"brilliant, sardonic, and contemptuous of most of mankind"
September 9, 2014 11:56 PM   Subscribe

Fay started with gimmicks like everyone else, wearing baggy pants, squirting seltzer, delivering straight lines for a comedian that circled him on roller skates - and he hated it. After humiliating himself onstage for two years, Fay decided to use the same persona he had offstage. No props, no costumes, no partner, he took to the stage wearing a well-tailored tuxedo and told jokes alone. It was so unconventional that The New York Times frowned: "“Fay needs a good straight man, as before, to feed his eccentric comedy." There was initial resistance to a man just standing and talking, but Fay's success would transform stand-up as an artform. Fellow comedians saw Fay succeed and they abandoned their props and emulated his style. Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Bob Hope and Jack Paar all cited him as an influence. Fay became one of the most influential stand-up comics of all time.

He was also comedy's most notorious racist. In January 1946, several months after Germany had been defeated, a rally of ten thousand white supremacists gathered at Madison Square Garden. They delivered speeches in support of Franco, Mussolini and their fallen hero Adolf Hitler. They promised that the defeat of Germany would not go unpunished. The podium was beneath a banner that saluted their guest of honor. The event was called "The Friends of Frank Fay."
Frank Fay: The Fascist Stand-Up Comic by Kliph Nesteroff (for WFMU's Beware of the Blog) posted by Atom Eyes (45 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
Never heard of this guy before, a testament to the effectiveness of his apparently well-deserved censure. I'm comfortable leaving Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Milton Berle in pride of place in comedy's history, and consigning this unrepentant bigot to the sorry history of American fascism.
posted by silby at 1:26 AM on September 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


Oy Fay!
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:45 AM on September 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


From the article:
People were resistant to hire him in Hollywood now that his anti-Semitism was famous. “In a business known for its lack of bigotry, he was a bigot,” said comedy writer Milt Josefsberg. “This was no secret, but widely known and well substantiated.” Fay married the struggling actress Barbara Stanwyck in 1928, before she found stardom. When she became famous, a joke about Fay made the rounds:

Q: Which Hollywood actor has the biggest prick?
A: Barbara Stanwyck.
Heh.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 2:36 AM on September 10, 2014 [21 favorites]


From the Wikipedia article on Barbara Stanwyck:
Fay's successful career on Broadway did not translate to the big screen, whereas Stanwyck achieved Hollywood stardom. Fay engaged in physical confrontations with his young wife, especially when he was inebriated.[36][37] Some claim that this union was the basis for A Star Is Born.[38]
Well, as if I didn't have enough reasons to give Norman Maine the side eye....
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 2:46 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Fascinating post, Atom Eyes -- many thanks.
posted by On the Corner at 3:33 AM on September 10, 2014


I'm comfortable ... consigning this unrepentant bigot to the sorry history of American fascism.

It does feels good, but I'm not sure its too healthy to do that. Those who don't know their history, etc

Great Post.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 4:01 AM on September 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yes, awesome post. I had never heard of this guy before.

When I first saw the name what came to mind was Frankie Fane, who was the main character in the notorious 1966 flop "The Oscar" about an actor willing to step over everyone to get to stardom. As I recall, the character wasn't necessarily racist, but he was an unrepentant asshole.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 4:21 AM on September 10, 2014


Those who don't know their history, etc

Unfortunately, those who do know their history also, etc.

But I agree that it's not good to forget. Here [pdf] are some of those "Friends of Frank Fay" at that rally.
posted by pracowity at 4:44 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm comfortable leaving Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Milton Berle in pride of place in comedy's history, and consigning this unrepentant bigot to the sorry history of American fascism.

You know who else liked to edit people out of history... (Sorry, wrong dictator. In Soviet Russia, history edits you!)

Sure, he seems to have been a thoroughly objectionable man, but imagine if stand-ups were still all seltzer and baggy pants. At least his comedic innovations were what got carried forward, rather than his bigoted views.
posted by rory at 5:29 AM on September 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


At least his comedic innovations were what got carried forward, rather than his bigoted views.

So he's the Leni Riefenstahl of the stand-up set?
posted by kewb at 5:35 AM on September 10, 2014 [12 favorites]


That so many American fascists were flagrantly holding a rally just six months after the end of the War was bold.

That's not bold; it's fucking mind-boggling, is what it is. What a strange story. I'd never heard of Frank Fay before, but now I want to Know Everything.Thanks, Atom Eyes (and Kliph Nesteroff).
posted by mediareport at 5:52 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Stanwyck was introduced to Fay by Oscar Levant. Nice irony.
posted by JanetLand at 6:02 AM on September 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


Worth pointing out that Nesteroff's most recent WFMU blog post is "a composite of deleted sections from the forthcoming Grove Atlantic release Drunks, Thieves and Scoundrels: American Comedians 1915-2015."

His other posts read like previews of what looks to be a fascinating book. Hope he finishes it soon.
posted by mediareport at 6:15 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Here [pdf] are some of those "Friends of Frank Fay" at that rally.

Huh:
In Box 3 (front row) at the Fay rally are (left to right): John Henihan, Bronx Christian Front leader; Virginia Curran and Edward Lodge Curran, long known as the East Coast leader of the Coughlinite movement. (On May 1, 1944, Curran proclaimed his own revival of the "Social Justice" movement.)
I remember being dimly aware that the term social justice had its origins in Catholic social teaching, but I didn't realize it was such a catchphrase for Father Coughlin and the Christian Front specifically. Funny how the meaning of things changes.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 6:16 AM on September 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


How do you write an article about a standup and not include a single joke?
posted by empath at 7:05 AM on September 10, 2014


I'd never heard of Frank Fay before, but now I want to Know Everything.

Here's an obituary from when he died, supposedly at age 62, but Walter Winchell said Fay was (according to sources) "closer to 74." Charlie and Bryan Foy (not Fay) said Fay (not Foy) never got over Stanwyck.
posted by pracowity at 7:08 AM on September 10, 2014


Here [pdf] are some of those "Friends of Frank Fay" at that rally.

Hamilton Fish was there. Scion of America's oldest (?) political dynasty, Fish was (among other things) a (white) officer of the AEF's first African-American regiment, the 369th Infantry, aka the Harlem Hellfighters. After the war, Representative Fish introduced legislation to erect the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But he hated Roosevelt (and communism) so much that he got in bed with Germany. Very enemy of my enemy. Plus ça change ... He lived to be 102.

More interesting, is that Fish's grandson, Hamilton Fish is that Hamilton Fish, the ex-publisher of The Nation and ex-President of The Nation Institute, current publisher of The Washington Spectator, and the producer of several of Marcel Ophüls' films notably The Memory of Justice and Hôtel Terminus. (I seem to recall Fish having some (peripheral) connection to the NY smart set of Warhol's day also but he doesn't make the journals. I looked.) Fish the Younger's got another 40 years beat his granddad.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:12 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


How do you write an article about a standup and not include a single joke?

Here's one:

“The last time I saw Frank Fay he was walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand.” --Fred Allen

And:
As late as the 1950s, one of his most enduring routines was taking a popular song and analysing the "senseless" lyrics, for example "Tea for Two":
Picture you, upon my knee -- [This guy just owns one chair?]

Just tea for two and two for tea --[So, here's the situation: the guy just has one chair, but enough tea for two, so he has two for tea. If anyone else shows up, he shoots 'em!]

Nobody near us, to see us or hear us -- [Who'd want to listen to a couple of people drinking tea?]

We won't have it known dear that we own a telephone -- [So, this guy's too cheap to get another chair, he has a telephone, but won't tell anyone about it!]
-- WP
I definitely heard this bit once upon a time. My childhood memories associated it with Spike Jones and Ernie Kovacs.

There's also the Old Professor's analysis of Mary Had A Little Lamb: "It's in the book!"

And of course, Steve Allen picked up on the idea and employed it in the service of ridiculing rock - n - roll music, reading song lyrics out of context.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:13 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Correction: "It's in the book!"* was Johnny Standley. The Old Philosopher, on the other hand, is best known for the "Is that what's bothering you, Bunky?" routine.

Carry on.
----------------------------
* In 1952, the first spoken word record to be a #1 hit.

posted by Herodios at 7:23 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


While many celebrities distanced themselves from Fay, he found a friend in the popular radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin.

This is not much of a recommendation for the character of either.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:47 AM on September 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


He was also comedy's most notorious racist.

He wasn't racist exactly, except against wasps, but surely we can't talk about this issue without bringing up Bing Hitler.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:51 AM on September 10, 2014


At least his comedic innovations were what got carried forward, rather than his bigoted views.

Another innovation:
"An early example of the arrogance that was to overshadow his reputation throughout his career occurred at this early stage. In the incident, which became notorious throughout theatrical circles, Fay let the audience wait several minutes while he struggled to tie his tie in the dressing room. “Let ‘em wait!” he apparently snapped at the stage manager, establishing a tradition that would not be revived until rock and roll was invented forty years later."

Several minutes? Thanks a lot.

Btw, you know who else liked to keep his audience waiting? "Just when you thought he couldn’t possibly wait any longer, he waited longer."
posted by iviken at 8:00 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm comfortable leaving Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Milton Berle in pride of place in comedy's history, and consigning this unrepentant bigot to the sorry history of American fascism.

I don't really like this approach because it obscures history. I think it's entirely OK to say that this guy, who was a terrible person, had X or Y impact in their field and that later people (who were, perhaps more admirable) built on that impact. Especially when that impact seems to have been driven, at least in part, but some of what makes the guy problematic (in this case his arrogance and self-regard rather than his antisemitism).

There are a lot of people with ugly ideas who are still significant figures. History demands that a) we remember their accomplishments and b) never forget what jerks they were.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:58 AM on September 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


I don't doubt that his association with fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism killed his career even postmortem. That said, it's harder to be remembered than it is to be forgotten: most celebrities fade into the mists regardless.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:12 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


empath: “How do you write an article about a standup and not include a single joke?”

There are like a dozen jokes in this article.
posted by koeselitz at 9:16 AM on September 10, 2014


There are like a dozen jokes in this article.

Take my fascist dictator, please. No, really, please. Take him.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:29 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


There are like a dozen jokes in this article.

From Fay? I counted one insult directed at Milton Berle, and I'm not even sure that joke was original with him.
posted by empath at 9:32 AM on September 10, 2014




Yeah, I guess I see what you mean – it would be kind of nice to see what his material was like.
posted by koeselitz at 9:37 AM on September 10, 2014


From the clips, what strikes me is how similar his cadence is to that of Bob Hope. At times it's almost uncanny.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:46 AM on September 10, 2014


Oh holy cats I'm a dead ringer for this guy. Like he could be my great grandfather. :O
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:02 AM on September 10, 2014


All this talk about fascist comedians and no mention of Bing Hitler? I hate that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:10 AM on September 10, 2014


I remember being dimly aware that the term social justice had its origins in Catholic social teaching, but I didn't realize it was such a catchphrase for Father Coughlin and the Christian Front specifically. Funny how the meaning of things changes.

I think it was a deliberate co-opting of a term originally meant to encourage
redress for the abuse of laborers. Like all great historical movements, it got
a little schitzy - for some, socialism (eek!), communism (horrors!) offered this
redress, for others, these were the very concepts causing this abuse. For the latter,
anti-communism = pro-fascism = Christian Front, Fr. Coughlin, etc.
The former were more the Dorothy Day Catholic Workers Movement (cf. eek, horrors)type. It didn't help that prior to Pearl Harbor most (Irish)Catholics were anti-war (take that,English bastards!).
posted by Chitownfats at 10:13 AM on September 10, 2014


I think it was a deliberate co-opting of a term originally meant to encourage redress for the abuse of laborers.

Father Coughlin certainly saw himself as an advocate for laborers - white laborers, of course. He opposed both Communism and free market capitalism. His virulent anti-Semitism was tightly wound up in his assails against Wall Street capitalism, "money changers", and whatnot.

He was like the Negaverse G. K. Chesterton - himself another anti-Semite, albeit a smarter and more charming one.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:28 AM on September 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


I strongly disagree that Frank Fay somehow invented stand-up. He wasn't the first guy without "a costume or an instrument or another guy."

Check out Eddie Cantor. Here's a talkie from 1923 (four years before The Jazz Singer). He does sing two comic songs (with the orchestra -- not his own instrument). But the rest is exactly the form of modern stand-up. And while this was filmed in 1923, Cantor had already been famous for ~10 years by then. This form wasn't waiting for Fay to invent it.

(And by the way, Cantor -- Isidore Iskowitz -- was Jewish.)

Bonus: a little dustup between them. Cantor ain't scared.
posted by booksandlibretti at 11:13 AM on September 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


@ empath, thanks for posting that clip. Fascinating that he's dressed as a doughboy but is wearing an Iron Cross, and that he specifically draws attention to it twice. I know it's pre-holocaust, but still. Wow.
Also, TiL the 'nazi Laura Ingalls' mentioned in the article is not Laura Ingalls Wilder, but a pioneer aviatrix.
posted by aquanaut at 11:17 AM on September 10, 2014


Bonus: a little dustup between them. Cantor ain't scared.

That's fascinating, booksandlibretti. Thanks! (N.B. The Fay story starts on p.4 of the PDF doc and then is continued on p.46.)
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:29 AM on September 10, 2014


I can't believe no one has brought up Bing Hitler yet. Someone should.
posted by iotic at 11:34 AM on September 10, 2014




This is fascinating; I'd never heard of this guy. Thanks so much for posting it!
posted by Greg Nog at 12:46 PM on September 10, 2014


Also, TiL the 'nazi Laura Ingalls' mentioned in the article is not Laura Ingalls Wilder, but a pioneer aviatrix.

Between that and the fringe theory that Amelia Earhart was Tokyo Rose, how unfortunate for early women's aviation.
posted by Apocryphon at 2:35 PM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


surely we can't talk about this issue without bringing up Bing Hitler.

He was literally worse than ... I can't think of anything.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:47 PM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


He's the competitor to Google Hitler, right?
posted by InfidelZombie at 2:48 PM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


No, you're thinking of that other Nazi-sympathizing search engine, Ask Jeeves & Wooster.
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:09 PM on September 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Can I just take this moment to apologize for my idiocy?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:13 PM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


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