- - Thursday, February 9, 2017

For more than seven of the nine decades he has been alive, Chicago native Shecky Greene has made audiences laugh from humble beginnings working in strip clubs before moving on to the Catskills and then, finally, to a then-developing place called Las Vegas. For decades Mr. Greene was the highest-paid entertainer to play Sin City’s lounges, with his style a combination of rapid-fire wit, everyday observations and stream-on-consciousness storytelling. His signature method has been emulated by everyone from Buddy Hackett to Jerry Seinfeld.

Although he performs rarely these days, Mr. Greene is still sharp and funny as hell. And he’s easily fired up by even the mention of Frank Sinatra. At his home on the outskirts of Vegas, the living legend discussed comedy, longevity and the time Sinatra gave him a monkey. A real monkey.

Question: Give me an example of your legendary jokes.

Answer: I should never eat lox because I can’t find the combination.

Q: Where did you get your material from?

A: It came from all the things that really happened to me. If anything happened to me, or around me, I would put it in the act. When I first started, I only had a 15minute act. Today at 90 I have an act for 12 hours. Because everything that happened to me really happened and ended up in my act.

Q: Did some people consider you a dirty comic?

A: That’s a strange thing because, in my career as I went, early on I worked at a strip joint in Milwaukee. Even then the boss would not let me say “hell” or “damn.” I never really worked dirty ever. I would get write-ups in New York that called me a “blue comedian.” Time magazine called me a “blue borscht belt comedian.”

I do 2,000 accents. I do one Jewish accent, and then I’m a borsht belt comedian.

Q: Didn’t you get your start in the borscht belt?

A: I wasn’t from there. That was the training ground. We got some of the greatest comics from there.

I came out of Chicago. When I finally went to the borscht belt, I was making more money than the average guy. I was making 25 grand, and other guys were not getting that. Everybody from New York thought I was from New York. They saw me and swore I was from there.

When I started to get lucky in my career, it was in New Orleans. There was a club down there called the Preview Lounge. From that I went to Las Vegas. From Las Vegas came the Johnny Carson show and all the television. They wanted me to do a lot of movies, which I never did.

I would work 20 weeks a year in Vegas making very big money. I did the 20 weeks, and the rest of the time I was hiding out.

Q: What was Las Vegas like when you started?

A: Vegas was a little town with two-story buildings. Now take a look at it. I don’t even want to go in to Vegas. I don’t even want to go into the Strip.

Q: That’s why I’m here.

A: That’s why you’re here in my house. Let me tell you a secret. This isn’t my house. I was so ashamed of my house that I moved into this house just for this interview.

Q: What was working with Frank Sinatra like?

A: We had a love/hate relationship. More hate. I used to do a joke: I said, “Frank Sinatra saved my life. Five guys were beating me up, and I heard Frank Sinatra say, ‘That’s enough.’” True story. There were five guys.

He was always frightened of me. Frightened to death of me. I told him. “One day you and I are going to be alone. And when we’re alone …. (Laughs)

Do you know he gave me a monkey?

Q: A real monkey?

A: Yes. For my birthday he gave me a monkey. And every time I went to feed the monkey, the monkey would reach out and grab my breast. Now I’m teaching the monkey to eat. I’ve got a banana and have the monkey in my suite. I’m eating the banana trying to show the monkey, and the monkey keeps spitting it back at me. I gained 22 pounds eating bananas and the monkey was dying.

Q: Why didn’t you ever do a TV series?

A: Every time they offered me a TV role, it was the same role of a guy telling off an audience. But that’s not the way Shecky Greene worked. I was a character actor. They wanted me to do TV. They had me do a couple of pilots, but it didn’t work because they didn’t know who Shecky Greene was.

Q: Who is Shecky Greene?

A: I don’t know. The people who came to see me, they know. And I never knew in my real life either. Why did I do this and that? At 90 I still don’t know. Once in a while I’ll have a nice sleep. Most nights I wake up yelling. “Why did I do that?!” Life is strange but if you’ve had a mixture of a life like I had. It’s alright.

Q: Was there a point where you retired?

A: I knocked off for quite a while. I got the call and told mu wife I’m gonna take the job at The Riviera. I walk in and the sign says “Headlining: Shecky Greene.” I see there is a line waiting from the front of the place to the back of the place. And I start to cry. Literally cry.

I said, “I never knew the love and dedication of that audience.” I say to my wife, “Look at all these people waiting. It’s wonderful.”

We get to the front; it was the buffet line! From that point on I had them put “Shecky Greene $19.95 with baked potato” on the marquee, because the buffet did better than I did.

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