|Portrait of a Rat Packer; Joey Bishop—"The Guy Behind the Guys"|
|Written by Sirkka E.H. Bertling|
He had the face of an "untipped waiter."1 He has been called "The Frown Prince of Comedy," a master of the deadpan who delivered jokes "'to be overheard, rather than heard."2
He was a fixture on network television for at least a decade, with appearances on game shows, frequent fill-ins for Johnny Carson, his own sitcom (The Joey Bishop Show, 1961-1965), and his own late-night talk show (also called The Joey Bishop Show,1967-1969, with a young sidekick named Regis Philbin).
He was also the comedic force behind the Rat Pack stage shows of the early 1960s. He is the only member of the Rat Pack who is still alive, yet he is the least remembered of the five men considered to be the original members. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. are immediately identified as Rat Packers. Peter Lawford, the Pack's connection to John F. Kennedy, and Joey Bishop, whose name appears last on the marquee in the most famous Rat Pack photograph, are much less written about or remembered.3
His association with the Rat Pack was based upon an early relationship with Sinatra, who caught Bishop's act in the early 1950s, liked it, and asked Bishop to open for him. Bishop's jokes were often self-deprecating, and he delivered them "almost as if he didn't care what [the audience] thought of his patter." A famous tale of Bishop's schtick recounts his having to perform after Danny Thomas delivered a hilarious monologue at a benefit in New York; Bishop walked onstage, said "What Danny Thomas said, that goes for me, too" and walked off.4
Bishop's willingness to give up the spotlight worked in his favor, and allowed him to carve out a unique comedic niche for himself. His insistence on doing things his own way appealed to Sinatra, quite the hard-ass himself.
Journalist Richard Gehman called Bishop "the only member of Sinatra's gang who can tell the Leader what to do with himself and not only get away with it but actually, incredibly enough, become more firmly entrenched in favor."5 Bishop's biographer, Michael Seth Starr, emphasizes the comedian's stubborn nature, noting that he harbored an "independent streak . . . He loved Sinatra and loved being part of the Rat Pack, but he refused to be bullied by anyone."6
In the Rat Pack performances, Bishop provided the show's structure, introducing the show, acting as a master of ceremonies, and playing "traffic cop" when the others got out of hand.7 The Summit shows were popular not only because of the conglomerate of superstars they showcased, but also because of their supposed spontaneity.
The shows were crafted to feel like the audience was peeking in on a private Rat Pack party, when, in fact, Bishop himself wrote much of the material, jokes that were repeated time and again in Rat Pack shows. Interested parties can get a taste of Bishop's Rat Pack jokes on the 2003's DVD release "Live and Swingin': The Ultimate Rat Pack Collection".
While Bishop's straightforward style onstage certainly fit the Rat Pack ethos of cool, his real life seemed to defy it. As the master of ceremonies during the Summit shows, Bishop almost became an observer himself, guiding the performance and popping up to do bits in between the numbers, but rarely singing himself.
The nature of his family life also distinguished him from the rest of the Pack. Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and Lawford all played the role of the family man with nominal success—Bishop actually was one. Sinatra's picture-perfect marriage to hometown girl Nancy disintegrated, and he went on to marry Ava Gardner, Mia Farrow, and Barbara Marx. Martin's marriage to Jeanne was his second. Davis' union with May Britt fell apart because he refused to settle down. And all were known to be fond of women.
Certainly, Bishop never had the reputation with women that the other members did. He was married to the same woman, Sylvia Ruzga, for his entire life, raised their only son Larry with her, and cared for his wife when she became ill with lung cancer until she passed away in 1999.
Recent interview footage of Bishop shows him to be still sharp, still witty, and still needling. When Rat Pack nostalgia emerged as a trend in the 1990s, and again when Steven Soderbergh's remake of Ocean's Eleven came out in 2001, television and print journalists sought out Joey Bishop, now more legendary as the only surviving member of the Rat Pack.
In one interview, he jokes about how the other members of the Rat Pack were having trouble with their careers and that he graciously stepped in to help them, joking that he didn't even insist on his having his name at the top of the Sands marquee. He is also something of a curmudgeon about recent Rat Pack revivals, commenting about the Ocean's Eleven remake: "All they are doing in the remake is a cheap impersonation of the original Rat Pack." And of Rat Pack nostalgia in general, he was quoted in People magazine—"What you are hearing and seeing now about the Rat Pack is hearsay."8
Though Bishop's claims that he never saw Sinatra or Martin drunk seems counterintuitive to Rat Pack legend, one can understand why he might feel so protective about the Rat Pack's legacy. He is the only Rat Pack performer left to tell the tale.
To him, all other accounts are hearsay.
1 Jack Paar quoted in Michael Seth Starr, Mouse in the Rat Pack. The Joey Bishop Story, (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2002), 27.