The Comedy Liberator (13 June 1926 – 11 January 1982)
Entertainment experts mostly agree that Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows, televised from 1950, marks the birth of TV comedy. A ninety-minute, live sketch show for which the whole family stayed in on Saturday nights, this programme epitomised ‘must-see’ prime-time television.
One reason for its success was the talented stable of young comedy writers assembled by producer Max Liebman, including Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Danny Simon and Lucille Kallen. Mel Brooks’ description of their writing technique was succinct: “We did reality, but just bent it an inch or two to the right or left”.
Max Liebman would go on to use this pool of writers in many other productions. The pilot for Stanley, a series starring Vegas comedian Buddy Hackett (left) working the newsstand in an upmarket New York hotel, was written by Simon, Allen and Kallen. The show ran for only one series - it became clear that Hackett’s style was too artificial for television - but it did introduce two fantastic young performers to the public. His long-suffering girlfriend, Celia, was played by the now-legendary Carol Burnett, and the hotel manager by a new comic, Paul Lynde.
Lynde would not have described himself as a comedian at any time in his life, but his influence on comedy is undeniable. Regardless of the era’s orthodox attitudes towards sexuality, his work throughout the 1960s and 70s was characterised by his bitchy wit and gay sexual innuendo. He cleverly showed audiences that it was possible to laugh with, and not at, gay men. Lynde’s childhood included some predictable triggers for turning to comedy as an occupation: bullish parents, weight issues, schoolboy tormentors keen to ridicule his effeminacy, but all helped to establish him as one of Hollywood’s most unique individuals.
Paul Edward Lynde was born on 13 June, 1926, in the classic mid-western town of Mount Vernon, Ohio, the fifth child of Hoy and Sylvia Lynde. At two years old, Lynde moved with his family to live above the local jail, as his father had become the District County Sheriff. Hoy Lynde was a stern parent: in later life, Paul Lynde joked “Dad had a nice even disposition – he was mad all the time”. He also liked to tell people that he was raised in prison.
Lynde’s schoolteachers noted his prolific imagination and colourful way with lies, including tales of extraordinary wealth and a home with show ponies, ivory baths and golden robes. As much as it infuriated his father to hear about these stories, Lynde’s mother found them charming and said they built character.
She encouraged him to spend his weekends at the local movie theatre watching Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton. Lynde’s father feared that this would only encourage his son’s flights of fantasy, and could frequently be seen fishing him out of a darkened auditorium with a flashlight to be marched back home.
Lynde also had a marvellous singing voice: he was a soloist at school concerts and a regular on the county tour bus with the local church choir. Although his father was happy for him to be part of the parish community, he could not understand his son’s need for an audience. Nonetheless, he allowed Lynde to attend summer music school as a ten year-old scholarship student.
Following his return, and dreaming of an opera-singing career, Lynde suffered an infection which led to peritonitis and a year as a bedridden convalescent. His mother’s indulgent nursing was the start of the weight gain that plagued him for the rest of his life.
By the time he eventually returned to school, Lynde was a hundred pounds heavier. To deflect class taunts of ‘tubs’ and ‘fatso’, he became the class clown. Possessing only mediocre academic skills and a distinct lack of athletic prowess, Lynde was steadily drawn towards the performing arts, and appeared in several school shows.
At fourteen, his weight had ballooned even further, with a parallel increase in his buffoonery. During a school football match, Lynde ran to the side of the pitch where an injured player was being stretchered off, leaned down into his face
and yelled “Quitter!”. The crowd roared with laughter.
In 1944 the school’s drama teacher, Ruth Truxall, suggested Lynde should apply for Theatre Studies at Northwestern University. His father, now running a meat business, had other plans for him, expecting his younger son to join the company since the two older boys were fighting in Europe.
Lynde’s mother stepped in again, and convinced Lynde senior to both bless and fund their son’s tuition. The talent within that year’s student intake included Patricia Neal, Charlton Heston, Jeffrey Hunter and Claude Akins. Lynde became particularly close to two of his female classmates, Charlotte Rae (left, with Lynde) and Cloris Leachman, and the three became inseparable.
University life suited Lynde. He was valued, regardless of his obesity, by his peers, and was no longer under pressure to fulfil his father’s aspirations. He shone as a supporting cast member in campus productions; performed in his own coffee shop revues (produced with Rae and Leachman); and joined in The Waa-mu Show for the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) and Men’s Union (MU). Lynde also enlisted in Phi Kappa Sigma, the most prominent and flamboyant varsity brotherhood at North Western, and was thrilled to be invited to join Deru, its secret honours society.
"New York is a terrible place to be broke"
In the spring of 1947, Lynde went to Chicago to see Three To Get Ready, a sketch revue starring Ray Bolger. Lynde was impressed by a young cast member, Kaye Ballard (left), and approached her with an invitation to see The Waa-Mu Show. She in turn encouraged Lynde to start his career in New York, and in 1948, post-graduation, he did indeed find a room on West 58thStreet in the West Savoy apartments, where previous tenants had included Leonard Bernstein, Judy Holliday and Marlon Brando.
Hoy Lynde was opposed to his son living in the block but still paid the rental. Exhilarated by the city, Lynde turned up at more after-show parties than show auditions. This did, however, help to convince the Broadway world of his status as a playboy, and he became an indispensable guest at every soiree.
One night at the cast party of Inside USA, playwright-producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse spotted Lynde performing one of his own comedy monologues. They invited him to repeat it at the famous Pipe Night at the Players Club in Gramercy Park.
This show had opened doors for many Broadway comics and singers, and Lynde (unfortunately billed as ‘Lynn’) was to be its latest beneficiary. On 19 December 1948 he performed a Christmas set which delighted the club’s elite audience.
At the start of 1949, Lynde was the talk of the New York glitterati, but before he could exploit his new connections, he received grave news from home. His older brother, Cordy, (left) had been MIA since 1944 and the Army had sent official notification of his remains being found. A public memorial service for all Knox County residents who had died in the war was set to take place in late February.
On the twenty-third of that month, Sylvia Lynde died of heart failure: although she had been ill for some time, Lynde believed it was a broken heart that finally killed her. He remained in Mount Vernon for a few months to help his father over the tragedy but as soon as Lynde returned to New York, Hoy died of a heart attack and Lynde was suddenly alone.
When he finally returned to New York in 1950, no longer funded by his parents’ generous stipend, Lynde was forced to work the stand-up cabaret clubs. He found inspiration in the dark, weird cartoons of Charles Addams (right) who had been acclaimed as the new master of a so-called school of ‘sick humour’.
One of the routines resulting from Addams’ impact on Lynde was ‘The Trip of the Month Club’. This sketch involved a snooty New Yorker and his wife whose safari trip in deepest Africa lead to injury and death by misadventure, a story which Lynde told complete with costume bandages and a crutch.
Bob Downey, the manager of Greenwich Village’s One Fifth Avenue Club, booked Lynde on a regular basis during 1950. Downey secured an opportunity for Lynde to perform on the popular radio contest, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scout, in which he tied first place. His co-winner was an impressionist whose act was very close to that of Sid Caesar’s ‘Bavarian Mimic’: his name was Lenny Bruce.
Finding it hard to earn sufficient funds via his evening work, Lynde went through a wide variety of day jobs in ten months: waiter, hotel desk clerk, sales clerk, laundry man - and for a brief time, ambulance driver. Things became so bleak that at one point Lynde was collecting soda bottles for the return deposit. On the plus side, poverty enforced a much-needed crash diet, and Lynde emerged from this hardship a slim, handsome man.
After months of cabarets, supper rooms and summer stock theatre, Lynde’s big break came in the Broadway revue show, New Faces of 1952, a talent-finding production since 1934.In the first year alone, it introduced Henry Fonda and Imogene Coca to the world. In 1952, Lynde and a young singer by the name of Eartha Kitt were its discoveries.
The nightly show became the hottest ticket in New York, attended by celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Cole Porter, Mary Pickford and Eleanor Roosevelt: at one point, Greta Garbo started a standing ovation. Lynde signed up to tour America’s biggest theatres for over two years, culminating in the show being filmed by Edward L. Alperson Productions for 20th Century Fox.
When Lynde returned to New York in April 1954, offers of TV work came in swiftly. He said no to both Bob Hope and Milton Berle, who were keen to televise his upmarket New Yorker act, but Lynde was bored with that character. He was also asked by NBC to make a TV pilot - Settlement House - with comedian Jack Carter (left). The show aired live in New York but was not developed further. It was the first in a long line of failed pilots for Lynde, projects which he referred to as “the troubles I’ve left unseen”.
Lynde started to make guest appearances on TV shows: The Martha Raye Show, The Saturday Night Revue and The Colgate Comedy Hour offered frequent engagements. Then in 1955, he became a regular cast member on The Red Buttons Show (right).
Much to the annoyance of the show’s host, Lynde began receiving all the accolades. The magazine TV Star Parade hailed him as 1955’s top TV find. It went so far as to claim that “a rumour bird flying around Radio City” was hinting at the commissioning of a new half-hour TV sitcom,The Paul Lynde Show.
Sadly, it never happened. The Red Buttons Show was not re-commissioned, and Lynde went back to guest spots. Nonetheless, he hoped for a few breaks, and thought that one was set to be the lead role of Horace Fenton in Buddy Hackett’s new sit-com, Stanley. Unfortunately, just his voice was used.
Lynde also landed a re-occurringcharacter in The Phil Silvers Show playing Bilko’s doctor Rudi, but the show lasted for only two more episodes. Disheartened with the small screen, Lynde turned his attention back to live work.
“I would rather perform on stage than any other medium”
On his return to revues, Lynde starred first in an unfortunate show with Bea Arthur called Top Drawer, then went on to New Faces of 1956, which he also directed. The show ran for 222 performances and although not critically appreciated, it accrued good box-office receipts.
Lynde also acquired a lifelong friend in one of its performers, the British actress Maggie Smith (right). He realised that only traditional theatre could now offer him a way forward so in 1960 he plumped for the part of Henry McAfee in the Broadway musical Bye-Bye Birdie.
The show, which also featured Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera, was a triumph. It won six Tony awards including best musical, after which Columbia Pictures paid $850,000 for the film rights. The casting of Lynde in 1963 to play the same part as in the stage show was greatly due to his stand-out performance of the song, Kids. This marked a turning point in his career. The film established Lynde as a major comic star, sought by many studios for cinema and TV work. It was time to pack up and move to Hollywood.
He also secured work in some hip young movies: Beach Blanket Bingo, How Sweet It Is and The Glass Bottom Boat. Lynde moved among the Hollywood elite, his catty quips making an obligatory appearance at every LA soirée. Sadly, he handled the lifestyle badly and was often seen the worse for wear. He was in danger of becoming the very alcoholic bore that he had previously satirised. Lynde’s friends also noted he was spending increasing amounts of time with unsavoury men. The life of a gay man in the mid-1960s was, by default, secretive and dangerous, and Lynde variously suffered robbery and assault.
In 1965, Lynde was cast in the TV show Bewitched as Uncle Arthur, a character that perfectly captured Paul Lynde’s own persona. Lynde only appeared in ten episodes, but gave such stand-out performances that fans always assume he featured in many more. He became known for making outlandish entrances - through a television, a toaster, a mirror, or just his head on a plate of food - and for delivering cutting lines of dialogue:
Samantha: Where did you get that poodle?
Arthur: In a thunderstorm - it was raining cats and dogs.
Samantha: And you stepped in a poodle?
Arthur: Not bad Sammy, but funnier if I’d said it.
The day after filming completed on his first episode of Bewitched, Lynde took a road trip to San Francisco with a young actor, James Davidson. After checking into the Sir Francis Drake Hotel (left), the two enjoyed a loud drunken night until around 2.30am when Security came by to request a moratorium.
Almost immediately after Security left, Davidson decided to climb out the bedroom window, to playfully hang from the ledge. When two officers on the ground observed this, one called the Fire department while the other ran to the room. Laughing at the situation, Davidson moved to pull himself up but lost his grip and fell eighty feet to his death.
Lynde became something of a recluse after the accident. He concentrated on work and gave up on heavy socialising: “When the telephone rings I don’t say “hello”, I say ’”Yes, I can do it”. Lynde consequently accepted every job offered: talk shows, sitcoms, daytime dramas, TV specials and award shows. He even began saying yes to game shows - Crossword, You Don’t Say and Funny You Should Ask! all benefited from Lynde’s caustic wit. One gameshow in particular was to become a mainstay for the next fifteen years.
Hollywood Squares attracted A-list stars including Redd Foxx, Vincent Price, Helen Hayes, Steve Martin, Big Bird, Gloria Swanson, Burt Reynolds and Dave Letterman. The 24 October 1966 show guest-listed Lynde along with Fred Gwynne and Buddy Hackett. Although much further down the celebrity tree than these two when he came on set, Lynde was the new public darling an hour later when he left. He went on to appear in 898 episodes, winning two Emmys for his work on the show, and gaining the honour of repeated placement in the legendary ‘Center Square’ of the panel’s nine squares.
Host: The Great White is one of the most feared animals -
what is the Great White?
Lynde: A sheriff in Alabama.
Host: Paul, can anything bring tears to a chimp’s eyes?
Lynde: Finding out that Tarzan swings both ways!
Host: It is the most abused and neglected part of your body - what is it?
Lynde: Mine may be abused but it certainly isn’t neglected!
Lynde was now a real Hollywood player. He purchased Errol Flynn’s house above Sunset Strip, and a dog which he named Henry McAfee (left) after his Bye-Bye Birdie character. In addition to plentiful offers of acting work, requests for animation voice-overs began to arise. Lynde played Mildew Wolf in Cattanooga Cats, Templeton in Charlotte’s Web and the much-loved Hooded Claw in The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.
Increasingly seen as an American treasure by the public, Lynde was placed fourth in a 1971 national survey of favourite comedians in which top ranking went to the great Bob Hope, Flip Wilson and Carol Burnett. The time seemed right for him to front his own TV show.
Several TV channels had made previous attempts to find a suitable show for Lynde but each had failed and he had now made seven unsuccessful pilots, including a Victorian detective parody, Sedgewick Hawkes – Prince of Danger. The Paul Lynde Show ran for a full season, perhaps because it was less wacky and more about wholesome family fun in the manner of All In Family or Maude.
However, the audience were unable to sustain their disbelief for longer than a year, since they could not reconcile Lynde’s camp, homosexual profile with the patriarchal, traditional character he played in the sitcom.
Lynde’s confident displays of his sexuality gave him visibility on TV. When asked by a reporter why he had never married, Lynde screamed “What, do you live in a cave?”. He resisted the social expectations of the time and enjoyed who he was. During the late seventies Lynde was given the freedom to create his own specials in which he could be as effete and flamboyant as he chose: The Paul Lynde Comedy Hour, Paul Lynde At The Movies, Paul Goes MA-A-A-AD and The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. The latter saw guest performances by Margaret Hamilton, Donny and Marie Osmond, and Betty White. It also introduced the rock band Kiss to America’s TV audience.
Although Lynde never became the serious actor of his dreams, he remained faithful to himself, and this authenticity made him a unique comedic force. He died of a heart attack aged just fifty-five on 10 January 1982 at his home in Beverly Hills. He was found naked on his bed, with a bottle of butyl nitrate (poppers) beside him. Even in death, Lynde managed to scandalise the gossips.
Comic portrayals including Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas in Soap (right), Scott Thompson as Brian in The Larry Sanders Show and Sean Hayes as Jack in Will & Grace owe much to Lynde’s pioneering audacity in bringing a scathingly funny gay man to life on screen.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Wilson S., Florenski J. Centre Square (2005)
Maslon L., Kantor M. Make 'Em Laugh (2008)
Smith R.L. Who's Who In Comedy (1992)
New Faces (1954)
Son of Flubber (1963)
Bye Bye Birdie (1963)
Under The Yum Yum Tree (1963)
For Those Who Think Young (1964)
Send Me No Flowers (1964)
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)
How Sweet It Is (1968)
Charlotte's Web (1973)
Cactus Jack (1968)
The Red Buttons Show (1955)
The Kraft Music Hall (1961-62)
The Pruitts of Southampton (1967)
The Jonathan Winter Show (1968-69)
Hollywood Squares (1968-82)
Dean Martin Presents The Golddiggers (1968-69)
The Paul Lynde Show (1972-73)
Donny & Marie (1976-79)