Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dennis Wolfberg (comedy)

(1946-1994)
Wikipedia Entry

Dennis Wolfberg If this were a just world, Dennis Wolfberg would have become renowned as one of the greatest standup comedians ever.  Unfortunately, this isn't a just world.

Wolfberg grew up on Long Island* and started out as a teacher in the south Bronx.  That gave him plenty of material, and he soon moved into standup, eventually doing it full time in 1979, with hilarious results.

He achieved great success, appearing on The Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman and having his standup act on TV and HBO specials.

Wolfberg had a unique style.  He would speak rapidly, setting up the joke, and then punch it home. The jokes were funny, no doubt, but his delivery of them is what made them really work.  He always knew exactly what word to stress in order to get the most of a line. He also looked funny, with bulging eyes** and a way of holding his mic in two hands as though he were praying.

Here is an example (Wolfberg appears 30 seconds in).

 

But these sort of appearances are just too ephemeral to develop a lasting reputation.  Wolfberg didn't do a comedy album, since no one did comedy albums in the 80s.  He didn't have his own sitcom (though he tried).  The only non-standup TV role of note was the character of Gushie in Quantum Leap, a role that really gave him nothing to do.

Wolfberg kept trying.  He came close with a pilot about a teacher, but nothing came of it. Then, sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer in the early 90s.  Though he continued to work, both on stage and developing TV pilots, he died in 1994.

Wolfberg is highly regarded in the world of comedians, and it's sad that there is so little of his work available.  But all of it is first class.

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*As a native Long Islander myself, two things always irritate me when Long Island is mentioned.  First is the "Lon Guyland" accent, which was not at all how anyone spoke where I grew up. Second is related:  Long Island is a big place -- 80 miles long.  Yet no one differentiates between Nassau County and Suffolk, between Huntington and Valley Stream and Southampton and Southold, all quite different. Saying someone came from Long Island is like saying he came from Connecticut.  Where?

**Not up to Marty Feldman level, but still impressive, partly because he would often shut his eyes, letting them bulge out at the punch line.

33 comments:

Chris D'Orso said...

I didn't realize he had died (and so long ago). A hilarious comic, and you're right: great but forgotten.

Peter said...

I didn't realize he had died either. From his act I gather that he had three sons and was married. A real shame on many levels.

JAH said...

Wow, what a gift you have provided. A memory of a most unique and gifted comedian, with the best eyes in the history of the art. I hope one day to find a collection of all the videos made of the GREAT Dennis Wolfberg

Drew Morris said...

Dennis Wolfberg was a truly hilarious comedian and I would really love to see more clips posted. His routine on "Little League" was my all-time favorite...

My father and I recite his routines to this day and we remember him as a truly gifted entertainer.

Ian M. Sirota said...

The world became a much less funny place when he passed away. Thanks for posting this well-deserved tribute to him.

Mark said...

LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this guy. While sitting here at home tonight, Dennis ran across my thoughts for some unknown reason...so I googled his name and watched old footage and read this post as well. I remember watching him on Carson & Letterman as a boy in the 70's & 80's and thought he was the GREATEST I'd seen...along with Steve Martin of course.

We'll always miss you Dennis. You were the best!

Anonymous said...

OMG! I LOVED Dennis Wolfberg!I had no idea he died!...I did wonder what had become of him though...HE WAS HILARIOUS!!!! Rest in peace Dennis!

Faraone said...

I knew Dennis in the late sixties when he was a teacher at P. S. 71 in The Bronx. The Northeast Bronx -- NOT -- the South Bronx. He never taught in a "tough" school -- but, give him credit -- the South Bronx had more laugh potential. I directed him in "The Pied Piper" in which he had the title role. He was energetic but lacking in talent then. I purchased magic tricks for him at Al Flosso's magic shop in NYC and taught him how to do magic tricks (which I learned from Flosso). I was surprised at the success he later had -- but only because when I knew him he was 22 - 23 and hadn't worked on his craft. His name popped up in a joke book I was reading tonight and it brought back old memories.

Anonymous said...

What a loss his death was and is! Dennis brought laughter and sunshine into the world. I miss him now and I'm glad I saw him. Once seen, always remembered.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic talent. A true original. A tragic loss.

Victor said...

What an original talent and not ladened with every 4 letter word available, he was on a level of his own. The first time I saw him I laughed until it hurt /// Thank you Dennis for the laughs and we'll see you in the big comedy club in the sky /// Victor

Anonymous said...

Dennis was all a comedian could ever be: hilarious lines, frenetic delivery, and a wonderful grasp of the comedic elements of English. Modern 'comedians' should invest in studying his wit and timing, as he was one of the best. Believe it or not, his punchlines about his school "being the only school to have a morgue" was something I cried with laughter about until I became a teacher. Not a day goes by that Dennis' lines are not lost to any in the teaching profession, and often are the only humorous words shared by a former colleague
that helps us cope through the day. Dennis, I love you, I miss you, and thanks for all the jokes.

catcoot7 said...

I saw Dennis Wolfberg at Rascals in West Orange in the early '80s and always remember him as one of the funniest guys ever. His timing was impeccable. I always include him on my list of top 10 favorite comedians.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where on LI he came from?
What HS did he go to?

Anonymous said...

A local radio DJ played a recording of Dennis during the drive home one afternoon. I was laughing so hard, I had to pull over until it was over. I also had the great pleasure to see him perform in person. The man was HILARIOUS. What a terrible loss.

Michael Goodman said...

I knew Dennis when he was a teacher ad was perfecting his craft. He would teach all day, take a nap and ten work the NYC comedy clubs till early in the morning. He didn't learn how to be funny; he was born funny. I attended many of his shows and never before or after saw a comedian kill like he did I truly believe had he not been taken from us so young that he would have been one of the brightest stars in comedy today.

lancelot said...

You know this is truly unbelievable. I just saw his "One Night Stand" show on cable the other day and I had a moment when I asked myself where is he now. Something told me to google Mr. Wolfberg and I discover he has been deceased for a few years now. What a sad day. I had no idea. Soooo much talent. And I always wondered why he didn't go further in his career and now I know why. I pray he's in Heaven still making people laugh. He had such a gift and he was so natural about it. A real class act.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing Wolfberg on late night TV, and HBO, and laughing until I cried. His bris routine was great. I saw him at a comedy club, and asked for his autograph afterwards. He was so humble about it. Just a class act all around.

EarlyDetectDoc said...

He was my favorite comedian EVER....very intelligent humor with a great delivery. Loved his one man show on HBO. Sadly he died of melanoma

jodie watkin said...

I have only seen him in his brief quantum leap apprentices, I carnt explain it but after I watched this quantum leap epesode with him in it something just made me think to search for information about him , then I found out he had died and it made me feel sad , especially when I found out how and at what age .

I realy want to see more of his work now there is just something different about him. It's is such a shame he passed away like that rip Mr. Wolfberg never going to be forgoten :(

FieldingMelish said...

He was my 5th grade teacher at P.S. 71 in the northeast Bronx. I guess saying he taught in the south Bronx gave him some street cred. I liked him as a teacher but I don't remember him as being bug-eyed or particularly funny.
I was shocked the night my friend called me and told me that Mr. Wolfberg was going to be on The Tonight Show or Letterman, I can't quite remember. I moved to L.A. in the late seventies and on one night he was performing at one of the local comedy clubs. So, I went to see his act. He was pretty damn funny.
We chatted for a while after the show. He was very gracious and even remembered a few things that had happened in our class. It's too bad he had to leave us at such an early age.
Cheers, Mr. Wolfberg.

Anonymous said...

I am helping my 21 year old son pack and we are talking about his Daddy Dennis so I poked around the internet and found this sight. It is so heart-warming to read that people still think about our Dennis and remember how truly funny he was. His sons and I (the boys are all doing well - are 26 and 21 year old twins who are in college) think of him and talk about him all the time. He loved making people laugh, loved his family and was a beloved friend to all who knew him. He was fun and funny off stage and brilliant on stage. He died of melanoma, so in his honor, go get your moles check. With appreciation, his wife, Jeannie

Rob said...

Does anyone recall a routine that Dennis did regarding "offensive" nicknames for college and professional sports teams? Been looking on Youtube for it but can't find it. It was very good and would like to view it again if possible. Thank you.

Dave said...

I saw Dennis at a comedy club in Dayton, Ohio in '92 or '93. Absolutely hilarious. Toward the end of his set, I called out to him to please do the 'circumcision' bit, which he hadn't done yet. The rest of the crowd probably thought I was a plant, but I wasn't; I'd heard him do the bit on TV, and wanted to hear it live. He launched into it, and I was literally in tears, laughing so hard. Dennis was up there with Dangerfield in terms of non-stop laugh lines and facial expressions and tics. He died way too soon....a true loss to the comedy and entertainment world.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize he passed. I was driving home after a shitty day at work and by the time I got home I was in tears from laughing so hard.

Anonymous said...

I think of and miss him every year around this time because I recall a hilarious routine of his. He described how, as a small Jewish child, he always felt screwed over by Santa Claus. Years later he got over it when he realized Santa was just another fat, antisemitic slob.

Jon D said...

I think of and miss him every year around this time because I recall a hilarious routine of his. He described how, as a small Jewish child, he always felt screwed over by Santa Claus. Years later he got over it when he realized Santa was just another fat, antisemitic slob.

Kurt Benrud said...

I had the good fortune of catching one of his shows here in Raleigh, NC. I had seen him on TV numerous times, so I invited several friends to join me. Great show.

Anonymous said...

Loved watching his stand up routines. Thought he was one of all time greats and really is a forgotten gem.

Cathy Teufel O'Neill said...

As a new teacher at P.S. 71, I knew Dennis would be loads of fun immediately. The first time I met him he was holding court in the Teachers’ Room, hunched over a green flannel board, using our math chips to teach his colleagues a gambling game.

Dennis was one of the few who could play the piano, so he was recruited to provide marching music as students entered and exited the auditorium. I can’t remember his entrance music, but to this day I can still see him suppressing a grin as he hammered out his own dramatic rendition of “Exodus” – flourishes and all – as the students left the auditorium. I don’t think the kids ever got the joke, but the teachers definitely enjoyed it. Dennis was one of a kind.

Before Dennis tried his hand at stand-up, he and a small group of us went to see Johnny Carson perform at a NY arena. I thought of that as I watched Dennis’ Tonight Show debut video on You Tube. I can only imagine how he felt that day.

I do believe that Dennis taught at another school in the South Bronx, but his formative teaching years were spent at P.S. 71. Trust me. There was enough material at our school – and at every school - to fill a comedy handbook. It took a comic genius like Dennis to use the material to perfection.

Mike said...

He was my favorite comic of the times. I was so excited to see that he was scheduled to perform at Zanies in Nashville so I could see him live, but he died before the tickets ever were sold. He was the best!

Anonymous said...

One of the great things about cable finally coming to our rural area was that it was just in time to see the first televised war -- the first Gulf War.

The second great thing was all the standup comedy that had never been on TV before (for us, anyway). And one of the most memorable was Dennis, whom we talked about for years.

When we finally got a computer & discovered search engines, we looked for Dennis since we hadn't seen him in quite some time .... and were so sad to find he had left us. But we are grateful for the material he left for future generations to see.

Everytime I come out of a prostate exam I remember Dennis, and am SO tempted to make a remark about the Josef Mengele School of Medicine and scream, "Run, Jews, Run !!" as I enter the waiting room. Most likely only my wife would get the joke, so I restrain myself.

A very talented man that we will always remember. Surely a great epitaph for anyone.

Anonymous said...

This October 4 it will be 20 years since we lost Dennis. As his widow, I can tell you all that these posts and his being remember by so many for so long is a great comfort. He was one of a kind. His three sons are doing well. While they have had a great stepdad for 15 years, they have grown up with pictures and stories of 'Daddy Dennis'. They know they were loved and cherished by a man who was loved and cherished by others. At his funeral, his dear friend Hiram Kasten gave an inspired eulogy in which he said that Dennis took a room full of strangers and made them into friends. Watching his act made you feel you knew him (btw, all the stories are true -- exaggerated but true, even the sigmodoscopy). You did. Besides being so very funny onstage and off, he was a great friend and wonderful husband. One of his last, most generous acts was to say to me, 'if it had to be someone in our family, I'm glad it was me." He was a great man and I love him, miss him and think of him everyday. Thank you all for your memories.