Awesome Men Throughout History: Joe Ancis
“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well” is a saying that I’ve lived by for years. It’s become sort of a mantra for me, in fact, and it’s something that a lot of TSB readers probably know to be true as well.
I always thought that legendary comedian Lenny Bruce had originally said that line, but I recently learned that it was Joe Ancis, Bruce’s roommate, friend, and primary comedic influence, who said it. I did a little digging, and it turns out that Joe said a lot of things that Lenny would become famous for saying. I’m not saying that Lenny stole Joe’s act, but I am saying that Joe Ancis was the definition of an unappreciated genius, and that he’s this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History.
Joe was born to a lower-class Jewish family, and hung out with third-rate comedians, hustlers, aging showgirls, and everyone else who passed for a low-life in 1950s Manhattan. Specifically, he spent a lot of time around Hanson’s Drugstore, where all the unknown comics hung out during the day, and was widely considered one of the funniest people in New York.
Phil Berger described Ancis’ take on things (especially women and sex) as “what de Sade might have done had he knocked around Bensonhurst,” and Rodney Dangerfield—another one of Ancis’ close friends—recalled Joe telling a story about going to see Nancy Wilson perform and worrying that if someone shot her on stage, he would be the primary suspect because he was the only white guy in the crowd.
As you may have gathered, Joe Ancis was kind of an angry, neurotic mess. He was also too shy, and too fearful of the stage, to ever be a legit stand-up comedian, but he definitely left his mark on every comic in his social circle. Lenny Bruce learned about Jewish culture, jazz, and art appreciation from Ancis, and borrowed heavily from Ancis’ edgy, stream-of-consciousness vocal delivery.
Ancis didn’t do everything for free, though. When he and Rodney Dangerfield (then Jack Roy) left Manhattan to get real jobs in Jersey, they filled the trunk of Rodney’s car with jokes that they sold to New York comics for $5 a bit at Hanson’s (which, being full of comedians all the time, was a good place to sell new material). Ancis and Rodney’s jokes were the cream of the crop for the time, and comedians influenced or taught by him went on to become legends.
Ancis was also a weed hookup for a lot of his friends since he either had it or knew where to get it, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this column. Still, it seems worth mentioning.
There isn’t much information about Joe’s life out there, but he’s an important figure in stand-up comedy’s transformation from hacky vaudeville routines and impressions to the weird form of public philosophy it is today, and the impact Lenny Bruce had on censorship and the arts wouldn’t have been possible without Joe’s guidance. Neither would Rodney Dangerfield’s career, for that matter. Think about that next time you watch Back To School.
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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.