Requiem for a liberal


As I write this, on Friday morning, I learned that Alan Colmes passed away of lymphoma—a particularly nasty form of cancer. Alan was the token liberal spokesman on Fox News, and also had his own radio talk show on the Fox network. He had done well.

I first met Alan 43 years ago, in 1974. I had just finished directing a musical, which ran for many weeks, and I needed a break. Somehow I discovered the wacky comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and thought, “I’d like to do something like that…”

I was living in Boston at the time and put an ad in the Boston Phoenix—“funny people needed for a comedy group.” Alan answered my ad, as did another friend, John Roarke (a fantastic impressionist).

So Alan, John and I formed a comedy trio. We called ourselves “Excuse Me” and got work at the Boston Playboy Club in their newly-opened comedy room. We also toured colleges in New England and did pretty well. It was exciting—to write a comedy sketch and then put it on before an appreciative audience.

Comedians tend to be loners, and we became our own best friends. Sometimes John and I would take the train out to Alan’s parents house in Lynbrook, Long Island.

Alan had a gorgeous redhead girlfriend named Joyce. In addition to being beautiful, Joyce also played the accordion. So she’d be playing Lady of Spain, and Alan would wisecrack, “Isn’t she FABULOUS?” John and I would howl and Joyce always looked baffled.

“Excuse Me” continued for another year, but we weren’t making any money and there were not good agents in Boston. Both John and Alan struck out for New York City, while I went up to New Hampshire to teach English and direct plays at Milford High School.

Alan and John quickly became regulars at The Comic Strip, a comedy club on Second Avenue. They kept calling me to quit teaching and to come down to join them. I eventually did, in 1978, but by then John and Alan were establishing themselves as solo comics.

Alan was starting to do well in radio also. He was first on WPIX and sometimes John and I would visit him in the studio and be goofy for his listeners. Gorgeous Joyce was the engineer—but no accordion playing, thank goodness.

The really fun part was taking phone calls from the listeners. I did a character called “Bleeto the Elf” and would appear on the show each Christmastime. I talked in a high squeaky voice, and brought some prepared jokes. The audience loved Bleeto, and Alan was the perfect straight man.

Bleeto: “I have worked for the S. Clause Foundation for a very long time. And, after you’ve been with Mr. Claus for 10 years, they move you up the ladder.”

Alan: “The corporate ladder?”

Bleeto: “No, it’s a little yellow plastic thing you climb.”

By the early 1980’s Alan got scooped up by WABC, also in New York, but it was a little too formal for Bleeto the Elf and funny guests, unless they were celebrities. John got hired by an ABC TV show, “Fridays,” which was ABC’s answer to Saturday Night Live. “Fridays” ran for two years and helped launch the career of Michael Richards (also known as Kramer). I started writing for television—the USA network had a comedy show, “Commander USA’s Groovie Movies.” Later I went over to VH1, where they were launching a live, funny, morning show—“The VH1 Eggman.” As one of the other writers later remarked, “If we had just worked a little harder, the show could have been a piece of crap.” But I continued to do stand-up comedy, and was scouted by Saturday Night Live, which was terrific. But they didn’t hire me. It happens.

WNBC offered Alan a great afternoon spot, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity or the money offered. In fact, he was the last announcer on WNBC; after that they closed the station. But Alan continued to do stand-up and was frequently the M.C. at The Comic Strip.

One of the best things Alan Colmes ever did for me was an introduction to my act when I appeared at The Comic Strip. He said, “Now I want to bring up a guy who used to write for Saturday Night Live!” The audience nearly exploded at this announcement. Alan then said, “Unfortunately, they didn’t use much of his material…” But the audience thought it was a joke—and that I was some special, anointed, comedic genius. That night I could do no wrong: “I killed.”

The truth was that SNL did indeed use some of my material, but I never got writing credit or even pay. This was 1982, and there was a new producer, Jean Doumanian. They were going through writers like a fat man through French fries. Jean was in way over her head and Lorne Michaels was coaxed back to produce the show.

I am not sure when Alan made the leap to Fox News, to co-star with Sean Hannity. Hannity had his own show at the time, and felt Alan would be a great asset, to represent the liberal point of view, in contrast to Hannity’s conservatism. The ratings soared and “Hannity & Colmes” became the most-watched show in the Fox lineup.

With his new career as a TV personality, Alan cut back on doing stand-up. After three years together with Sean Hannity, Alan got the boot. I asked him about this, but he was dismissive in his reply. However, a well-connected friend said that Alan embarrassed Karl Rove on live TV, and that Rove made some phone calls to Fox management to get Alan dumped.

Still, Alan appeared as a guest commentator, appearing with Bill O’Reilly and other Fox personalities. He also had a very successful radio show during the daytime, mostly taking calls from idiotic listeners. If someone said something inappropriate, Alan would punch the phone button and say, “You’re next! Hello!”

Personally, Alan was perhaps the kindest and most gracious friend I ever had. I never heard him curse or berate anyone. He didn’t drink alcohol, smoke, or take drugs. And he was always, always funny. I once told him, “You’re the most Christian Jew I know.” He didn’t know how to respond to that, but then he said, “Thank you I think.”

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