Morty Gunty grew up in my neighborhood. Morty Gunty was a two-bit standup comic. Morty Gunty played himself in Woody Allen’s film “Broadway Danny Rose.” Both Morty and Woody went to my high school, Midwood High, but Morty doesn’t rate a Wikipedia mention. Perhaps his greatest exposure was as the backup host for the Cerebal Palsy Telethon. When Dennis James or Steve and Eydie needed a break in the wee hours, Morty would take over.
In 1964, when I was eight, Morty hosted a kid’s show called “The Funny Company.” Morty was long-gone from the neighborhood by that time, but his mother still lived around the corner from us, and she and my mother went to the same beauty parlor. So one day my mother said to Morty’s mother, “Can your son get my son on his show?” Mother Gunty brokered the deal.
I can’t remember whether the show was live or on tape, but I know I was in the studio on a Monday. I know this because my mother insisted I get a haircut before the show, and my regular barbershop (inside of which hung a photo of me getting my first haircut) was closed on Mondays. So my mother took me to Al’s Barbershop for my haircut. It was the only time I went to Al’s, but many years later, when I was living in the East Village, I went to the Astor Place Barbershop for a haircut, and the guy who was cutting my hair looked very familiar. I took a look at his license. Al Rizza. He had given up his shop in Brooklyn for a chair at Astor Place.
Anyway, sufficiently shorn to my mother’s satisfaction, we headed to New York (as Brooklynites referred to Manhattan back then), for WOR studios. I was part of “the clubhouse” on Morty’s show, the equivalent of the peanut gallery. A group of kids would talk with Morty and tell jokes between cartoons. I think there were maybe six of us in the clubhouse, and for some reason I remember the last name of one chubby kid–Pfeffer. It stuck with me. The oddest things stick with me. Years later I had a gastroenterologist named Pfeffer. When I saw him the first time he pronounced my last name correctly. When I noted this he said, “When you have a name like Pfeffer you make an effort.”
Now as a kid I was pretty outgoing, a natural performer, but on “The Funny Company” I blew it. For some reason I froze up. Every time I was asked a question my monosyllabic answers were punctuated by Ralph Kramdenesque hum-a-na-hum-a-nas. On top of that, every time the camera panned to me I was scratching my back, because it was so itchy from the haircut.
All the kids on the show were asked to bring one joke to tell. This was the heyday of the moron joke, and I got mine from a book of moron jokes.
“Why did the moron take a bag of oats to bed with him?”
“I don’t know, why did the moron take a bag of oats to bed with him?”
“So he could feed his nightmares!”
Another Peter Cherches story about the old neighborhood appears in the Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood anthology Lost and Found: Stories from New York. He blogs about food, travel, writing and occasionally his childhood at http://petercherches.blogspot.com