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George Kirby was an extremely talented comedian/impressionist who had the bad luck to be short, heavy-set and black in an era when comedians were expected to be tall, thin and white. Also, Kirby did devastatingly accurate (and funny) impressions of white celebrities, at a time when the idea of a black man imitating a white man was not readily accepted. Kirby's imitation of Walter Brennan was one of the most dead-on hilarious impressions I've ever seen, by anyone. (Full disclosure: I had the privilege of working with George Kirby on another one of his projects.)
'Half the George Kirby Comedy Hour' was a half-hour comedy/variety series hosted by Kirby. Each week's episode featured a guest act, and there were some impressive acts here ... such as Hines, Hines and Dad (featuring the young Gregory Hines). Each week, Kirby performed a musical number, and these varied impressively in style and format. In one episode, Kirby and guest star Arte Johnson performed Cole Porter's novelty song 'Siberia'. On another occasion, Kirby solo'ed on 'That's All I Need to Make a Hit Record' backed by an ensemble of musicians, a jazz pianist and a girl trio. Most impressively, in one episode Kirby sang the ballad 'Green, Green Grass of Home' with no gimmicks, but with a lyric change to reflect his racial heritage: the line 'There stands Mary, hair of gold' was changed to 'There stands Mary, hair so black'. When I asked him about this later, George Kirby explained that he didn't want to insult his black fans by singing about an idealised woman who was blonde.
Unfortunately, there were many flaws in this weekly series. Kirby had few chances to do impressions, and each week he was lumbered with a long painful monologue called the Funky Fable, in which he played an unfunny jive-talkin' character who spun out a long complicated story ending in a contrived pun, and often depending on a made-up word. A typical Funky Fable was the one about a village menaced by a gigantic creature called a Rarey Bird, which could only be vanquished when the villagers tipped the bird off the edge of a very high cliff. The punchline was 'That's a long way to tip a Rarey'. Since it usually took Kirby about five minutes to get to the punchline, these Funky Fables weren't worth it.
There were some peculiar and unfunny comedy(?) sketches featuring Kirby's regular cast of supporting actors. One ongoing situation featured Jack Duffy and Julie Amato as castaways on a desert island. Each week, Duffy became more ragged, filthy, hungry and degraded, while Amato played a haughty woman whose hairstyle, make-up and clothing miraculously stayed intact, and who coldly spurned Duffy's pleas without looking up from the book she was reading. This might have appealed to somebody's kink, but it wasn't funny. Even worse was a running situation in which Kirby's weekly monologue would be interrupted by Joey Hollingsworth as a blowhard Southerner who kept inviting Kirby to 'Come on back to the plantation, boy. Your old job's still waiting for you.' Writer/performer Steve Martin showed up occasionally, giving no hint of his future stardom.
Kirby performed this series on a theatre-in-the-round stage before a live studio audience. At the end of each episode, Kirby would sing 'Don't Lose Your Sense of Humour, and You Won't Lose Your Peace of Mind'. For some reason, the end of every episode always featured the same film clip of one audience member (a woman in a crew-knit sweater) applauding while Kirby took bows. I wonder if they paid her any residuals.
'Half the George Kirby Comedy Hour' was done on a low budget for a variety series, but was often excellent. Unfortunately, when it was bad it was very bad indeed. I'll rate this show 5 out of 10, but somebody could compile a very entertaining video from the highlights of this ambitious series.
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