Milton Berle: Comedy From Vaudeville to the Computer Age

The following is a guest post from music archivist Anita M. Weber.

Milton Berle publicity portrait, undated. Box 172 / Folder 4, Milton Berle Papers, Music Division.

Milton Berle, who lived to be 94, did it all. He was a child actor and juvenile dancer who became a vaudeville emcee, stand-up comic, and Friars Club roastmaster. He acted on radio, stage, and screen. He wrote song lyrics, novels, short stories, and jokes.

Now researchers and fans of Berle can access the Milton Berle Papers through a newly published finding aid. The voluminous collection documents all phases of Berle’s lengthy career through correspondence, scripts, photographs, music, programs, posters, and comedic writing.

Young Milton Berlinger lived down the street from George Jessel in New York’s Harlem performing as a child actor in early silent films with Pearl White. He was “Must See TV” on NBC’s the Texaco Star Theatre long before that network used the phrase in the 1980s. Berle also appeared in more than 30 films, including Radio City Revels (1938), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and The Muppet Movie (1979). He hosted nine radio programs and five television programs and composed lyrics to more than 400 songs including “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,“ “I’d Give a Million Tomorrows” and “Lucky, Lucky, Lucky Me.”

Yet for all his many talents, Berle is best known for jokes, gags, and routines. From the vaudeville era to the computer age, Berle always wanted to share the gag – regardless of its creator. If you had a joke and it “killed,” he’d use it. He collected jokes from all kinds of sources: radio shows of his peers (including Fred Allen and Bob Hope), subscription joke collections, and material prepared by his writers. It all become fodder for his act and led Walter Winchell to declare Berle the “Thief of Bad Gags.”

Milton Berle, RKO photo by Gaston Longet, 1938. Milton Berle Papers, Music Division.

Milton Berle, RKO photo by Gaston Longet, 1938. Box 172 / Folder 3, Milton Berle Papers, Music Division.

When Berle created a set, he began by scrawling out an outline with topics he wanted to cover or people at whom he wanted to poke fun. He fleshed out this sketch with specific jokes pulled from his files, arranging them into show order as he went—shuffling, culling, and shuffling again until a coherent whole came together. Each joke was then numbered and written out by a staff member onto a 5 x 7 card with a Sharpie marker. The resultant card deck became Berle’s road map for his routine.

Berle was a world-class recycler of material. Not only did he reuse jokes in his sets, he also published them in books. Between 1939 and 1993, Berle published four different volumes of comedic material: Laughingly Yours, Out of My Trunk (in multiple editions), Milton Berle’s Private Joke File, and More of the Best of Milton Berle’s Private Joke File.

Berle joke material. Milton Berle Papers, Music Division.

But Berle wasn’t content just to sell books. In the 1990s, he decided to join the “modern age” and release his material on computer disks. Comedy Software, Berle’s partnership with Ralph Stanley Ross, distributed a floppy disk containing the searchable text of Milton Berle’s Private Joke File under a license agreement with Wordstar Software. As announced in Bloomberg on December 7, 1992, $29.00 would get you a program with 8,500 of Berle’s jokes to use as you wished. While none of these computer discs survive in the collection, the Milton Berle Papers contain thousands of cards, many organized into routines for roasts or dinners; scripts; and joke books.

“I’d tell you some jokes now, but you’d only laugh.” Badumbump!

For more jokes and a wealth of other Milton Berle material, contact a reference librarian in the Performing Arts Reading Room to learn more about researching the Milton Berle Papers and related material in the Library’s collections.