How many comedians are in the world who can be introduced by Groucho Marx and have their routine not be anti-climactic? Shecky Greene is one of the few. Where some comics are measured and deliberate, Shecky belongs to the same class as the late Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams; he makes you feel like he’s completely improvising everything, making it up as he goes along, and that he’s willing to go out on any limb imaginable for the sake of entertaining us and getting a laugh. In fact, he could have been a latter day Marx Brother; Fred Sheldon Greenfield could have just as easily changed his name to “Shecko Marx.” The first time I saw him live was an unscheduled guest appearance at Keely Smith’s first opening at the old Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York: he grabbed the mic and started riffing on the singer’s Native American heritage; “I remember whenever you used to sing,” he quipped, “it would rain like a son-of-a-bitch!”
Schecky’s primary association with Playboy came in the early 1970s, when he worked the new Great Gorge resort. He talked about that experience with me. I won’t recap the whole story, but he told me how he was one of the first headliners that was hired when the Great Gorge resort initially opened. The resorts were never as popular as the original clubs had been, and this particular enterprise was predicated on the hope that gambling would soon become legal in this part of New York State. (You might say that the Playboy Corporation was itself gambling on that very idea.) However, that never happened, and the whole Great Gorge project was only a qualified success at best.
For most of his career, Shecky worked in Las Vegas; that was his home base. Many performers regarded doing live shows in casinos as a stepping stone to other kinds of work, movies, TV, Broadway. But for Shecky, Vegas was an end to itself, a destination, rather than a stop on the tour. He liked the spontaneity of working in front of live audiences in an unstructured setting. And, perhaps even more importantly, he liked to be where the action was. Where many showbiz legends had their excesses, Shecky didn’t chase girls and he didn’t abuse his body with dangerous substances—which partially accounts for why he’s currently in such good shape at age 88. His major vice was gambling, especially horse-racing. There was even a thoroughbred later named in his honor.
Shecky liked Vegas so much that it was difficult to get him to leave and accept other kinds of work: Shecky’s most famous acting job was as a semi-regular on the hit dramatic series Combat; his character, “Private Braddock”—no first name ever seems to have been given—he was easily the most memorable on the show, but Shecky disliked the whole Hollywood scene; whenever the cameras started rolling, all he could think about was getting back to his beloved horses.
As “himself,” rather than playing a character, Shecky appeared on a wide range of variety and talk shows over a 50 year period; he was particularly effective on the two major variety shows of the 1960s, The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS and Sullivan’s chief rival, The Hollywood Palace on ABC. In fact, this monolog from 1965 plays up the competition between the two shows: one of Shecky’s opening bits is a dead-on impression of Ed Sullivan, which brings out the fact that even though hosting the show was Sullivan’s only performing talent—meaning that he didn’t sing, dance, act, or do comedy—Sullivan was a famously awkward, tongue-tied emcee, who very often mispronounced the names of the guests on his own show. To be completely fair, Sullivan had other skills behind-the-scenes, of course.
Shecky uses the trick of repetition very artfully, bringing back the Sullivan gag at several points for maximum comic impact, and weaving it through a funny story about a Chinese restaurant. These days, his Chinese impression would not be considered politically correct, but he portrays his Chinese subjects as being considerably more on the ball than, say, Ed Sullivan. He drifts his way through a routine about Frankie Laine—probably the single funniest and most on-the-money impression of Frankie Laine’s stylized belting style that’s ever been done—and a longer bit about Al Jolson that builds his eight-minute monolog to an hysterical conclusion. You might not think it’s possible, but if there’s such a thing as a living comic who’s truly worthy of sharing the stage show with the legendary Groucho, it’s Shecky Greene.