Few books have expressed the pain of being an artistic soul imprisoned in an artless, working class life better than Billy Liar, the classic 1959 novel by Keith Waterhouse. In the story, the eponymous Billy Fisher’s ambition to write scripts for comedy is met with a mixture of confusion, ridicule and hostility from his domineering family—in particular his father, a hard, no nonsense type who wants his son to follow in his footsteps and be a lorry driver. Frustrated and miserable, Billy feeds his creative urges by constructing elaborate fantasy worlds in his head, without ever seriously pursuing his obvious talent.
One man who would relate to the plight of Billy Liar—if not the protagonist’s response to it—is Pat Cooper, the octogenarian stand-up and misanthrope who in 2010 recorded the story of his amazing life in the autobiography How Dare You Say How Dare Me! As Cooper tells it, his dream of a career in comedy wasn’t just met with mockery from his family, but outright attacks. Raised in the Depression, his Italian father, a brutish, sixth generation bricklayer, had already decided that his only son would be a seventh generation bricklayer, and thus had no interest in the boy’s gift for mimicry, or the comic riffs he would compose impersonating Clark Gable and Peter Lorre, and other celebrities of the day.
“You sound like a retardo, making a noises with a you mouth!” Cooper recalls him barking at him. Those noises would win the 13-year-old Pat Cooper (then named Pasquale Caputo) the Fox Amateur Hour, but met with a standing ovation from the crowd, all he could see was the angry faces of his parents, who remained seated, visibly ashamed of their son’s antics (“He’s a retardo! He’s fucking nuts!” was his father’s thoughtful review to his bricklayer friends). In spite of his parents’ lack of support, his mother, Cooper writes, still demanded a cut of his winnings.
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The early chapters of the book are a portal into another world. There can’t be many comics still standing who were born when Herbert Hoover was President, or remember looking out of their apartment window and observing a Brooklyn thronged by horse-drawn wagons, and where icemen, butchers, and fishermen went door-to-door selling their goods. In these early passages the teenage Cooper stumbles through a succession of dead-end jobs and each day returns to a cold and loveless home. Frustrated and miserable, many a dreamer would have withdrawn into Billy Liar-like insularity. Instead Cooper’s escape is the outer world, where he tries his comedy on street corners, with mixed results, and goes off first to join the airforce, then the marines, then the navy, and then the army, and each time is sent home to his parents and sisters, all of whom think he is crazy (“The only thing crazy was coming home.”).
When his father walks out Cooper is suddenly elevated to man of the house, “which was strange,” he writes, “because my parents never let me be the boy of the house.” Feeling unduly pressured to support a family that had never supported him, he devises an ingenious method of escape: “I did what millions of nearly suicidal men did every year. I decided to get married.”
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But it didn’t take long for Cooper’s problems to track him down at his new address. And where previously he had only his own family to contend with, now a preponderance of in-laws were descending on his home, determined to interfere in every aspect of his marriage. Unable to eke out a living just laying bricks, and now with the responsibility of his baby boy Michael to feed, he augmented his meagre finances by driving a cab—a gig he enjoyed because he was on his own and could make his passengers laugh. Inspired by the response of his captive audience, he took to doing comedy in clubs “for a few bucks here and there.”
“Breezing through your early years is the kiss of death for a comedian,” writes Cooper at one point, and it is his Herculean efforts to escape his struggle and transform himself from cab driver and bricklayer to comedian that provide the book with its best scenes. He turns up to gigs with his trowel in one bag and a rumpled tuxedo in the other. He has no act but for a handful of impressions and so resorts to lifting jokes out of a joke book, while blundering his way through slots. Luckily Cooper is blessed with something that cannot be learned, funny bones, and audiences actually enjoy his flailing. (“You’re a professional fuck up son,” one early agent tells him. “You’re a natural.”)
However, his new family, much like his old family, did not approve of his ambitions. His wife, he writes, “came from people who understood you get married, you make children, you buy a house if you’re lucky, and you die. But I had more important things to do.” Unable to cope with the atmosphere at home, Cooper took more gigs. But his absence was interpreted as evidence of infidelity, and one night, a mere two weeks after his daughter was born, he returned home to find his wife throwing his things out of the window of the apartment he was paying for. He moved into an eight dollar a week hotel with nothing but his tuxedo and trowel.
AND FROM THAT DAY MY LIFE STARTED TO CHANGE
“When you see a stand-up comic do five good minutes, he’s paid for it with five bad years,” Cooper writes. And after innumerable flops, many of them described in graphic detail, he began trying to expand his act. Bumbling around on stage, talking about his life, Cooper gradually shaped the bit that made his name: ‘The Italian Wedding.’ Soon his slots were commensurate with his growing repertoire, and before long he was booked to appear on the Jackie Gleason Show, where his ‘Italian Wedding’ proved a hit. But the thrill was short-lived.
Cooper’s father, having seen his only son performing on one of the most popular TV shows in America, came out of the woodwork to offer him some inspiring words: “Why you open a you fucking mouth telling a everybody about our a personal life?” Cooper’s ex-wife convinced herself he was making millions and began taking him to court on a weekly basis, demanding huge payments. When things couldn’t get any worse, the Italian American Anti-Defamation League announced their intention to sue him.
Is it any wonder that in the series of industry anecdotes that comprise the middle part of the book, Pat Cooper is a high-strung figure, prone to explosive outbursts? Opening for Bobby Darin, he blows up at the star singer for showing up late to his own show. He raves over his name being placed between Shirley MacLaine’s legs on a marquee, flares up as a puritanical Ed Sullivan edits his act. He fights on the set of Charlie’s Angels, messes up lines on The Dean Martin Comedy Hour. When Frank Sinatra requests he remove a joke from his set, Cooper corners the most popular entertainer on earth and warns him not to tell him how to be funny. (Mort Sahl’s “I’m not geared to total acceptance” line springs to mind.) Elsewhere he insults Martin Scorsese and is then mystified by why the director won’t hire him for projects (“If Don Rickles did it everyone would be laughing! If Milton Berle did it it would be legend!”). At least the eruption that follows a sloshed Johnny Carson pissing down his leg is justified.
“Whether or not I could afford to fight back wasn’t the point,” Cooper writes of all this. “The point was self-respect. The point was character.” What a man!
DO YOU KNOW WHAT I’M DOING?
It should not be inferred from all this that he was unhappy. Married to his beloved second wife Patti (with whom he remained until her death in 2005), and living with her and his stepdaughter in Las Vegas, he had an easy life opening for some of the greatest names in music (in the 60s and 70s live comedy and music were entwined). He had money, four hit albums and numerous TV cameos under his belt. In spite of his spontaneous combustions, he was thoroughly ensconced in the celebrity scene. (“I wasn’t a star, but I was a name.”)
But then something strange happened. Something that proved pivotal—to Cooper’s career, and his life. Upset at getting bumped from an engagement opening for Tony Bennett (by Tony Bennett), he decided to go on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder and let rip, unleashing on everyone he didn’t like in the business—which seemed to be everyone. In a terse 12 minutes, he made no pretence at comedy and at times his attacks drew gasps from the studio audience. It appeared to be career suicide—or so Snyder and everyone else thought. But not Pat Cooper. In a stroke of genius, he stopped accepting opener jobs and raised his price a thousand dollars. Demand for “that guy who went nuts on the Tomorrow Show” soared, and while he had made plenty of powerful enemies, he still was able to coin it in.
What was he doing? Cooper was 50 years old, with over 20 years in the business. All that time he’d obviously known better than to bring his offstage embroilments into the public arena. What inspired such a dramatic change of M.O.? In the book he insists he was acting as a sort of moral crusader for all the comics who were being mistreated—and yet at the same time he had made a calculated business decision to inflate his fees. What was he really doing?
The Snyder show was March 6, 1981. A couple of weeks earlier, on February 21, the enigmatic Andy Kaufman had pulled his most audacious stunt yet. Breaking from script in the middle of a sketch on ABC’s live comedy show Fridays, he denounced the whole thing as stupid and, acting high, started a punchup with a producer; ‘WAS FIGHT ON TV REAL OR STAGED?’ asked the horrified headline in the New York Times. Already known for anarchic experiments, the merging of act with actuality, Kaufman was trying to take comedy outside of laughter. His rejecting of the mainstream, while featuring in it, must surely have impressed an ornery soul like Pat Cooper. And while Kaufman was avant garde, Cooper was at that point part of the establishment, known for his heart warming routines about food, children and holidays. But with one interview he forever changed his image and made himself into something more edgy. It wasn’t Rickles raving as part of a cartoon crank persona, or one of Rodney Dangerfield’s down on his luck bits. It was real—or at least he made it feel that way. Was he assuming a character, or was he allowing his real character to assume his act, Kaufman-style?
Whatever really happened, the performance unleashed the Pat Cooper that a new generation of comedy fans more commonly associate with the name: the self-described “raving maniac.”
HOW BAD CAN THIS MAN BE?
The book is not perfect. One chapter on Cooper’s run-ins with wiseguys is welcome, but were two necessary? Other chapters, about food, Jilly’s Club and the singer Sergio Franchi also drag, although dotted among them are anecdotes about his failed sitcom pilots (turns out TV execs mangling funny scripts is not a new phenomenon) and his awkward experiences acting opposite Robert DeNiro in the Analyse This films that manage to keep the narrative going.
The explosive cameos on The Howard Stern Show that introduced the rampaging dinosaur version of Cooper to a new market of 90s Generation Xers are related in detail, including the astounding show where he answered a series of angry calls from his estranged son, daughter and mother that has since passed into radio legend. That his relationship with the shockjock turned sour was a significant loss to comedy, but his Kaufmanesque storming of Stern’s studio was at least a great parting gift to the genre; “No one will take my dignity from me!” he yelled, as he stripped himself wilfully of his dignity. (Or was he just renewing his rate again?)
“You’ve got to be interesting,” said Cooper once in an interview with Opie and Anthony. “Be different. I worked hard to be different.” And while that hateful rant on Tom Snyder probably disqualified him from a place in the pantheon among his more commercial contemporaries, it did give him the room to develop a different, and infinitely more challenging comedy. As good as Jackie Mason and Woody Allen were, they could never in old age go on a show like Tough Crowd and bamboozle modern heavyweights like Patrice O’Neal and Colin Quinn, as Cooper did. In a 2007 Pat Cooper Roast Jim Norton, another acolyte, lamented how the aged comic’s uncompromising style had lead to virtual anonymity. 10 years on, retired and nearing 90, Pat Cooper the man is not going to get that starmaking Netflix special. But through YouTube, and this autobiography, there’s plenty of time for his comedy to find an appreciative audience.