In his own words: Comedian Jeffrey Ross on the Bea Arthur joke that made his career
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By ADAM BUCKMAN
Comedian Jeffrey Ross today (April 27, 2009) told me the best Bea Arthur story you’re likely to read this week following the news that Arthur, the larger-than-life star of Broadway and TV, died over the weekend.
Ross’ story is about a notorious joke he told at a Friars Club Roast at Arthur’s expense, her reaction to it and what the joke did for his career.
Here he is in his own words, on the phone this afternoon from Nashville, where he has been performing:
“The joke was . . . Sandra Bernhard had just sung this ridiculous song. I can’t remember the name of the song she sang, she sang ‘Magic Man’ or something like that to Jerry Stiller. He was the honoree, it was a Friars Club Roast in New York in 1999 and I can’t remember the song she sang, but it was very sexy obviously [and it] made Jerry squirm, as he would whenever anything vulgar or dirty [was said]. He was very shy that way. It was very funny to watch, and I went up next and I said, ‘Sandra Bernhard! Holy shit! I wouldn’t fuck you with Bea Arthur’s dick!’
“I don’t know if there’s such a sound, but [it was] the only time I ever heard the sound of 2,000 jaws dropped all at once . . . It was just sort of this weird black hole of a laugh, I guess. [Then] it was probably a four-minute laugh, and really gave Bea time to sort of do her take. [From her seat] she leered at me. She gave me this hilarious stare, this stink-eye that made — let’s face it — an OK joke into a great moment, a great Roast moment.”
Why was Bea Arthur there in the first place?
“Friars Club Roasts are a show business tradition going back over 100 years. It meant the world to Jerry Stiller that the Friars — I produced that show so I know — it meant the world to Jerry Stiller to be honored by his friends and family, his wife and comedy partner Anne Meara and his son and daughter, Amy and Ben, and then all these great comedians take time to write well-crafted jokes about you. Jerry understood that this was basically the Academy Awards of comedy. This was a big night for him.
“So he invites his friends and Bea Arthur is a good friend of his for many years and he invited her and she was a willing participant. And by the way, she had a great sense of humor and was a great sport about it.
“[After the show] I didn’t actually see her because she left and I went to an after-party and, you know, the cameras are rolling [and] you get pushed in 1,000 different directions. But the next day I did send her flowers on behalf of myself and the Friars Club just for coming. I was a producer on the show and just for being a good sport, I wanted to let her know that her presence was much appreciated, and the fact that she was so funny.
“She didn’t speak [as a performer at the Roast] that night, but her take, her look — you know, Milton Berle used to say, ‘They only remember the home runs,’ and that was a triple that she turned into a home run just by her hilarious stare.
“And then over time, I felt like she put me on the map because everywhere I went people were quoting this joke to me. I’m hearing it all the time, it’s quoted in newspapers at the end of the year, it was part of all these roundups of the greatest lines of the year, and I’m realizing that I’m sort of getting a boost from this ridiculous joke that’s not even that funny.
“So time goes on and I just keep hearing about it and I figured that she must be hearing about it one way or another. We’re sort of oddly linked. A couple of years went by, I think, and finally I was just so curious about her take on it. So I tracked her down.
“I googled her and looked up that her one-woman show was going to be in Los Angeles, so I went. I got myself a ticket and she was awesome. She sang beautiful songs that she had sung on Broadway, barefoot with a piano player. It was very elegant, very tasteful and very moving. She was an incredible performer and I got to see a different side of her which was really fun. And afterwards I waited on line, a long line of fans, hundreds perhaps waiting to get a moment with her. They were getting pictures and autographs. They wanted to meet her.
“I purposely went to the very, very end of the line and I wanted to be last, and I just said as politely as I could I said, ‘You know, Miss Arthur, I don’t know if you remember me, but we met at Jerry’s roast.’ Before I even got the last word out — ‘roast’ — she just stuck a finger right in my face and said, ‘You nailed me, you prick!’
“And we both laughed and she gave me a hug. It was really cool knowing what a fun broad she was.”
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