We all use the wrong word occasionally – “that skinny dog looks emancipated” – but comedian Norm Crosby molded a career from such humorous grammatical gaffes known as malaprops.
“Although I had a good job as an advertising manager for a shoe company in Boston, I liked to fool around with comedy,” said Crosby from his home in Los Angeles.
It was the 1950s, and Crosby began visiting small, local bars and clubs on weekends to try his hand at standup.
“I would watch the Ed Sullivan show and borrow a few lines here and there from guests like Red Buttons and Buddy Hackett to create a routine,” he explained. “Then I started getting invited to do political functions like the governor’s birthday ball or mayor’s dinner.”
At one event, he bumped into E.M. Loew, owner of the popular Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City.
“He liked my work and invited me to do a week there,” said Crosby. “I told him I’d think about it.”
While adapting the jokes of others worked for occasional regional performances, Crosby knew he would need original material to perform in a major city. Then he remembered the owner of a club in Springfield, Mass., where he sometimes appeared.
“The guy would hit on the singers and dancers,” recalled Crosby. “The club was 90 miles from Boston, so some of the girls stayed at hotels during their engagements whereas others would commute each day.”
When the club owner took a fancy to one cute girl, he had asked Crosby for help.
“He said ‘find out if she is staying over or is communicating,’” chuckled Crosby. “I knew that wasn’t the right word, but it was funny. So I starting playing around with the idea of malaprops and that’s how my signature act evolved.”
At first, the routine fell flat.
“I came up with lines like ‘when the Trojans conquered the Eucalyptians, they pushed them out of Trojia onto the Connecticut Turnpike.’ Or ‘Brutus was stabbed in the ventricle with a rusty sieve and got rigor motion of his ducts.’ Some people thought I was giving a history lesson and had no idea it was humor.”
Crosby soon found that more sophisticated audiences appreciated his style.
“They recognized it as satire and loved it,” he said. “Now I had an act to take to the Latin Quarter.”
But, as Norm would say, his career was still in its ‘infamy.’
“The manger used me as a filler between the main performers – I followed a family tumbling act – and was told to do exactly 12 minutes, not 11 or 13, which was how long it took to change the sets. I had no introduction, just walked out, and no one even knew I was on for 5 or 6 minutes. It was just horrible.”
Crosby stuck out the week, and looked forward to returning to his advertising day job.
“But the manager liked me and held me over for another week,” he said. “I ended up staying for 18.”
After a glowing newspaper review by the powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Crosby signed with the William Morris agency to represent him.
“Suddenly, I had a career in comedy and quit my advertising job,” he said. “My first tour was at the Concord Hotel in the Catskill Mountains opening for Robert Goulet who had just finished his first Broadway show in Camelot in 1963. We stayed together for 3 years and traveled the country before I went off on my own.”
Soon a frequent guest on TV talk and variety shows, Crosby’s unique routine attracted the attention of Dean Martin. “After I appeared on his show, he hired me as regular guest.”
Crosby was a perfect choice for a frequent roaster on the hugely popular Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts in the ‘70s, writing lines like: “Wilt Chamberlain is an insulation to young people all over the world. Wherever he appears, after every game the kids give him a standing ovulation.”
He continued with a busy schedule in the following decades, including the Los Angeles co-host of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon for over 25 years, until Lewis was unceremoniously dumped from the annual event in 2011.
Now 87, Crosby still performs at casinos and for the Friars Club roasts.
“I also work on cruise ships,” he says. “It’s a melting pot of young and old, but they all still seem to enjoy my style.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 500 magazines and newspapers.