In Memoriam: Milton Berle

March 28, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ACTORS: And now, ladies and gentlemen, introducing today’s number one television star who is full of the devil every Tuesday night, Milton Berle!

SPENCER MICHELS: Comedian Milton Berle essentially popularized television in America, by luring millions of Americans to gather in front of their black and white TV sets. He once half-joked that he, “sold more sets than RCA.” In 1948, the small screen was in its infancy. Berle brought his slapstick humor– based in vaudeville– to the program “Texaco Star Theater.” Americans got so used to him they called in “Uncle Miltie,” a name he suggested for himself. He often began his show looking outrageous; sometimes dressed as a caveman or a woman — shocking, but he got away with it. Later on, he would come out and say, “Good evening, ladies and germs.”

MILTON BERLE: I want to tell you how happy I am this heavy gentleman is shining right in my eye. For a minute, I thought he was sitting upside down. ( Laughs ) But it is really… ( laughter ) …I’m only kidding, you haven’t got a bald head, you just shaved too high. ( Laughter ) I’d like to put my finger in your ear and go bowling. ( Laughter ) I’m very glad, ladies and gentlemen, to be part of this very wonderful show. I was only kidding. Is this your wife? Well, what are you going to do?

SPENCER MICHELS: Within a year of the show’s debut, television sales multiplied five times over. Movie theaters were forced to shut down on Tuesday nights, when 80% of TV watchers tuned in to the man who came to be known as “Mr. Television.”

MILTON BERLE: In the first season, 1948 and 1949, I think that was the highest rating ever that a show ever got, “Texaco Star Theater,” and that was an 83.7. But hold it. At that time, there were only 83 sets. (Laughter )

MILTON BERLE: Elvis Presley.

SPENCER MICHELS: Berle invited movie and music stars onto his show, but they were often the objects of his jokes.

MILTON BERLE: Somebody must have stomped on his head with those blue suede shoes.

SPENCER MICHELS: He was also adept at recovering quickly after he blew a joke.

MILTON BERLE: Why don’t you take along your other… I’m lousing up my own jokes now. Those are the ones I own, too.

SPENCER MICHELS: He was originally named Milton Berlinger, born in 1908, in Manhattan. Early on, he played in Charlie Chaplin movies, and brought his vaudeville stage act to Broadway. His TV success didn’t come until he was 40.

MILTON BERLE: Foul, foul.

SPENCER MICHELS: Following the heyday of his television career, Berle appeared in movies, like the 1960 hit “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” and Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose” in 1984. In fact, Berle’s career was so long, that Bob Hope once joked that it spanned “television, film, and the crusades.” At times, Berle would openly acknowledge stealing lines from his fellow comedians, comedians who, in turn, considered him a role model.

MILTON BERLE: It’s been a pleasure, may I say good night, and God bless you all. Thank you.

SPENCER MICHELS: Milton Berle died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles, a year after being diagnosed with colon cancer. He was 93 years old.

JIM LEHRER: For more, we’re joined by two veteran comedians: Sid Caesar and Alan King. Sid Caesar spent six decades in show business as a writer and performer. He’s best known for “Your Show of Shows,” the 1950s NBC variety program. Alan King credits Milton Berle for giving him his start in show business. He’s now starring in the Broadway show “Mr. Goldwin.”

Sid Caesar, what was special or extraordinary about Milton Berle’s way of humor?

SID CAESAR: Well, Milton was direct. Milton had a sense of humor. He was the highest paid nightclub performer in America. And what he did was to prove to the networks that you could do a new show every week with the same man — and because the networks were very, very iffy because, you know, they knew how to do a radio show. A radio show, you just stood there and you read. But now, this thing… now you have to have costumes. You’ve got to have scenery. You’ve got to have makeup. You’ve got to have grips. You’ve got to have prop makers. You’ve got to have this; you’ve got to have that. You’ve got to have makeup artists. It’s a whole different animal, so they didn’t know if they could do that every week, and Milton showed them that you could.

JIM LEHRER: So you think he deserves… sure. Do you think he deserves, then, the title “Mr. Television” for what he did?

SID CAESAR: Of course, because he was the one who showed the networks… that took away the skepticism from the networks that they… could a man do a show every week.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. What would you add to that, Alan King, in terms of what it meant for him to do what he did at the very beginning of television?

ALAN KING: Well, I think the word to describe Milton totally– the man, his talent– he was outrageous. And Milton was never a very successful radio comedian. He was a totally visual animal. And if you remember– or maybe you don’t– we had these little six-inch television sets, your receivers, you know? One with 40 neighbors watching, with grain, and used to put a magnifying glass on it to make it look bigger. The sound wasn’t even good. Milton came out with these crazy costumes. He blacked out his teeth. You didn’t have to pay attention. All you had to do was look. And Milton took vaudeville, which, if you look up “vaudeville” in the dictionary, right alongside of it, it says “Milton Berle” — and he made it just a tremendous party. And for that time, he was the right guy at the right time, in the right place.

JIM LEHRER: They said, Mr. King, that he was more of a physical comedian than he was intellectual or cerebral. You would agree with that?

ALAN KING: I think… well, look. He was a very intelligent man, but you’ve got to understand, he worked in show business from the age of five. He didn’t have time for Cambridge University, you know. He was too busy working. But he was. He was a totally physical… and the guy who we’re both sharing this evening with, Sid Caesar, was about as physical as you can get. I think there is a similarity. I think Sid may have taken it to another level, but the both of them were as good as anybody in the history of our business for being physically funny.

JIM LEHRER: At any rate, what does he leave behind? What will he be looked back on as the guy who did what? Fill in the “what?”

ALAN KING: Well, right when I started in show… Milton Berle was my first idol. When I was a kid, I went to see Milton at Lowe’s State, and I never laughed so much, and I said, “that’s who I want to be; that’s what I want to be.” And he was very giving. He liked young comedians. I was working a little club on 52nd Street called Leon and Eddie’s. I was 16 years old. No one knew how old I was. I was part doorman and part comic. Milton came in and saw me, and the first thing he did: He called me over to the table; he put a foot-long cigar in my mouth. He says, “kid, if you’re going to be funny, you better start smoking these.” And he treated me as an equal. He treated me as an equal. And in fact, he called… I used to be billed in the papers… I’d work these bust-out joints around the country, and the headline would be “Milton Berle’s Protege” in big type, and underneath, in very small, almost in italics, it would say, “Alan King.” He’d come to see me in the clubs. He’d watch my… he’d watch the moves I made. He taught me so much, and I’m sure that there are so many comedians that learned from this outrageous man.

JIM LEHRER: Sid Caesar, what was your relationship with Milton Berle?

SID CAESAR: My relationship was very, very friendly– I mean, even though we were in competition. But the main thing is that I respected him and he respected me. And we got together very well. I always admitted that he was the man… he was the man who started it all.

JIM LEHRER: It was often…

SID CAESAR: I took it on from there.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. It’s often been said about Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, that he was a funny man but he wasn’t a happy man. Does that ring true with you?

SID CAESAR: Not many comedians are happy. ( Laughs )

JIM LEHRER: Now why is that? Why is it? Why are you people not happy?

ALAN KING: I’m happy as a lark.

SID CAESAR: Well, I’m happy. I’m happy. I really am. I don’t have to do it anymore.

ALAN KING: I’m only… I’m only unhappy when the reviews are bad, but give me a good review and I’m a… I’m just screaming all over the place with joy.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, but Alan King, what about that point, though? Sid Caesar just said the same thing. There is this identification that in order to be a good comedian, you’ve got to be kind of less… it’s hard to be happy and be funny, no?

ALAN KING: No, Jim, I disagree. I did a show… I did 65 half- hours called “Inside the Comedy Mind.” I spoke to almost everybody involved in comedy, including Milton and Sid. What it was is I found that there was some deprivation in their lives, meaning… like, I came from a large family. I was the youngest; I couldn’t get attention. George Carlin was one parent who worked as a ticket-taker in a theater, so he was alone after school with television. Roseanne… yes, there’s something. I don’t think, when we say “abused,” I don’t mean we’re physically abused, but there was something. There was a need for us to get up there and make a fool out of yourself. You know, it’s, “look at me. I’m somebody. I’m funny. Love me. Laugh at me.” It’s a need. I don’t think it’s A…

JIM LEHRER: I was just going to ask Sid Caesar if that rings true to him, what Alan King…

SID CAESAR: In a way, it does, because… in a way, it does, because most of the comedians are the last child. They’re the last child, and they have to fight for attention. And also, when you’re in school, you know, instead of fighting, you’d make a joke out of it. I’d rather make a joke out of it than fight anytime. And you use humor to settle things down.

ALAN KING: Jim, it was a weapon for most of us. You know, although I had 26 fights until I lost my last one, I knew there has to be a better way. And humor has always been a weapon. You want to get even on somebody? You want to attack somebody? Make fun of them. And the thing about Milton: It was that Milton made fun of himself. You know, Milton wasn’t, let’s say, like Don Rickles, who did insults to different people, which is very funny. Milton was always the butt of his own joke. You know, Jim, that Milton was the greatest heckler, and also the greatest guy who could answer a heckler. Sid Caesar and I were at a funeral, and I was delivering a eulogy, and I was getting a little too serious, which I should have been, and Milton started heckling me at the gravesite. He thought I should have been funnier, and he was right. Milton was… there was no bounds. There were no boundaries. Milton just was outrageous and funny, and it didn’t matter what he had to do to make you laugh– that’s what he did. That was his life, not only his living.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, that’s where we’re going to leave it tonight. Thank you both very much.