Rich Little, Meet Frank Dell
At the White House Correspondents' Dinner last night, Rich Little astonishingly tried to take his Vegas-schtick to the elite villagers in Washington DC. He may even have committed career suicide last night, though it appears the coprorate media won't be denouncing him, just ignoring him. I felt bad for Little as I watched part of his routine (I turned it off in sadness), because Little really was a great talent way back in the 1960s and 1970s.
I don't know what possessed Little to take the gig. He didn't need it, and now...he may not get booked in Vegas as much as before.
This was, however, a case where life imitiated art. Back in the late 1950s, Lenny Bruce did this amazing comedy routine about a Vegas lounge comic named Frank Dell ("Dean of mimicry and fun antics!" is his motto), who convinces his agent to book him at the London Palladium theater--and it ends up with the comic "bombing" so bad, he starts to verbally attack the audience, which causes a riot.
The routine contains one of my favorite metaphors:
"The audience stared at him like an oil painting..."
Bruce's routine was like a more sharply drawn Jean Shepherd story, where you laugh at the situation more than any one line. But in the story of Frank Dell, you become acutely aware of the dark side of show business--and a certain strata of people in show business. Bruce skewers the whole Friars Club scene (where Rich Little often appeared in his prime), where the comics often make grotestquely scatalogical references, but think they make up for it by "later giving milk to children." (Shades of Imus...)
The older generation of Friars Club comics, such as Bob Hope and George Jessel, gruffly dismissed Lenny Bruce--and Frank Dell was his appropriate revenge.
This Rich Little meets Frank Dell story gets even weirder after reading this media account:
"Unlike previous comedians at the dinner, he had no competition from Bush, who at times has shown a deft comedic touch himself in his annual monologue.
"Bush said it was important for people in Washington 'to learn to laugh' and that the ability for a nation to poke fun at its leaders is good for democracy.
"'I was looking forward to doing a little poking myself but in light of this tragedy at Virginia Tech I decided not to be funny,' he said.
"He noted that many journalists in the room have had a tough week, reporting from Virginia Tech and said 'this dinner comes at a good time.'
"With that, he introduced Little for the laughs."
In the Lenny Bruce story, which I wish I could just reproduce orally, Bruce says (really, this is just from memory now):
"(Singer) Georgie Gibbs has been on now for two hours. She's done her Sophie Tucker tribute (and other famous singers' songs)...And then, after she's done murdering the audience, leaves 'em limp, she comes back and does this for an encore:
"'Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. You've been so kind. I was wondering, though, if we could take a moment...to remember the poor boys went to (the battle of) Dunkirk, but never came back. Boys who will never again see the brights of Piccadilly. Boys who are gone. And why are the boys gone? The boys are dead'.
"(Yells) Christ, you couldn't follow that except with a leper on the Art Baker show! People are sobbing in the aisles, grabbing for their digitalis. Terrible!
"And then the emcee comes out and says--and he's sobbing!--'Ladies and gentlemen, (snif, sigh), it's time to laugh now. Come now, time to laugh. Here he is, from America, Frank Dell, Dean of Mimicry and Fun Antics."
The point of course is that no comic wants to follow someone talking about a tragedy or death--and that is what the president did to Rich Little, who was already going in front of the wrong audience. The Dinner planner were better off with Jeff Foxworthy than they were with Rich Little with that crowd.
Anyway, the White House Correspondents got what they deserved, especially after their attacks on Stephen Colbert from last year. Again, don't expect much discussion about Rich Little, which tells us the corporate media can avoid talking about something if they want to do so. Think about that with the wall-to-wall coverage about Anna Nicole Smith or this latest tragedy at Virginia Tech this past week.