View My Stats

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Callas Observation .

Mark Evanier has an interesting blog, that often has juicy tidbits of show biz information . . . which is true of this morsel:

When comedian Charlie Callas passed recently, obits argued whether he was 83 or 86. That's not a big deal but a slightly bigger one was made about something else.

Some articles said that Charlie's frequent appearances with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show came to an abrupt end in 1982 due to an incident that went something like this: Callas was on one night and he wasn't doing so well. Desperate for laughs, he started flailing about and getting frantic...and in the process, he gave Mr. Carson an unplanned shove on the air. Johnny, it was said, was so angry about it that he never had Callas back. This was even reported in the New York Times.

A couple of folks wrote to ask me about it and I was a bit baffled. I'd vaguely heard that story somewhere but not from any source that would cause me to believe it...and had it been true, I think I would have. Well, the Times has now decided it didn't happen and has run the following correction...

An earlier version misstated Mr. Callas's age. He was 83, not 86. It also misstated the title of a Mel Brooks movie. It is "History of the World — Part I" not Part II. It also incorrectly described his appearance on "The Tonight Show" on Sept. 21, 1982. While Mr. Callas was never on the show again, he did not have an on-air falling out with the host, Johnny Carson. He did not shove Mr. Carson, nor did Mr. Carson say that Mr. Callas would not be invited back.

I have the feeling that the 1982 date is a bit too early for the disappearance of Mr. Callas from Johnny's guest roster but that may be correct. It's true that Charlie went from being a frequent occupant of the chair on Johnny's right to not being asked back and that may have been for a simpler reason. Johnny would often decide that some guest had worn out his or her welcome and he'd tell his producers not to book that person anymore. If I sat here a while, I could probably think of dozens like Charles Grodin, Phyllis Newman, Jaye P. Morgan, Tony Randall, Orson Bean, Charles Nelson Reilly and others who were on with Johnny every few weeks for an extended period. At least two of those were even under exclusive deals — they would make X number of appearances with Carson over Y months, in exchange for not appearing on any other talk shows.

Then one day, Johnny would just decide the person had been overexposed or had run out of funny stories or something. There were some, I suspect, who overdid it with plugging their upcoming appearances. That was something Carson only tolerated up to a point. (Excessive self-promotion was said to be a big reason Joan Rivers fell out of favor as Johnny's guest host and would probably have lost that position had she not decamped for Fox when she did.) Anyway, there may have been no reason that Callas stopped appearing with Carson other than that Johnny thought audiences were tired of him...or maybe there was one.

In 1984, Jerry Lewis did one week of a talk show opposite Carson. It was an on-air tryout/pilot for a regular series which did not become a regular series. In fact, even though Jerry had on some pretty impressive guests including Francis Albert Sinatra, the show was widely mocked and derided, mainly for unmitigated fawning and ego. Remember The Sammy Maudlin Show, an SCTV burlesque of the old Sammy Davis Jr talk show? Well, Jerry's test shows were worse in the same way. It was all these celebrities sitting around and talking about the greatness of each other...and it wasn't just that they were all wonderful performers. It went way beyond that. They were all God's gift to humanity — people who had made the world such a better place with their singing and dancing and sitcoms.

Some folks in the field of entertainment can get like that at times. I remember one time when my pals Marv Wolfman and Len Wein and I were in Vegas and we went to see Don Rickles at the Sahara. We were quite surprised and disappointed with his act, which did not include insults or even much attempt at comedy. It was Don, singing and dancing and doing impressions...and in between, he'd talk about Frank Sinatra in terms that made Jesus Christ seem like an unimportant pisher. He even started scolding the audience because while we all presumably knew that Ol' Blue-Eyes was the greatest entertainer who ever lived, that wasn't nearly enough. We "who aren't in show business" couldn't possibly appreciate how sainthood should be conferred on this glorious human being who was so much more than a mere mortal. My friends and I were muttering to each other, "Did Frank Sinatra cure cancer and we missed it?" I was going to yell out, "What about Frank's mob ties?" but I thought it would be nice to not be beaten to death behind a casino.

That one-week Jerry Lewis Show was like that, and much of the fawning came from Jerry's announcer-sidekick, one Charles Callas. The desk spot at each show commenced with Charlie telling Jerry and the audience how brilliantly funny the monologue was, and then Jerry would talk about how brilliantly funny Charlie Callas always was. I usually agreed with that last part but I don't recall seeing Charlie actually be funny on that show. Still, we were told a lot that he was funny other places. Then Jerry would say how great his first guest was. Then the first guest would come out and tell Jerry how those were all great compliments, especially coming from someone as great as Jerry Lewis. Then Jerry would reiterate how great the guest was and just when he was running out of ways to express that, Charlie would jump in and talk about how great the guest was and Jerry would of course agree. Then the guest would just have to take the time and tell everyone how great Charlie Callas was and...

Well, you just wanted to reach into your set and slap all those people. Especially because they were all wearing tuxedos.

Among the many secrets of Johnny Carson's success was that he usually managed to rein in that kind of thing. Guests were told not to engage in too much of it and if they tried, he was usally adept at making a joke out of it or otherwise deflecting the genuflecting. He knew America wasn't eager to see a lot of overpaid and famous celebrities giving one another on-air tongue baths and he stopped booking people who veered in that direction.

And you know who another one of them was? Jerry Lewis. Johnny also was not wild about people who tried to do talk shows opposite his.

I have no hard info that Charlie lost Johnny as a champion because of his stint as Jerry's Ed McMahon but I don't think it helped Callas to have been part of that show...or the Mutual Adoration Society that Jerry's telethon became. I have heard from a pretty good source that Johnny told his own Ed McMahon that he found the telethon tacky and while Ed was free to participate, Johnny didn't want it mentioned a lot on The Tonight Show. And of course, he stopped appearing on Jerry's annual telecast nor did he have Jerry on much if at all to promote it.

Ultimately, Callas stopped appearing with Johnny because Johnny decided, rightly or wrongly, that Charlie wouldn't be good for the show. But it apparently wasn't due to a shove, at least not of the physical variety.

No comments:

Post a Comment