Murray Langston's public profile has lowered considerably since his heyday as The Unknown Comic, but for much of the '70s and '80s, he was one of entertainment's unlikeliest success stories, an unassuming guy who found fame and fortune by putting a paper bag over his head and telling bad jokes. A veteran of numerous variety shows (The Sonny And Cher Show, The Wolfman Jack Show, The Alan Hammel Show, and many others), Langston got his big break when he appeared on The Gong Show as The Unknown Comic, a brown-paper-bag-sporting shtick-slinger who specialized in razzing show host Chuck Barris. The character took off, and Langston soon parlayed his fame as The Unknown Comic into television appearances, a feature film (1984's Night Patrol), and a wildly successful Vegas act. Before entering semi-retirement in the early '90s, Langston wrote and starred in the 1988 comedy-drama Up Your Alley and wrote, directed, and starred in 1990's Wishful Thinking. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with the affable single father about his Gong Show fame, famous friends, and the unique challenges of making a living with a paper bag on your head.
The Onion: How did you get started in comedy?
Murray Langston: I don't remember. It's so long ago, it's just a faded memory. Actually, I guess I started out—I go back a ways—to [Rowan & Martin's] Laugh-In. I was working as a computer operator. Laugh-In was a big, popular show, and Tiny Tim had made it big, so I just called up the show. I was very naïve and said, "How do I get in there? How can I get on that show?" They said, "Do something unusual, and call us." So I called back a couple days later and said I could do an impression of a fork. And so they had me on the show four times, as beautiful downtown Burbank's greatest impressionist.
O: What impressions did you do?
ML: That's how easy it was. I did a fork, a tube of toothpaste. What else did I do? A grandfather clock, and one other one. Rowan and Martin did a bunch of jokes on me, stuff like that. Then it was the typical Hollywood story: After that, I didn't work for about three years.
O: What did you do during that time?
ML: I continued to do computer work. I was actually a computer operator at Universal Studios, which was sort of… I'd hang out around the studios and get to see John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and all these guys shoot movies and stuff like that. Then, after a few years, I started hanging out at a club owned by Redd Foxx and doing sketches. I was hanging out with guys like Cheech & Chong before they even made it. They were all trying to figure out what the business was all about. I formed a comedy team with a guy named Freeman King, and at Redd Foxx's club, me and Freeman were seen by some producers, and they asked us to be on Sonny and Cher's summer show. So, for the next four and half years, I was on The Sonny And Cher Show.
O: What was that like?
ML: It was total excitement. I was working with a different star every week, whether it was Jerry Lewis or whoever the stars were back in those days—all the same stars, you know? The Jackson 5, all those people. You got to work with everybody each week. We'd always have either a musical star or an acting star on the show.
O: Was it at all strange, being a comedy professional and having to work with entertainers who weren't comedians by trade?
ML: Yeah, well, I wasn't really a professional at that point, either. I was still getting off the ground. I was very naïve about the business. It's amazing how I was trying to hang out at Redd Foxx's club, and within months I was on a major television show.
O: Were you at all surprised that Sonny Bono found so much success, even after the show was over?
ML: No, he was an ambitious guy. He just wasn't the nicest guy. To take Cher and make her the success she was and be part of it with his limited singing ability, the man had some knowledge, and he knew what he was doing. He went a long way with his talent. But he just wasn't a sociably nice guy. None of us liked him on the show.
O: As somebody who worked on a bunch of variety shows, does it seem weird that the form doesn't really exist today?
ML: Yeah, it does. I keep thinking it's… everything's recycled, and it's gonna happen again, but in a very different version.
O: Why do you think they stopped getting made?
ML: There were so many at the time, whether it was Tony Orlando's show, or Carol Burnett's, or Sonny and Cher's. Everybody had shows back then. Anybody who made it, all of a sudden had a variety show. It's like everything. People don't have an appetite for that right now, but all it takes is one producer or one network to say, "I'm gonna try one." I think the last one that was tried was years ago with Dolly Parton, and it didn't do well, so nobody wants to touch it for a few years.
O: Of all the variety shows and programs you appeared on, which was your favorite?
ML: I've got to say that my favorite time was the Sonny And Cher years, because it was all sort of new and it was the biggest show at the time. That definitely was a highlight. I got on the show, and all of a sudden my first sketch is doing a singing and dancing routine with Art Carney. I went, "Wow." I went from nothing to that, then doing things with Jerry Lewis, and whoever else was on top of the world. It was a very, very exciting period of my life.
O: Were you ever intimidated by anyone you worked with?
ML: The only comic I've ever felt intimidated around, and it was because I idolized him, was probably Jerry Lewis. You get to know all the comics as you go up, and he's the only comic that I… Whether it's the old-timers like Don Rickles or Robin Williams, or guys that I grew up in the business with, I never felt intimidated by anybody. But Lewis was the only one where I felt it was hard to be funny around him. You felt like you were taking away from his aura. But he was one of those guys that I idolized coming up in the world. I saw all of his movies.
O: I realize you've probably been asked this question many times, but how did you come up with the character of The Unknown Comic?
ML: This is the first time I'm being asked this. I had a really bad complexion, and it was cheaper than Clearasil. Actually, when The Sonny And Cher Show ended, I had a few dollars, so I bought a nightclub restaurant in North Hollywood, and it was called Showbiz. I specialized in ribs and later specialized in bankruptcy. I had the club for a few years, but it just drained me. Fascinating place, though, because people like David Letterman, the first place he ever worked in L.A. was my club. Debra Winger was one of my waitresses. A lot of guys started at my club.
O: Were people grateful to you for giving them opportunities?
ML: I think everyone makes their own opportunities. I happened to be there. I don't think I was responsible for Letterman's career in any way. My place was just a place for him to work out. My place was the first place Gallagher worked out.
O: Was he smashing melons at that point?
ML: Yeah. Gallagher came from Florida with Jim Stafford. Remember Jim Stafford? "My Girl Bill" and "Spiders And Snakes"? He was a hit back then. He had his own summer show and a bunch of hit records. Gallagher was one of his best friends, and was writing his act. He walked into my club one day, and I'm going, "Jim Stafford!" Like I said, he was a big hit at this time. He says, "I'll get up and do a couple songs if you put my buddy on." I said, "Sure, who's your buddy?" The guy's name was Gallagher. He did the watermelon thing the first time he was there and floored the place. But he had done it before. That wasn't the first place he did it; him and Stafford, apparently, worked at a little place in Florida, where they were originally from. Stafford is making about $20 million a year now in Branson, Missouri. He's very, very successful. Anyway, so those couple years I had the club, I lost everything, and I was busted, broke. I had no money, and The Gong Show has been on the air maybe six months. And if you were in the union, which I was, and you appeared on The Gong Show, you got a few hundred dollars. I heard that everybody was going on who needed money—actors were making up these little bits—so I said, "Well, I could use the money." So I said, "Well, if I put a bag on my head and tell a couple jokes, nobody will know it's me." I didn't want anybody to know it was me, because I'd just been on The Sonny And Cher Show. So I was embarrassed having to do…
O: Because you were above it?
ML: In a sense, yeah. So I felt, if I just put a bag on and call myself The Unknown Comic, do a couple jokes, I'll get my couple hundred dollars. And that's all I meant to do. But what I did is, I came out and insulted Chuck Barris. I did a couple jokes and then said, "Hey, Chuck, do you and your wife ever make love in the shower?" And he said, "No." I said, "Well, you should, she loves it." The audience loved it. So every time I'd come back… He kept asking, "You've got to come back and do something else. Insult me again." So every time I'd come back, I'd have to insult him at the end of it. But I was used to being an actor, a comedy actor, and to do stand-up was new to me. I never did stand-up before. So, from that point on, I had to try to figure out… I did about six or eight months when I was doing The Unknown Comic, did maybe 40 or 50 television shows like that. And all of a sudden, I knew I had something I could parlay. So I contacted Vegas, and ended up going to the Sahara and started making some money, put a whole act together. I had a band called The Brown Baggers who had bags over their heads, had dancers called the Baggettes. I was getting paid, like, five grand a week, I think, but my show was costing me about six grand a week. But I had to do something, because I had no real act, and that's what I did. It took me about a year before I developed an act, and I could slowly let everybody go, and then I started making money. But in the beginning, that's what people wanted to see, and the whole show was this bag character.
O: Did you want to distance yourself at all from the freak-show nature of The Gong Show?
ML: No, not at all. On the contrary, I was trying to use it to the best of my ability. After all, the character I created was on that show.
O: You weren't bothered by the criticism The Gong Show received?
ML: No. It's like any show. People slap success—critics try to slap success around—but how can you knock success?
O: Did you ever feel like The Gong Show went too far?
ML: No. Not when you look at shows like Jackass today. I thought it was pushing the envelope because that's what made it a success, whether it's Jaye P. Morgan showing her boobs or those girls sucking on popsicles. It was definitely pushing the envelope, but that's the reason people watched it. They wanted to see how far it was going to go.
O: During the heyday of The Gong Show, did you ever get sick of being The Unknown Comic?
ML: No, I always found it interesting. It was interesting to be in situations where people would be talking about me and they wouldn't know that I was him. That was fascinating. Then, sometimes, it would backfire. One time I was in a bar, talking to some girls and sort of flirting. I finally asked them what they did for a living, and they asked me the same, so I sort of sneaked it in. "Have you ever heard of The Unknown Comic?" And one girl goes, "Oh, I hate him." I just let it slide. I had one woman tell me that she met The Unknown Comic in Chicago and had sex with him, so there was a guy, and it wasn't me.
O: Were you concerned about the fact that any Tom, Dick, and Harry could claim to be The Unknown Comic?
ML: Actually, they did. It became quite popular for a while. There was The Unknown Stripper, and they had a disc jockey that became The Unknown Disc Jockey on radio here. A lot of people were using it, but, no, I thought it was flattering if anybody did anything resembling it, as long as they didn't do jokes. I didn't have any say. If anybody came out and started doing jokes as The Unknown Comic, I could file a lawsuit, but anybody putting a bag over their head for any other reason was a compliment.
O: Were there a lot of Unknown Comic groupies?
ML: I had no complaints. Oh, yeah, I had my share of groupies, I'll tell you. Major, major girl-groupies who would do anything I want with a bag over their head or my head. I had my series of legendary experiences in Vegas with women.
O: So, being The Unknown Comic worked for you there.
ML: Yeah, very much so.
O: Did it seem weird to be famous for something that required anonymity?
ML: And I did The Unknown Poster, remember that? With a bag over my head and a bag over my dick. It was actually a huge poster at the time, sold hundreds of thousands, but I never saw a penny. Me and Debbie Boone got ripped off. That was during the poster craze, after Farrah Fawcett. I did it after the Burt Reynolds pose, and it was in that Playgirl magazine, so I did the naked thing, laying down with a bag over my head and a long, long wine bag over my dick. It was very well received. But anyway.
O: Did you find it limiting, being The Unknown Comic? Obviously, there are certain types of humor you can't really do with a paper bag over your head. You can't do a whole lot of political material, I would imagine.
ML: Well, yeah. When I do my show, I do an hour-long show, and only about 15 minutes is with the bag, so it never really became that limiting to me afterwards. I'm unlike a lot of comics in the business, though: I never had this drive to be really, really famous. I just enjoy working. I've done almost 800 television shows and movies. I've never had an agent or manager. I've always just done everything. I just coast along and do everything as it comes along. When things aren't happening, I just go and make them happen. I literally retired for almost eight years to raise my daughter.
O: Being a creative person, was it difficult being out of the public eye?
ML: No. Again, I just never had that drive to be really famous. What it was, too—and it really did affect me years ago, when I was just starting to make it as The Unknown Comic, and I got to personally know people like Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers, and all these guys who were making it really big—was that most of them seemed miserable to me. I kept saying, "Here's a guy who's making millions, and he's not happy." I said to myself, "This is not necessarily what I need in life. I need to just concentrate on the important things." For me, it's all worked. I would say I've been one of the most fortunate guys around. I'm happy 95 percent of the time, I have a great life, I have two wonderful kids, and I really, really enjoy my life every day. I'd watch these guys, and everything is a struggle. Who's stealing whose jokes, and blah blah this, and, "Why can't I get ahead?" Everybody was always worrying. There wasn't a whole lot of happiness in that arena. Not to say that there aren't people who are successful and enjoy it, but I didn't know a whole lot of them back then. Even Steve Martin, who I knew well and had it as big as anybody could be, didn't strike me as a very happy guy, ever, with all the success he had.
O: Was that part of the reason you retired?
ML: Well, the main reason was… I have this philosophy that change is growth. When you change things in your life, you can't help but grow, because you have to adapt to new things and acquire new knowledge. When I had a child—and I was 45 years old when I had my first child—it was like, wow. It was like a bomb exploded emotionally inside me, and it was a whole new set of things I had to learn about. I just thoroughly enjoyed it all. I enjoyed every diaper change, and every connection with having a child was new. Watching them feed their first bird, watching them do this, it's a whole new set of experiences. That's what I enjoyed a lot, and I would never change that. I wouldn't change those seven or eight years [of retirement] with my daughter for a TV series. It's just not something I would do. It's not that important, because a TV series is over and you're left with nothing, but a daughter, you've got that for the rest of your life.
O: Do you think you'll ever feel too old to put a paper bag over your head and tell jokes?
ML: No, I don't think so. If I start tripping and falling, possibly. It's amazing, because I'm 56, and people my age are always talking about getting up. I feel the same way I did when I was 22 years old. But I'm sort of a health nut and an exercise person. I feel like I'm in great shape. I don't feel any of the aches and pains all these guys talk about. I'm better now than when I was 22.
O: If your life were an E! True Hollywood Story, what would the high and the low of it be?
ML: I can't think of a whole lot of low periods. Um, there must be a couple, though. The occasional breakups with somebody are low periods, I guess. But, like I said, I always try to take a negative and turn it into a positive. That's what I did with Up Your Alley. Some girl I was living with for two years left me, and I was either going to start drinking or do something, so I made the movie. The movie turned out to be a nice little fun project. But the highs are my kids, no doubt about that. The highs in my show-business career would be The Sonny And Cher Show, becoming friends with Jerry Lewis, who is my idol, and partying all night with Elvis Presley. I partied all night with him.
O: What was that like?
ML: It was a blast, but I wish I would have gone to the show, because he invited me to his show. Me and my buddy Freeman went there, and Tom Miner was there, too. Bobbie Gentry was a friend of mine, and I went backstage to visit her, because she was also married to Jim Stafford. See, all this stuff comes around. I'd made friends with her during those years, and me and Freeman went backstage to see her, and she had Elvis back there. We go, "Holy jeez." She says, "I want you to meet a friend of mine." Anyway, we start talking to him, and he says, "Come on, we'll go to my place, have a party." And this was in Vegas, so we all go to his suite in the Hilton. And he's doing karate, he's using me, and I'd always make him laugh. And every time I'd make him laugh, my brain would go, "You just made Elvis Presley laugh." It was the freakiest thing. We were there for hours, and we sat down and he started singing, on the floor, "Are You Lonesome Tonight." He's sitting right next to me, and he's singing "Are You Lonesome Tonight." It's just like being in a totally different world. You can't even believe that you're sitting next to Elvis while he's singing. There were about eight or nine of us there. Then, at about five in the morning, he started doing Bible songs, so that's when we got going. And he says, "Come on, you guys, you've got to come to my show tomorrow." And the thing is, we would have, but me and my buddy were in Vegas visiting, and we lost all our money, so we never went. We already had plane flights back. I wish we had, because it was about two years before he died. But it was so cool. It was a great time. I've also been threatened by Frank Sinatra. He called me on the phone, threatened to break my legs.
O: What was the cause of that?
ML: That was, ah, Make Me Laugh. I did Make Me Laugh, and I was doing a bunch of jokes. It wasn't as The Unknown Comic; it was as me, because I did it both as me and as The Unknown Comic. And I did a joke where I was reading things out of a newspaper, because you're trying to make somebody laugh. I never did Sinatra jokes in my act, but I did one joke where I said, "Sinatra's gonna open up a halfway house for girls who don't go all the way." It wasn't a hard joke. I totally forgot about it. So I guess Sinatra saw a rerun six months later and he literally… I'm shaving, and he calls me on the phone. Of course, you don't think Sinatra's calling you. So I pick up the phone, and he goes, "Is this Murray Langston?" I go, "Yeah." He says, "This is Sinatra, you cocksucker," and he starts cursing at me. "You ever mention my name, I'm gonna break your fucking legs," and all this shit, you know. I don't believe it's Sinatra, I think it's a friend of mine. I'm going, "Fuck you, dickhead." He's going back and forth with me, and I'm laughing at him, and the more I laugh at him, the more he's getting pissed off. He's saying, "This is Frank Sinatra." The other thing is, I don't remember ever doing a joke on Sinatra. Finally, he screams at me, I don't know what he said. I said, "Yeah, if you're Sinatra, sing 'My Way,' asshole." That's what did it. He just yelled at me and hung up. So I got back to shaving, and a couple minutes later the phone rings again, and I pick it up. It's another voice that I recognize, saying, "Is this Murray Langston?" I say, "Yeah." He says, "This is Milton Berle. Do you recognize my voice?" And I recognized Milton Berle's voice. He says, "Look, Frank just called me. Apparently, you didn't think you were talking to him." I had to stop shaving, because I'd probably cut my throat at the time. Anyway, he tells me Sinatra's this and Sinatra's that, and he says, "I'm not blaming you. He's just a little crazy at his age." Anyway, it was funny, because he went through the agency and actually was trying… I found out through a lot of sources that he was really going to have somebody rough me up. I called up the producer of this show and I said, "You'll never guess what happened." And the producer says, "Yeah, Frank Sinatra called me." I said, "How'd you know?" "Well, where do you think he got your phone number?" I said, "You asshole." It was a big stink. What a jerk this guy was.
O: He was around 80 at the time, wasn't he? What was he going to do?
ML: I know, but that's not the worry. The worry is, he had people around him who'd be glad to break somebody's legs for him. I went, "There's another idiot, this guy can't take a joke." If he would have just called me and said, "Excuse me, you did a joke on me, and I'd really appreciate…" And I would have said, "Oh, not a problem, man. I respect you." But he was such a vile person on the phone. And then Kitty Kelley heard the story, the one who wrote the book on him. She heard the story, and she called me up and asked me about it, and asked if she could put it in a book. And I denied it to her, because I wanted to save it for my book. My book is a lot more interesting, if I ever get it off the ground. I've known everybody in the business. Robin Williams and I used to double-date, Debra Winger and I were an item back then. Actually, one time I dated three different girls who were in three different movies at one time. I partied all night with Lucille Ball, I used to date Lucie Arnaz. Got to party, spent Christmas with her. It's just a lot of interesting things that have happened in my life that were just fascinating, that I really enjoyed, that I can look back on. Again, being part of Jim Carrey and Robin Williams, all those guys and their early years when they were just starting out. It was fun. My life has intertwined with almost all these guys who are huge today. Jay Leno, Mavis [Nicholson, Leno's wife]. I used to date Mavis for years before Leno. So just the sexual part of my history is amazing, with a lot of the people I used to date back then. I had a great time.