Steve Berry is a familiar face around town. He was the on-air face of Fox 17 through most of the 1990s and hosted the “Family Fun Game” from 1993 to 1999. He has been master of ceremonies for the Arthritis Foundation and Variety Children’s Charity telethons for years. His theater reviews have been part of KCCI’s evening news since 2007. He’s hosted “House of Mercy’s Family Feud” since 2010. A regular guest on KCWI’s former “Great Day in the Morning” and “The Doggone Travelin’ Show,” he’s also been spokesperson for Green Mountain grills the last dozen years.
On stage, he has played many leading men: Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” Berger in “Hair,” Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” and Tony in “West Side Story.” Berry says that Jesus was the most challenging role as far as musical range, but Jean was the most physically challenging because of wool costumes and the need to lift and a carry a 200-pound man seven times a night.
Despite all those roles, Berry is probably best known as the 1980s lounge lizard Joey Libido, a character he created in 1993 and recreated thousands of times. Joey resembles a Holiday Inn lounge act from the 1980s – with an ego and costumes that are part Tony Orlando and part Wayne Newton. We asked Berry to lunch at Manhattan Deli to discuss the state of the comedic arts and their relationship to delicatessens.
“First of all, both the deli and comedy are utterly traditional. That’s why Jews have been so successful in both. No other group of people on Earth respect tradition more. There is no reinventing the wheel in a deli — no fusion, no new age. It’s just bread, meat, cheese, pickles, mustard and mayo. Comedy is similar. Joke telling has not changed in a thousand years either – there’s a set up, an expectation and a punch line that defies the expectation,” he said referring to the Hegelian dialectic that Arthur Koestler wrote about in The Act of Creation.
Berry talked about a famous scene in the movie “When Harry Met Sally” in which Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in the legendary Katz deli in New York City. An older woman points to Ryan and tells her waiter “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“What a fabulous scene. (Director) Rob Reiner’s mother played that older character, incidentally. Fact is, Meg Ryan could have faked an orgasm in ‘Schindler’s List’ and made it work. The deli, though, is an east coast and west coast institution. Sandwiches are named for comedians, and the stars hang out at delis. It’s different in the Midwest. Barbecues are probably the Des Moines equivalence. No one here would want to order a ‘Willie Farrell’ sandwich in a deli. What would you get — an Italian sausage with a side of horse head?” he asked.
Berry worries that comedy is facing a crisis of change.
“There are a number of comedians, Jerry Seinfeld is the best known, who refuse to play college campuses anymore. They feel that they are too politically correct. Comedy has to be confrontational. Today’s young people are too emotionally soft to understand comedy; their feelings get hurt. They literally can’t take a joke,” he explained.
He does not consider guys like Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Don Rickles to be practicing shock humor.
“Chris Rock nailed it at the Oscars. I could not believe his act is referred to as shock. Holding a mirror up to society is not shock comedy. Shock is a crutch for people who are not very funny. Sam Kennison comes to mind. Rickles was the greatest, and he insulted everyone, especially his friends. He invented the celebrity roast,” Berry added.
He thinks there is a way for comedians to get around the super sensitivity.
“Joey was created at a time when Vegas had become a joke. That was before the idea of theme park hotels had matured. Joey resembles a late night lounge act of that time, the kind of place that had no cover charge and was open from midnight till 3 a.m. Joey differs from those acts in that he realizes the joke is on him. Bill Murray did a great job of that on Saturday Night Live,” he recalled.
Berry says other things are influencing comedy today.
“YouTube is changing everything. Anybody who’s really funny can go from unknown to famous overnight. Democracy is good. The Internet will select future stars. Comedy Central is also a huge influence. More young people today watch ‘The Daily Show’ than the network newscasts,” he explained.
Asked about the local scene, Berry complimented Farrell.
“He’s just amazing at ad lib. Once he gets off script and interacts with an audience, he can go down any rabbit hole and make it funny. (New jazz club) Noce is going to help things, but I worry about oversaturation with them competing with the Social Club,” he said.
Joey’s next show is a return engagement in Schleswig.
“After 30 years, everybody in Iowa who wanted to see Joey has had their chances. It’s a real honor to be invited back to a town like Schleswig. They must be gluttons for punishment,” he said. ■