Legendary stand-up comedian and Las Vegas staple Shecky Greene died Sunday at the age of 97 from natural causes. Greene was known for his improvisational comedy skills, brash observational humor about the entertainment industry, and long-running show business career in Las Vegas.
Early Life and Career Beginnings
Shecky Greene was born Fred Sheldon Greenfield on April 8, 1926 in Chicago. He got his start in the Chicago club scene in the 1940s before getting drafted into the Navy during World War II.
After serving overseas, Greene returned to pursue comedy full-time in the clubs of Miami and New York City. His act evolved from Borscht Belt-style humor into a more cutting, contemporary form focused on show business and frank observations about sexuality.
Greene got his big national break in 1958 when Jack Paar introduced him to Tonight Show audiences. This rocketed Greene into the upper echelon of American stand-up comics. He became a fixture on the show during Paar’s tenure, displaying his improvisational talents through unrehearsed back-and-forth banter with Paar.
Residency Headliner and Television Fame in Las Vegas
Greene moved to Las Vegas in 1960 at the invitation of the renowned Sands Hotel. His unfiltered comedy made him a quick hit along the Strip, and he headlined shows at top venues for decades to come.
|Las Vegas Hotel Tenures
The comedian became known for leading sold-out late shows geared toward adults and entertainment industry insiders. His loose performance style often involved teasing the audience and going off script. Greene was considered a “comic’s comic” admired by his stand-up peers.
Beyond stand-up, Greene appeared regularly on TV variety programs in the 60s and 70s like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Merv Griffin Show. He also acted in films such as Tony Rome and History of the World, Part 1.
Later Career and Recognition
Even as he entered his 70s and 80s, Greene continued performing comedy at Las Vegas establishments like the South Point. He officially retired his stand-up act shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
Over his decorated career, Greene was inducted into the Casino Legends Hall of Fame in 2004. The Las Vegas Walk of Stars also honored him with a star in 2008 to celebrate his enduring cultural legacy along the Strip.
Many younger comedians remembered Greene as an innovator and inspiration on Sunday. Stand-up comic Gilbert Gottfried tweeted, “Shecky was hysterical and irreplaceable. One of the greats.”
Reaction from the Comedy World
Greene’s death sparked reminiscing and tributes from across the comedy landscape this weekend. Fellow stand-ups and show business veterans widely praised his original talent and crucial role in shaping modern comedy.
Longtime friend, comedian, and actor Carl Reiner summed up Greene’s singular abilities, stating: “Shecky was in a class all by himself. There was no one like him before or after.”
Talk show pioneer Dick Cavett, who had Greene as a frequent guest for years, said this upon learning the news Sunday:
“This is a sad day for American comedy fans like me who remember Shecky as about the funniest nightclub comic we ever saw. He could leave me helpless with laughter. I would watch him awe-struck at how original and supremely skilled he was.”
Comedy icon and close personal friend Don Rickles, who passed away in 2017, perhaps put it most succinctly years back:
“Every comic who makes a living as a comic should donate one week’s pay to Shecky Greene for all that he’s done for comedy.”
Looking Back at a Pioneering Career
Shecky Greene leaves behind a towering comedic legacy spanning over 60 years at the forefront of American stand-up comedy. While raunchy by 1950s standards, his act laid the groundwork for the more unrestricted observational humor that followed.
Greene also helped cement Las Vegas’s status as a premier destination for stand-up comedy amidst the rise of rock and roll. His decadeslong residencies drew tourism and attracted celebrity fans like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and more. Greene even occasionally sat in as an opening act for Sinatra’s shows.
The pioneering comedian pushed boundaries with his unrehearsed, improvised onstage style. This set the stage for future generations of stand-ups focused on riffing off audience reactions.
In his later years, Greene took pride in staying edgy into his old age while so many veteran comics fell into stale nostalgia acts. He once declared in an interview, “I’m 97 years old and I’m talking about going down on women.” That bold, risk-taking mentality never vanished during his long career.
Ultimately, Shecky Greene made an indelible impact on live entertainment in America through his groundbreaking comedy. The entertainment world lost an all-time legend this weekend, but his act lives on through those he influenced and the many classic comedy albums he leaves behind. Las Vegas in particular owes Greene a debt for helping shape its modern identity.
While Greene kept performing into his late 90s, he deduced early on how he wanted his obituary to read some day. In his own words: “I want on my gravestone, ‘Shecky Greene, Indirectly Responsible for Over Three Million Smiles.’” There can be no question he achieved that goal and then some over his incredible career.
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