Uncle Miltie is in his element: the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, two blocks from Uncle Miltie's house. Here he can summon waitresses, tell reporters what to eat for lunch, pounce on nearby telephones and shout at friends in nearby booths.
"Ver-non! Hello Vernon Hiya, Vernie!"
Of all the elements, though, television is the one in which Uncle Miltie is most at home. On Sunday night NBC will commemorate this truism with "A Tribute to Mr. Television, Milton Berle," which through a cruel fluke of scheduling, airs at 9 o'clock on Channel 4 - opposite the start of the CBS 50th-anniversary show.
Eighteen stars turned out for this rambunctious homage, including Lucille Ball, Gregory Peck, Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra and Kermit the Frog. The result largely lives up to the sung promise of the men from Texaco who opened Berle's shows during the dawn of television: "Our show tonight is powerful, we'll wow you with an hour full, of howls from a shower full, of stars."
But the guest list should have been cut in half and the number of clips from old Berlesques at least tripled, because these yelps from the past tell us exactly why Berle seemed so funny, why his success on Tuesday nights makes today's "Happy Days" look like "Holmes and Yoyo."
Berle was not an original - television was the original, then - but he was a summation. He embodied every comic tradition in the history of laughter up to that time. His best shows, in the first half of the '50s, were live, and Berle walked barefoot through fire every week. He was broadly, exhaustingly, madly, relentlessly and desperately funny.
"You didn't try it out in those days," Berle says, while the Polo Lounge midget pages Mr. So and So nearby. "You didn't do a dress rehearsal and tape it and see what worked and what didn't. You had to go out and try to be funny the first time. We couldn't add a laugh track, where a guy says hello and gets a scream. We couldn't do that. We had to go right for the sure-fire things.
"One thing I'll tell ya, I never said this before. When I did the Texaco show, I would say specifically to all the comedians, all the actors on the show, 'Please. Do me a favor. Don't listen to all that junk about where the red light is on which camera.' In fact I used to cover up those red lights with black velvet so they wouldn't know which camera was on them. 'What I want you to do is just do it like you're doing a play.'"
If the content was not always crispy-fresh, the medium was. We flabbergasted souls at home shared in Berle's discovery of television the immortalizer. Flubs and foul-ups only made it more immediate. "The wildness, the insanity, the mistakes, they just made it 10 times funnier," Uncle Miltie says.
A 30-year-old Berle sketch can still be uproarious because it's primal clowning; it's timeless and atopical. "Oh. I was topical in my monologues," Berle says. "One of the great jokes was, 'My mother's very mad at Rita Hayworth, 'cause she wasn't invited to the wedding. And I said, 'Ma, it's isn't the same Kahns that used to live in the Bronx.' 'Cause that was when she was gonna marry Ali Khan.
"Yeah, we were topical, but we were more vaudevillish and more nightclubish and more what we call, 'Standard Proven Material.' We couldn't afford to take any chances in those days 'cause we only had one shot. I'd say, 'Look, this is proven, we've tested it already.' I'd tested it in vaudeville for 20 years before! Thirty years before!"
The show backstage must have been at least as entertaining as the tribute that will get on the air. Most of the guest stars sat in the green room looking at the monitors and laughing at the old clips.
"This show is not like an Academy show, with a lectern, and very weak jokes between guests, you know, 'Oh, that's a very nice dress,' says Berle, as if hawking a used car. "Instead, they just come out and talk about me.
"Now back in the green room, I was watching these old kinnies (kinescopes) and sometimes one would come on and I swear to God on my mother, I didn't know what that show was about. I didn't remember doing it. Then they had some cuts of me dancing - with Hal LeRoy, and the Step Brothers, the Dunhills - I looked at it, and I said, 'Hey! I danced like a son of a bitch!"
"I saw a lot of things I swear I'd never seen. Finally (Don) Rickles yells at Me, 'cause I'm standing in front of the monitor, 'Milton! Get out of the way! We can't see you!"
The number of illustrious names who appeared with Berle and pop up in clips is on the breathtaking side. Tallulah Bankhead, Elvis Presley, Carmen Miranda, Cole Porter, Jack Benny, Edward G. Robinson, Cyril Ritchard, Peter Lorre, Nat King Cole, Joan Davis, and Carl Sandburg, who on the subject of jokes tells Berle, "Some of yours go back to Noah and the Ark."
Berle was doused, pummeled, slapped, powderpuffed ("mayyyyk-uppp!"), kicked, bitten and spritzed in pursuit of the laugh. He was in and out of drag, he kissed Jackie Gleason, he fell into a piano. He was the unashamed jester-anarchist running wild in a brave new world, and he was braver than it was.
He did it all for us. And he did it all for him. Berle's reputation for running everything and hogging spotlights earned him ill will on and off the stage. There was a period when his once-loved lowbrow routines were widely considered embarrassments, like somebody's bare-bottomed baby pictures. Now one can see the true transcendent dignity in the insistence of his clowning, and its timeless dynamism.
He would entertain us else.
Berle will be 70 on July 12. He still works - "I work to live and I live to work" - still does well-worn jokes - "nothing is new that's old and nothing that's old is new" - and has no regrets about the way he made himself and television household intruders we could not resist any more than Miami Beach can ignore that Atlantic Ocean.
"You saw what you got and you got what you saw," Uncle Mitlie says.
Today, though, Berle is more subdued. He wears a splendidly proper gray suit in the silly-pinkish Polo Lounge, and he says he's no longer the compulsive buffoon who goes into an act every time he sees a curtain, even if it's the draperies at a Beverly Hills Party.
"I'm not 'on' any more. It isn't that I'm tired. It's just that, at those parties, I go in a corner and smoke my cigar. Like somebody said to me, it was Freddie Kohlmar, a very good director, K-o-h-l-m-a-r, we were at a party once and he says, "Milton, get up, do a couple of one-liners,' and I say, 'You get up and produce a picture.' And a guy says to me, at a layman's party, 'Milton, get up and tell some jokes.' I said, 'You get up and manufacture some dresses.'
"When we got to parties, my wife, Ruth, and I, and it's people we know, the Billy Wilders or Jack and Felicia Lemmon or the Matthaus, they don't talk about show business I swear to God. They're talking about, oh, 'What is the point spread on Dolly Parton?"
The smile of a thousand teeth. "Just made that one up, by the way," says my Uncle Miltie, staring through tickish glasses to see how you liked it. Ladies and germs, he's on again. These are the jokes.
Send in the clown.