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.
Cliff Norton No.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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--
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
Cliff Norton Yeah.
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.
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--
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.
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 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."
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 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.
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.
Cliff Norton Indeed.
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."
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.
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
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.
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--
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'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 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 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--
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 Cliff--
Cliff Norton Yes.
Cliff Norton Yes.
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.
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.
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.