Awesome Men Throughout History: Shecky Greene
I think I’ve mentioned my appreciation for Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in this column before, but this week marks the first time it’s introduced me to an Awesome Man Throughout History candidate. Maron is a big comedy history nerd, and his interview with Gilbert Gottfried is a testament to that; they spend more than a little time talking about unsung comedians from decades ago. One of them, unheard of today but a legend in his prime, is this week’s topic, standup comedian Shecky Greene.
Shecky (real name Fred Sheldon Greenfield) has been a Las Vegas mainstay since the early 1950s, and played resorts and small clubs around his hometown of Chicago, as well as engagements in New Orleans, Miami, and Reno, before that. His act was immensely successful in Vegas, and he co-headlined at the MGM Grand Hotel under Dean Martin, pulling a $150,000/week salary in the process. That’s big money now, but it was practically unheard of then; Greene was one of four comedians commanding a six-figure salary at that time.
To give you another idea of Greene’s status in Las Vegas, Elvis Presley was his opening act at one point. Not bad, eh?
Greene’s act was especially popular with other comedians, and guys like Bob Hope, Regis Philbin, Johnny Carson (which explains his 40 appearances on the Tonight Show), and Frank Sinatra (not a comedian, but worth mentioning) loved the guy. Conversely, Buddy Hackett and Greene got into an epic brawl that ended with Greene stepping on Hackett’s head and telling him that if he stood up, Greene would kill him.
Greene was also one of the key guys who performed in comedy clubs and other, more intimate venues where comedians didn’t have to share a bill with musicians or dancers or whatever. In that sense, he helped create spaces where standup comedy could develop as an art form in and of itself, without having to reach a broader audience that really came to see something else (as was often the case in Vegas). And really, Greene was perfect for comedy clubs. He was an irreverent and unpredictable stage presence, as illustrated by that fight with Hackett, who could climb the stage curtains or get into a fistfight with the club owner on any given night.
Despite this, Greene had a lot of television appearances and did a handful of movies as well, including fellow Awesome Man Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1. He even worked on Broadway, although he didn’t like being confined to a script and thus wasn’t really cut out for theatre, and his career didn’t survive the transition from Rat Pack, mob-controlled Las Vegas to family vacation, mob-controlled Las Vegas. But since Greene has always had a love/hate relationship with show business, he took that in stride.
But this isn’t a eulogy. Shecky Greene’s still performing today, mostly at tourist traps and casinos, and he’s still pretty funny; unlike a lot of older comedians, Shecky doesn’t coast on his old material all that much. That said, I’ll end with a classic clip of him from 1975, drawing a mustache on his face with a permanent marker.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.