with a show on KTLA in May 1957, surviving less than nine months before returning to New York.

It wasn’t like Amsterdam was destitute. There was plenty of club work and a few films. And then came the phone call from Carl Reiner. The Human Joke Machine was back on TV again.


  1. I remember watching " The Joe Franklin Show " late one night on WWOR Television. Morey was one of his quests. The last ten minutes of the show, Joe and his other guests rolled off about 10 to 15 punch lines, then Morey told the jokes connected with the punchline. He never missed a beat.. It was a remarkable show. Joke machine is right.

  2. I have to confess that while I'm fine with Morey Amsterdam on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I never found him funny outside that show.