Every comedian of yore, like every musician or public performer of note, lives a second life on YouTube in 2019.
Their interviews and performances, their routines and their best moments on film: It’s all there, for anyone who wasn’t around to see it, and even for those who were.
Not all of those second lives and, in fact, the majority of them, crackle with the same energy that they once did, beamed from a laptop or a phone. Sandy Hackett, son of the legendary comedian Buddy Hackett, is positive that his father is among the few whose comedy echoes through the decades, still funny and still sharp in 2019. For anyone that’s watched some of Hackett’s old clips, they’d be hard pressed to argue.
“He was my best friend,” Hackett said. “Every day, I think about him.”
Hackett is coming to the Bristol Riverside Theatre from June 28-30, where he’ll perform his long-running show “My Buddy,” directed by his wife, Lisa Dawn Miller. This theatrical production, set to music at some points, is personal for Hackett — it is almost entirely made up of stories he knew of his father, along with ones that heard from his father’s friends — but he believes that the show touches on much more universal themes.
“It’s a father-son story, as much as it’s about a comedian,” Hackett said. “It’s so easy to come to this and identify with what’s being told.”
In other words, come for Buddy, but stay for Sandy, a comedian for decades in his own right who knows a thing or two about how to hold a room.
Buddy Hackett, who died in 2003, was born Leonard Hacker in Brooklyn, to two Jewish parents. He was performing comedy in the great Catskills hotels by high school and, after a few years in the military during World War II, he committed himself to comedy full time, selecting his new name.
Within just a few years, he enjoyed immense success, appearing in movies like The Music Man, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Love Bug; meanwhile, his blue, Yiddish-inflected comedy got him numerous appearances on Hollywood Squares and the Jack Paar and Johnny Carson iterations of The Tonight Show and, briefly, his own NBC sitcom, Stanley, co-starring a young Carol Burnett. All the while, Hackett killed on the club circuit, becoming one of the most famous comedians in the country. Not all of it has aged well — “The Chinese Waiter,” one his most famous bits, perhaps doesn’t land the same way — but much of his work holds up.
When Buddy Hackett died in 2003, his son, who had been on the road for his father for a decade under his tutelage, started to collect stories. Miller pressed him to write a book, which Hackett hopes to publish in the near future. But Hackett is a performer at heart and soon crafted a show with Miller’s help.
She directs the show, and knows a thing or two about what it’s like to have a famous father: Miller is the daughter of Ron Miller, who wrote songs like “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Someday at Christmas” and “For Once in My Life,” among many other hits. Miller and Hackett both have deep respect for the work of their respective fathers; Miller called Buddy Hackett “the greatest comedian in the world,” and Hackett said that, “Ron Miller’s music catalogue will proliferate like Shakespeare’s work. It will be around for hundreds of years.”
“The fact that they were incredible fathers was really meaningful to us, and I wanted to make sure that we documented it,” Miller said.
In the show, Hackett tells stories about his father’s adventures with the giants of yesteryear; he pals around with Carson, George Burns and Richard Pryor, haunts the Strip with the Rat Pack, jokes the night away with Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle. But it’s not a simple recitation of anecdotes. Hackett took his father’s exhortation to “peel the onion” to heart, always looking for the next layer, not immediately apparent in the first telling of a story. He doesn’t even tell the same stories at every show.
“I’ll remember something that I’m telling you,” Hackett said, “and I didn’t write it into the show, but all of the sudden it triggers a memory, the way I tell it, or a word, or something.” And then it comes: another Buddy story.
His cache of stories is inexhaustible, which is part of why he and Miller have kept at this so long. It just never gets stale for them. Even for Hackett, who grew watching live shows from the wings, a YouTube clip can recapture that magic.
“Go type Buddy Hackett into YouTube and watch him, and you’ll sit there and laugh,” Hackett said. “And it’ll take the pain away, and that’s the beauty of comedy and laughter.”
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