Hal Ennis Presents: Comedy Caravan, 1979
In 1996 I was a guest on the television show Politically Incorrect with host Bill Maher, who I knew from The Comic Strip in New York City way back in 1979, at the very beginning of my stand-up career. I remember we were having a slice of pizza right after we met and out of the blue Bill said, “So are you a raging heterosexual like me?”
I was booked on Politically Incorrect to promote my just-being-released third Oglio Records CD, “Hot Dogs & Donuts.” Bill gave me a really nice intro and gave the CD a terrific plug, though I’m sure he never listened to a word of it.
After we went off the air, I said, “Damn, that was a nice introduction, Bill.”
And he said, “Well, it’s the least I can do for the guy who gave me a ride back to the city after my first out-of-town comedy gig.”
I suddenly realized Bill had been the fulcrum for what wound up being a very memorable if damaging episode.
The gig was “Hal Ennis’ Comedy Caravan,” at The Jade Fountain, a Chinese restaurant on Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey, in the throes of winter, 1979. Eddie Murphy, his best friend Clint Smith and I met Dave Hawthorne in the parking lot of Richard M. Dixon’s White House Inn in Hicksville on Long Island. They had been dropped off, I left my car there, and Dave drove us all to the show.
Hal’s comedy shows at The Jade Fountain always began with a claymation film, the wonderful “Jimmy The C,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, Best Animated Short, in 1977. It’s a pre-MTV music video, with a peanut that looks like Jimmy Carter lip-syncing the original Ray Charles version of “Georgia On My Mind,” all the while holding hands with and trying to seduce a female map of the state of Georgia (?) who had huge red lips. Christ, it was hysterical. Never got old. It was priceless, and it set the tone for the night so damn well. Ennis was a showman. Please click! and have a look …
I was emcee … my job was to keep the crowd up and introduce the acts. I opened the show with ten or fifteen minutes of audience banter and jokes and then introduced the first act, who might have been Rick Overton, or Rich Hall, or Ron Richards, or Joe Bolster, or Paul Reiser, or Carol Leifer, or the team of Gagan & Fine … or Bill Maher … any of a long list of young comics. That is, anybody who could somehow finagle getting from New York City to the wilds of New Jersey (and back).
When I came off stage, Eddie said to me, “Jack, they laughed every time you opened your mouth.”
And unforgettably, Dave said, “That’s the idea, Eddie.”
I’m sure Dave and I drank beer on the way, I’m sure we pounded them down at the club, and I’m sure we had plenty for the ride home. And pot (for the ride home, I was one of the rare few who never smoked pot before a show). But I remember the events of the night really well. (Eddie never touched anything … Clint, I can’t remember.)
Bill asked us to drop him off on the West Side. It wasn’t crazy out of our way and Dave was glad to do it. Very soon after we pulled away from wherever we dropped Bill, I suspect from driving over cobblestones, a pipe got dislodged from the Dave’s muffler and was dragging. I climbed under the car and somehow tied it up with a guitar string.
When it fell off again, we were on the Southern State Parkway well on our way home. Dave pulled off on the tiny shoulder of the highway. Cars were zooooming by, so damn close, and it was freezing. But of course the muffler was red hot. So I’m drunk and stoned and under Dave’s car in the cold trying not to burn my fingers as I tied the damn pipe up again.
The whole time, Eddie and Clint are in the warm back seat, goofing on Dave’s crappy old car and laughing their asses off, with Dave stewing as I’m breaking my balls trying to fix the muffler again.
They laughed about it all the way to Roosevelt, where Eddie lived, and by then Dave was pissed. Eddie’s street was all chopped up due to construction , so Dave dropped the two of them off at the end of the block in the very chilly night instead of taking them to Eddie’s house.
Dave and I have always said those few hundred yards cost us movie careers. (Well, almost … Dave Hawthorne plays the bartender in the final bar scene in the film “As Good As It Gets” with Jack Nicholson.)
This is the list Hal Ennis left for me when I was emcee’ing one of his shows at “New York, New York,” a club in Fort Lee, New Jersey (!), and he couldn’t be there.
On the list, you’ll see Eddie Murphy (with the note to mention he was second in “The Big New York Laff Off”), Jerry Seinfeld (with the note to mention he had done a TV pilot … I think he had a short-lived role as the governor’s gag writer on “Benson”), and Gilbert Gottfried … all three spelled wrong by Ennis.
Bob Woods is crossed out because he got there too late (too late to do his act … not too late to drink and get stoned with me and Hawthorne).
The night of that show, Hal was off doing one of his D.J. gigs, so he left me in charge, and sent his father to collect the money from me. After the show, me, Dave and Woodsy (“The Rolling Clones”) ran into Hal at a diner nearby.
Hal said, “So how’d it go?”
I said, “Perfect.”
He said, “Then why’d my father come back to me in tears?”
In 1979-1981, before Eddie Murphy got on Saturday Night Live, the Long Island comics at that time worked together a lot, all over the tri-state area, all the Long Island guys who were just starting. I was thirty-one years old, but I was brand new to comedy. Eddie was sixteen or seventeen.
By 1980, I had released my first homegrown lp, “What Did You Expect?!”
If you look closely, I’m sitting in the front, second from the left, flipping the bird …
One night I was taping my second lp, “Goin’ Ape” at The East Side Comedy Club.
Eddie came up to me and said, “Jack, you got a album? I want to have an album.”
I said, “Sorry, Eddie, I can’t help you, I’m too busy.”
I usually went on last wherever we worked because I was loud and dirty. After my jokes, I almost always put on my guitar and ended my set with an original song. After the foul jokes, the serious song (some more serious than others) always threw people for a loop. They couldn’t believe I was singing them, let alone that I had written them.
One night at The East Side Comedy Club, after we’d all been at it a few years … and strangely enough, not only was it the night of this picture of Eddie and Rob and me, but it was The First (and only) Annual Rolling Clones Awards Night … I ended my set and the show with one of those songs. Since it was an awards show Dave & Woodsy and I cooked up for fun, the whole gang was there, it was packed, and my song got a big reaction.
After I left the stage, Eddie came up to me and said, “You know, Jack, I’ve got like five favorite songs. And three of ’em are yours.” Not said in jest, but totally sincerely. I’ve always remembered it because I love it when people enjoy my songs … still do.
Eddie had heard those songs so many times and I know he’d remember saying that. In 2006, I finally put a dozen of my songs out on a CD, “Happy Endings,” and I’d really like to send him a copy … anybody got an address for him?
Rock & Roll, Michigan State University (that’s Spartan Stadium behind me), 1971 …