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The Biggest star that never was!


2017-04-03 07:15:01
(Ollie Joe Prater, a saga with No Regrets)

There never was a stand up that didn't fail. There never was a comic with such ardent and loyal fans. Never, there was a comedy act that ransacked his audiences with such laughs, woops, snorts, and guffaws like him. And, if there had been, no one would believe it. But, there was!

I know there was such a comic! I was his opening act, touring partner, and his fellow road warrior. I watched it all happen for seventeen years. I'm honor-bound and compelled to tell you about the stand up comic Richard Pryor aptly called, "The Renegade White Man." I want to tell you about The Biggest Star that never was.: Ollie Joe Prater.

A 390 pound, five-foot-five, bearded and mustachioed, cowboy booted varmint swaggers onstage, grabs the microphone and roars: "I'm an educated man!" He then sticks a long neck beer down his gullet, manages to finish it in three gulps (with NO hands!) then spits the bottle on the floor! With a satisfied and very proud gasp, Ollie Joe Prater would then bellow: "That there's everything I learned in college!"


In what is now deemed the Golden Age of stand up comedy in LA, Ollie Joe found his way to the world famous Comedy Store. By hook, and flash, or crook, OJ was made manager of the Westwood Comedy Store, the first satellite of the original on Sunset Blvd. in 1974. OJ gave me my first job in show biz in 1975. At the Comedy Store in the 70's and 80's, you would rub elbows with the likes of Richard Pryor, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, Andy Kauffman, Gallagher, and countless others soon-to-be big names. (Even Bat Man!) The Comedy Store was a showcase club, where you honed your stand up act for TV shows. TV bookers expected a laugh every twenty seconds, called LPMs. (Laughs per minute) An act that was well known enough, and sharp enough, might well graduate from LA's staircase system to open for big stars like Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Wayne Newton, Patty LaBelle and other such money-makers. Stars were born, some shined brightly, and some even went super nova. It was an exciting time and place. Audacity was in the air!

In 1981, at the world's first full week, three act comedy club, the Comedy Store-La Jolla, OJ recorded his first comedy album: "The Renegade White Man." Ollie Joe's LPM rate was five, which was very fast. Having a reputation for borrowing material had brought phone calls from other comics wishing their particular jokes good luck. Paul Mooney and Vic Dunlap were among the first. OJ readily admitted to stealing some primo jokes. He tried to cultivate other comic's fear as a social equalizer, so they'd be scared of him and treat him with more respect. And that's probably the best place to leave that. Ollie's album was sold only through the Comedy Store, and no record of any sales was kept. We can only guess with the thousands of copies sold, it might have amounted to a minor league record of some kind. We just don't know.

In 1982, character-comic types were big in film, cable TV and the three broadcast networks. So, our Comedy Store team put together some modest efforts as our queen (read here: Mitzi!) made a deal with ABC to feature a joke-driven production named "Buckshot!" Ollie Joe Prater, a gruff, stout cowboy-type, got as many of his jokes in, as the political satirists did. OJ even got to do special guest spots on the Bert Convey show. Look it up. Wikipedia is wrong, again!

After the Comedy Store's illustrious owner, Mitzi Shore, politely invited him to try his act on tour, Ollie Joe left that safe haven in October 1982. He tested himself with the real audiences across our country. Not all performers can count on their jokes and routines that worked in Hollywood. Adjustments for different regions, age groups, and income-brackets were required. Some acts did well in the South, some in the Midwest and others in the North. Only a rare few succeeded all over. Ollie Joe learned to adjust to his crowd, instead of mistakenly expecting the crowds to adjust to him. This was a key ingredient to becoming America's most powerful stand up comic. A booking agent with the most consistent and well-paying circuits in the known comedy world, Tom Sobel of Louisville KY, described Ollie Joe as the real life embodiment of "Yosemite Sam" the high energy cartoon character of Looney Tunes fame. And Mr. Sobel was "darned tootin' right!" Ollie Joe often called Mr. Sobel: "The last honest booking agent!" Sobel's execution of OJ's "Get out of MY Way!" video in 1984 proves the point elegantly.

Before most cities had a comedy club, stand up shows were mostly one-nighters. Do your show, get paid, and then move on to the next town; that was the insane life a working comic woke up to. Deal with it! Being loud, fast-paced and crazy-funny was quite valuable to most bookers. OJ was that, and much, much more! Soon enough, Ollie's dance card starting filling up. As gigs that had shows all week began cropping up, a good, strong act didn't have to travel daily. Stand up life was getting even better! OJ understood that he was a big club favorite, and calculated he could perform in each of his most profitable cities, three times a year, get stronger on stage, and be handsomely paid forever. Stand up life was great! 1985 proved his endless maneuvers correct. By 1987, Ollie Joe and I were appearing in 80 cities every year. The one-nighters were a lot harder to do, but paid so well, we (read here OJ) couldn't refuse most offers.


Homer, MI biggest celebrity never forgot his roots. OJ visited home regularly, to do free benefit shows for the local fire departments. They cheered him on like a native son. After winning Showtime's "Funniest!" in Texas, Ollie Joe quickly realized that his straight-forward and blunt language act would have little future on television for the time being. So he restricted himself to live shows. Let the bland TV acts come compete for heavy dollars on the road, with real folks doing the real laughing. Or, the not laughing. It was brutal on the weaker acts. OJ knew he would dominate almost all of the comics that didn't have his hard-to-get know how. That group included most headliners, even the famous ones. What an education we all got!

Ollie Joe claimed not to understand gay men:
"
Outside every men's shower and men's room, there should be a big damn sign. Picture of a man's private, big red circle around it, with a slash all the way though! IF IT AINT YOUR DICK, THEN DON'T TOUCH IT!


Then we got, as Ollie Joe liked to say: "All scientific on their asses!" He bought audio and video recorders to study what we were doing in all these weird places. I taped most of our shows, and we would watch and talk about how we could get better. That was Ollie Joe's passion, getting better…being a better comic than you were last year. And lo and behold: we shaped our shows and got better. It was like one of those damn metaphors! If our Comedy Store years were like Comedy College, then touring constantly for seven straight years is like getting your Master's degree and Ph.D. in the art of stand up comedy. An old vaudeville saw says if a comic can get any moisture out of his crowd, the comic killed them. And moisture basically means: crying, snorting, flatulence, snot, spit, or pee. Ollie Joe Prater could make his happiest crowds spit up and choke with laughter. I asked him how he did it. OJ claimed he didn't know himself. It took me watching his every show for two years to isolate his technique. After twenty-five minutes onstage, Ollie worked his LPM rate to three per minute for ten straight minutes, then switched to adult jokes, pause and delay his punch lines until he could tell the crowd was breathing together, then speed up his LPMs to six per minute. The change in breathing with surprise tempo usually made the biggest laughers out there choke and spit up. Many of the rest would be pleased at this and applaud. It was quite a lesson.

Now, stand up life was magnificent! Ollie asked me where we should go on tour. I told him: "Let's do half new places and the other half, just our favorite ones!" At the time, it was one of the best years we ever had! But, Ollie Joe knew it could get better. And he was right. Ollie and I performed in clubs, auditoriums, mud wrestling pits, strip joints, concert halls, buses, limos, airplanes, TV and radio studios, funeral parlors, caves, boats (Cruise ships, steamers, tug boats, house boats, barges, river boats) and there were even stranger places. Believe it or not, this wild and wooly dynamo would quote existential philosophers to me. "Say, boy… (I'm 32 and six feet four, dammit! How big to I have to get before you quit calling me Boy?)…"Say, boy…as my opening act, what doesn't destroy you, makes ME stronger! If you eat it out there, I won't! Get it? I'm watching ya! If you die, then I don't have to! That's why I pay you! Get out there, go get 'em! I'll be watchin' ya!" We did shows in big and small prisons, jails, baseball and football stadiums, RV's, caverns, country clubs, barns, churches, bars, offices, factories, lodges, anyplace that would pay us sufficiently. And not one time did I ever see Ollie Joe tank a show, or have a bad show, or bomb out a room! Not even once! It wasn't like that for me. I ate the big one many times, but my first job was to set the stage for OJ. When he saw me die a horrible stand up death opening for him, he would make his adjustments to win the crowd over. Ollie Joe never gave up on a crowd. It was like watching a brain surgeon work his voodoo.

Once, after driving for five hours, Ollie Joe had an unusual epiphany, one rainy night in Georgia. (I know! But, it's OJ's joke!) "Say boy…differnce twist you and me is I'm talented!...and you ain't! (He wasn't joking!) You're skilled with words…now me, I talk my ideas. It works fine for me! But, you, you try to figure out ahead whatever it is these particular folks will laugh at…you should try it my way!" I told him he should try it mine. It really was a rainy night in Georgia, (I swear!) We were very bored and feeling unimportant. (It was Georgia!) So, we made a small bet, (hah!) and the game was on! I sucked on stage for three shows; OJ looked like he'd found a new toy! Before the fourth show, Ollie took me aside and told me I should revert back to my old style because I was certainly no Renegade White Man. I felt like I had gotten a reprieve from ad-lib hell. Back to my sacred notes. I kicked ass for the next two weeks, but I noticed Ollie Joe had kinda changed. We started going straight back to our hotel right after our shows. "Work them damn tapes!" OJ kept repeating. "None of that drinking and partying tonight! We're going back to study our acts and write some new jokes." Suddenly, Ollie Joe's phone wouldn't stop ringing. It seemed like there was a line forming to book our open dates. It was 1988; uniquely, we had the entire year booked by January. "C'mon boy…let's you and me go tell some jokes!" And we did! We ended working 108 cities that year. Stand up life was glorious! I'll never know if I was banging the drum slowly for Ollie Joe, or if he was banging the drum for me!

Then one day, Ollie Joe sent me away. Although his hard-hitting, harsh-language act never failed, Ollie Joe's health finally did. The years of travel, signature weight problem, booze, cocaine, and just plain hard living took its toll. As he realized he was dying, he booked an eight week tour for me, while he rested. In Barbados, six weeks later, I got a call from a Sergeant with The Tampa Police telling me that Ollie Joe had died. When I spoke with OJ's sister, she told me they wanted all the attention directed at their local boy from Homer, MI. Not the flamboyant character he created. I agreed with his family then. But now, I have to say a little something for this mostly unsung Comedy Store graduate magna cum loudly. First, Ollie Joe would love the mistakes and lies about him on Wikipedia. He knew his critics and detractors didn't know the truth. He thought it was funny, just how wrong they were about him and his doings.

Ollie Joe knew how to leave his crowd laughing.
"
I know that one out of every three people in this world is UGLY! Look to your left, now look to your right! If ya don't see, Guess what? It must be you! Nice seats, buddy!


I watched every act at The Comedy Store for nine years. Figuring in LPMs and thousands of live shows, I know in my heart that Ollie Joe Prater was the best stand up comic I ever saw! This includes everybody, even Robin Williams and Richard Pryor. But his real self, Gilbert Hartzog, was even more. To go from where Gilbert came from, all the way to where Ollie Joe ended up, was a mind boggling journey that encompassed light years of scrapping and learning. And before he quit this good earth, he knew who he was, and what he accomplished. You can search online: The Renegade White Man. I really just wanted you to know a little more about my teacher, my partner, and my best friend. In my very humblest of opinions, Ollie Joe Prater will always be The Biggest Star that never was! Rest in peace, big fella!




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