If ever asked, most insufferable snobs would probably credit fey, whey-colored genius Andy Warhol for turning boredom into an art form. Especially those movies of his where nothing happens for, like, nine hours. But New Yorkers of a certain age might voice a different choice. Yes, my friends, it would be Joe Franklin, who died on January 24 at age 88, who made boredom beatific.
From 1950 to 1993, this brilliantly bland man, always beautifully turned-out in a serious suit, hair combed and sprayed into impressive stillness, would hold forth on The Joe Franklin Show on WOR-TV, in the wee-wee hours. He had a penchant for the puffball question, gushed over every guest, and time, always our mortal enemy, stood still when Joe was on.
His set was minimal. He spoke in a soft, utterly unctuous tone that reminded some of us of our rabbis, who gave the same sermon every Yom Kippur. Your nana loved him. So did everybody he had on his show, from aspiring, talentless geeks to giants from Frank Sinatra to Joey Ramone. Everybody loved Joe. There was a time when a quiet little man from the Bronx could lure in viewers simply by being soothing. But that was the intangible charm of Joe Franklin. He was Valium in human form. Asking about the seemingly obvious, fawning frequently, and constantly sticking in pitches for his sponsors, Franklin would have the biggest podcast in America if he was coming up today.
Born Joseph Fortgang, in the Bronx, in 1926, Franklin followed around legendary Jewish entertainers, the likes of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, eventually selling them jokes. At fourteen, Franklin wrote skits for The Kate Smith Hour. His best boyhood buddy was a handsome older kid named Bernie Schwartz, who later became known as Tony Curtis. Clearly, this gentle-souled, soft-spoken kid was destined to be a legend in showbiz. He became one. One of the strangest, but still. He was arguably the most uncharismatic talk show host in history. But therein lay his charm. Especially when it came to rock musicians.
David Johansen once told me that the best way to unwind after a gig was to watch hapless Joe, and that his shows were all “pretty much the same,” so it didn’t matter whether you caught a rerun and or came in midway. You weren’t going to miss anything. Then there was the night, in the midst of their hard-won fame, when the entire J. Geils Band appeared. They presented Joe with a huge trophy and two Playboy Bunnies. Franklin then (as was his custom) asked lead singer Peter Wolf what the “word of the day” was. Wolf looked lasciviously at the two hot young ladies and replied, “It’s not ‘VD,’ is it?” The other band members burst out in giggles. Joe sat still, unperturbed. The remark apparently sailed right over Franklin’s head.
But perhaps the most surreal sight was that night in 1988 when Joey and Marky Ramone were on the show. Franklin, who repeatedly called them the Ray-mones, asked Joey burning questions like, “How tall are you?” Joey responded graciously. It was quite unlike the night, in animated form, when da bruddas were on The Simpsons and said to Mr. Burns, “Happy birthday, you old bastard!” No one ever said such a thing to Joe Franklin.
He was one of those wonderful anomalies our city has always produced. In a town that is jackhammer-loud, Franklin was a serene source of quiet. In New York, full of the hippest musicians, poets, and painters, all from other areas, Joe, native-born, was as square as Richard Nixon. But he was beloved for simply being himself. In the world of showbiz, where everybody has a hook and the next person has to be twice as outrageous as their predecessor, Joe Franklin never demanded attention. It was strangely magical.
If you need any more proof, look no further than Woody Allen. In Broadway Danny Rose, his love letter to Manhattan and talent-impaired comics and crooners, his impresario gets his biggest client, Lou Canova, a spot on — what else? —The Joe Franklin Show. Joe plays himself, brilliantly. Turning to this hapless, second-rate Tony Bennett, Franklin says, “And I am very, very honored to announce that one of America’s, uh, great singing legends, a cherished musical legend, is making part of his, uh, comeback on The Joe Franklin TV Show. And, uh, I — I hope my, uh, enthusiasm is generating, because I love this man. I really, I mean, if you can love a man, I love Lou Canova.”
Joe Franklin spoke this way about everyone who was ever a guest on his show, from Bing Crosby to the guy I saw one night, as child, who played “Malagueña” on fifteen water glasses. So I say to you, now, my friends: Do you need any further proof as to why we loved him?
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