Before Mr. Miyagi, Pat Morita Was A Stand-Up Comic
Noriyuki Morita was in his late 20s, married with a baby, and working as a computer wonk (in the days when computers took up entire rooms) at a San Francisco aerospace firm. The not-yet-swinging 1960s were just underway and Morita was unhappy as hell. Without a college degree, he saw no future in the engineering world. Not that he wanted that kind of future. In fact, there was only one profession that really interested him -- show business.
“Crazy,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, all I could do was talk.”
So he did what lots of crazy show-biz types did -- quit his well-paying job and took a leap of faith. But how do you become a stand-up comic? Early days were spent cribbing jokes from Readers Digest, taking the ones he thought might be funny and reworking them a bit. He moved to Los Angeles, having no idea what to do next.
One of his first lessons came at the hand of comedian John Barbour. Morita approached the comic for help getting started in the biz, Barbour told Kliph Nesteroff’s Classic Television Showbiz. “So we went and sat down in a coffee shop and I said, ‘Okay. Do your act. I won't laugh, but I'll listen.’ He says, ‘Okay. This Jew and this Irishman get on a bus…’”
Barbour told Morita to shut up before he could get to the punchline. “He said, ‘What's wrong? Don't you want to hear the rest of the joke?’ I said, ‘No. You should be doing material about yourself.’ And that's what he started doing.”
Morita’s next order of business was to find a suitable stage name. Comedians went by names like Shecky and Red, not Noriyuki. Ultimately, he adopted the name Pat, says comedy historian Wayne Federman, because there were several comics who used that name. Pat Henry, Pat Buttram, Pat Cooper were all established -- and now, there was a Pat Morita.
Audiences could more easily pronounce his name, but being Japanese? Despite Barbour’s advice about being himself, that was still a hurdle. “Morita was soft-spoken and had clever material,” Federman told Cracked, “a lot of which was based on being Japanese American. What was so startling is that he began doing stand-up just 15 years after the end of World War II.”
Somehow, that didn’t stop Morita from making inroads as a stand-up at a time when virtually no other Asian comic was visible on stage or screen. Morita gave himself five years to make it to The Ed Sullivan Show or he’d call it a day. It took him four years before he booked an appearance on Hollywood Palace. Close enough.
Things took off from there. Morita convinced Sally Marr (who just happened to be Lenny Bruce’s mother) to manage his career, and she had success booking him in clubs around North America.
Yep, you’re reading that correctly. Morita leaned into his ethnicity, billing himself as the “Hip Nip” while slowly establishing himself as a popular stand-up comic. “Progressive” television shows were looking to diversify, albeit awkwardly. See if you can get through Glen Campbell’s uncomfortable introduction to another of Morita’s first TV appearances. The Frito Bandito commercial and Buddy Hackett’s embarrassing Asian character promoting Lay’s potato chips leading into the segment tell you all you need to know about the country’s attitude toward ethnic humor at the time.
To be fair, Morita himself leads off with a stereotypical “herro” before busting everyone’s brains with an ability to mimic just about any kind of accent. It must have been one hell of a sight for Mr. and Mrs. Middle America in 1968, watching a Japanese-American comic doing a southern drawl and joking about smoking grass. Except he wasn’t entirely joking.
In addition to TV variety shows, Marr booked Morita on a lucrative series of Playboy Club dates. “Pat Morita was one of the comedians Sally pushed on the Playboy circuit,” says booker Jackie Curtiss in The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy. “He was high all the time. He would come onstage smoking a joint.”
Hey, Pat was a man of the times. And word about his successful Playboy Club stints got around.
In the early 1970s, Bruce Merrin was a PR pro whose clients included Michael Landon and Johnny Carson. “Johnny said to me, I've heard about this guy Pat Morita,” remembers Merrin. “Just for fun, go check him out and let me know what you think.” So Merrin was off to Morita’s appearance at the Horn Club in Santa Monica. “I thought he was absolutely great. I remember sitting in the audience and he really touched my heart. I always look around to see how the audience is reacting and they really loved him. He was so appealing, really charismatic on stage.”
Merrin recommended Morita for The Tonight Show slot and “Johnny loved him,” he says. “And that could make your career 100%.”
An irony of really making it as a stand-up comic, especially killing it on The Tonight Show in the 1970s, is that everything else opens up so much that you’re no longer doing stand-up. Merrin began booking Morita on popular talk-show appearances that led to his being cast as Arnold on Happy Days, the number one show in America. That character proved so popular that Morita became the first Asian-American to land his own sitcom, Mr. T and Tina. He even got an assist from the Sweathogs.
The show didn’t last, but the opportunities kept coming, culminating in his iconic Mr. Miyagi role in the original Karate Kid. “To go from being a stand-up comic to being nominated for an Academy Award? That was a very special thing that he was really, really proud of,” says Merrin.
The guts and perseverance it took to reach that stage of his career probably wouldn't have surprised Morita's first manager, Sally Marr. Even before his act really worked, Morita told the Television Academy Foundation, Marr saw something there. “She used to say ‘Pat Morita. No act. Small talent. Big balls.’”
Top image: CBS Television