25 February 2012 | wmorrow59
He knows you're out there
In November 1969 a stand-up comedian named Jack Waldron, informally known as "Mr. One-Liner," died at the age of 76. This was a guy who came up the hard way, first touring in vaudeville and then playing night clubs and speak-easys. He worked in a lot of tough joints run by gangsters, places where bullets flew and "the boss would stab you goodnight," as he'd quip. Waldron told friends he knew all the racketeers and outlived them all. And he worked steadily right up to the end: in the last weeks of his life Jack made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and hosted a Lambs Club roast of actor Pat O'Brien. His friends and colleagues recognized Waldron as a hard-working and trend-setting comic, whose rat-a-tat delivery of jokes influenced younger stand-up comedians like Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield. It's said that Waldron coined the line repeated by many a comic when a joke is greeted with silence: "I know you're out there, I can hear you breathing."
Thanks to the folks at Vitaphone we can enjoy Jack Waldron in his prime, as he delivers a monologue and sings two songs in this charming short. He's a dapper gent in a double-breasted suit, vest, and bow tie. His delivery is measured and comically fey, and he speaks with his head thrown back and his lips pursed. (Watching Waldron here I'm reminded of the prissy poet character created by Ernie Kovacs for TV in the '50s, the one and only Percy Dovetonsils.) Sure enough, Jack kicks off his act with a joke and keeps 'em coming, one after another. Appearing before the cameras without an audience intimidated some stage performers, but Waldron is relaxed and natural, and he seems to know just how long to pause after each joke before resuming his patter. His songs are funny, too.
There's one gag that's quite startling, or at least it will be for anyone unfamiliar with the sort of humor that was permissible in early talkies before the Production Code crackdown of 1934. Jack discusses his former career as a boxer (which seems pretty unlikely) and quotes an insulting remark a heckler made during one of his matches. But I won't give away the punch-line; it's one of the funniest bits in the routine.
Waldron wraps up his act with a jaunty eccentric dance, smoothly performed and fun to watch. This short is available on the recently released DVD set Vitaphone Varieties 1926-1930, and for me it's one of the highlights.