Marty Allen (Morton David Alpern) (1922- )
Steve Rossi (Joseph Charles Michael Tafarella) (1932-2014)
Comedy teams are a thing of the past. Even though standup is going strong, the idea of a comedian and straight man combo – a setup dating back to vaudeville – has died out. The form seems too stagy for today’s tastes. Allen and Rossi were one of the last big stars in the genre.*
Steve Rossi was actually discovered by Mae West. He was a singer, and West loved having handsome men surrounding her in her shows. He went on to be a singer with Nat “King” Cole. When Cole heard he was thinking of doing comedy, he hooked him up with Marty Allen, a standup comedian.
The two worked out an act, but it was a flub on the part of Allen that gave them their catchphrase. In one show, Allen blanked on his line and blurted out “Hello, dere.” It helped to make them a star.
Their act was simple, with Rossi asking questions of Allen, who would come up with the punchline. Unlike other straight men, Rossi rarely joked, leaving the laughs to his partner, but singing a song to either open or close the act.
Allen’s appearance worked for him. Like many comedy duos, they were mismatched in size: Rossi was tall and slim, Allen was short and chubby. He had a round face and large eyes that helped him sell the joke, but the goofiest part of his was his hair – a wild, curly mop that gave the impression of a dandelion. The jokes are far too “jokey” for audiences today, but Allen still manages to get laughs out of it. He also did “impressions,” which consisted of Rossi announcing him as a celebrity and Allen not making the slightest attempt to mimic the person, and even starting out with “Hello, dere.”
The act was a smashing success, doing the club and the talk show circuit, and eventually The Ed Sullivan Show, where they became favored comedians.** Which leads them to the main reason they’re cited today: they were on the show for the Beatles’ first appearance. That’s a hard act to follow, but Allen and Rossi managed to charm the audience of teenage girls who were not their usual demographic;
The two of them appeared in three of the four Ed Sullivan Shows that featured the Beatles, and seemed to have a mutual liking for the fab four.
The two continued to perform in nightclubs and TV, and in 1966 appeard in the film The Last of the Secret Agents?, which flopped badly.*** Finally, in 1968, the two split (amicably).
Rossi kept trying with other partners, but drifted away from show business. Allen kept busy as a game show celebrity on The Hollywood Squares and occasional actor.
The two occasionally re-formed the act for Las Vegas, drawing their old fans. It all ended with Rossi died in 2014.
*Not the very last – Rowan and Martin were probably the last to be major mainstream stars, while Cheech and Chong were big among youth. Key and Peele are one of the few currently successful, but they’re sketch comedians, not stand up.
**They appeared there 44 times.
***The clip I found appears to be pretty awful, though it could be scene as a certain inspiration for Austin Powers.