Posts Tagged ‘friend’

My Magnificent Mentor

April 22, 2014

Monday April 21st, 2014 – Island Lake, IL

I can’t let this time of year pass without paying true heartfelt tribute to my number one comedy mentor C. Cardell Willis. I’ve had influences and partial mentors along the way, but Cardell was “the man” right from day one. He was a father figure on stage and off, and I’ll love him forever.

For whatever reason, he used to celebrate his birthday on August 3rd. For years, I thought that’s when it was. I’m usually pretty good at remembering people’s birthdays – at least getting it close enough to be respectable. If I don’t hit it the exact day, I’ll usually get it at least within a couple.

This has been a lifetime thing, WAY before Facebook made it so easy for us all. It has always been important to me to acknowledge someone’s birthday whenever I can and at least give them the respect of letting them know I remembered. Birthdays are one’s personal holiday, and I find nothing at all wrong with celebrating one’s existence despite what the Jehovah’s Witnesses say.

My mother apparently joined them shortly after she abandoned our family when I was a baby, and that was the excuse she used the few times I’ve seen her for not sending any birthday cards to any of her three children or even acknowledging our existence. I can’t begin to put into words how painful it is to be ignored by one’s own mother in life, so birthdays are a soft spot with me.

Cardell is far ahead of both my natural parents on my memory list. He did much more good for me than both of them ever did, so I felt a need to honor him out of respect. It wasn’t until the end of his life I found out his real birthday was April 20th. That’s also Hitler’s birthday, so maybe he was embarrassed or something. It doesn’t matter to me what the day is, as long as I pay respect.

In the entertainment business, it’s a common mistake to assume that if someone is famous they are the best at what they do and a good person, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some famous people are all that, but others are flat out scoundrels. Fame and measure of character are not and never have been intermingled. Some total pukes make it through for reasons unknown.

Cardell was never famous – and unbelievably few ever are – but he was absolutely loaded with character. Not only did he make time to mentor a city full of wayward comedians, he also helped inner city kids as a scoutmaster for Boy Scouts for years. I’m sure there are adults now that recall him with the same deep fondness and respect for the kindness he showed them years ago as I do.

What is often the saddest turn of events is that we never get to pay back those that did the most good for us. He always told us to “pay it forward” – and that’s what I have tried to do for as long as I’ve been a full time comedian. There have been literally hundreds of meals bought for young comedians through the years that were a direct result of Cardell’s mentoring. He lives on in me.

Mentorship is a skill by itself, and too often those that are best at it don’t get recognized for the effort it takes. It’s not just a one day thing and that’s it. It’s a constant process over a time period that can range from years to decades to a lifetime. Cardell was with me for decades at a time that I really needed his help. Not only is he still with me, through me his wisdom has been passed on.

It rarely takes much at the time, and there frequently isn’t much fanfare. It’s often just a matter of knowing what to say and when to say it. My grandfather was a terrific mentor also, and he and Cardell shared similar traits. Both knew precisely when and how to say what needed to be said.

The first big deal I can remember as a comedian – which sounds so laughable now – was when I was going to host a show for the first time. I had only been around a short time and was greener than a bag of $20 bills. Why any idiot would trust me to host a comedy show then is beyond me.

Some idiot did, and I was both thrilled and scared to death at the same time. I had no idea what to do, but Cardell sat me down and give me several much needed pointers. He told me what I had to know, and walked me through it in a few minutes. He said he knew I could handle it, and even if that was a fib it was exactly what I needed to hear at that time. His kind words were medicine.

Time and time again he’d cheer me as I climbed steps up the comedy ladder. They seem so tiny now, but back then it felt like I was climbing Mt. Everest each time. Having a friendly face in my corner through those intimidating steps was SO inspiring, and the face I saw continually was his.

What felt even better was hearing second and third hand from others how he thought out of the local comics in Milwaukee at the time I was the one he thought would go the farthest. “That boy is GOING someplace, you watch!” he’d say. “I hope he takes me with him. I might need a job.”

I heard this back from numerous sources through the years – and he eventually told me himself. He said I had the natural gift and the drive it took to get out and take my swings on a bigger field than Milwaukee. Comedy clubs were just starting to explode then, and he was adamant about me getting out and taking my shot. “You’ll never get anywhere staying here. Move on.” And I did.

Milwaukee was my home town and I wanted to prove to some people – mainly my father – that I wasn’t the loser he always told me I would be. Cardell could see that was the raw source of my pain, and tried to get me to focus on building a career. I was an angry kid, and needed guidance.

It’s the classic tale of the old bull and young bull, and looking back he said all the right stuff at all the right times and I love him dearly for it. It didn’t always hit me at the time, but I needed to hear exactly what he said. Youth always thinks it knows better, but wisdom only comes with age.

Probably the sweetest of so many sweet memories was Cardell and his manager Shirley Schaak taking me out for dinner before I went on my first road trip. They were proud of me, and both of them beamed through our meal. Cardell gave me time tested tips on road survival, and at the end of the night they gave me a card with $25 in it “for a flat tire”. I’m weeping in thanks even now.

Kindness like that endures forever – especially for a dented can like me that wasn’t used to that from anybody. Cardell and Shirley were my comedy parents, and I love and appreciate them now more than ever. I never took them for granted, but in hindsight all those good things they did not only for me but for all the comedians in Milwaukee shine even brighter. I try to pass on the love they passed to me, but I always fall so far short. Thank you Cardell! Shirley too! I love you both.

My magnificent mentor in comedy C. Cardell Willis. A kinder soul and more competent mentor has never lived.

My magnificent mentor in comedy C. Cardell Willis. A kinder soul and more competent mentor has never lived. I owe the man SO much.

Just because someone isn't famous doesn't mean they aren't talented. Cardell's reach went WAY past entertainment. He was a life changer for many. What a fantastic human being. It's up to me to help keep his memory alive.

Just because someone isn’t famous doesn’t mean they aren’t talented. Cardell’s reach went WAY past entertainment. He was a life changer for many. What a fantastic human being. I want to keep his memory alive.

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Ross Bennett’s Revenge

April 5, 2013

Thursday April 4th, 2013 – Fox Lake, IL

   I’ve been keeping a happy secret to myself for the last couple of weeks, and I’m delighted to be able to finally let it out. My long time friend and comedy mentor Ross Bennett got a chance to be on the David Letterman show tonight, and he knocked it out of the park. I am SO happy for him!

Ross is just the best on so many levels, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this killer opportunity. It gives me tangible hope that at least a little fairness exists in this insane world, and a little goes a long way. I was on pins and needles all day waiting to hear from him, and when he texted me saying he killed it I felt like my Packers won another Super Bowl. It was pure ecstasy.

I first met Ross in the ‘80s when he worked at the Funny Bone in Milwaukee. We hit it off then and have stayed friends through a lot of ups and downs in both of our lives. Ross has not lived an easy life either, but like me he still keeps slugging and tries to play the hand he was dealt in life.

We’re kindred spirits and I’ve always gotten along with him from day one. He’s been like a big brother in many ways, and I’ll never forget his kindness. When I was living in Los Angeles, he’d lived there before I did and helped me get settled in. He didn’t have to do that, but I so appreciate the time he took to show me the ropes. L.A. can be very intimidating to a newbie, at least at first.

Then Ross moved to New York where he lives now, and he helped show me around that scene when I visited a couple of times. He helped me get sets at some of the clubs there, and again was like a big brother at a time when I really needed it. We went to a Yankees game, and saw a lot of amazing places all over Manhattan that I will never forget. Ross has always been a stellar friend.

I’ve tried to be one in return, and many years ago I was able to help Ross get involved in sports cards of all things. He set up at card shows for a few years as he was out on the road doing shows as a comedian, and at the time it gave him focus and structure he needed in his life. He’s thanked me for it numerous times, but it was my pleasure to help a friend who has always had my back.

Ross has really been through some rough stretches in his life. His first wife passed away and he was left to raise his son Nash with the help of his mother. That’s no easy task in a ‘normal’ world but trying to be an entertainer and raise a child is damn near impossible. Still, Ross pulled it off.

He has also had his share of run ins with certain people just as I have. He was kicked off of the Bob and Tom radio show for years, and then managed to get back in their good graces – the very same day I was kicked off of the show. We sat there together for a few minutes, then I was gone.

We laugh about it now, but I was really bummed out when it happened. I still don’t know what I did to make them that upset, and Ross talked me off the cliff that day – again when I needed his help the most. He’s always been there for me, and I can’t say that about most of my own family.

To hear he got a shot on Letterman made me leap with joy. He’s been slugging it out all over in the New York area for years, and has worked like a mule to get this chance. I’m glad he nailed it, but I’m surely not surprised. He’s a world class comic talent, and always was. This is his destiny.

The show will air on Friday April 5th, but I’ll be on my way back from a gig in Indiana. I don’t know how I’ll get to see it, but I’ll make sure I do at some point. This is a special occasion of the highest order, and I hope it launches him into other amazing opportunities. Ross got his revenge!

Comedian Ross Bennett will be on David Letterman Friday April 5th, 2013

Comedian Ross Bennett will be on David Letterman Friday April 5th, 2013! Check him out, he’s very funny and deserves to be there.

Thank You Rick Uchwat

March 20, 2013

Tuesday March 19th, 2013 – Chicago, IL

     I’ve got a jam packed performing schedule coming up in the next couple of weeks, and I plan on loving every last minute of it. I’ll be all over the place, and in a good way. The money will be appreciated of course, but it’s never been about that. It’s the fun and thrill of being on the stage.

After a lifetime of chasing this elusive dream, I still haven’t gotten tired of the live performing part of the process. I’ve become extremely sick of most of everything else, but that time on stage is still golden – especially when it goes well. There are still times when it doesn’t, but that’s rare.

Far more often than not, I am able to go up there in front of a room full (or not that full) of total strangers and win them over with laughter. I clearly see their defiant stares of “you’d better make me laugh, mister” whether they know it or not. Then when I do, they line up to tell me how much they enjoyed it and I see an entirely different look in their eye. It’s one of admiration and respect.

Once in a while it’s a look of horror or disgust, and occasionally they won’t even look at me at all. Tonight was one of the good nights when they looked at me like a superstar. I’m at Zanies in Chicago yet again, and that’s the place I feel as comfortable as anywhere I’ve ever worked. I am officially one of their boys, and that’s not a bad place to be. Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld are too.

Leno and Seinfeld and Richard Lewis and Larry Reeb and Tim Walkoe have all been staples of Zanies for decades. Obviously Leno and Seinfeld have gone on to much greener pastures, but both are looked at with reverence as having been people to put Zanies on the map. They’re legends.

The one everyone attributes a huge part of their success to – including me – is Rick Uchwat. He was the owner and founder of Zanies in 1978, and was an unbelievably charismatic personality at a time when comedy was just getting hot. He had a way about him that made everyone develop a fierce loyalty, but it wasn’t fear based like a lot of club owners tend to be. Rick earned a respect.

Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld still have a fondness for Rick to this day, as do a lot of others in an insane business built on self worship. Not everyone cared for Rick, as he could tend to polarize a percentage of the people he dealt with but that’s what I loved most about him. He was straight up and didn’t mince words. You knew where you stood with him, and I was always in good stead.

Rick passed away in 2011, and I miss him terribly. He was a great friend, even though we were not in constant contact. He made sure I always had bookings at Zanies, and he told me no matter how many people I pissed off I’d always have a comedy home on his stages. I never forgot that.

When I had my near fatal car accident in 1993, Rick had a check in my hospital room the very next day for $1500 to cover my immediate needs. I had to pay it back, but I worked it off on his stages at the various Zanies clubs and I’m forever grateful to him and Zanies for that kindness.

Today would have been Rick’s 66th birthday. I had a rock solid show at his club tonight, and I dedicated it to him from the stage. If not for Zanies, I wouldn’t be a comedian. Thank you Rick!

Rick and Jerry

Jerry Seinfeld and Rick Uchwat

Zanies in Chicago - my home club

Zanies in Chicago – my home club