Greenberg, Bob

Bob Greenberg’s talents are so broad that is hard to peg all his strengths.  He’s is a comedian who does impressions and can inhabit Characters in the vein of Jonathan Winters (a Lamb) or Red Skelton.

A good term is “funnyman” because as a comedian he is not like the typical ones doing stand-up. He’s not just doing voices, but acting them out too. “You could say, I’m a comedian/entertainer” he noted. You could also call Greenberg an “old school comedian.” He has a good deal in common with Jackie Gleason from The Honeymooners. “Gleason was really a sketch comic, but when he did stand-up, he did Impressions,” said Greenberg.  

But the best description comes from his pal and Catskills Legend, Bernie Berns, who sums Bob up by calling him “The Great Greenberg.” A through-line of his career is how one opportunity opens up to others which leads to still others. An improv connection led to a TV appearance, which in turn landed a theater role.  “It’s funny how things snowball, one thing leads to another, dots get connected,” said Greenberg.

He is a masterful Mime. Doing Curly of The Three Stooges in a SAG Industrial paved the way for Bob’s SAG card which made him Equity eligible as well.  

Greenberg’s first commercial was for The Three Stooges VCR Game. He had been a Santa at Macy’s (there were six Santa’s simultaneously working, he recalls). He went backstage and saw a newspaper clipping from the actors’ publication Backstage on the floor. It was cut out by someone and announced an open call to play Curly for The Three Stooges VCR Game Commercial.  Bob asked the other Santas who did the clipping belong to, but no one claimed it. Bob went to the audition and got the part.  This led to other Three Stooges gigs including appearing on Robert Klein Time and USA’s Up All Night with Gilbert Gottfried, which along with commercials led to getting a commercial agent as well. Many commercials followed including one with sports star Michael Jordan, John Lithgow and two with Whoopi Goldberg.

Just how does one imitate the laugh of hilariously zany Curly of the Three Stooges? Bob said, “He had a high-pitched voice, definitely Brooklyn, who had over-the-top reactions such as barking like a dog…Saying nuck-nuck-nuck is a common mistake. It’s n-yuk, n-yuk, n-yuk,” said Bob.

In one of Bob’s early experiences doing Curly, he got a booking at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, CT, for a show called Stooge-A-Rama. The place was an old vaudeville haunt that had Jack L. Warner’s reserve parking outside, as well as Sam Warner. “It still had hanging sandbags backstage.”

In another Stooges related show, Bob was booked at Rocky Point Amusement Park in Rhode Island, billed as part of the Three Lost Soles. Not much had changed there since the time when the manager used to be a kid around 1969 when Joe DeRita was there in the last incarnation of the real Three Stooges. “They made the same money you got [in 1969 dollars],” he wryly noted.

Years ago, Greenberg favored Stan Laurel but later came to admire Oliver Hardy, whose boyish gestures were nuanced. Greenberg said Hardy thought he was smarter than Laurel, which made him even dumber. Greenberg laughs, “These are characters I can unfortunately relate to.”

The talented Jonathan Smith and Bob Greenberg perform brilliantly as Laurel and Hardy, respectively. He said one secret to doing Oliver Hardy is his reacting to events daintily.  He communicates with his eyes. He looks directly into the camera, the way Jack Benny would later do. Bob recalls Chuck Jones, in an interview, saying Hardy, being a large man, works inward with his fingers like twiddling his tie. While Stan Laurel, on the other hand being a thin man, has his hands motion outward in gesture.

When he was young, Greenberg favored the more likable Art Carney on The Honeymooners. “As I got older, I began to see the pathos of Gleason’s character and the irony of his boasting.”  

How does one do a Jackie Gleason imitation? “Gleason as Ralph is almost like a Mime. For instance when Ralph points at Alice, he doesn’t just raise a finger and points and pulls his body back to give it a strong motion and then leans his head to the left giving his ‘point’ power. There’s a lot of silent movie type motions in Ralph Kramden. Gleason is a bit like Oliver Hardy, in which it’s not just the voice, but movements that help reflect his character.

Bob does some hilarious pairings, such as Jackie Gleason doing Shakespeare; a Jewish rendition of Alfred Hitchcock, in which he puffs up his face; and Curly as the Captain on the Titanic. “The concept is as important as the voice and physicality.”

One of the figures who awoke an interest in Silent Film in Bob was television and radio host Joe Franklin. Bob and his older brother would watch him on television. His brother introduced him to Joe Franklin’s show because of Bob’s love of old movies. When he was not showing old-time movie shorts, Franklin would have on his show incongruous guests all sharing the couch, he said, “like the punk group The Ramones, a lady who wrote a book on crochet, or a person with a hairpin collection.”

A young Bob looked in the white pages, and remarkably found Joe Franklin’s phone number. It began a many-year phone-call friendship. He recalls as a kid asking Franklin trivia questions. Bob recalls that Joe had a lot of pat answers and would end the phone call each time by saying, “Be good to mommy and daddy.” Bob would go on years later to visit Joe Franklin weekly in his office at 300 West 43rd street. His office was jammed with memorabilia. As Bob recalls, part of it was like his TV show: an elevated desk with a couple phones on it, chairs below for his “guests” and clutter everywhere. On Joe’s last Satellite Radio Show, Joe had Bob do his Jackie Gleason doing Shakespeare bit for Ed McMahon and had the pleasure of seeing McMahon rave about it and Bob on the show.

Joe, Bob said, “was very optimistic with a good memory but was creative with with Celebrity Quotes.”  He said depending on the circumstances, Joe would attribute the same quote or comment to Al Jolson (a Lamb) or Harry Ritz or Eddie Cantor (a Lamb), depending on whomever at the moment made most sense.

Bob was on Saturday Night Live (1/8/11) in the monologue with Jim Carrey. He was booked to deliver one line as an Audience Member.

Saturday Night Live writers of the monologue were Colin Jost and John Mulaney. Bob was a plant in the audience and he delivered his line in Close-Up with no problems but later when Carrey asks a real audience member “Will you marry me?” there was a problem. The woman in the audience showed her wedding ring, and was not playing along with the Jim. Improvising, Bob waved to him and Jim pulled Bob out of the audience and onto the stage and then proposed to him and Bob accepted, saving the monologue.  When the show went into the commercial break, the stage manager introduced Bob to the audience to a big hand and Bob took a bow.

Through Facebook, an acquaintance recommended Bob for the National Tour of the show, Old Jews Telling Jokes.

Bob is part of a group of entertainment folks who sit in Balsey Park, a small oasis on Manhattan’s West Side.  It includes Ed Sommerfeld, who was Rodney Dangerfield’s managing agent, Bernie Berns, “King of the Catskills,” and actor and film buff George Nester. The late Impressionist Will Jordan was an important part of the group.  Both Bob and Mike Fine, a fellow comedian, who each have an affinity for old comedians, enjoy  spending time with the group and others. Vintage era comedians, he said, would pander to the audience. “They played to the crowd.”

Bob enjoys the show biz class that earlier comedians tended to have. “They could be self-deprecating, their vulnerability made them endearing and more human.”

At The Friars, Bob also spent time with some of these figures, along with Larry Storch, Shecky Greene, Fyvush Finkel (a Lamb), Robert Klein and others. He admires the late Will Jordan, who loved old movies, a great mimic. He said that Jordan was doing a spot on Ed Sullivan imitation in his act but nobody reacted so Jordan added exaggerated movements, including whirling 180 degrees, playing with words like “It’s a rea-lly big shoooo.” He had to embroider it, make it entertaining, larger than life. “He made it his own.”  Ed Sullivan began imitating a little of Jordan’s impression of Sullivan!

One of the comedians whom Bob admires is Robert Klein. “He’s of the generation of post-Lenny Bruce but before Jerry Seinfeld.”  He added, “Authentic, smart, observational, and very funny.”

Bob was brought up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, then his family moved to Kings Highway near Foster Ave and Avenue D, near Canarsie. His interest in comedy came early. “In the second or third grade, I can recall wearing my Dad’s old hat and doing Frank Fontaine’s Crazy Guggenheim, who was punch-drunk.” Greenberg would stay up late to watch the Alfred Hitchcock Show and old Films on the Late Show.

One Thanksgiving when Bob was a kid, he and his family arrived late to his Aunt Francine and Uncle Lenny’s. Bob missed most of Laurel and Hardy in March of the Wooden Soldiers (also known as Babes in Toyland), an annual event on television, catching just the last 15 or so minutes. “By missing it, it spurred me going forward in my life to want to see more of them.”

He attended the High School of Art and Design that was a full 90-minute commute throughout his high school years (a bus-to-train two-fare zone). He was originally intending to be a cartoonist, but wound up majoring in film that led to a full-tuition scholarship to School of Visual ArtsAfter his first year there, he broke a leg after being hit by a car and had crutches. During his convalescence while on crutches: “My Dad would drive me in to attend classes.” His movements were limited and he couldn’t carry film equipment or hang lights, so acting in film made the most sense.  Bob found himself acting in other people’s films. “So I leaned toward performing more.” After leaving college, he had a show on cable access called “The Sons of Fun Video Show,” which built a cult following.

He also wrote, directed and even performed in a checkered jacket, golf hat and horn-rim classes in a show in the vein of the Abbott and Costello Show and SCTV. Bob got a job as master tape librarian at Video Dub on west 55th street, working first in shipping and receiving. He worked his way up to master tape librarian there, and meanwhile was taking classes at the First Amendment Theater, named after the Improv Troupe on Bond Street. Jane Brucker (who was in Dirty Dancing) was his first teacher.  He soon performed in the Sunday Night Improv Jam that she hosted at Folk City in the Village.

Eventually Bob would be a regular performing at the original Duplex in Off-The-Cuff, the house improv troupe. Bob soon started appearing in sketch comedy shows and plays as well as stand-up.

Why Bob likes The Lambs: “I love its old-time movie history, theatre history, and vaudeville. “I love seeing the pictures and paintings of Bert Wheeler, Bert Lahr, Smith and Dale, etc. As performers, we carry the torch for those who acted before us. Being at The Lambs reminds me of that history.”

Bob hosts and produces the Annual Comedy Benefit for the Actors’ Temple in midtown Manhattan where entertainment figures have been known to attend services. These once included Sophie Tucker, Shelley Winters, Lamb Milton Berle, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Lamb Edward G. Robinson as well as two of the Three Stooges, though no one can remember which two. Bob jokes that it was probably Larry who skipped services for the ball game.

     –Gary Shapiro