4 of the Luckiest Moments in Comedy History

Answering a call from a pay phone changed ‘Saturday Night Live’ forever
4 of the Luckiest Moments in Comedy History

Even though New York Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez was talented enough to make the Baseball Hall of Fame (the guy had one helluva fastball), he knew that talent was only part of the equation. “I’d rather be lucky than good,” he famously said, knowing that a hard-hit ball right to the shortstop was preferable to the broken-bat single that drives in the winning run. The same goes for comedy — talent and hard work are the most essential contributors to success, but dumb luck is always welcome. Here are four times when serendipity led to comic greatness…

‘SNL’ Producer Neil Levy Takes a Pay Phone Call from Eddie Murphy

My cell phone rings all day with calls from scammers trying to get me to buy “affordable health insurance” or rooftop solar panels, so I often don’t answer it. Which is to say, who could have blamed Levy if he’d ignored the constant ringing on his office phone back in 1980? Or if he’d simply hung up when he heard a guy begging for an audition — from a pay phone?

But Levy listened, mostly because the kid on the line made him laugh with made-up stories about why he needed a job. Murphy’s endless supply of dimes (the cost of a call in 1980) paid off when Levy finally relented and got Murphy a shot as a Saturday Night Live extra. Not content to stand in the background, Murphy improvised an audition in the hallway when he showed up at 30 Rock. The performance and, even more importantly, the writing were so strong that Levy convinced Season Six producer Jean Doumanian to formally audition the 19-year-old Murphy.

Levy had to fight for Murphy over Robert Townsend, getting his way when the Hollywood Shuffle actor (luckily!) refused to sign a contract. The lesson: Answer your phone because you never know when the next Eddie Murphy is on the line.

A Fred Allen Ad-Lib Starts Long-Running Radio ‘Feud‘ with Jack Benny

An offhand aside after a 10-year-old’s violin performance set off a decade-long squabble that fueled the golden age of radio comedy. After the fifth-grader’s rendition of “The Bee” on his variety show, Allen joked that the kid was better than a “certain alleged violin player,” a poke at his friend, popular radio comic Jack Benny.

Benny happened to be listening that night and found the joke funny enough to fire back at Allen at the end of his next show. “Mary, I want to dictate a message to Fred Allen,” Benny said. “Dear Fred, when I was 10 years old, I could play ‘The Bee’ too.” Allen then invited “guests” who swore that childhood Benny could do no such thing. The back-and-forth between the shows went on for years. Sometimes they’d guest on each others’ programs to exchange barbs like:

Allen: Jack, you couldn’t ad-lib a belch after a plate of Hungarian goulash.
Benny: You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.

Allen’s unscripted jab began “the darndest feud,” an accidental ratings bonanza that had listeners tuning into both shows each week to hear what punch would be thrown next.

Don Rickles and David Steinberg Skip ‘Crazy‘ Joe Gallo’s After-Party

How Steinberg became friends with a mafia kingpin isn’t the story here (although it involves an introduction by Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach). Just know that one April night in 1972, Steinberg and Gallo went to see Rickles perform at the Copa, according to Steinberg’s memoir Inside Comedy. Lucky part #1: When Rickles recognized Gallo in the crowd, he dropped to the floor and made rat-a-tat machine gun noises, the gangster laughed rather than deciding to take offense. (Another outcome was definitely possible.)

Lucky part #2: After the show, Gallo urged Steinberg and Rickles to join him for a late-night meal. Both comics declined, just hours before Gallo was gunned down eating shrimp and scungilli at an all-night joint in Little Italy. Had the comics agreed to tag along, comedy history would have been short a couple of legends.

The Internet Stumbles onto Louis C.K.

Around 2005, C.K. was a popular comic among a certain kind of comedy nerd but he’d yet to break through into the national consciousness. That all changed when he guested on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2008 with a bit about how technology has made a world where “everything’s amazing, but nobody’s happy.” A spot on Conan is well and good, but a new phenomenon called “YouTube” made the bit explode. According to Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians, someone uploaded the C.K. clip nine months after the Conan appearance, and soon, it was everywhere. Facebook, Myspace and other sites made C.K. a household name out of nowhere.

“The business model of comedy was changing,” wrote Nesteroff, “but the most important variable was the same as ever: Good luck.”


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