Born: February 3, 1918
Death: October 17, 2007
AKA: Joseph Gottlieb
BlueMeter: Tame

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2002 Mouse In The Rat Pack: The Joey Bishop Story

by Michael Seth Starr


A glum stand-up with a number of sad-sack lines ("In kindergarten, I flunked sandpile") Joey Bishop's hip twists on the down side of life made him a nightclub favorite through the 50's and 60's: "We were very poor when I was a kid. I remember one winter, it snowed and I didn't have a sled. I used to go down hill on my cousin. And you know she wasn't bad."

Born in the Bronx, Bishop's first break in show business was winning $3 in a 1936 amateur contest imitating radio comics Joe Penner and Jimmy Durante. He formed "The Bishop Brothers" comedy trio soon after, recalling "Bishop was the name of a guy we knew who owned a car." After World War II service he became a solo impressionist, doing James Cagney, Fred Allen, Al Jolson, etc. He favored a low-key, subtle and often ironic approach. After doing the standard "hitching up the pants" pantomime for his Cagney impression, he said "five thousand a week and he can't afford a belt."

His career took off in Chicago in the late 40's, working the Chez Paree with singer Tony Martin. Bishop cultivated his style of soft-spoken non-threatening humility. He claimed to be the first comedian to address the audience as "Folks" in nightclubs, a ploy to create a friendly bond with the crowd. He began working club dates with Frank Sinatra and in the 50's reached national audiences thanks to appearances on Jack Paar's show. As Bob Newhart would later do even more successfully, Bishop parlayed his brand of put-upon moroseness from stand-up into a sitcom. Audiences were sympathetic to Bishop's wounded look and easygoing personality. His softly clipped delivery was easily identifiable, and would even be used for the character of the ant-chasing aardvark on the "Pink Panther" half hour cartoon show.

As a member of Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack," Bishop turned up in a few films in the mid 60's and in 1967 he went up against Johnny Carson with a late-night talk show. Viewers found his mild, deadpan demeanor a bit soporific at that hour. Ironically, his announcer on the show would became a master of the talk show format—Regis Philbin. Bishop returned to nightclubs with his familiar brand of conversational comedy. A typical opening line: "This is a nice family crowd—so many middle-aged men with their daughters!" Though Jackie Vernon would zero in on sad-sack comedy, and Jackie Mason added a spicier accent to the concept of soft-spoken irony, Bishop was a successful original in his time, and a capable entertainer when he choses to perform in the 80's and 90's.