Jeffrey Gurian Remembers the Great Joe Franklin

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Joe Franklin and Jeffrey Gurian in July 2010

Joe Franklin, tv and radio host, and media personality passed away Saturday night at the age of 88.  Joe was an important part of television and radio, especially in New York City for the past six decades but his influence stretched way beyond New York.  Franklin gave so many great performers their first breaks, talking with over 300,000 guests if that’s possible.  One of them was New York based comedian and writer, Jeffrey Gurian who not only sat down with Franklin on his show, but considered him a friend, and spent some time with in him his final hours before he passed.  Jeffrey was kind enough to share some of his memories of Joe with us.  


I was fascinated by Joe Franklin and consider myself so lucky to have known him for so long and as well as I did. We are all unique in our own way, but Joe was just different. He pioneered the talk show format and gave many huge stars their very first TV exposure like Woody Allen, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, John Belushi, and even Richard Pryor. He knew them all. He’d have superstars like Charlie Chaplin, (he actually went back that far! ), John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Jayne Mansfield, ( who’s daughter is Mariska Hargitay), Salvador Dali, Madonna, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, plus five US Presidents all mixed in with knife throwers, plate spinners and who knows who. Billy Crystal parodied Joe on SNL from 1984 through 1985, something that Joe actually became proud of. He was also in Ghostbusters and Broadway Danny Rose and a guest on Letterman, referenced on The Simpsons, and so many more TV shows.

He was a true icon.

In one of our many conversations over the years he once told me he forsook many things in his life to devote himself to his career and his show, maybe the longest TV show on record. Well over 40 years for sure! He said he never got a license to drive, never had a credit card, wasn’t into technology, … I don’t think he had a cell phone until very recently, and I know that his e-mails all went to Steve Garrin his dear friend and audio guy for decades, and it was only this week that I learned he had been married and had a son.

My friendship with Joe goes back to the late 80’s and early 90’s when I first was a guest on his eponymous “Joe Franklin Show”. He never had a side-kick but his longtime producer Richie Ornstein was always there, helping to interact with Joe’s guests and discussing trivia which was his forte. When I heard the sad news that Joe was so sick, I searched my memorabilia and I found a VHS tape of me on Joe’s show twice, one dated 8/15/91 and the other 1/8/92, which I watched immediately, and was horrified to see how much jewelry I was wearing in those days, and which I will force myself to watch again, as soon as I finish writing this tribute to a wonderful human being.

Joe loved photographs and would often hold up many from his own collection. He always liked when I brought on photos of me with Milton Berle, George Burns, Jerry Lewis, and any of the other legends I was privileged to have met and worked with. I still remember in one of the episodes I was on with Jesse Nash the journalist who was associated with Page 6 in the NY Post at the time, and who I was calling Pittsburgh Isadore in a comedy troupe we were forming, Morty Storm a very eccentric comedian who was loved by Frank Sinatra and had opened for him several times, a singing nun, and me, still a dentist who was writing for people like Rodney, Joan Rivers, Milton Berle, Pat Cooper, Richard Belzer and The Friars Roasts at the time. He got a real kick out of my dual careers.

SpoonEyeGroupPhotoI was also very into doing my “spooneye” thing in those days, where I held a spoon in my eye like a monacle, while engaged in conversation with people, acting as if I had no idea there was anything unusual about holding a spoon in my eye. I had been doing that since the 70’s for whatever reason and once did it at an event thrown by Budd Friedman in honor of Milton Berle, up in Montreal at the Just for Laughs Festival, where I was Milton’s personal guest. The photo below was one I found of me with a group of friends all outiftted with spoons, so you could get an idea of the look! Very classy! (click on the image to see it larger)

On this day with Joe Franklin, I had given each of the guests a spoon before we went on the air, and as Joe was closing the show and panning the panel of guests we each put the spoon in and sat there grinning and Joe didn’t even seem to notice! He was so focused on what he was doing that he didn’t notice that the entire panel of guests was sitting there with a spoon coming out of their eyes. I wish I remembered if the nun did it too, I won’t know till I rewatch the tape. It’s 23 years ago, but it seems like just yesterday.

I last saw Joe about three weeks ago, on Jan. 1st when he was the Grand Marshall for the longest variety show on record, a 60 hour show produced by Bernie Furshpan the owner of The Metropolitan Room, with the help of his lovely wife Joanne. I was asked to perform and also to be one of the hosts, and I got there early to see Joe kick off the proceedings. He was there with Steve Garrin who had a recording studio, and who was like a son to Joe, and Steve felt like Joe was his Dad. Wherever you saw Joe, Steve was not far behind, and usually right next to him. They did so many things together over the years.

bernie fershpan joanne joe big hookThis day at The Metropolitan Room, Steve told me that Joe was sitting in the showroom resting, before everything started and I went in to say “Hi”. I could see he wasn’t well. He was very pale and it was hard for him to walk. It was also a little hard to hear him. He said he had hurt his foot which is why he wasn’t standing so well, but when it came time to get up on the stage he was there like the trooper he was. He was up on that stage holding a huge hook like they used in Vaudeville to pull performers off the stage. (See photo) In this case the show was for the Guinness Book of Records and no one could do more than their 10 minute slot for fear of the show being disqualified, so Joe was the keeper of the big hook.

He even told jokes like only Joe Franklin could. I jotted some of then down, because I love that old style of comedy. Things like, “I’ve been on stage since The Dead Sea was just sick!” and then he told about his new cause that he was devoting time to. He said the same way they put pictures of missing children on milk cartons, his new cause was putting pictures of missing transvestites on half and half cartons. And everyone laughed! He even quoted Eddie Cantor, (who he had actually written jokes for as a young man), and then did a toast, which he credited to Bob Hope, “Here’s to our wives and sweethearts, … in hopes they never meet!” And then he topped it off with an explanation of baldness. He said “if you’re bald in the front it means you’re a thinker, if you’re bald in the back it means you’re a lover, and if you’re bald in the front and back it means you THINK you’re a good lover!” I’m so glad I wrote those down so I could remember how funny Joe was.

He always had a kind word for everyone. I don’t think I ever saw him get upset. Always the gentleman. Always with a jacket and tie. But his office looked like a monsoon hit it.

He always had a kind word for everyone. I don’t think I ever saw him get upset. Always the gentleman. Always with a jacket and tie. But his office looked like a monsoon hit it. He was surrounded with mountainous piles of papers going back decades, yet he seemed to know where everything was. And every single time he saw you, he was always interested to know what you were doing and at the end of every conversation he told you he’d call you tomorrow. He actually did that once. One day my phone rang, and this was back in 2013, and it was Joe out of nowhere, asking me how I was, and how come I hadn’t called him about my book  Make’Em Laugh about the history of The Comic Strip. He said he had heard about it and wanted to help me promote it. I’ll never forget that he took the time to call me, and was kind enough to invite me on whatever show he was doing at the time, because he was ALWAYS doing some show. He connected me with his producer Charlie Pellett, and we did a fun radio spot.

When I left him that day at The Metropolitan Room, just before he said he’d call me tomorrow, I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was on Bloomberg Radio, 1130 AM on the dial. I asked him when and his answer was “all day and all night!” I didn’t ask for further clarification, because knowing Joe he probably was on all day and all night.

He had so many fascinating stories. And I would run into him all the time at parties, where he’d make a special appearance, even at clubs, suddenly Joe Franklin would be there, and you’d be thinking, “What’s Joe Franklin doing in a club at a party?” but everyone was always excited to see him. He was at the Friars Club renaming for Jerry Lewis, and I remember seeing him often at his “Joe Franklin’s Comedy Club”, and at performances at The Actor’s Temple in shows that Bob Greenberg produced, where he’d always sit up front encouraging each comedian, and then he’d go up himself and tell his very funny one-liners.

And I recall one very special time for me, when Joe and I were the first two guests on a new radio show called “The It Factor” produced by Alycia Kaback from Philly, who ran a talent development company and used to do big shows at Caroline’s every few months to guide young talent into careers in show biz. There would be aspiring models, singers, actors, musicians and comedians and I was one of the mentors who would address the crowd. So it was a special honor for me to be Alycia’s kick-off guest along with Joe to launch her first radio show. There’s even a video on YouTube.

When I left him that day at The Metropolitan Room I had no idea it would be the last time I’d speak with him, but in retrospect I’m glad I gave him a big hug, and of course he took my card again, and told me he’d call me tomorrow.

When I heard the news that Joe was so sick, I immediately contacted Steve Garrin who told me he was in hospice, but not to tell anyone, which I didn’t. Joe was a private man about things like that. Steve didn’t want it to become a circus. He told me that Joe was heavily sedated, but that visiting was 24 hours a day. That seemed unusual to me, but I guessed that the situation was that grave that it warranted 24 hour visitation. I made it a point to go over and visit him, and I did that night around midnight. He was in a hospice on York Avenue and 71st Street, and when I got there the door to the street was locked. I was pounding on the door and no one came, Just as I was about to leave a kind woman got out of her car, and told me there was another entrance around the corner. If not for her I would have left as there was no sign telling people where to go.

I just sat there and said a prayer for Joe and wished him Peace, and then I left because the end result was obvious and I didn’t want to be there alone with him if he had chosen that moment to leave us.

 I signed in and was sent to the 15th floor, room 1502. I didn’t know what to expect. No one took me in they just told me where to go. And this is the difficult part to write. Joe was in bed, there was no one else there but me, and to be honest I wasn’t sure it was him. People don’t look like themselves before they transition. I remember all too clearly from seeing my parents in that state. I actually had to go and read one of his “Get Well” cards to be sure it was him. He didn’t look comfortable. He was asleep, with his eyes closed but very restless and because I couldn’t speak to him, I felt almost like I was intruding on some sacred thing. I sat down in a chair next to his bed and was afraid to make any sound at all for fear I would disturb him and maybe wake him up, and I didn’t want to take that chance. I was just watching him, and without any thought I just felt tears filling my eyes as it reminded me of watching my Dad hold on for 6 whole days after they gave him just an hour or two to live. I’m not ashamed to say I’m writing this with tears streaming down my face right now, not just for Joe, but for all of us who have experienced this.

I just sat there and said a prayer for Joe and wished him Peace, and then I left because the end result was obvious and I didn’t want to be there alone with him if he had chosen that moment to leave us. It was too much for me. The whole next day, as I was doing whatever I was doing I kept thinking of him in that hospital bed, not just as Joe Franklin, but as a man who was in the process of leaving this world, while the rest of us were out just going about our day. I can’t seem to get that thought out of my mind.

Rest in peace Joe. “You were one of a kind!”


Photos top to bottom.  Jeffrey with Joe in January of 2015, Joe Franklin and Mickey Freeman in 2007, Jeffrey and Joe Franklin in 2013.

last photo with joe january 1 2015

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Jeffrey Gurian is a comedy writer, comedian, author, producer, comedy connoisseur, comedy journalist, and an all around bon vivant. You can find him on red carpets, at comedy events across the country and hosting Comedy Matters TV. He’s the author of the book Make ‘Em Laugh with an intro by Chris Rock”. You've seen him on Comedy Central's Kroll Show and he's a regular on SiriusXM's Bennington Show and it's predecessor the Ron and Fez Show. He's also A BIG BELIEVER in Happiness and Love.
Jeffrey Gurian
Jeffrey Gurian
Jeffrey Gurian is a comedy writer, comedian, author, producer, comedy connoisseur, comedy journalist, and an all around bon vivant. You can find him on red carpets, at comedy events across the country and hosting Comedy Matters TV. He’s the author of the book Make ‘Em Laugh with an intro by Chris Rock”. You've seen him on Comedy Central's Kroll Show and he's a regular on SiriusXM's Bennington Show and it's predecessor the Ron and Fez Show. He's also A BIG BELIEVER in Happiness and Love.