I was promoting my very first book, "Let Peas Be With You," a collection of "humorous food poems." I was making my television debut, an interview on Joe Franklin's show. I would perform a few poems and answer questions. I didn't have to worry too much about the questions, as Joe had asked me to write down a bunch of things I wanted to be asked.
Easy set up and punchline: "Why did you write a book about food?" "Well, Joe, poets are supposed to look within themselves. And within myself there was food."
Even so, I was nervous and excited. Me, on television! And opposite JOE FRANKLIN, a bizarre guy whose monotone voice was so easy to imitate. I half-wondered if I'd blurt out, "I can't believe I'm actually ON your show," or just start laughing if he started doing a live commercial for Hoffman beverages. But it might as well have been Joe blurting out, "What has it come to, I'm interviewing a guy who writes poems about food!"
In Joe's obit today, the NY Times quoted him: "My show was often like a zoo...I’d mix Margaret Mead with the man who whistled through his nose, or Richard Nixon with the tap-dancing dentist.”
Yes, another guest on his show that night was a dentist. He didn't need Joe to set up a line or him. He happily announced, "Joe, be true to your teeth, and they won't be false to you!"
The NY Times accurately noted that Joe's program "was an oddly long-running parade of has-beens and yet-to-bes interrupted from time to time by surprisingly famous guests."
And as I and the other guests stood and looked at the empty set, with the couch and desk, and the time ticking down for us to go sit in front of the bright lights, Joe said to us, "You know, WOR-TV is now a superstation. It's seen all over the nation. You'll be seen by three million people."
Cue the anxiety attack. But the show went well, and I still think it's one of my better outings. I appeared on Joe's show a second time, and would later turn up on HBO, Showtime, shows hosted by Bill O'Reilly, Rita Cosby, etc. etc. Joe did have a unique way of keeping people "full of pep" and on their toes. Like an evil schoolteacher, he'd call on you when you least expected it. If you thought you could relax, move down on the couch, and just "de-tox" from the experience, NO. You had to pay attention because Joe would suddenly ask you a question pertaining to the current conversation. And even if it was on a topic you knew nothing about, you were expected to have a scintillating answer.
Yes, Joe's office on 43rd and 8th was a legendary mess. It was truly stacked to the ceiling with papers, photos, records, books, all kinds of things. One day he said, "You like Fred Allen?" I said, "Yes, I think he was the wittiest guy on radio." "You'll like this," he said, rummaging for a moment and finding a 6-cassette set of Fred's old radio shows. "Here," he said, "listen to these, and bring them back."
Well, it meant a return trip to the legendary mess.
I brought with me a copy of one of his books (well, one of the ones he had his name on). It was the "Encyclopedia of Comedians." By then, the book was long out of print, and I guess I replaced it with my own "Who's Who in Comedy." He autographed it humbly:
I'd sometimes see Joe at a memorabilia show, and at the Friars Club, including the "Old Jewish Comedians" book events where author Drew Friedman would bring Abe Vigoda, Eddie Lawrence, Larry Storch and others, to promote his latest volume in the series. By that time, the old comedians were hovering around 90, and Joe was not too far behind. The strange guy with the pudgy body and marionette-like face (with a kind of fixed grin) would come up with a disconcerting line: "Nostalgia's dead."
He didn't change expression or tone when he said it. He said it just as he'd repeat a slogan from one of the commercials he ran in his prime: "Martin Paint. It ain't just paint."
The grin did not change. He was just stating a fact about "neuralgia," his new joke-word. He'd add it to any conversation about his love of show biz: "So, you're also interested in neuralgia...ah, nostalgia?"
Although Joe's TV show was bumped from WOR back in 1993, not long after the departures of Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, Joe continued on radio, with a peculiar phoned-in spot on the Bloomberg network. He'd mention some of the latest entertainment news, and run a clip of a pre-recorded interview with a B-list star. It seemed he'd always be around.
Joe was the pioneer of trivia and nostalgia, and I certainly remember in the late 50's, flipping the dial between the cartoons, sitcom re-runs and soap operas and coming across a strange talk show called "Memory Lane." I had no idea at that age, that some 20 years later I'd actually be ON that show, and it would still be hosted by Joe Franklin...who'd still host it for another 20 years.
I'll never forget him and his kindness to me. Thanks for the memories, Joe.