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Red Sandwich, The Red Sandwich Christmas Hour

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Ever tell a joke? Chances are that if it wasn't made up by Red Sandwich, then it's indebted to his work. Fact of the matter is, our modern conception of humor and pathos has its roots in the groundbreaking pantomimes of Red Sandwich. LAist sat down with the prognosticator of laughter as the best medicine on the eve of his perennial The Red Sandwich Christmas Hour to discuss the nature and evolution of pathos, as well as take a gander into the past of this truly innovative and hilarious performer.

How did you get started in show business?
Well, bless you for asking, young youngster. Bless you. I believe my ability to bring a smile to people's faces began in the womb, just like the Christ-child himself. Aw, isn't that sweet? While the doctor was delivering me, he slipped on a banana peel and flung me through a large plate-glass window. I still have a chunk of glass in my tongue. Folks tell me that's why I talk so funny! Not true. I speak this way cuz the god of pathos made it so.

Then when I got a little older I was a fork-swallower in the circus. I got into vaudeville to support my circus act. Just so I had something to fall back on. That's where I created the bit that made me famous: the Poisoned Drink routine. Thank you. Bless you. You remember the bit of course, I play a fellah who can't stop drinking this high grain alcohol, and I eventually go blind and die of a heart-stroke while my liver melts inside my body. A holiday classic.

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And how long have you been doing The Red Sandwich Christmas Hour?
We've been doing the Red Sandwich Christmas Hour since the 1950s. And the lovely people keep tuning in every year, bless 'em. I think it's cuz they identify with me and my lovable characters. Everyone has a little "successful 60 year old comedian" in them.

What is it exactly that makes Christmas the saddest holiday?
Children. It's true, Christmas is the saddest time of the year. Filled with pathos and tears. And children are a big part of that. Why, what could be sadder than a little child on Christmas finding out that his parents don't exist anymore? Or a tyke sobbing her little eyes out because she's got peeling flesh from the lead paint on her new dolly. A tiny kid in an orphanage, who could have a mommy and a daddy if he only believed in Santa Claus. You can't get that kind of pathos with any other holiday. I love it. Pathos has been my bread and butter for many many years now. Sigh, I wish all the children could cry for Christmas. --Cuz then I'd cheer 'em up with pantomime! Bless you.

All of your work is for the children, is that right?
Yes, it's the children that keep me doing this. They fill my heart with joy. Just the other day a little handicapped boy was very excited to see me. He started acting out a little spaceman adventure - cute, huh? - and he said, "Look, Mr. Sandwich, I'm pantomiming! I'm pantomiming!" Bless his little heart. I had to correct him and say, "No, what you're doing is pretending. Pantomime is an art form." He didn't know no better, bless him.

Have you ever tried using another holiday to achieve pathos?
Well, I hate to sound like the town braggart, but I can pretty much wring some sad out of any holiday. There was my Valentine's Day special. A good holiday for potential pathos. Not as strong as Christmas though, cuz it doesn't involve poor kids. And Secretary's Day! That special was actually a dare. One of the execs at the network didn't think I could do it, make Secretary's Day a teary-eyed event. But I showed 'em. I threw everything in the book into that one. A sick grandmother, a blind secretary who's too ugly to love, a vicious boss, ten children with incurable diseases, a puppy with a broken tail - who we later have to eat- and 23 pantomimes! Whew! But when it comes down to it, pathos doesn't need a holiday. It can blossom wherever there's too much love.

How would you describe Christmas in LA?
There's nothing I like more than sharing the holiday with my family, while taping my Christmas special with all my celebrity friends in Burbank. The family don't mind. I never waste an opportunity to point out to my kids how lucky they are to be around famous stars. I'm showing my kids the ropes for a celebrity lifestyle. But I won't let them go into show biz. I won't allow it. They'll be fine. And my wife, unfortunately, can't be on the special. She can't act. Another sad thing about Christmas: often times we're away from loved ones during the yuletide. Like Gramma. Begins to tear up I miss Gramma's kisses. Is that too tender? I hope so.

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How do you feel Christmas has changed with time?
You know, as a man of pantomime I've dedicated my life to pathos and tears, and it seems to me that the Christmas specials of today just aren't as sentimental and sad as they used to be, and the children need that. So my special has plenty of hobos, pantomime, and crying.

As you grow older, do you find yourself becoming more sentimental?
Indeedy. (Sorry, that's just the way I talk!) And the older I get, the more my routines become more sentimental, too. Why, every time I perform my famous pantomime "Squirty's Christmas", in which I portray my lovable/deaf/mute/hobo/wino character Squirty, it seems like it gets harder and harder for audiences to hold back the tears. To watch a rich, 60-year-old man like myself pretending to be a deaf wino must just be sadder than sad. Or my other classic pantomime "2 Old Soldiers on a Park Bench." Just thinking about old soldiers makes me weepy.

You say that pathos is your bread and butter. What did you do before you discovered the power to arouse people's emotions?
I invented most of the jokes you see today. Yes. Almost every comedian alive owes his very existence to me. Yes, I'm very blessed. But I don't like to talk about it, you know. I mean, anytime you see a young comic doing a rubber-limb gag, that's all me. But who cares, right? I don't bear a grudge. And I was the first comedian to ever fold the brim up on a hat in order to look like a dum-dum. Not one royalty check. And I wouldn't accept one if offered, thank you. No, a gold plaque would be payment enough. In the White House. With the simple inscription "Invented Comedy" on it. In the White House.

When and how did you discover your ability to achieve pathos?
Once again, I hate to sound like a broken record here, but it was the children. Or more specifically, Jackie Coogan. He was the child star featured in Charlie Chaplin's film "The Kid" - which is ground zero for pathos. When I saw what a child could do for a performer like Chaplin, I put everything else on hold and invested in handkerchiefs. I started doing pathos that weekend. Sweet sweet pathos. At the time I was with Magnet Studios, and my first short film with pathos was "The Crying Tramp." That's how they billed me for awhile, "Red Sandwich - The Crying Tramp." My first pathos feature was "Sad Shoes." I introduced Christmas into the act on my short-lived TV variety program "The Red Sandwich Show - sponsored by tin!" The tin industry was trying to secure an early foothold in television. Ultimately, there just wasn't a good way to combine tin with comedy.

It seems like pathos has been good to you.
It's what got me my Oscar nomination! Thank you. Bless you. Yes, it was for the very serious dramatic movie I did called, "Hey, I'm a Wino!" Which I believe won awards for Lighting and Gaffer.

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Do you ever use pathos outside of entertainment?
Bless you for mentioning. As you know, I have my ongoing work with orphans and handicapped children, trying to make them more sentimental. And I won't quit till there's a cure for sadness. This year we reached our quota: 12,000 pantomimes! Bless you.

What do you consider to be the saddest thing of all?
There's just something about the look in a child's eyes (particularly if he's a bum - it's more sentimental that way, trust me) when he doesn't get any presents for Christmas...the tears and the sobbing...it's beautiful!

What do you recommend people do if they need to combat a case of the sads?
Don't fight it. Let the water works begin! It helps you get over it quicker, if you like that kind of thing, allowing you to get sad over something new.

For nearly 17 million Americans, depression is a debilitating condition that makes it difficult to perform the most ordinary of tasks. What do you think it is about our culture that leads to so many people suffering from depression?
Not enough pantomime. People should take advantage of the bums down on skid row - they can make anyone happy! If they're true hobos, they'll entertain you for hours with pantomimes and drunk routines. I've spent weeks down there showing the homeless how to mug properly. How to sew with a mime-needle. How to cross their eyes when they touch something sharp or hot. And they love me down there cuz they know I'm one of them. As far as they're concerned, it doesn't matter one lick that I actually live in a big mansion with servants, maids, and butlers. Yes, it's a life of pathos for folks like them and me.

What makes you happy?
Pantomime music, sadness, tears, softness, quiet things, humming, the children, hobos, bums, drunks, homeless chaps, crying, sobbing, bindles, a tug on Santa's beard, handkerchiefs, the humble and the pitiable, clown white make-up, and my pantomime hat.

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What's next for you?
I feel like my blessings have been blessed. I'm currently in talks with some of my really old show biz chums, we're thinking about remounting our old USO variety show. We originally put this on during the Viet Nam conflict, and it's called "Hold Those Privates!" Lots of pathos. Somehow I made war seem sad. Look for that in the Spring, with Jocko Magillicutty, Mamie Raye, Artie Smitten, and Spicey & Jerome, "he comedy team that hates each other."

Any final words for the readers?
Isn't it refreshing that in this day and age we can laugh at this and enjoy ourselves, and yet we don't have to resort to using topical humor? Good night. Bless you.

Catch The Red Sandwich Christmas Hour on December 13th at 9:30 at the UCB Theater, 5919 Franklin Ave. And check out Red Sandwich in the all new short from the creators of Comedy by The Numbers at SuperDeluxe.com