Doing stand-up in the 1950s was a tough gig. You had to play dive bars, strip joints, union meetings and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls. You had to put up with bad food, bad equipment and even worse attitudes. And you had to have skin made out of leather as well as an iron-clad ego to boot.
Born in New York, Jackie Vernon was a gentle man. He was low-key. His stock in trade was a self-deprecating humor with an underbelly of social satire and caustic wit. ”The King of Deadpan,” as he was known. A precursor to the comedy that Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg became famous doing. A round peg in a square hole. He knew what he liked to do: make people laugh…but man, did he have a tough time of it.
After kicking around the country for years, playing the aforementioned venues, he finally headed back to New York. Once there, he began to hang around other comics, people like Don Rickles, Jackie Gleason and Pat Cooper. He got an agent and went up whenever an opportunity arose. Soon, he began to get somewhat better jobs outside of New York and would travel frequently to work. While in a club in Winslow, Ontario, Steve Allen saw him and persuaded him to try out for his show Celebrity Talent Scouts. His career began to take off. And it was just in time, he said in later interviews, as he was about to quit show business for good.
He put out recordings. He got a gig opening for Judy Garland. He appeared a number of times on the Ed Sullivan Show, all throughout the 60s. He was a favored guest on The Merv Griffin Show. In the 70’s, he was always available to be on the dais for the latest Celebrity Roast, a fixture for television in those days. But he never really achieved the fame he deserved. Ironically, his biggest “successes” came from doing the voices for Christmas specials, most notably Frosty the Snowman and Frosty’s Winter Wonderland.
His was comedy that was ahead of its time, brilliant and occasionally caustic. There was a bit about turning a watermelon into a house pet. Another bit about traveling a great distance to see the Grand Canyon, only to find it closed. One of his best routines (shown in the video below) was called “The Vacation Slides,” which involved a “clicker” with which he gave a fake presentation of a slide show, making surreal comments the whole time. Audiences would roar.
His more famous quotes include: “When I was born my father spent three weeks trying to find a loophole in my birth certificate,” “I was so unpopular as a kid, Dale Carnegie once hit me in the mouth” and “I called Dial-a-Prayer and they hung up on me.”
You sensed he never really felt comfortable up there. He developed an affectation of carrying a cornet with him as a prop during his stand-up, like Henny Youngman did with his violin. Most times, he worked to the band or the club employees, who all thought he was a riot. Vernon was a comic’s comic before it became a way-too-common and overused phrase.
His is the story of many of the comics of the time…very, very funny but never really given his full due. After a while, he began playing Vegas, went the blue route, ended up opening for Rickles and many of his other cronies whose stars had risen faster and further than his.
Even his personal life was tumultuous. He was married a number of times, possibly eight or nine. Money was always an issue. And through it all, there was a sadness there…. it made sense that he identified very heavily with Charlie Chaplin. And when he finally died from a heart attack at age 63, the first lines from Chaplin’s most famous song resonated: Smile, Tho’ your heart is aching; Smile, Even tho’ it’s breaking…
(Larry Dorfman is the author of “The Snark Handbook” series. Follow him on Twitter @SnarkHandBook and on Facebook here. For more comedy news and exclusive interviews visit our AmericasComedy.com Facebook fan page and follow us on Twitter @AmericasComedy!)
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About the Author: Lawrence Dorfman is the bestselling author (Yeah, right) of The Snark Handbook; The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition; The Snark Handbook :Sex Edition; and the forthcoming Snark Handbook: Politics and Government Edition (really good at the whole naming thing, eh?). He honed his snark chops while working in publishing for more than 30 years. Like you really care.