Thursday, 3 February 2011

Joe E. Ross (Ooh! Ooh!)

King of Slobs: The Life of Joe E. Ross

'"I guess he was funny in his own way. I don't think he had a very good nightclub act." - Ronnie Schell, comedian

"His life centered around dating strippers." - Steve Rossi, comedy straight man

Joe E. Ross was the kind of grotesque, boorish, nightclub comedian that over the years has been satirized ad nauseam. Andy Kaufman's alter ego Tony Clifton, a talentless lounge singer with a penchant for drinking, smoking and whoring, is in many ways the fictional equivalent of Ross. Best known for his featured role in the early nineteen sixties sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? Joe E. Ross left an indelible, negative impression on every performer he ever worked with. The consensus of those that knew him is that his shenanigans offstage were infinitely more amusing than anything he ever did onstage. His disposition is perfectly summed up by fellow nightclub comedian Hank Garrett. "He was married eight times and they were all ex-hookers. It was cheaper to marry them than keep visiting them."

Ross was a product of the Lower East Side. His first taste of show business came when he found a job in the Bronx as a singing waiter. Soon he evolved into a burlesque comic, but his gigs were pretty much limited to rundown strip joints. Garrett often shared the bill with Ross in the worst Bowery venues imaginable. "You'd see someone get up in the audience," recalls Garrett. "We'd say, 'If you're looking for the toilet, sit down. You're in it."

Nat Hiken was already a well-respected comedy writer when he conceived a sitcom about a conniving army sergeant named Ernest G. Bilko. What would come to be known as The Phil Silvers Show was a unique and nasty comedy program for its time period. I Love Lucy was busy proving that housewives were imbeciles. Father Knows Best reiterated that patriarchy is the American way. Into the mix came The Phil Silvers Show with a greedy, scheming, obsessed-with-girls confidence man as its chief protagonist.

Hiken became enamored with seedy Damon Runyon-esque characters while working in the trenches of New York show business. He often cast real-life pugilists like Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta in his programs and provided work to actors and comedians that emulated the same feel. Hiken was preparing to cast the second season of The Phil Silvers Show when he witnessed Ross perform at a Miami nightclub and liked what he saw.1 Garrett explains, "The qualities Nat had in mind had nothing to do with Ross's stand-up act." It was the worn facial features and gruff larynx that appealed to Nat Hiken, not Joe E.'s lowbrow style of comedy. At any rate, the content of Joe E.'s performance would never have translated to television. "Joe's opening. He'd walk out on stage, scratch his crotch and say 'What do you do for dandruff?' It went downhill from there."

When Hiken returned to New York he asked Kevin Pines, the program's casting director to phone Joe E. Ross. Ross had just left for Hawaii where he had been booked for a two-week string of lounge performances. Edward J. Montagne, a director of early television remembered, "The call came through and Joe was in the sack with a dame. Kevin said, 'This is Kevin Pines, casting director of The Phil Silvers Show.' Joe thought it was a gag and said, '[Fuck] you!' and hung up the phone."

Subsequent phone calls convinced him that it was the real deal and he accepted the part of a slovenly chef named Rupert Ritzik....'

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