Gene Baylos

'The Comedian's Comedian'
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Gene Baylos, comedian: born New York 16 November 1906; married; died New York 10 January 2005.

"On their wedding night, a groom asks his new bride, 'Honey, am I your first?' She says, 'Why does everybody ask me that?' " Such gags were the stock in trade of the baby-faced, sad-eyed Gene Baylos, who was known as the Comedian's Comedian. One of his many acolytes, the late Alan King, once said "Put him in a room with 20 comics, and nobody gets laughs except Baylos."

Gene Baylos grew up in the tough Bronx section of New York City, where he soon found he had the ability to make people laugh. He cut his professional comedy teeth in the Jewish summer resorts of the Catskill mountains. Most of those hotels are now defunct, but in the 1930s, when they were still funct, such performers as Danny Kaye, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers learned their trade there. From the start, Baylos geared his material to his audience. ("In the winter I've got another job. I smuggle Gentiles down to Florida.")

During the Second World War, he performed between films in New York cinemas and in small night-clubs, some of which were decidedly rough. ("After the show last night, a tough-looking guy walked up to me and said, 'Hey buddy, ya wanna buy a ring?' When I asked him what it looked like, he said, 'Don't look now, but the guy next to ya is wearin' it.' ")

After the war, cinemas and night-clubs suffered badly from the new and potent competition of television. All the comics were revamping their routines for the box, but Baylos found it hard to make the transition. In those days, everything was aimed at a family audience, and programmes like The Ed Sullivan Show frowned on such Baylos material as

I want to tell you what three women of three different nationalities say while they're making love. The Italian woman says, "Oh Gino, you are the world's greatest lover!" The French woman says, "Oo-la-la, Maurice! C'est magnifique!" The Jewish woman says, "Max, the ceiling needs painting."

Luckily, he had a great fan in Nat Hiken, creator of the superb Phil Silvers Show. Hiken followed his Bilko triumph with Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63), a sitcom about two clueless cops.

When comedians gather at the Friars Club in New York, the conversation inevitably turns to "Crazy Gene" and his practical jokes; in the book King of the Half Hour (2001), Nat Hiken's biographer David Everitt wrote:

According to the most widely circulated Baylos story, he once came upon a construction crew that had just razed a midtown block to make room for a new hotel. Grabbing a hard hat and a set of blueprints, he hurried over to the crew, jabbed a finger at the blueprints and cried, "I told you Forty-third Street, not Fifty-third Street!"

It was in the early 1940s that Baylos first met Jerry Lewis in the Catskills, where the teenage Lewis was breaking in his first act, miming to opera recordings. The older comic was generous with his advice, and Lewis later cast him as a clown in his film The Family Jewels (1965). In The Love Machine (1971), a bad movie based on a worse novel, Baylos and his fellow stand-up Shecky Greene played fellow stand-ups, providing the film's only intentional laughter.

Being a Comedian's Comedian is good for the ego, but not quite so good for the bank account. In 1981, Baylos was asked if he was bitter about not having become a bigger, richer star. "When I was making $10 a night doing my act at a movie house and living in the Bronx with my mother, I loved it," the comic replied:

When I was making $50 a week, schlepping to Hoboken for three shows a night, I loved it. I'm not bitter. I love my job. I love show business.

He had to give up that job at 92, when he broke a hip. But he continued to work successfully, although unpaid, as a sit-down comic, holding forth at his Friars lunch table, court jester to such adoring peers as Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld.

Dick Vosburgh