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Remembering Mr. Television in his own words

By Brad Keena
web posted April 1, 2002

The passing of Milton Berle last week marks both the end of an era and a reminder of what society is sadly missing today. More than anyone else, "Uncle Miltie" – who succumbed to cancer at age 93 on March 27 – will be thought of as the real inventor of television. "We owe a lot to Thomas Edison," Berle quips from out of the past. "If it wasn't for him, we'd be watching television by candlelight." While technicians invented the hardware, Berle breathed life into this newly-born medium we now call TV.

Milton BerleThe self-proclaimed "Thief of Bad Gags" used to shut down movie theaters across the country each week as NBC broadcast his live comedy routine, "Texaco Star Theater." He got the nickname "Uncle Miltie" from a routine he concocted one night when his live show came up short and he needed to fill time. Adlibbing, he urged children to "listen to Uncle Miltie, and kiss Mommy and Daddy good night and go straight upstairs like good little boys and girls."

"This is not to say I was a saint during the ‘Texaco' days," Berle would later admit. "I was rough, and I have lots of regrets about things I did and said, for the way I pushed and shoved and bullied during those hysterical years. My only defense, which is no defense, is the pressure I worked under, and the person I was raised to be."

He was born Mendel Berlinger to parents Moses and Sarah, who lived in New York City. Sarah was determined to see her little boy succeed in show business. Young Mendel co-stared in his first full-length movie comedy at age five.

In those days, however, vaudeville was really the favorite form of popular entertainment, with its diverse collection of comedy, song and dance acts traveling from town to town in North America. Growing up on the stage, Berle's gift for entertaining audiences played well in Peoria. Unlike the rebellion humor embraced by baby boomers, the comedy of vaudeville often zeroed in on stereotypes, making fun of every religion and leaving no ethnic background untouched.

"Anytime a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies," Berle once joked. Over time, he combined his comedic gift with an acerbic wit. On the subject of marriage, Berle – married four times in his life – always had a one-liner. "The trouble with life is, by the time you can read a girl like a book, your library card has expired," and "Marriage is one of the few institutions that allow a man to do as his wife pleases," and "Your marriage is in trouble if your wife says, ‘You're only interested in one thing,' and you can't remember what it is."

As vaudeville faded and the motion picture industry took off, moviemakers preferred leading men and handsome crooners to comedians like Milton Berle.

At age 40, Berle was eager to try something new: television. ["Thank the Lord for TV," Berle would later say. "I hate to sit down and have a frozen radio dinner."] In its infancy, the television industry was happy to put gifted live performers on the screen. "Milton's style was exactly right for what he did. He had enormous energy. Enormous vitality," fellow-pioneer Steve Allen, once said of Berle. Debuting in the summer of 1948, Milton Berle put NBC on four out of every five television sets across the country every Tuesday night. "He sold more television sets in this country than any other company or person," actor Jack Lemon would later recall. "RCA didn't sell them, or the people who make them. He sold them. People would visit other people. There were only a million or something sets in the whole country when Milton became a star. And then, after seeing Milton's show, then ‘yeah...I think you're right, we'd better get one, Myrtle.' And they'd go out and buy a set!" Eventually, NBC signed "Mr. Television" to a then-lucrative three-decade, $200,000-a-year contract. "It is difficult to save money. Who knows? Maybe one day it will become valuable again."

He once told an audience, "I feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor's sixth husband. I know what I'm supposed to do, but I don't know how to make it interesting." At an awards ceremony, he asked, "Why are we honoring this man? Have we run out of human beings?" If one joke didn't get a laugh, the next would: "What is this, an audience or a jury?"

Uncle Miltie was a national treasure, and I'm sad to see the passing of a great act from such a wonderful era. His style of comedy was the quintessential work of a golden age when masters of his trade could make people laugh without the use of controversial subjects, base jokes, or obscenities.

"Who says we didn't have controversial subjects on TV back in my time?" Berle interrupts, eager to have the last word. "Remember Bonanza? It was about three guys in high heels living together."

Contact Brad Keena at jbkeena@hotmail.com.

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