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Obituary Comedian Alan King Was Model for Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal

May 12, 2004
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Many young Americans know comedian Alan King’s work — they just don’t realize it.

The observational style of King, who died this week of lung cancer at age 76, was a model for younger comedians such as Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld.

Crystal, a close friend, was one of those who paid tribute to King at his funeral Tuesday.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, co-editor of the “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” said King was “someone who brought a sense of indignance about the travails of life.”

King, who usually was seen with a cigar in his mouth, was among the first to lampoon airline food and other irritants of airline travel, as well as doctors’ bills and traffic.

“That was considered kind of cutting edge in that period, where most people were just telling jokes about their mother-in-law,” said Gerald Nachman, author of “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” according to New York Newsday.

King adopted the comedic voice of someone hard to please, cantankerous and impatient.

As the drama critic Kenneth Tynan once put it, “If a sawed-off shotgun could talk, it would sound like Alan King.”

In comparison to his contemporaries, King was less raunchy than Lenny Bruce, less schmaltzy than Buddy Hackett and didn’t talk in dialect like Sid Caesar, Waldoks observed.

But like these others geniuses of American Jewish comedy, King was quick with the zingers.

In one of his better-known lines, King said, “As life’s pleasures go, food is second only to sex. Except for salami and eggs. Now that’s better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced.”

After performing for Queen Elizabeth II, he was introduced to the queen. When she asked, “How do you do, Mr. King?” he told audiences he replied, “How do you do, Mrs. Queen?”

“She stared at me, and then Prince Philip laughed,” he recalled. “Thank God Prince Philip laughed.”

Born in Brooklyn as Irwin Alan Kniberg to Jewish immigrants from Poland, King quit school at age 14.

Through his appearances on the “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1950s and 1960s, and for his guest-host appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” King brought the edgier, Catskills style of humor to the American masses.

But he put his own personal stamp on the Borscht Belt joke.

King has said he was inspired to change his style after watching a performance by another young comedian, Danny Thomas, in the early 1950s.

“Danny actually talked to his audience,” he recalled in a 1991 interview. “And I realized I never talked to my audience. I talked at ’em, around ’em and over ’em, but not to ’em. I felt the response they had for him. I said to myself, ‘This guy is doing something, and I better start doing it.’ “

That sometimes meant a turn to topical humor.

“Why is everybody carrying on about Woolworth’s?” he asked a black audience at a rally after the first lunch- counter sit-ins of the civil rights era. “Have you ever eaten at the counter at Woolworth’s? If you wanted to sit in the Colony Club I could understand.”

King said he didn’t want to slow down in his later years — and he didn’t, performing a few years ago as film mogul Samuel Goldwyn in “Mr. Goldwyn.”

“You only live once,” he once said, “except for Shirley MacLaine.”

He plied his trade well enough that he was named the first recipient of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s award in American Jewish humor. The award now is named after him.

King also showed the younger generation of comics how to be a successful businessman.

He appeared in film and on stage, produced Broadway plays and wrote five books. He was the master of ceremonies for part of President Kennedy’s inaugural party in 1961, and for the 1972 Academy Awards.

His collection of reminiscences, “Matzo Balls for Breakfast and Other Memories of Growing Up Jewish,” will be published next year by Simon & Schuster.

He also was involved in Jewish philanthropy. He founded the Alan King Diagnostic Medical Center in Jerusalem and established a scholarship fund for American students at Hebrew University. He also created a chair in dramatic arts at Brandeis University.

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