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Fresh Air Remembers Long-Time New York TV And Radio Personality Joe Franklin

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW")

JOE FRANKLIN: As we say good morning, we bring you glad tidings. We try and be kind of an antidote to the - what do you want to call it? - to the stress and the pressure and the sour news, and we try and give you a happy show, an upbeat show. And now, talk about happy - it might be fun to see a couple of your favorite comedians as they appeared on this program - I would say - in the 1950s. I'm going to show you Jackie Mason and Woody Allen, past tense, as they looked when these photographs were left in my studio - I would say about 1958-59, maybe 1960. Jackie Mason as a young comedian...

BIANCULLI: Joe Franklin, the longtime New York TV and radio personality, died last Saturday of prostate cancer. He was 88 years old. Joe Franklin's claim to fame was as a local TV talk show host, but the local market was New York and on a variety of shows. Franklin presided over his parade of famous and totally unknown guests for more than 40 years - longer than Letterman, longer than Leno, even a decade longer than Carson. Franklin's obituary in The New York Times described his TV show as, quote, "one of the most compellingly low-rent television programs in history," unquote. Guests ranged from Elvis Presley, Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand to has-beens and never-weres. His TV show was canceled in 1993, but Franklin continued doing late-night radio until earlier this month. Terry Gross spoke to Joe Franklin in 1988 and asked him about the parodies of him performed by Billy Crystal back when Crystal was a regular cast member of Saturday Night Live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANKLIN: I never could see it because I was on the radio opposite Billy. I do an all-night radio show. I was on opposite Saturday Night Live. So finally one day, somebody showed me a videotape of Billy Crystal doing Joe Franklin. And when I looked at it, you want to know what I said?

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

What'd you say?

FRANKLIN: I said one of us is lousy.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, here's something I'd wonder about though, did you ever ask yourself when you were getting a lot of response when Billy Crystal was on, how many of the people who writing you were doing it ironically and how many were, like - really sincerely liked your show? Do you know what I mean?

FRANKLIN: Well, they all liked me. It's done with affection.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

FRANKLIN: I'll tell you one thing. People who are doing a spoof on me, Terry, they're doing a spoof on a spoof 'cause as you can probably gather by now, I'm putting the whole world on. My whole existence is kind of tongue-in-cheek.

GROSS: What do you mean by that? - that you're putting the world on.

FRANKLIN: I'm just - I mean, people think that they're using me. I'm using them better. When Billy Crystal does me, he's doing me the favor. I have maybe six letters from Billy Crystal and from his press agent asking to put him on my TV show. I don't want him on there. I've turned him down on for a simple - funny reason, Terry.

GROSS: Why? Why would you turn him down?

FRANKLIN: Well...

GROSS: Hey, we've been trying to get him on our show (laughter).

FRANKLIN: Let me tell you - well, no, he'd be good for your show. And I would imagine - you know, Woody Allen - it was either Woody Allen or Dick Cavett - I forget which one - they told me once how they worshiped and idolized Groucho Marx, almost as a divinity. They worshipped Groucho Marx. They couldn't wait for the day when they could get Groucho Marx on their program. So they finally, after many years of negotiating and begging and pleading, they got Groucho Marx on the show. And they were totally, totally disillusioned. They found out after they met him - nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball - on the mic or on the camera - that he was just like anybody else's grandfather - an ordinary, nice, smiling man, but not that brittle, sarcastic wit that he was in the movies. So I figure if Billy Crystal meets me in person - maybe it's inferiority on my part - I feel like he'd be disillusioned or disenchanted. He'd find out that I'm not that wonderful character that he makes me out to be, and he might just become non-enchanted and stop doing me. So I figure, let him admire me from afar, let him adore me from afar and not come on my show and not meet me. Leave well enough alone.

GROSS: You are famous for some of the most generous introductions to your guests. Do you think of it as a courtesy to flatter a guest after you've invited them on?

FRANKLIN: Yeah, I make them feel good. I give them a buildup - ladies and gentleman, the one, the only - this party getting rave reviews, critical acclaim, accolades. And then I would say 7 times out of 10 they deserve it, 3 times out of 10 they don't. But if we book them onto the show, we like to make them feel good. You know, people kid about me or - I can turn on the radio late at night and I hear people talking about Joe Franklin - what a nice guy he is. He puts everybody on TV. But you got to realize, that it's not so. For everybody who's on the show, there's about a thousand I got to turn down.

GROSS: You have met a lot of people on their way up and you've met a lot of people on their way down.

FRANKLIN: Right.

GROSS: Who were some of the people who are now stars who you gave early exposure to on your show?

FRANKLIN: Well, whether it was a talk show or a variety show or any TV screen, I gave the first exposure ever to people such as Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Flip Wilson, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Michael Jackson when he was with the family, Bruce Springsteen has been on me about five times.

GROSS: Did they remember you after they were stars?

FRANKLIN: A few come back. Bill Cosby comes back. Most don't come back because I tend - I represent - see, when they see me, they think of the days when they were broken. They feel a little bit embarrassed. I guess that's human nature. I mean, it's kind of shallow I guess, but it is human nature that I tend to represent the time when they were broke and they'd rather avoid me. A few come back, but most of them duck on the other side of the street when they see me.

GROSS: Now, you've been on the air long enough - over 36 years - that you've seen some of the same people on their way up and on their way down (laughter).

FRANKLIN: Right, right.

GROSS: So, you know, I'm sure you probably get some of them after - when they're making their comeback after the cocaine or alcohol crisis.

FRANKLIN: And you want to know something?

GROSS: What?

FRANKLIN: I've very happily put them on.

GROSS: Sure, sure.

FRANKLIN: I hold no grudges. I always kid about what you said, Terry. I always say that I feature those on the way up and on the way down. So yeah - listen, who's to knock that, right? It's not a business anymore where big names make the show. It's a business now of conversational themes and formats. It's not a question anymore that Bob Hope or George Burns is going to get you big ratings. Today it's just a question of what are you talking about? Is it kinky? Is it going to make a little bit of excitement? And how far can you go in this era of tabloid TV?

GROSS: What's the worst dream you've had - nightmare dream - about your show? Everybody I think who hosts radio or TV shows has had a few really bad dreams.

FRANKLIN: Being late for the studio - being - couldn't get a taxi, couldn't get a cab and then being late. But even then, when I wake up, I say so what if I was late? The world goes on. You know, you can't worry about each and every show. You can't worry about perfection. There is no perfection. I just roll with the punches.

GROSS: Joe Franklin, thank you so much for talking with us.

FRANKLIN: Terry, I've enjoyed it. Please invite me back again and come on my show whenever you're ready. I'm on WOR weekends, you know about that?

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

FRANKLIN: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Joe Franklin speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The veteran broadcaster died last Saturday at age 88. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Timbuktu." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.