Sunday, December 23, 2007

Jon Stainbrook was an Edgy Comic Genius

In the 1976 production of Paint Your Wagon at Dirty Jack’s Theater there was one particular joke every night that I remember because it got a really big laugh. It was one of those laughs that starts small and then rolls and swells across the audience as everybody gets it. It was one of the best gags every night.

Jon Stainbrook’s Ben Rumson character set up the joke, which I don’t clearly remember. But I remember his punch line:

“Rosh Hashanah!”

The audience was in hysterics. I didn’t get it.

Nope, not a clue. I sat in the band pit watching the show up close every night and wondered what the heck that was all about. I finally asked another band member (I’m pretty sure it was Tim O’Reilly) who told me it was a Jewish thing.

I was a 23-year old yokel from a tiny Wyoming farming and oil town. Not only was I unfamiliar with Jewish holidays, to my knowledge I had never met a Jewish person in my entire life. In fact, it wasn’t until after I moved away from Wyoming the next year that I realized I had never seen black people in TV commercials. Wyoming was not a bastion of diversity back then.

The gag was something about an Indian name, so in today’s environment Jon may have offended two ethnicities. But looking back I think it was good-natured, having more to do with a tradition among old-school entertainment types – such as Jon – for inside-baseball humor at the expense of Jewish friends in show business. Johnny Carson, for example, was big on that. And Jon's joke slayed every night.

Be that such as it may, Jon Stainbrook was an edgy genius. This all makes me wonder about something: I am among the fortunate minority of players at Dirty Jack’s who actually got to work with Jon. I also was there for his final season in 1979. What was Jon’s reputation among the later casts? Did the players who never met him know he was brilliant? Was he the legend he deserved to be?