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Cliff Norton discusses his career

BROADCAST: 1960 | DURATION: 00:29:01


When Cliff Norton performed his first live gig, he tried out his comedy on the band. Norton credits having good performances because of being given good material, funny material. Norton further explained that being an entertainer, one always has to be writing in order to maintain their creative edge.


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Studs Terkel Our guest this morning is a comedian. It's not too difficult to describe the artistry of Cliff Norton. It's a name that's familiar to a great many Chicagoans in the days when the city was experimental in TV. The era was glorified a bit too much, perhaps, the time of "Garroway at Large", of "Kukla, Fran and Ollie", of "Studs' Place", of "Hawkins Falls", and perhaps has been romanticized much too much. Nonetheless, it was an exciting period because the medium was new and at that time the artists themselves were in control of the programs, and thus it was that Cliff Norton came to the attention of a great many viewers, and Cliff our guest this morning. You recall the time very well,

Cliff Norton I certainly do, Studs. I recall them nostalgically and I recall them, I hope, realistically and I agree with you. I've said this many times as the years pass, for example, your war memoirs. Unless you really went through hell, you remember the laughs, you remember the kooky things, the time when you got drunk with the guys wherever it was. You don't remember so much that the bullets, the heartaches, the tears that you shed for others, and, of course, perhaps now I'm overdramatizing. But you're right.

Studs Terkel That period was romanticized too much. I do believe that very much.

Cliff Norton People always say to me, "Why can't you bring back those old days?" Well, you never do.

Studs Terkel You can't go home again.

Cliff Norton No.

Studs Terkel You can't

Cliff Norton You can't bring back--

Studs Terkel The technique has

Cliff Norton Those old days. You can't bring a person in the studio, you can't bring a band into a studio. You can't wheel a prop in the studio for the kind of money they were spending in those days. And it's too bad you have to be that realistic. But it boils down to economics won't allow it.

Studs Terkel And yet one thing is eternal in a way--humor is eternal, and the various approaches to humor. Yours is special. How would you describe? I know you don't care to analyze what you do.

Cliff Norton No. Oh, no. I wouldn't care to analyze it and we don't have to analyze it because I've never tried to examine my own type of humor. And I'm flattered that you would call it that, because I never looked at it in depth. I never felt that it was necessary to go into the analytical aspect of it. I'm not a method comic. I have a method, of course, we all have our methods, but in the somewhat corrupted meaning that this word has taken on, the method. I used to see situations, I used to see certain people, who presented to me an amusing picture, a commentary on life, a commentary on some of the things that we recognize.

Studs Terkel So out of observation, out of your own sense of observation you recorded it, even unconsciously at times, you recorded.

Cliff Norton Oh, yes. And that was all. And I didn't--I don't know if, I don't know, Studs, now I may have stopped to figure out why a thing was funny. I suppose I did, but it had to strike me funny. And then I was willing to take my chance that it would strike the audience funny. For example, it always amused me to hear people with malaprops. You know, mispronounce a word or use a word improperly, put it in the, in a completely different context.

Studs Terkel But very seriously with some pomposity. I remember you were once, if I recall this, wasn't there once you were at a boys club or something, you were being honored that night. This figure.

Cliff Norton Yes. A charity appeal.

Studs Terkel Yeah, how to, how did you--

Cliff Norton That was for the curly-headed old moppets.

Studs Terkel That's it. Now, what was the matter? Would you mind?

Cliff Norton Well, he was a guy who, you know, wasn't too articulate but had this speech to make, and he had to make it. And it was a job that he was given to do, and he was appealing for, to the generosity of his audience, wanted them to make generous contributions to this favorite charity of his. Now, I don't think I ever saw a guy do this, really. But the incongruity, and I think here is one of the real keystones of humor, one of the real true bases, is incongruity. Here was this guy, who, you know, can hardly make himself, he should be understood. And he's appealing to the, you know, to the intellect and to the softer parts of your body. You should donate as much as you can possibly can. Now, you know, this is not a joke. I don't think I've told many jokes.

Studs Terkel No, it isn't the

Cliff Norton It's not a joke.

Studs Terkel Because it's--

Cliff Norton The situation. The character.

Studs Terkel The basis is

Cliff Norton Yes. Because you know a guy like that, could you. You know a guy like that. Well, I think the real practitioner of this particular type of humor, the master of them all, at least the modern-day master, is Sid Caesar. There wasn't anybody that he ever portrayed that you didn't see or hear someplace.

Studs Terkel You worked with Caesar for a while, too,

Cliff Norton Yes, we did quite a few shows together. I have a tremendous regard for him. Of course, we all refer to him as "the Master." Things got away from Sid a little bit.

Studs Terkel But what of the matter of his work or your work was the element of improvisation in it, too? Some time. We know that you have something set. But

Cliff Norton I used to drive Bill Hobin out of his mind.

Studs Terkel He was the director of "Garroway at Large".

Cliff Norton Because I never rehearsed the same way twice. Because I was always trying something, and there was only one way to find out if a little bit of business or a line would stand up, and that was to do it or say it, and try it out. I didn't have a live audience to go by, my live audience, my break-in was the band when they used to come in for the dress rehearsal. And that's when I used to do a full-out performance. And I had one eye on the camera to make sure that my face was where it should be, and the other eye on the band watching the faces of the guys.

Studs Terkel I remember the fellows in the band, Joe Gallicchio's band. They were the, your first audience.

Cliff Norton They were my audience because we never had a studio audience at "Garroway at Large" until we went to New York. But that's, that was a different show altogether, you know, it wasn't about--

Studs Terkel But improvisation at least in the creating of your character.

Cliff Norton Well, this was always my attempt, because if you stop creating, if you stop for a minute creating, then you are no longer a creative person. This may sound like a stupid statement, but what I am saying is, if you want to be a mechanic, fine, you know, get out there and stand the same way every night and wear the same expression at the very same precise second in the same spot, and if you don't get the laugh you fall on your face, and this to me is not a creative performer whether you're a comic, whether you're a heavy melodrama type of a dramatic actor, whether a musician, anything. You've got to be thinking, you got to

Studs Terkel Because you aren't the same man today you were tomorrow. Life itself changes, thus, too, your humor.

Cliff Norton And the people who watch you. The people who are there change from night to night. And I think you have to

Studs Terkel This occurs to me as you talk now, Cliff, I think of the horror, too, the horror of the cut-and-dried mechanic, but did you see "The Entertainer", the movie with Olivier?

Cliff Norton Yes, yes, well, I saw the play.

Studs Terkel So I'm thinking of this figure, Archie Rice.

Cliff Norton Yes, that's a typical example.

Studs Terkel The tragedy of the mechanical man.

Cliff Norton Right. Right. The Willy Loman of show business.

Studs Terkel The Willy Loman, that's true.

Cliff Norton Yeah.

Studs Terkel The Willy Loman of show business. That's a phrase.

Cliff Norton And once that, once they see that that pattern is going to change, or there's a little bit of a curve in the road that was never there before, they had to detour around a new modern structure. Look out. They fall to pieces.

Studs Terkel They fall off. Completely lost.

Cliff Norton Fall to pieces.

Studs Terkel Again, because the lack of living, the lack of growing.

Cliff Norton Now, I'm not suggesting, Studs, that there are a lot of this stilted-type performer around, there may be, but we don't hear from, we don't hear of them, nor do we hear much from them, because the demands of our business today just don't allow for that kind of a performer. There are some fakers. There are a lot of fakers, and they're beautiful to watch, because what they lack in what we consider the essential talents--

Studs Terkel And creativity they make up--

Cliff Norton They make up for in guts, in salesmanship--

Studs Terkel In efficiency in what they do.

Cliff Norton And yes. And they're beautiful to watch. And I won't name any, but there are many, and they themselves have their own special important place in show business.

Studs Terkel What of some of these, back to your own figures, your own creatures, this man making the collection speech, the charity speech. We think, too, of your used car dealer.

Cliff Norton This was the same guy. He was the same guy. He wasn't Jim Moran. You know, when we were here, I don't know what Jim's place is in television today, and I'm sure I can mention names. With you, I'm sure I can mention names like this. But Jim used to do his own commercials. So did several of the other guys.

Studs Terkel I think this was a national matter. I think the car dealers--

Cliff Norton I found out it wasn't.

Studs Terkel It wasn't, you say?

Cliff Norton After we did the bit I found out that in New York they didn't know that I had actually used some real people. Harriet Van Horne reviewed the thing. She liked the bit, but she said, "Cliff Norton gave his impression of what it would be like if."

Studs Terkel I wasn't aware of that.

Cliff Norton There was never anything like that in New York, but we used to have it all day long in the late '40s.

Studs Terkel That the entrepreneur himself is the salesman.

Cliff Norton Yeah. Well.

Studs Terkel On TV. This isn't so.

Cliff Norton But this wasn't Jim, and you--but Jim, I knew the guy, and he's a nice guy. Jim wanted it to be him. He was flattered. And this was flattering to me.

Studs Terkel Even though it was a biting satire, the

Cliff Norton fact-- Yeah.

Studs Terkel That he was satired.

Cliff Norton Yeah. And he liked it.

Studs Terkel It

Cliff Norton Well, it was flattery. I ran into good old Herbie Mintz last night at this gala, and now Herb has been down in Florida I understand for several years. I used to have a little five-minute show here called "The Public Life of Cliff Norton" on one of the TV stations, the one, the same one that Herbie was on. I went down the line and I did my take-off on all of the NBC personalities then: Tom Duggan, Herbie Mintz, Clint Youle, couple of the newscasters, and I did a thing on Herbie. And I called myself Pepper Mintz, and I did that wild thing that he used to do, "Hello there, comfortable?" you know, fell off the piano stool, and just tore him to pieces, and he loves me today. Last night, when I saw him, you know, the first thing he said was, "Oh, I'll never forget how you."

Studs Terkel You immortalized them.

Cliff Norton He was flattered. He was flattered. Clint Youle ran into the studio to watch me do him. Tom Duggan was going to sue me. And there's the difference.

Studs Terkel What of your visual humor, there was a matter of the wordless humor in which you engage so well. Here again.

Cliff Norton I think the same delineation, Studs. Again, the articulation in the face and in the hands and in the eyes rather than in the spoken word. The dentist, of course, was a combination of both. Perhaps a more classically, the opera prompter, which was complete mime. In which there were three minutes of excerpts from the quartet from "Rigoletto", and I was the prompter in the box.

Studs Terkel Did you ever see a prompter, or did you do this out of your imagination?

Cliff Norton This was Charlie Andrews.

Studs Terkel Charlie

Cliff Norton This was Charlie's idea. Most of the really great routines that I did, from the--when I say great, I don't mean my performance of them, I mean the material I was given to do were actually creations of Charlie, the subjective camera things which was the first time they were ever done. The dentist. Where you sitting at home was the patient. You were the patient. Pardon me, I'm getting into one of my characters. The poker game, where I was going to take you for all you had and you beat me, you took me but good, you know. The barber. Where I nicked your face unmercifully and then about 15 minutes afterward--and then during the show Dave walked by a camera that had a dozen Band-Aids on it. You know, this kind of bit. This was Charlie's mind.

Studs Terkel Charlie had, always did have this fey approach

Cliff Norton Oh, a beautiful approach, and it was a very happy marriage Charlie and I had, we were thrown together purely by accident. He didn't choose me. I didn't pick him. We never knew each other before the show started. Oh, just to nod and say hello.

Studs Terkel Of course, this happened at a time--Again, this happened at a certain moment in the history of this new, at the time raw medium when the blue chips were not on the table.

Cliff Norton Indeed.

Studs Terkel And, so, people met who had their own imaginations and out of it came this fusion that was at that moment exciting.

Cliff Norton People say, why couldn't, you know, why can't this, what's the difference, how come when you people came to New York, and you had basically the same people doing the show: Dave, Jack Haskell, the lady de Barstow, who was our choreographer here and there, Rita Duray costumes, Jan Scott on sets, Bob Banner directing, and Bob was one of our directors, you know, and we had Skitch Henderson, who certainly is, well, can I use this rather trite phrase, "our kind of people"? You know, he dug us and we certainly dug him, and his music is great. And all these people. Charlie Andrews. And what we came out with was a hacked-up piece of nothing. I used to call the show "The American Album of Unfamiliar Music". Now, we had a sponsor, a national, nationally known guy, a big manufacturer. Somebody once said, "The United States is almost as big as his parent."

Studs Terkel His company. Well, it came out as a hack piece because the formula came into being was a formula piece, work out of a machine, and thus it had to be, they had to play safe.

Cliff Norton Yes, that's it. That's it.

Studs Terkel So it

Cliff Norton These are the same people that--

Studs Terkel Doesn't this apply to humor, doesn't it apply to everything when you play it safe? Creativity flies through the window.

Cliff Norton Out the window. Yes.

Studs Terkel What have you and England--I know you spent some time in England. What was the English reaction to your brand of humor?

Cliff Norton Well, I'm happy and grateful to say that I had to make very few changes. The only things that I was careful about were using the vernacular so that I would not be understood. I did many of the routines that I had done here and I didn't have to alter them to any extent. I did the opera prompter. The orchestra conductor, the "Magic Made Easy", the flea circus, and several others just like I did them here. Stayed away from local jokes, naturally, didn't talk about Denver, Colorado or Detroit, or what-have-you.

Studs Terkel But

Cliff Norton The audience reaction was just the same. And I'll tell you something, Studsy, about having worked there. There were a lot of things that I've been wanting to do here for many years because I wasn't the big star who had his own show and who could say, "I'm going to do this." They had to sit there in the files in the back of my mind, in the back of the drawer, underneath an audition tape, you know, and not used and not exploited. And yet things that I felt confident were good and would be accepted. And when I was signed to do this series, this was going to be my series, I was going to be starring in it, I pulled all that stuff out and I did it.

Studs Terkel What, for instance? Is there one that comes to your mind?

Cliff Norton Yes. I always wanted to do a little more singing than I had done, because I don't suppose that a lot of the television viewers know that a good part of my work has been in the musical comedy field, not on Broadway, but I've done, you know, in summer theaters I go out every year. I

Studs Terkel You do Nathan Detroit.

Cliff Norton Nathan Detroit. I've done Gabby in "Girl Crazy". I've done the Devil in "Damn Yankees"--pardon me, "Darn Yankees", and I've done Billis in "South Pacific" and all of these roles require some singing and some moving around, and I want to do a little more singing, and I had some ideas. For example, I wanted to do "Me and My Shadow". Now, this is a good old standard, but I had an idea. I knew how I wanted to do this. But when you're called to do a shot with Perry Como or go on with Paar or some of these things, you know, you don't say, "Hey fellas, I gotta," but now I was going to do "Me and My Shadow" the way I wanted it done, and it was a whole thing, a big conflict between me and my shadow. You know? The challenge-type dancing and a prize fight between the two of us, and a wonderful twist ending. And it was a ball.

Studs Terkel This worked out.

Cliff Norton And I did it there. Yes, and I'm happy to say it was well-received.

Studs Terkel You could take chances there that you could not take here.

Cliff Norton I could take chances there that we used to take here, because everything we did here we were taking a chance on. But you didn't have all your eggs in one basket. Your audience--and I'm not going to run the audience down, except to say that it's our fault if the television audiences of today are jaded. It's our fault, because we've given them a bunch of junk and we piled it on one piece of junk after the other, and I don't blame them if they're jaded. I know they are. I know they're jaded. But in 1949 and '50--

Studs Terkel That's the basis of Commissioner Minow's speech.

Cliff Norton Yes. And you've got to be right every time, Studs, you've got to be a big smash every time you're on television. Otherwise, the audience says, "Who's this? Yeah, but what has he done lately?" You know? But in '49 and '50, it wasn't so great. Dorsey Connors said to me last night, "Say, would you mind explaining to me once more how to arrange flowers?" Now, this, I did a routine on floral arrangement on "Garroway at Large" that if I had, if I would do today, I would be thrown off, my contract would be torn up, I would be paid off, and I'd have a devil of a time getting back on again. It was terrible. It was the worst piece of nothing that I ever in my life attempted to do. We didn't know it. I knew it while I was doing it, but it was too late then. It was awful. It was terrible. And this was the one show that the reviewer from "New Yorker" magazine happened to catch. He didn't like the show itself. And he knocked that, he knocked the show to pieces, and then there was a little paragraph about me, which said, and I'm quoting it almost verbatim, "Garroway has a house comic named Cliff Norton. He is--who is beneath his material. His material is about one inch high." That was my review from Philip Hamburger of "The New Yorker". But let me say in all fairness to him, he became interested in the "Garroway" show, he became a fan. He started watching it, he realized that it was pretty good, and he did a follow-up review about six months later which was a very good one and glowing and in which he

Studs Terkel I think it was the one I saw in which you were talking, you were the catcher, the baseball catcher, wasn't that the one?

Cliff Norton I think it might have been the one. Well, that's another one--

Studs Terkel I'm thinking again about a humorist from one country in strange surroundings. Did you see--I know Lenny Bruce is a wholly different comic. He did a vignette, a rather biting one, of the American comic who lays a bomb in the Palladium. Did you see that?

Cliff Norton No.

Studs Terkel It's quite

Cliff Norton I would love to

Studs Terkel It's tragic. No, it's a one-act play is what it is, really, and I was just thinking, I was curious to know how you went in this different land, but they recognized humor, yours at least, as being--

Cliff Norton Well--

Studs Terkel Universal.

Cliff Norton Again, I was fortunate. And I'm not being modest now when I say that I think that my approach generally is the universal one to humor, the use of the face--

Studs Terkel It's not in humor, but it's not "in."

Cliff Norton Oh, no, it's not "in," oh, no, I'm not "in." I'm not an inside, I'm not in and I'm not inside. We have a lot of great comics who are inside and their inside jokes are devastating. They're beautiful. But the folks at home don't dig--

Studs Terkel Means nothing. Means nothing to a great many

Cliff Norton I've never seen an American performer bomb over there. Now, incidentally, I use bomb in the sense that we all know it. And this reminds me of a rather amusing story which you can edit out. I was there with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, you know, for one season, and we were ready for our first show and we were standing by, and Sid and I were doing an entrance at the beginning. So we were standing behind the traveler which was to part, you know, and we were nervous. We were nervous. We didn't know what was going to happen to us, because this was the first time either Sid or I had been in London performing. So the producer, on his way into the control booth, stopped and said, "Good luck, fellows. Don't worry about a thing --not to worry, this is the phrase--not to worry, fellows. I know you're going to bomb tonight!" Well, we froze. Our eyes bugged out of our heads, and Sid, I thought Sid was going to run right out and quit right there. And I grabbed him, and Sid said to me, "What kind of a thing is that for a guy to say? Well, what, is this what we're in for all summer?" And I said, "Well, I don't know," you know. And then it was time, and the music's on and we did the show, and all through the show Sid and I are bugged. We don't, what? You know. And we had to wait for half an hour before we found out from the same producer that over there, it means just the opposite.

Studs Terkel A semantical misunderstanding.

Cliff Norton Yes. And I want to tell you, boy, you can get anti-semantic with stuff like that. Oh!

Studs Terkel Cliff--

Cliff Norton What a fright!

Studs Terkel I was thinking of your humor. Earlier you said before we went on--I know you have to--

Cliff Norton No, no. I'm in no hurry.

Studs Terkel But earlier there's something you had said about--

Cliff Norton Unless you're rushing me.

Studs Terkel No, there's something you'd said about something you like. Some of the routines were less popular with the audience than others.

Cliff Norton Yes.

Studs Terkel But some of those were your favorites.

Cliff Norton Yes.

Studs Terkel Which are some that come to mind?

Cliff Norton Well, let me just qualify that first, though, Studs, by saying that a lot of my favorites also turned out to be favorites of the audience. The opera prompter, which I could do every day and be delighted with; the dentist, which was beautiful; the punch-drunk fighter, which was the only serious thing I ever did on the show.

Studs Terkel And that incidentally was, I think I remember that, that was a classic. This was--again, did you come across--I know that artistry involves a great deal of imagination, too, but I--do you come across many fighters or do you ever visit a gym?

Cliff Norton Oh yes, yes. But this was something that came out of a conversation between Charlie and me. There was a boxer that was killed, and we were very upset about it. We both had pretty much the same views. Yes, it may be a sport, and a manly sport, the art of self-defense, and perhaps there is a place for it in our society. But we felt that, perhaps it was going a little bit too far and that should be some kind of, perhaps a better control from the medical profession or from the managers or from somebody so that you don't mismatch people, or you don't allow a man to go--and we were very serious about it. And out of this came this routine. Charlie said, "I think we ought to do a comment on it." And he said, "I think you ought to do a real straight thing, and let's bring some tears." And I said, "Oh, Charlie, no, people expect laughs from me. For a year and a half now, I've been doing things that are purportedly funny and I suppose people laugh at most of them, and I think this--I think I have an awful lot of nerve to inflict this upon" because, you know, you've seen many times, Studs, a guy who is a comic and he's nothing more.

Studs Terkel Tries to assay a serious role

Cliff Norton Yes, and sometimes, ooh, he does an American bomb. But Charlie pointed out to me one thing that I almost forgot. That I was a straight dramatic actor for many, many years before I ever did any comedy, except during rehearsals and at home. So he convinced me we should try this, and the reaction to it was fantastic. I was on the phones at NBC for an hour and a half after the show. Dave I don't think ever went home that night because most people wanted to talk to him about it. We got calls pro and con, mostly pro. We got calls from the Veteran Boxers Association, we got calls from, I can't begin to tell you.

Studs Terkel How did the Veterans Boxers Association--

Cliff Norton Well, they thought that this was rather unfair. Acknowledged the fact that there are some former boxers who are in bad shape. The word is "punchy," but that this was not necessarily the typical veteran boxer, and we were--I think Dave made this quite clear after we, the routine was done. But to get back to my own favorite, which--and this doesn't mean that it's necessarily my favorite of all times, but the first routine that I ever did on the "Garroway" show was a take-off on my dear friend Clint Youle, and it came about by accident because this was very early in the history of the show, and although I was hired for it, and I was supposed to be on every week, they weren't exactly sure how they were going to use me, and well, that's because the show was still really taking shape. That's another thing. The show took form while we were doing it. We didn't have to come in with the finished polished product. It was a while before it was. And while it was taking shape, we were growing and television was growing with it. And this is important, and this is something you can't do today. At any rate, there was a rehearsal break. I had done no routines. I had done no singing. I walked in and out and threw a thing here and a line there and held cards and passed Dave by and we exchanged ad libs and that was about my contribution.