MILTON BERLE: 1908-2002

by Bill Monson

I have an admission to make--I didn't like Milton Berle's comedy. It was too ''lappy'' for me.

What's ''lappy?''

Berle himself defined it as gags which had to be laid in the audience's lap. Berle's low comedy - the pratfall, the pie in the face, the seltzer squirt, blacked-out teeth, walking on his ankles, dressing in women's clothes--made me wince more than laugh.

''Caveman comedy,'' Larry Gelbart, creator of M*A*S*H, called it.

Still, when the buck-toothed comedian died March 27th at the age of 93, I had to acknowledge that another of the great comedy TV giants was gone. Jack Benny, Burns and Allen -- all gone now. Bob Hope and Sid Caesar are failing and will soon follow.

No matter what you think of his style, Berle helped ''make'' television. When he went on NBC's Texaco Star Theater in 1948, there were fewer than 500,000 sets in use in the U.S. By 1954, more than 26 million homes had television. In 1950-51, the first year of modern Nielsen ratings, his show racked up an incredible 61.6 rating.

Berle had a long and varied career. Born in 1908, he entered show business at age 5. He played kids parts in silent movies like The Perils Of Pauline, The Mark Of Zorro, and Tillie's Punctured Romance. He also modeled children's clothing before moving on to vaudeville where he became a comedy emcee while he was still a teenager. As vaudeville died, he moved to nightclubs where he had great success. His best-known trait was stealing other comedians' jokes -- a quality that did not endear him to his peers but delighted audiences.

Eventually, he followed other vaudevillians like Frank Fay, Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Burns and Allen into radio. However, he was a flop there. (So was Frank Fay, Berle's model as an emcee.)

In Tune In Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia Of Old-Time Radio 1925-1976, author John Dunning says Berle was ''the most notable failure of the airwaves.'' Between 1939 and 1948, Berle tried radio SIX times -- and bombed every time!

So, although Berle was the host of the first television Texaco Star Theater on June 8, 1948, he was only one of seven comedians competing across the summer to become the regular host in the Fall. The format was vaudeville, and Berle won in a walk -- on his ankles yet!

For four seasons, he became a national institution. NBC gave him a 50-year contract. A Broadway show was based on him -- Top Banana (1951) -- and Rod Serling wrote an Emmy winning drama, The Comedian, which savaged Berle in Playhouse 90's first season. Berle himself even did a movie based loosely on his career (Always Leave Them Laughing, 1949). His face was on the cover of nearly every leading magazine. He became ''Uncle Miltie,'' ''Mr. Tuesday Night,'' ''Mr. Television.''

But his decline was swift.

After his blockbuster 61.6-rated 1950-51 season, he dropped to 52.0 behind Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts the following year; to fifth place the next two seasons; and was out of the top rankings forever by 1956. NBC tried other formats for him; none worked. Eventually, the network was reduced to using him on a bowling show to get any use from his long-term contract, then quietly bought him out.

Critics have often attributed Berle's fall to his crude comedy -- but actually, his shows became more sophisticated as the years went by. What happened was that television-watching changed. When Berle began, most of the country's TV sets were in taverns and hotel lobbies. Those that weren't were in homes where whole neighborhoods might gather to watch

On Blaine Avenue, as I remember, there were only two TV sets in 1949. As many as six families would gather at each of them to watch Berle. Everyone would bring snacks and drinks, and Berle's broad comedy worked great for a party atmosphere of two dozen people aged 6 to 60. (The other big shows were wrestling and Gillette's Friday night boxing, which tended to become stag affairs.)

As more families bought sets, they stayed home to watch -- and TV-viewing became more and more private, less party-oriented with fewer people to prompt laughter. (That's why most comedies on TV now use live audiences and/or laugh tracks.) Thus, when the Monson family got its own set, I had a vote -- and if Dad wasn't home, Mom, Sis and I would often skip Berle for other things -- like Life Is Worth Living with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen! (Others must have, too, because it became the most widely-watched religious series in TV history.)

Once Bob Hope and Jack Benny and other radio giants brought their comedy to television, Berle's days as a headliner were numbered. Their comedy worked better for the family-sized audience. The rise of ABC and the glut of westerns it brought in the late 50s finished off Berle as a TV regular. Still, he continued to be a presence into the late 90s -- as guest star, dramatic actor, and occasional emcee.

And lest we too easily forget, on Tuesday nights from 1948 to 1952, Milton Berle wasn't just a TV star; he was a supernova!

Uploaded to The Zephyr website April 3, 2002

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