Alan King, whose tirades against everyday suburban life grew into a long comedy career in nightclubs and television that he later expanded to Broadway and character roles in movies, died Sunday at the age of 76.
King, who also was host of the New York Friars Club’s celebrity roasts, which had recently returned as a staple on television’s Comedy Central, died at a Manhattan hospital, said a son, Robert King.
King appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 93 times beginning in the 1950s.
Comedian Jerry Stiller, who knew King for more than 50 years, said King was “in touch with what was happening with the world, which is what made him so funny.”
“He always talked about the annoyances of life,” Stiller said. “He was like a Jewish Will Rogers.”
King played supporting roles in more than 20 films including “Bye Bye Braverman,” “I, the Jury,” “The Anderson Tapes,” “Lovesick,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Casino,” and “Rush Hour 2.” He also produced several films, including “Memories of Me,” “Wolfen” and “Cattle Annie and Little Britches,” and the 1997 television series “The College of Comedy With Alan King.”
He said he was working strip joints and seedy nightclubs in the early 1950s when he had a revelation while watching a performance by another young comedian, Danny Thomas.
“Danny actually talked to his audience,” he recalled in a 1991 interview. “And I realized I never talked to my audience. I talked at ’em, around ’em and over ’em, but not to ’em. I felt the response they had for him. I said to myself, ’This guy is doing something, and I better start doing it.”’
King, who until then had been using worn out one-liners, found his new material at home, after his wife persuaded him to forsake his native Manhattan, believing the suburban atmosphere of the Forest Hills sections of Queens would provide a better environment for their children.
Soon he was joking of seeing people moving from the city to the suburbs “in covered wagons, with mink stoles hanging out the back.”
His rantings about suburbia, just as America was embracing it, struck a chord with the public and soon he was appearing regularly on the Sullivan show, Garry Moore’s variety show and “The Tonight Show.”
Bookings poured in, and he toured with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra, played New York’s showcase Paramount theater and top nightclubs around the country.
He also worked as the opening act for such music stars as Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Patti Page and Judy Garland, who he joined in a command performance in London for Queen Elizabeth.
After that show he was introduced to the queen and, when she asked “How do you do, Mr. King?” he said he replied: “How do you do, Mrs. Queen?”
“She stared at me, and then Prince Philip laughed,” he recalled. “Thank God Prince Philip laughed.”
King appeared in a handful of films in the late 1950s, including “The Girl He Left Behind,” “Miracle in the Rain” and “Hit the Deck,” although he didn’t care for his roles. “I was always the sergeant from Brooklyn named Kowalski,” he once complained.
He also appeared on Broadway in “Guys and Dolls” and “The Impossible Years,” and produced the Broadway plays “The Lion in Winter” and “Something Different.”
He wrote the humor books “Anyone Who Owns His Own Home Deserves One” (1962) and “Help! I’m a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery” (1964).
Born Irwin Alan Kniberg, he grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Brooklyn.
“Both of them were tough neighborhoods, but I was a pretty tough kid,” he recalled in 1964. “I had an answer for everything. ... I fought back with humor.”
He married Jeanette Sprung in 1947 and they had three children, Robert, Andrew and Elaine Ray. When King was at the height of his career, he faced one son’s drug addiction and said he realized he had neglected his family.
“It’s not easy being a father,” he said, “but I’ve been allowed a comeback.”
He spent more time at home and his son conquered his addiction.
“Now everyone kisses,” he said. “We show our affections.”