The Life & Times of the Unknown Comic!
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because funny is as funny does.
By Keith Valcourt and George Seminara
Sitting on a cheap plastic chair outside of a prefab trailer in the middle of an upscale Los Angeles trailer park (yes, there are such things) sits a man that fans of 1970s TV knew and loved but would never recognize. Sounds impossible when you realize he has over 24 films and hundreds of television credits to his name. Most notably, an unprecedented 150 appearances on The Gong Show. Meet the 75-year-old comedy legend Murray Langston, aka “The Unknown Comic.”
Langston would charge the stage and spit terrible jokes out of his mouth at a mile a minute. His identity, safely hidden behind a paper sack. It was on The Gong Show that he would rocket to celebrity. An overnight sensation at 35, he was a staple of the talk show circuit, appearing on every classic shiny floor chat show from Dinah Shore to Mike Douglas to Merv Griffin and beyond.
These days Murray is mostly retired except for the occasional appearance at an autograph show. He splits his time between his two homes: a luxurious beach house on the Pacific and this trailer for business in Los Angeles. Today’s business sees him filming a segment for a documentary about famed ventriloquist Willie Tyler and his puppet, Lester.
A woman would run up on stage carrying a baby. She claimed I got her pregnant and would pull the blanket away to reveal this doll with a bag on its head.
What were the early days of comedy like in Las Vegas?
Vegas and I go way back. Back to the Sahara days where I first started in the lounges. In those days, a lot of the places were owned by the mob. We had “power of the pen.” As an entertainer working the casinos, even me as a lounge act, you could sign for anything. Anywhere. I could go into the restaurant with 10 guests and sign the check. Take the limo out. Just sign. Have a party in my room with booze and food. Just sign for it. And everything was comped.
That lasted for the first four or five years. I was able to partake in that luxury. It all changed when Howard Hughes came in. He wanted to have it so every area of a hotel would make money. I guess he wasn’t a big fan of the mob skimming off all the money that they did. He changed it, and there was no more “power of the pen” after that. He killed that great perk of the early days.
What was it like to be a regular comic at the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip in L.A.?
Did you say irregular? That was an interesting place at an interesting time. I was there on the very first night the Comedy Store opened. Sammy Shore and Rudy De Luca were there. Those are the two guys that formed the place in the beginning. I was still trying to figure out how to do stand-up. There was a lot of camaraderie in those days — a lot of fun. I never worked alone. I was a part of a comedy team. I was working with Freeman King until he broke up the team. There was camaraderie, even though we were all struggling to get a spot. And to get attention. We were trying to get noticed to get on TV. That was the goal.
You did end up on TV. A lot.
My career goes way back to many of the incredible variety shows. I was on The Sonny & Cher Show. I did many of the sketches and skits in between. Playing various characters in a dozen or so per episode. I also did The Hudson Brothers Show and the Lola Falana Show. I did so many TV shows as myself, Murray Langston. I did close to 800 TV shows back in those days before creating “The Unknown Comic.”
Did doing all that TV work make you rich?
I didn’t make a lot of money. Made some. But I took whatever money I made and invested it in a nightclub called Show-Biz. With that place, I specialized in one thing: bankruptcy! I became very successful at that. I lost my butt. The only positive is it was an excellent place for some other comics to start their careers. Letterman started there. You younger folks may know him as David Letterman. Michael Keaton started there. He was Michael Douglas then. That was his real name. He had to change it. Gallagher started there. So many people started at my club. It wasn’t just a comedy club. I had singers and magicians and even bands. I had the club for just two years, and in that short time, I went completely broke.
How and why did you become “The Unknown Comic”?
I had a really bad complexion, and the bag was cheaper than acne medicine. OK? That’s not true. It was because I was broke.
How did you end up on The Gong Show?
The Gong Show was already on the air for six months or so. I heard that if you did The Gong Show and you were in the union, they had to pay you union wages. Because I had done all those T. shows in the past, I was in the union. And because I was broke, I needed to get paid. But I didn’t want my friends or people that I knew to know I was on this Gong Show. I came up with this idea to put a bag over my head and tell a couple of jokes and make myself a couple of hundred dollars, which was what the TV union was paying as scale in those days. It was the first time I worked as a single.
Do you remember the first episode you did?
I do. I remember the first joke. Chuck introduced me as “The Unknown Comic,” and I came running out with the bag on my head. I said, “Hey, Chucky Baby, do you and your wife ever make love in the shower?” He said, “No.” Then I said, “Well you should. She loves it!” The audience laughed, and he closed the curtain on me. Right after the show, Chuck came running up to me and said, “That part where you insulted me?” I thought he was going to yell at me. Instead, he said, “You got to insult me again!” He was a brilliant guy. He saw that since he insulted many of the acts, it would be good to have someone insult him. He liked the idea of me doing that, showing his vulnerability. I ended up doing over 150 episodes. I always ended my bit by insulting Chuck Barris at the end. The audience loved it. And Chuck loved it.
Chuck Barris was, for those of you who want to know, a creator and producer of daily game shows. He perfected the “strip” format of television production, where the entire week’s programming is shot on a single day. His creations were mostly successful. The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show are part of our culture. He also wrote a hit song, “Palisades Park,” for Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon and might have been a CIA assassin. George Clooney chose Barris as the subject of his first outing as a director. The consistently excellent Sam Rockwell plays Barris.
How many paper bags have you bought in your long career?
It’s funny. When I first did The Gong Show, I kept that first paper bag for about 60 or 70 episodes. It kept wearing down. I got that first one at a place in L.A. called Art’s Deli. I used to eat there all the time. I was friends with the owner, Art. I told him, “I’m going to do this thing on The Gong Show called the Unknown Comic. Can I have a paper bag?” Over the years, I’ve used thousands of bags. The Unknown Comic had to be over-the-top energetic. Because you can’t see his facial expression, he has to push those jokes with his body.
As the show and the character became a hit, did you return to Vegas?
After about 40 or 50 Gong Shows, I realized I had something that maybe I could make a living off. I ended up going to Vegas. I was making five grand a week at the time, which was huge money to me, especially since I had no act! I put about 10 minutes of comedy together. Then I hired a band and called them the “Brown Baggers.” I hired a couple of girls. I called them “The Bagettes.” My whole show revolved around bag jokes. I would introduce my father in the audience as the “Old Bag.” A woman would run up on stage carrying a baby. She claimed I got her pregnant and would pull the blanket away to reveal this doll with a bag on its head. It took a lot of work to put that show together and ended up costing a lot more than the five grand. But it got good reviews. Over the years, I slowly evolved, and the show became more and more of myself and less of the Unknown Comic.
I played more than a couple of places in Vegas. The Landmark hotel many times. And the Hacienda. I was the very first person to put an all-comedy show in Las Vegas. Before that, comics would open for singers and vice versa but never a bill of just comics. I did that before anybody did at the Landmark Hotel and Casino. The first show there was me, Elayne Boosler, the ventriloquist team of Willie Tyler & Lester and other great comics too.
Who did you open for?
I opened for a lot of female artists. Helen Reddy. Melissa Manchester. My favorite/least favorite Vegas memory was when I was opening for Charo at the Sahara in the main room. And my buddy Rip Taylor was there. I was all excited to be there in the main room. I have my 15 or 20 minutes ready, and I hit the stage. I could see Rip in the wings watching me. I was on stage, and I was dying. Bombing! I did my first joke. Nothing. Third joke. Nothing. The audience did not laugh. They just stared at me, looking confused. I was sweating so much that the bag was sticking to my head. I look in the wings offstage, and Rip Taylor is laughing his ass off. But the audience? Nothing. I plow through the rest of my act and walk off dejected. Go to my dressing room and looked around for some rope. I wanted to hang myself because it was so bad. Rip walks in, cackling with tears running down both cheeks. He’s laughing like a maniac. I yelled, “Why are you laughing?!” He said, “We didn’t want to tell you, but the entire audience only speaks Spanish. They don’t understand anything you said!”
Do you still perform stand-up?
The last time I performed was way over a year and a half ago at an Indian casino in Buffalo, New York, with Jimmie Walker and Kato Kaelin. Kato is a good friend of mine. He doesn’t know it. He’s in my guest house right now. I was retired till you guys showed up. I was doing just fine till you came here to bother me! I’m kidding. I sort of retired a few years ago for real. I spend my time raising my two girls. That is where the bulk of my happiness comes from. I’m different than other people. Although I have had a career in comedy, I never considered myself a comic. I think of myself as an actor playing a comic instead of being a genuine stand-up comedian. I admire the real comedy minds I got to be around, like the George Carlins and the Richard Pryors.