There is no comic with more of a sorted reputation among comics than John Fox. Fox is a standup who began his career during the beginning of the comedy boom. He appeared on the Rodney Dangerfield HBO special that included Tim Allen and Jeff Foxworthy. He also was the epitome of life on the road excess. When I started in the early 90’s, Fox was one of the biggest draws in the clubs. This was especially the case in Indianapolis where the Bob and Tom Show is based and was really taking off. Fox was one of the first comics that the show really broke in some of its earliest markets. (Heywood Banks, Pinkard and Bowden, Tim Cavanaugh, Brad Garrett, etc) In the 90’s, there were 4 full-time comedy clubs in Indy. 2 of them were owned by Chick Perrin, a classic character, himself. These were the days where the club was open Tuesday through Saturday and an MC would make 325 for the week. You would also get to go to a cool bar Perrin owned after each show and eat and drink for free. The bar is named the Old Point and it was the site of the first time I met John Fox.
Since it was on the house, you could usually count on all the comics being there after most shows, but for some reason, only myself showed up from the Broad Ripple club. I asked the bartender if any comics had come by from the Downtown club and he pointed to John Fox. Now, I’d only been doing standup a couple of years, but I had been told about Mr. Fox. I went up to him a little nervously and introduced myself. He started our conversation with this.
(Gravely voice. Think Nick Nolte in 48 Hours) I’m sure you heard a lot about me. Well, let me tell you, if half that shit was true, I would be dead. Oh and by the way, I’ve never jacked off in a comedy condo mayonnaise jar.
It’s good we cleared that up. Then he proceeded to tell me story after story about him that was as bad, if not worse. A magical night. I don’t remember much because I was drinking with John Fox, but what my liver didn’t expunge from cerebellum, I do remember these 2.
Some club he told me had shorted him some money off of his door deal, so to get back at them, he opened a package of raw chicken breasts and put them up in the heating duct of the condo. He said it took them a couple of weeks to figure out where the rancid smell was coming from. Considering that the comedians who had to stay there were the real victims, I’m not sure he really got back at them. Kind of like being the guy who burns down his neighborhood to protest something.
My favorite story he told was about doing a show at the Comedy Store in LA. Fox’s story included another infamous comic named Lenny Schultz. Now before I go any farther, let me explain Lenny Schultz. Lenny was a prop comic/human cartoon. He had to be a big influence on Andy Kaufman, Gallagher, Howie Mandel, Carrot Top, Michael Richards, etc. Since I worked with Lenny a year later, I happen to know that Lenny thought this, as he was kind of like Jerry Lee Lewis telling everybody who would listen that almost every comic stole their act from him. The guy was certifiable on-stage and pretty similar off. Probably the most interesting thing I remember about him was that he did standup and TV appearances as side job, as he kept his gig as a NYC physical education teacher the whole time. Really. The guy was a known commodity to Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda. He was the hardest guy to follow ever according to Billy Crystal. A documentary of him would be fascinating. Since describing his act is nearly impossible, I suggest if you have the time, check out this youtube clip.
So back to the John Fox story about Lenny. It was an early week open mic nigh at the Comedy Store, so the crowd was made up mainly of standups. Now if you are unaware, other comics are the worst audience possible to do standup for because they are cynical, competitive people who don’t want to help another comic onstage by laughing. All the comics were struggling when up next on the bill was Lenny. If you didn’t watch the video above, a key element for Lenny was him saying “Do you want to see me go crazy?” and then feeding off that energy with some insane antic like throwing food at himself. Well, as you can guess, when Lenny said this that night, the comics in the back were pretty low-key in their enthusiasm for it. This is when the story becomes magical.
According to John Fox’s story to me, he said Lenny told another comic friend of his who was a little person to come up on-stage. This started to peak the audience’s interest. Now keep in mind, Lenny was a P.E. teacher and he was an early bodybuilder, so he was a strong dude. He then proceeded to pick the little guy up with one hand and hold him to his side yelling, “Now do you want to see me go crazy.” This was probably the most enthusiastic yes he ever got from a crowd, so he proceeded with his other hand to unzip the guys pants and according to the tale, try to wack off the midget. Well, Mitzi Shore (owner of the Comedy Store) runs to the door to lock it, so no chance the police would come in.
Now, I have never been told a funnier story in my life. I have no idea if it was true or not, but who would make up something this crazy? Well, maybe John Fox. If this story isn’t true, I still love the imagery. Let me add, that as good as it reads, it was twice as funny being told by John Fox. Fox has been derided by other comics his whole career because he has mainly done jokes you would hear at work. It’s an old school type of comedy. I’m not going to defend this type of standup, but I will say I’ve only heard one other person who was a better joke teller on-stage than Fox and that’s Ron White. I can remember Chick Perrin (the club owner) standing next to me in the back of the club telling me listen to this guy, he’s a master at timing. And he was.
(Interesting thing was at the Indianapolis Comedy Connection Downtown, Perrin put up a poster he had of John Fox sitting in a hot tub between 2 topless women. One time John pointed out the poster to some waitress that was working there and I mentioned my favorite part of the photo was that John had the biggest tits in it. It got me a good laugh. John then mentioned he was making 3500 and I was making 500 for the week, which wasn’t the wittiest comeback, but definitely made a financial point. Later that night, there was a torrential downpour and the ceiling had a pretty large leak hitting the stage. John brought an umbrella up onstage and did a lot of his show, holding it over his head. It was pretty hysterical. Still one of the most memorable nights of comedy in my career.)
I worked with John a few times over the next decade and it was always good because you had no restrictions on what you said in front of him. You also didn’t have to worry about stepping on anything he did, unless you did joke jokes. The only time I ever worked at the Comedy Caravan in Louisville was with him. The opener was Tom Mabe, the great telemarketing prank caller, so it was a show that slammed from beginning to end. John was always funny off-stage, when I would hang out with him. I told him in the condo we shared that week after one witty thing he said, Hey, why don’t you do that onstage? You catch a lot of flack for not changing your act, but you obviously could come up with a lot of new material? His response was my act is like the Rolling Stones. If I don’t do Satisfaction or Brown Sugar, people are going to walk out pissed. I told him I didn’t say he should dump the firemen butt-fucking or Archibald Barisol, but maybe he could skip one of his Undercover of the Night’s or Harlem Shuffle quality jokes, and instead do a new one. I didn’t think this conversation had much impact, as his next words were I need to go take a dump and walked out of the room.
So the next night he comes up to me after the first show and asked if I caught his set? I told him I didn’t because I had worked with him enough that I could do his act. (of course, not half as well, as he had mastered every inflection in his show.) Well, your loss, Scott. I changed the order around, it makes the shit seem like it’s new. It was one of the funniest and saddest comments I had ever heard. I basically told him this and he mentioned how the people were there that night to see him, not me. And he was right. I might have written 10 times as much material during my career as he has, but I have never been able to become a big draw anywhere on the level that he has. After the second show, we are out in the lobby selling merchandise and he tells me he did a couple jokes that he usually doesn’t during the show that set. I told him I thought that was great. Well, not a minute after this exchange, a guy comes up and asks why he didn’t do a certain joke? Then a couple minutes after that another comes dude tells John how great he was but mentions he was disappointed that he didn’t do another joke that he usually does. Fox looks over at me and says, You see why I don’t change my set. All my jokes are fucking Satisfaction. He made his point.
My favorite story about John Fox was the only time I performed at Snickers in Fort Wayne. I featured for him and at the time, Snickers had a rule that you had to pay them 25 bucks each show, if you mentioned from the stage you sold merchandise. I told John that I didn’t feel that great about paying the club for this honor and he said fuck ’em, I will mention you will be selling stuff when I give my sales pitch at the end of my show. Which he did. It was a cool move on his part.
Here comes my favorite story. We are at the hotel and he calls me up on the Saturday and says what are we going to do this afternoon? Well, I had planned on reading a book and doing some writing. Not a couple of his favorite activities I gathered from his response and since he didn’t have wheels, he needed me to be his chauffeur. Now Fort Wayne is not known for all the fun things you can do while your there, but I knew they had a minor league baseball team and he said that sounded great. We get there and he grabs a beer and a hot dog (John Fox fuel) and we begin to watch. Quickly a problem arose. It was Little League day at the ballpark, so there was tons of kids surrounding us. Kids and John Fox don’t mix well. I mean the guy curses like he’s in a Martin Scorcesse film. I told him he needed to keep the Fucks down to a minimum, but he just can’t stop himself. Eventually, after continued dirty looks from parents around us (rightfully so), I told him we needed to go somewhere else because this wasn’t going to work. I then remembered I saw an Off Track Betting Parlor a short distance away when driving in and when I mentioned this he said, well why didn’t we fucking go there in the first place?
So that night, after drinking all day, John had a great first show, but by the second, he was in no shape to perform. I told him I would do 45 in the middle and then he could do a shorter set to close the show. This was a good plan, as he barely did a half an hour and it was all over the place. His remarkable timing wasn’t there, so the quality of his material was put to the test, which is not a good thing for him. No one seemed too angry, though, as seeing John Fox living up to his reputation is kind of part of the experience. Kind of like knowing there’s a good chance Axl Rose is going to hit the stage a couple hours late. Part of the chance you take when you get a ticket.
Any piece on him should end with the song the Legend of John Fox. It is a hilarious tune by my friend, Pat Godwin, and it hits many of the stories about Fox, urban legend or not. When I started there were a few characters like John Fox, but with the standup business today having way more supply than demand, it’s hard to work a lot if you get a reputation like his. On many levels that’s good, but it does take away from the stories.