Bishop, Joey

Bishop, Joey
Feb. 3, 1918-Oct. 17, 2007
American comedian


Comedian Joey Bishop spent more than twenty years on the way up from the obscurity of a comic in burlesque to master of ceremonies at the Democratic party's gala $100-a-plate celebration in Washington, D.C. on the eve of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in January 1961. During his long climb to stardom in night clubs, television, and motion pictures, Bishop never tried to "fracture" his listeners with the sharpness of his wit; he tells no "sick" jokes and makes no comments on the foibles of human society. He has neither capitalized on his Jewishness by portraying Jewish characters nor avoided references to it in seeking broader acceptance. He has been described by a writer for Time (February 22, 1960) as a "sad-faced funnyman whose effortless humor seems spontaneous but is the product of endless preparation."

Joey Bishop was born Joseph Abraham Gottlieb on February 3, 1919, in the Bronx in New York City. He is the youngest of five children of Jacob and Anna (Siegel) Gottlieb, who had immigrated to the United States from Central Europe. At birth he weighed only three pounds, and was, as he has later said, the smallest baby ever born in Fordham Hospital. When Joey was three months old he moved with his parents, his brothers Morris and Freddie, and his sisters Claire and Betty to South Philadelphia, a section that also gave Mario Lanza, Eddie Fisher, and Fabian to the entertainment world. His father, helped out by other members of the family, ran a bicycle shop and also worked as a machinist. "My mother would ask the people who rented bikes, 'What's your name?' and scribble in the book," Joey Bishop has recalled. "Who knew she couldn't write English?" Although the times were bad the family atmosphere at home was warm and encouraging to a youngster who never wanted to be anything but an entertainer. Joey's father played the ocarina and taught his son Yiddish songs. The boy learned to do imitations, to tap-dance, and to play the banjo and mandolin. The first thing he ever remembers buying for himself was a false nose.

Although he was a bright pupil, and was elected head of the student council and vice-president of his graduation class at Furness Junior High School, Joey Bishop did not distinguish himself as a scholar. "In kindergarten I flunked sandpile," he has said. More interested in show business than in academic studies, he frequented the stage door entrance of the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia, waiting for vaudeville celebrities such as Benny Davis or Ted Lewis. In 1936 he won the first prize of three dollars in an amateur show for his imitations of Joe Penner, George Arliss, and Jimmy Durante. In the same year he ended his formal education, dropping out of South Philadelphia High School after two and a half years. Occasionally Joey helped out in his parents' bicycle shop. He was employed for a time at Gimbel's department store, carried ice, and worked in a restaurant and in a candle factory.

In 1938 Joey Bishop teamed up with two other boys-Reisman and Spector-in a comedy act that they had once rehearsed in a Jewish neighborhood house in Philadelphia. The trio was booked into night clubs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and its members, taking on the surname of Glenn Bishop, a Negro boy who drove them to their engagements, called themselves the Bishop Brothers. They toured the Eastern burlesque circuit, played vaudeville, and performed in night clubs and at summer resorts in the Catskill mountains. When Reisman and Spector were drafted into the Army, Joey Bishop was on his own. He received his start as a single entertainer in a club called El Dumpo in Cleveland. "I was nervous at first," he recalled in an interview with Arthur Steuer for Esquire (September 1961). "Rummy [Spector] had always supplied the punch lines, but as soon as I walked out there I knew it was going to be all right. I felt free, relaxed."

According to Robert De Roos, writing in TV Guide (December 2, 1961), Bishop "developed his offhand approach and became master of the throwaway line" in the noise of night clubs like El Dumpo. He also came to realize that a comedian's attitude is more important than his lines. "Taste is the big thing," he told Florence Fletcher in an interview for Cue (August 12, 1961), "taste and honesty. Then acceptance of your style and material will come." Bishop remained at El Dumpo for eight months until he too was drafted into the Army in April 1942. During his three and a half years with Special Services he rose to the rank of sergeant, and he ended his military service as recreation director at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Upon his discharge from the Army in September 1945 Bishop temporarily settled in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and resumed his career as a night club comedian. Through the William Morris Agency, Inc., he obtained his first New York booking at the Greenwich Village Inn, where he began to acquire a reputation as a promising comic. Five years later, in 1952, when he was earning $1,000 a week at the Latin Quarter in New York, Frank Sinatra saw his performance and asked him to join his act at Bill Miller's Riviera in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

The encounter with Sinatra marked a turning point in Joey Bishop's career. He often accompanied Sinatra on his tours, and became a full-fledged member of the Sinatra "Clan," along with Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., and others. Bishop appeared in two of Sinatra's films, Ocean's 11 (Warner Brothers, 1960) and Sergeants 3 (United Artists, 1961). Earlier he had played several motion picture roles. In 1958 he appeared in the Warner Brothers productions The Deep Six, Onionhead, and The Naked and the Dead ("I played both parts," he has remarked), and in 1960 he briefly turned up in the Columbia production Pepe, starring Cantinflas.

Another major break for Bishop was his first appearance on the Jack Paar show on NBC-TV, where his wit as an ad libber made him a frequent guest and occasional pinch hitter for Paar. He became a familiar figure to millions of TV viewers. On TV he has also appeared with Perry Como, Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, and on the panel of What's My Line on CBS-TV. When Bennett Cerf, a regular panelist on the show, took only one guess to identify an eighty-four-year-old lady as a store detective, Joey ad libbed: "That doesn't say much for Bennett that he can spot a detective so quickly."

A significant development in Bishop's career was his decision in 1958 to give up forty weeks of night club bookings at nearly $5,000 per week and take a chance on an untried TV show, Keep Talking, on CBS-TV, that paid only one-fifth of that sum but offered him the chance to widen his range as a performer and to emerge as a comic personality. This personality has been described by Arthur Steuer in Esquire (September 1961) as that of "an eager, naive, slightly awestruck yokel with whom the mass-communicated audience can sympathize." Bishop projects it in his own TV series, the Joey Bishop Show, which made its debut over NBC-TV on September 20, 1961. Although Harriet Van Horne characterized the first program of the series as "the familiar situation comedy, Hollywood style," she added: "None of this is of great consequence-because Joey Bishop is wonderful. He's wonderful when he has a funny line … and oddly endearing when he has a bad one. When silent he manages to look as if he were thinking something funny" (New York World-Telegram and Sun, September 21, 1961).

Bishop is highly esteemed by his fellow comedians. One of them-Jack Benny-has called him "the brightest young comedian today." In late 1960 the Friars Club gave Bishop a testimonial dinner. Both major political parties have recognized his talents. In July 1960 the office of Vice-President Richard M. Nixon invited Bishop to take part in the festivities accompanying the Republican National Convention, but Bishop politely turned down the bid because, as he told Marie Torre of the New York Herald Tribune (July 19, 1960), he was "a Kennedy man." Reportedly President John F. Kennedy first met Bishop in February 1960 and told him that for years he had been a Bishop fan. According to Jay Lewis (Variety, March 1, 1961), the President seemed genuinely amused when Bishop served as substitute master of ceremonies for Danny Thomas at the White House correspondents' dinner in Washington on February 25, 1961.

On January 14, 1941 Joey Bishop married Sylvia Ruzga. They have a son, Larry Bishop. Bishop is a member of the Jewish faith. He served as fund-raising chairman of the National Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation for 1961, and he has received a citation from Pope John XXIII for his work in behalf of Boys Towns of Italy. Standing at five feet nine and one half inches and weighing 160 pounds, Bishop has brown hair and brown eyes, and has been described by Bob Lardine as "a little, skinny, sallow guy with the closest crewcut this side of Yul Brynner" (New York Sunday News Magazine, July 23, 1961). "I enjoy swimming and riding. But basically I'm a lazy bum," Bishop told Florence Fletcher of Cue (August 12, 1961). An excellent golfer, he played regularly with fellow comedians Buddy Hackett, Dick Shawn, and Phil Foster at a golf club in Englewood, New Jersey, where he used to live. Each of the four comedians owns one-twentieth of the golf club.

To Kay Gardella of the New York Sunday News, (May 14, 1961), Joey Bishop explained his philosophy of comedy. "It's a lot more important to be known as a great human being and a so-so comic than be known as a great comic and not be accepted by the audiences as a human being," he told her. "If you depend solely on humor, you're in trouble, for the simple truth is that no one can be that funny every week. On the other hand, if you've built up public acceptance for yourself as a human being and for the character you're portraying, you don't have the need to be successfully funny every week and you'll last a lot longer."

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