Sometimes you just have to ask.
Our headliner that week, Steve Bluestein, had just delivered one of the most brilliant and daring ad libs ever witnessed on our Honolulu Comedy Club stage, and I had to know. Even from Steve, whose entire act was bantering with the audience, well, this one was over the top.
Bluestein (pronounced “stine,” not “steen,” as I was once and only once corrected) is a gem. He talks to the audience his entire time on stage in an endearing love-hate Rickles-lite kind of way, yet many of the things you hear from show to show are the same. He knows what questions to ask, where to lead the discussion, and has responses for seemingly every type of situation. Us other comics, we just sit back and marvel. The sheer control, the mastery. Off the charts.
But this one evening Bluestein went beyond.
Backstage after the show when our home was at the Top of the Ilikai, long before the Sarentos renovation, I asked about that particular interchange in his set. “Steve, I gotta know. Was that an ad lib?”
Of course when I say “backstage” I really mean “the kitchen.” But using terms like Green Room or Backstage sounds more impressive than Next To The Stainless Steel Commercial Dishwasher.
Steve thought about it for a moment. “Yes and no,” he replied.
I’d better tell you about the ad lib. He asked a question to a random older guy sitting several rows back. He looked like he was in his 70’s. Unexpectedly, the man’s response came with a thick German accent. Steve, whose last name identifies his Jewish heritage, was set to take full advantage. “Oh, a German! And what were YOU doing [looking at his watch] 50 years ago?”
Not waiting for an answer Steve continued, now speaking with his own German accent, “Vot, me? I vus a ski instructor! I had no idea anything vus happening. All I know is that ven I came back a few years later, the bagel shop at the corner? It vus gone.”
Only a Jewish comic can even think of getting away with a line like that, and even so, with great care and precision. Black comics can use the n word; white comics can’t. Only Jewish comics can do Jewish jokes. And, I might add, only Jewish club owners can write about Jewish comics doing Jewish jokes, especially on topics which are taboo to the extreme like this was. I digress.
The laughter was uproarious. There was no uneasiness, no “ooooooh’s.” It was a moment I’ll never forget. But was it an ad lib?
“What do you mean, yes and no?” I asked for clarification.
Steve explained, “Well, I’ve used that line before. A few years ago I had the same situation. There was an older German guy in the audience and I used line then. But back then it was an ad lib.”
Hmmmm… A repeated ad lib. That might be a good question for my Zen Master. Is “repeated ad lib” an oxymoron? If you use an ad lib a second time, is it still an ad lib?
I believe the answer is yes. Most definitely. Once an ad lib, always an ad lib. I’m glad I asked.
Naïve me didn’t realize the power a comedy club owner wields until the day I walked into the post office in Hawaii Kai.
Charlotte and I had just moved from Hawaii Kai to Kaneohe and were having a little trouble with our mail forwarding. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I wrote a note to the postmaster, stuck it in a Honolulu Comedy Club business envelope, and wrote the word “Postmaster” on it. My plan was the next time I drove by the post office in Hawaii Kai I would drop it off. Simple enough.
So I thought.
Standing in line. My turn. I walked up to the counter and handed the girl the envelope. “Please give this to the postmaster.” And the girl said…
“I can’t do that without a stamp.”
“I’m sorry?” I responded, “Not sure I follow.”
She said, “I can’t give this to him without a stamp.”
Stunned, I replied, “I’m not mailing it. I’m dropping it off. I did the driving.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” she persisted.
After pondering my options for a moment, I slowed my voice down and said, “I would like to see the postmaster. Can you please get him for me?”
She disappeared. When she returned, I’ll be a horned toad, she took my letter – without the stamp.
The following day I got a call from the postmaster letting me know he had resolved the mail forwarding problem. Very nice man, obviously enjoyed his job, enjoyed helping people. Before hanging up… should I, shouldn’t I… Eh, what the heck. Before hanging up I decided to tell him the story.
“By the way, did your girl at the counter tell you what I had to go through to get my note into your hands?”
She hadn’t. So I took the liberty of laying out the sequence of events. When I finished my story I could sense a range of emotions flying through the phone. The good postmaster’s response was a combination of shock, embarrassment, humor, and fear. It was the fear that took me by surprise.
Shock in that his girl wasn’t following policy, but rather trying to establish a new postal policy on the fly. Embarrassment by the sheer stupidity of it. Humor in that he had already been considering writing a book about all of the insane things he had seen in his postal career and this one was near the top of the list. But fear?
The kindly postmaster knew I owned the comedy club in Waikiki due to my letterhead, and he assumed I had ultimate power over the stage and microphone, as well as connections with media. He knew what comedians could do with stories like these. And he feared.
I, on the other hand, had no clue I had any of these powers. But I guess… maybe…
We had a good laugh. I’m pretty certain he’s retired by now so it’s probably safe to tell the story. Clearly not his fault… but girl, if you’re reading this… we’re watching you.
So there Charlie and I were, sitting in the TV studio waiting for the cameras to start rolling, when in walks Jay Leno. Please understand, this was both good news and bad news. Good news for me, bad news for Charlie.
We had just opened our Waikiki comedy club in February. It was now June. We were still trying to get the word out, which was kind of OCD of us considering that every show in March, April and most of May were sellouts. But still, it’s never enough when you’re not sleeping well at night.
One of our comics in town that week was Charlie Laborte. Not only was Charlie of Asian descent, a definite plus for our local market, but he also used to live in Hawaii. Double bonus. KGMB TV thought so, too. They wanted to interview Charlie on their 5pm news program with Leslie Wilcox that Friday afternoon. I played the role of chauffeur. First show that night was at 8pm. Plenty of time.
In walks Jay Leno.
Jay was in concert that night at the Waikiki Shell. He had just flown in. I wanted to open for his concert to do a plug for our club figuring the people who would attend his concert were our crowd, but the promoter said no; that Jay didn’t need an opening act. That’s cool, no big deal.
Charlie and I chatted with Jay for a while. Going through Charlie’s mind of course was, “How in the heck am I going to be funny on a TV interview when coming up after me will be JAY LENO!” And going through my mind was, “Man, I’d love to open for his concert at the Shell tonight.”
For me it all turned out to be quite simple. I told him what I wanted to do and why. He picked up the phone, called the promoter and said, “Eddie Sax is opening for me tonight.” Done.
No, not done. Panic.
The concert starts in 2 hours, I’m in town, my juggling equipment is in Hawaii Kai and it’s rush hour. I called Charlotte who was fortunately still at home but with one foot out the door. “Emergency!” I yelled into the phone.
“Grab my juggling suitcase and meet me at the Waikiki Shell as fast as you can possibly get there.”
“I’m opening for Jay Leno.”
It took her forever to get there. Well, not really, but that’s how it seemed on the clock churning in my stomach. I grabbed the suitcase out of the car, she sped off to the Ilikai to manage the club – now with one less worker, me – and I had about 15 minutes to warm up and get my head together before my introduction.
The show went well. I only did 10 minutes figuring that was enough to get my point across. I plugged the club. Jay took the stage and before diving into his show, also plugged the club. Truly, one of the nicest guys in showbiz.
As much as I would have loved to bask in the glory of the moment for the next 90 minutes watching Jay’s show, then work the crowd on their way out… no. There were more important tasks at hand. Mr. Ten Minutes Of Fame jumped into a taxi, sped across Waikiki to the Ilikai to help show our comedy club customers to their seats. People who didn’t know and worse, didn’t care that only 20 minutes earlier their seater was on stage at the Waikiki Shell…
And I didn’t care either. It’s all in a day’s work.
Back to Jay… Nice guys don’t often finish on the top of the heap. Jay Leno is one notable exception. Nice and hard working. Perhaps a little too hard working, as evidenced in his TV interview with Leslie. She began a question with, “When you performed here last year…” and Jay interrupted saying, “I wasn’t here last year.”
Leslie: “Yes you were.
Jay: No, I wasn’t.
Leslie, looking at her notes: “You were at the Sheraton Waikiki last August.”
Jay: “No, I wasn’t.”
Leslie: “Well, let’s move on…”
I understand the concept of confusing Omaha with Kansas City, but not remembering you were in Honolulu 10 months earlier? Time to slow down, Jay.
As for Charlie, he did just fine. We sold out the weekend.
Charlotte and I picked up the paper the next day to read Wayne Harada’s concert review which included a line at the bottom, “Juggler Eddie Sax from the Honolulu Comedy Club was an unannounced opening act and did a fine job.”
I impressed Wayne Harada. Maybe now I can sleep better at night.
I was handed a message one day as I walked into the comedy club in Waikiki. Some guy named Bill Dana called. It was a Hawaii number, 808-248-Something.
248? Never heard of 248. I looked it up. Maui. Hana, Maui. Someone’s calling me from Hana? Hana, the hotbed of Hawaii evening entertainment. How mysterious. Enthusiastically, I dial soon enough am speaking with “some guy named Bill Dana.”
Only I quickly discovered that Bill Dana is anything but “some guy.” When he reminded me that he was better known for one of his comedic characters, “Jose Jiménez,” a chill went up my spine.
For those of you under the age of 50, let me put this into context. Bill Dana and his alter ego Jose Jiménez are legend. The Ed Sullivan Show. The Bill Dana Show on NBC, 1963-1965 (these were the days before 970 channels from which to choose).
Bill was even better known for his writing. He wrote stand-up for comedian Don Adams, including his famous “Would you believe” routine which went on to icon status in the TV program Get Smart, and wrote the 1980 Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb. He played Sophia’s brother Angelo on The Golden Girls. His most famous work, however, was the script he penned for the best known episode of the hit sitcom All in the Family, entitled “Sammy’s Visit,” which arranged an encounter between Sammy Davis Jr. and Archie Bunker. (See above clip, 17:30 mark: “Sammy, your being colored, I know you had no choice in that. But whatever made you turn Jew?”)
I’m on the phone with Jose Jiménez. I can’t believe I’m on the phone with Jose Jiménez!
Bill was interested in doing some sort of show in Honolulu and was recommended to me by a few mutual friends in Los Angeles. The show never panned out but the memory of taking a call from Bill Dana… Jose Jiménez – that was forever.
I drove by the Maui Prince Hotel last week on my way to Big Beach with my girls. No, not Little Beach. Big Beach. Yes, we kept our clothes on. But I was reminded of our very first Hawaii-produced comedy show. Little known fact, our first show took place at the Maui Prince. Three weeks later we opened the Honolulu Comedy Club in Waikiki.
Not only did I remember the first show, but I remember the first comedy bit our headliner did opening night. Kevin Hughes, Comedy Sex Therapist. Above is a short clip from his show for your enjoyment. There’s no recording of Kevin’s Maui Prince show, but here’s exactly how it went down:
“I flew in yesterday and as I was renting my car I asked the lady behind the counter for directions to the Maui Prince. I wanted street names, highway numbers, north-south-east-west. But no, here’s exactly what she told me:
Go out of the airport. Turn left.
Go to the center of the island. Turn left.
Go to the ocean. Turn left.
Drive until you think you’re completely lost.
Then go another two miles. It will be on your right.”
That was January 1988, the beginning of a long relationship with comedy in Hawaii and Kevin Hughes heaping on the laughs while helping people’s marriages. And he’ll be doing it again the weekend just following Thanksgiving.
The Maui Prince is now called the Makena Beach & Golf Resort. Driving directions are the same.