In this SI 60 story, Jeff MacGregor recounts the hilarity that ensued at the Friars Club roast of boxing promoter Don King.
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories to ever run in the magazine. Today's selection is "Let Us Now Raze Famous Men," by Jeff MacGregor, which originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2006 issue.
The Friars Club roast of Don King revealed -- and reveled in -- the vagaries of the honoree's dark and twisted soul. As King has said so many times, "Only in America"
"This is America?" The German is perplexed. That the world-renowned Friars Club celebrates the world-class achievements of a world-famousAmerican--in this case Don King--by repeatedly telling him that the world would be better off without him is a tricky idea to master in any language. What a world. The German is tall and slender, in his late 20s, lank blond hair capping the milk bottle of a long, pale face. The expression on that face is one of earnest curiosity. Across the white hotel tablecloth and the white hotel plates and the florets of white hotel butter and the white-noise clatter of dull hotel cutlery he emphasizes neither "This" for sarcastic effect, nor "America" to indicate scorn.
He is a sportswriter from Bild -- arguably the best-selling newspaper in the Western world, thanks, inarguably, to full-page nude-photo essays with headlines like ICH BIN DIE MISS PLAYBOY! -- and having flown 3,800 miles from Hamburg to New York City to write about Don King, der große Boxveranstalter (super fight promoter), and finding himself among 1,200 howling Amerikaner, and sitting below the immense cut-glass daggers of the icicle chandeliers and the 10,000 yards of bloodred velvet draped above them all in the titanic ballroom of the New York Hilton, on the occasion of the Friars Club Roast of Herr King, and having asked, "This is America?" he bends a pen to his notebook, raises his eyebrows high in a gesture of abject innocence, stares at his American colleagues and waits for an answer.
His American tablemates squint briefly at him across that arctic expanse of starch-stiff linen. At last one shrugs. "Sure, Georg," he says with a tired smile of uncertain sincerity, slowly twirling his index finger to indicate the room and everyone and everything in it. "This is America."
The German nods and, as the drawbridge brows swing down, begins to scribble.
In the most basic way, this is correct. We are on the island fortress of Manhattan after all, and are therefore tethered to greater America, even if only tenuously. And we are on the Avenue of the Americas, in a huge ugly room, shoehorned wall-to-wall with decidedly American types--stand-up comics and beat-down boxers, nightclub wiseguys and their inflatable molls, politicians and press agents and cabaret singers, sportsmen and showmen, cutmen and cornermen and chorus girls--familiar to everyone everywhere who has ever seen an American movie of the 1930s.
From the dais to the back row the grand hall is a lively diorama of clichéd young movers and palsied old shakers, of the great and the ingrate, of has-beens and might-bes, of nugget cufflinks and Prada knockoffs, of dandruff and adultery, of cauliflower ears and mammaplasty scars, of hand-painted leopard-skin neckties and tans from a can, of hair delivered precut from a warehouse in New Jersey and gray-market cologne so potent you could clip it to your key ring and use it to take down a mugger. There's Botox in Spandex and Viagra in vicuña seated shank to bony shank, and everywhere the crippling weight of gangster bling -- gangblang -- even by the wet and diamond-studded mouthful. Deep cleavage, sure, and deeper cynicism and, even unfired, there are cigars being waved around that could bring down the walls of a city.
Harder to explain, perhaps impossible, is that these nearly fictive citizens of our national imagination have gathered today in the grand American show-business tradition of pretending to honor a man by pretending to love him by pretending to hate him. Are there words enough in any tongue to explain that they've come not to praise Don King, but to bury him--beneath a ceremonial mound of their obscene and ornate scorn?
It's much easier, really, and more correct, just to point at the honoree himself, to point at Don King and say, "This is America."
Now 74 years old, Don King has through four decades been the one boxing promoter anyone anywhere might reasonably be able to name, his fame dating to 1975 and the mythic beginnings of his second life: the promotion of that epic fight, the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle. That African adventure would have broken a smaller man, a weaker man, a less flexible man; that Conradian paddle back up the river Congo should have finished King before he'd even started -- "Mistah King, he bankrupt" -- but instead made his global bones. He has been the constant, outrageous presence on the ring apron of our collective consciousness ever since.
King's successes and failures are the stuff of rumor and report and folklore, of books, essays, articles, jeremiads, polemics, documentaries and movies of the week. He's been named in more lawsuits than you've had hot meals. By dint of his junkyard doggedness and our national habit of forbearance, though, and eased by a thousand TV interviews and a hundred magazine covers, he has aged somehow into our most beloved buccaneer, our comic Blackbeard, the laughing captain of our happy damnation.
Having inherited the corkscrew DNA of storied manager-promoters like Doc Kearns and Mike Jacobs, those backstage giants who guzzled the heavy cream off the careers of Dempsey and Louis, King has long been their natural, merry heir. And like them the conflict of his interests runs so deep that his negotiations are a kind of comic schizophrenia--King haggling only with himself.
Chanting his mantra, "Only in America!" and wrapping himself literally and figuratively in the flag, he presents himself as the living embodiment of the American dream: a good man, self-made and self-reliant, up from the gutter by his storied bootstraps to dazzling fame and fortune, his hardworking life a triumph of personal industry in the Land of One More Chance, his success and reputation lofted into the sunshine on the very wings of free enterprise.
But he also seems the very nightmare American, the man of whom we all despair, the Promethean exaggerator and Faustian bamboozler, a man for whom the simplest truth is never less than a three-rail bankshot. He is either the perfection of sweet patriotism, or the apotheosis of patriotic hypocrisy--the incorruptible red, white and blue devoted solely to eternal honor, or to the further purchase of his own magisterial luxuries. Last refuge of a scoundrel and so forth, he carries those little American flags he's always waving even when no one's looking.
Let's say also that King is the ravenous American id, eager consumer of everything in reach, and coveter of all things out of it. And stipulate while we're at it that he's the two faces of America and that he harbors multitudes: black and white, rich and poor, sacred and profane, good and evil. Look long and honest and hard and in Don King we find the worst and the best in each and every one of us. And by caricaturing every American trait and impulse, every wanton appetite and violent itch, he is, thus, America itself.
It is too easy to say, as many have, that the real trip into the heart of darkness is the one we've all taken in the years since that jungle rumble, trying to plumb the lightless mystery of Don King's nature. Wouldn't it be quicker and more illuminating to simply acknowledge the love of hucksters and of violent spectacle in our own American nature? At least that would explain why he's more recognizable by far than any fighter anywhere currently plying that ancient trade.
His stature, of course, is largely associative. By seeing him stand with greater men in greater times, it is possible to think him great as well. Leaving the combat to others, he is universally known by his conquests. From Tokyo to Reno, 500 championship fights and not a mark on him. Flyweight to heavyweight and all sizes in between. Soliloquizer, elegizer, spoonerizer -- crackpot supersizer of the King's own English -- his deft and grasping reach is planetary, his global puppet shows sold by satellite from dateline to dateline and pole to pole.
We know King too by his tirades and indictments. We know the rap sheet and the mug shots and the injunctions, suit and countersuit, all the hard work and the dirty work. We know the names of the two men he killed in his first life--one in anger, one in self-defense--back on the cracked and hopeless streets of East Cleveland: Sam Garrett and Hillary Brown. We know his crime and punishment. The time served and the debt paid and the pardon won. The reputations made and squandered, the boxers broken on the adamantine fists of their own ambitions. Some say King bought trouble for every fighter he ever touched, but still forgive him everything. Others damn him forever just for letting Ali stay too long in harm's way, and see in King's smiling eyes the withering evil at the root of Ali's diminishment.
And yet, while any case pitting King's storied history against our sporting sense of fair play may never be resolved, that history proves his business acumen uncanny from first to last. For example, 1973, the not-yet-famous but insatiably ambitious Don King rides in the limousine -- and on the coattails -- of his titleholder-client Joe Frazier to a boxing ring in Jamaica, where King takes his seat in the champeen's corner for a title fight. George Foreman, challenger and unholy brute, lays waste to Smokin' Joe through each successive round, and as he does so King changes seats and sentiments, one chair at a time, until the moment Foreman hammers Frazier down and takes away his fancy belt. By which climax King, ass and aspiration, has arrived around the ring at a seat in Foreman's corner. Leaping through the ropes and over suddenly smokeless Joe, King swaps coattails, then cars, and rides back home with new chum and champ, Furious George.
Says King at the time, and to this day, "I came with the champion, and I left with the champion." It is his mission statement and business model. He is as God made him, a scorpion in a world full of willing frogs.
He is loud, huge, brash and funny. By turns brilliant and banal. Indefatigable. Brazen, charitable, shameless, rich. He is by instant turns your welcoming enemy and your terrifying friend. Yes, he's magnificently generous, as befits a king, but the killing's in the vig. His ominous contracts are famously simple; under his hard stare, you make your mark for his whispered promises. He is smarter than you are, avid as a shark, bulletproof. Question him, and he will batter you with nonsense. If you think him witless, he will outwit you. Shiftless, he will outwork you--then break you for the insult.
He is the ruthless clown, the numbers-racket genius, the self-mocking jailhouse cribber of misremembered Shakespeare, the inexhaustible transcendentalist negotiator misquoting Thoreau in search of inner peace and another 7% of the gate. And brush up on your Bible because even Satan uses Scripture when it suits him.
He has been the P.T. Barnum of our age, the infinitely striving, endlessly spieling barker at the tent mouth of the Don King Big Top. Once inside, we find that he's the only returning attraction on the bill. Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Tyson come and go, tracking bloodied sawdust after them, but the ringmaster never leaves.
He is modern boxing's ruin and its only real asset. He is the creator-destroyer of today's dying fight game, the man who puts the shiv back in Shiva.
He remains insatiable, always famished. I watched him eat a bowl of soup in a New York café a couple of days before the roast, and his eating was mechanical. The big spoon small in his hand and slow in the bowl, his eyes fixed on his meal, he brought each steady spoonful to the great mouth, unhurried, never a drop spilled. Quiet, tidy and rhythmic, he leaned to the bowl as he emptied it. And as he did so, two television executives, men of stature in their field, certainly, but childlike in the presence of the monster Mac Daddy, sat down and presented him a contract. A couple of fights on a premier cable network. This boxer or that one, on one night or another. Who knows? Who cares? Plug them in later.
King held the contract in one hand and cut furrows in that cooling soup with the other. He ate as he read. For the next five minutes the executives fidgeted in their Hickey Freeman suits, tapped their cap-toe oxfords and watched King's soup spoon.
The spoon stopped. King, in his offstage voice, the deal-making voice the public never hears, spoke down into the soup. "The skeleton is there. But we need the meat."
He chuckled low, and the spoon resumed its work.
Hungering, even as he eats, he is hunger itself, voracious, and the feeding makes him hungrier still.
For better and worse Don King embodies in the vastness of his good-natured greed the hungering abundance of America in all its mindless dualities and stubborn oppositions; in its soaring entrepreneurial spirit and its murderous bureaucracy, in its loving charity and its sterile lust for money and power. It's all there in one man. As it is in each of us. Love him or hate him, this wealthy and impoverished man, this pardoned sinner, this earnest huckster, this violent advocate of sweet peace in the world is just like you. He is us.
"My magic lies in my people's ties!"
He is Horatio Alger with a gun!
"I work for the day when all people will be clothed in dignity!"
Or have at least had the wool of dignity pulled over their eyes!
"Only in America!"
He is America!
And this is his day.
Up and out of the limo and into the Hilton lobby, Don King is greeted by hoots and squeals of recognition and a lightning storm of camera flashes. "Yes, yes, yes!" he trumpets as he strides across the polished marble, that nasal voice cutting the air like a cleaver, that one voice a klaxon above a hundred others. "Only in America!"
He is energized now--larger than life and his blue-ribbon smile dazzling--and he moves with a graceful sense of mighty purpose, Father Bountiful sowing prosperity with his every step. Through the knots of well-wishers and confused traveling salesmen, his overcoat billowing, the crisp tuxedo worn as we've seen it on hundreds of occasions -- the fine shirt of Egyptian cotton stretched tight on the belly and the tie one size too big, too Cleveland -- King, resplendent in his natural plumage, makes his way upstairs. "Let's go get slaughtered!" he keens, sweeping up the escalator in his evening dress.
It is 10:30 in the morning.
Today's affair is a luncheon, the surreality of which requires a dozen comics working blue to bring their filthiest material to bear in broad daylight on an audience neither sufficiently lubricated nor adequately unhurried to fully appreciate it. In fact, the whole megillah has a furtive vibe to it, half shameful, as if we're all crowding into the TomCat Triple-X for the businessman's matinee. This is going to be a tough house.
"Big pussy! Big Pussy! Big Pussy!" King hollas across the greenroom, those plosive B's and P's popping like corks as actor Vincent Pastore from The Sopranos walks in. "Yes, yes, yes! My man, my man! Nobody doesn't like Big Pussy!"
And so the tone is set.
"Michael Spinks!" King bawls. "My man!"
"LeRoy Neiman!" King crows. "My man!"
"Pat O'Brien!" King wails. "My man!"
"Kreskin!" King bellows. "My amazing man!" He pumps the mentalist's hand as if trying to draw deep water from a desert well handle.
To which the nightclub swami replies, glasses dancing on his nose, "I knew you were going to say that."
On and on they arrive, the lounge-act tenor and the weatherman, actors forgettable and forgotten, comics on their way up or on their way out--a telethon's worth of men and women who've made the climb but never reached the summit, citizens in good standing on America's celebrity B-list.
Joe Frazier limps in, the legs that carried him so near immortality now barely able to carry him across the room. His son Marvis steadies him at his elbow as he walks, every bowlegged step a tender reminder of Joe's legendary doggedness, of his fearlessness when within range of another man's fists. "Joe Frayzhuh! Joe Frayzhuh! Yes, yes, yes! Smokin' Joe! Smokin' Joe! My man!" oompahs the human sousaphone.
Frazier, who deserved more affection and respect from America than we ever gave him, wears a wide-brim black Stetson atop a double-breasted suit of electric teal over a thermal-underwear tee. You suspect the suit was chosen from a closet full of such Technicolor dream clothes, Frazier's subconscious fashion palette a vivid one, that he might remain visible to us even beneath Ali's lifelong eclipse. After shaking King's hand--a moment for the cameras in which the two men's eyes never meet--Noble Joe moves to a seat nearby to ease his legs and back. As he passes he trails behind him, fittingly if not exactly magically, the smell of recent, mellow smoke. His breakfast cigar perhaps. A small crowd of true believers follows, to bathe his aches with their belated regard.
Freddie Roman, 50 years a comic, Dalai Lama of the mystic Catskills and dean of the Friars Club, walks in and is gathered under King's heavy arm for a photo-op, as is actor Abe Vigoda, old as the pharaohs.
Above all these septuagenarians hovers a three-foot microphone on its eight-foot flexible boom, borne aloft by a young TV technician dressed all in black and poised there to record the labored gibes and wisecracks. Seen from across the room, the audio rig looks dire indeed, remarkably and unfortunately like the Reaper's own eager scythe held high.
Corralled by publicists and herded out, we are driven down a chute into another, larger room, where 50 or more shooters stand arrayed in front of a small stage. For the next hour it's "Look to the left! The LEFT!" and "Over here! Over HERE!" as the paparazzi raise their photo-op prayers to these low-hanging stars.
King is paired and re-paired with various attendees, that smile frozen hard on his face as he and his brother Friars are arranged like puzzle pieces by their various publicists. This is perhaps the only moment in history when the words "Where's Dick Capri? Get me Dick Capri!" have been spoken with real urgency.
King is shown the commemorative he will receive as part of the day's honors: a cut-glass friar standing in a ring of cut-glass flames. Depending on the heresies of your misspent youth, this will remind you either of your parents' dusty bottle of hazelnut liqueur or of the Spanish Inquisition. And while vaguely aware of the historical horror of the latter, I must confess to an intimate teenage acquaintance with the horrors of the former.
King then holds aloft for the cameras a pair of red boxing gloves -- "To the left! To the LEFT!" -- an autographed gift from the President of the United States on the occasion of Don King's roasting day. King campaigned vigorously and sonorously for George W. Bush in Florida and Ohio in 2004. Given the slim margins of the President's victories in these states, it is possible to argue, at least if you're Don King, that Don King, by mobilizing the African-American vote in these areas, tipped the election in Bush's favor. In return for which the President himself might have appeared here today, but couldn't, according to King, because he was "embroiled in so much other minutiae." The Global War on Terror being, if nothing else, a real scheduling headache.
Spinks and Frazier and heavyweight contender Lamon Brewster and comic Gilbert Gottfried have all been photographed with their fists cocked beneath King's chin, and the photo pros from the world's tabloids are running out of visual clichés and steam. Just as the energy threatens to drain entirely from the room, Donald Trump arrives. Still wearing his trademark scowl and a faceful of stage pancake -- from his day job at The Apprentice, one assumes -- he is late. Fittingly, Trump will be the Roastmaster for this afternoon's ribaldries, having been the Roastee a year earlier. "What a great, great event this is," he says to no one as he enters. "Very prestigious."*
Excepting certain tinhorn heads of state with large standing armies, Trump is the only person in the last quarter-century to publicly rival King's matchless ego or to equal his self-loving zeal. Trump is King's tonsorial doppelgänger, and the funhouse mirror in which King's rags-to-riches tale is bent into the shortshort story of rich to richer. Trump's business plan over the years, as simple and efficient as King's, is a two-step philosophy. It works, apparently, like this:
Step 1: Take credit.
Step 2: Assign blame.
Accountable only to themselves, the double Dons have built their empires on bluster; each man floating majestically above the American skyline in a giant bologna skin filled with his own hot air. That they remain aloft against the stubborn gravity of reality speaks to our endless credulity in the face of celebrity.
These few moments of Trump l'oeil having finally produced sufficient imagery to litter every news desk worldwide for the next 24 hours, the flacks holster their cattle prods, gather up the dignitaries and lead them through a backdoor to the ballroom.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I must alert the reader that Mr. Trump once took public exception to a book review I'd written, in which I jokingly theorized that many New Yorkers would be willing, even eager, to drop a nonlethal flowerpot on his incredible head.
Seating 70 dusty luminaries from the antique worlds of vaudeville and the fistic arts, the dais is more than 200 feet long. At its midpoint is a lectern, above which hangs the Friars' motto, Prae Omnia Fraternitas -- translated loosely from the Latin as, How many of you folks are from out of town?
Stand-up comedy and boxing have a great deal more in common than one might think. Both look easy. Both are hard. Both abide outside the inflexible margins of polite suburban propriety. Both are solitary acts of bravery and barely controlled aggression in which one party struggles to provoke a reflex in the central nervous system of its target. In boxing the desired response is the unconsciousness of the concussed opponent; in comedy, Carrot Top notwithstanding, the sought-after reflex is the helpless laughter of the paying customers. In the second case the audience is the adversary. Why, after all, do you think they call it a punch line?
But there's no time for etymology now, as Freddie Roman, having warmed up this chilly daytime crowd, has at last brought to the lectern Roastmaster Donald Trump, who leans into the microphone for his opening remarks as if to bite it.
"HEY, FREDDIE, how come HE has to SIT so NEAR ME? Move OVER, DON.... You know he KILLED PEOPLE? This guy KILLED PEOPLE. I'm going to say things about him, and I DON'T WANT TO BE KILLED.... " He waits, maybe for comic effect, maybe to let the echo fade. "How come there are so FEW BOXERS HERE? Because DON KING has SCREWED so many BOXERS, nobody WANTS TO COME!"
There is an awkward silence, punctuated by a flurry of nervous laughs. If this were a fight, Trump would have hit the canvas before his corner even pulled the stool. King sits a few feet away, casually holding aloft an unlit cigar the size of a fireplug, grinning gamely but inscrutably. Trump, to his thick-skinned credit, breathes deeply, rises up and loudly, EMPHATICALLY, tries again.
"Let's FACE it. DON KING IS A BIG, FAT, F------ THIEF!"
There is another brief, but undeniable, pause while the audience considers its options. Laugh, and they'll only encourage him. Sit quietly, and it's going to be the longest afternoon this side of the planet Saturn. The crowd, some of whom have paid $1,000 a plate for a chicken breast and a side of those dollhouse carrots and desperately need a laugh, decides to tie its opponent up in a clinch and keep him on his feet the rest of the way. It gives him, likely out of self-interest, his first wall-to-wall laugh.
"HE F---- EVERYBODY HE TOUCHES!" comes The Donald's subtle thank you.
"Here's the KIND OF CRAP they WRITE," Trump shouts, reading from his script. "'I have a CATCHPHRASE, You're FIRED! Don has a catchphrase, Not GUILTY!' ... This is FREDDIE and his GREAT group of GENIUS writers.... 'Don is a big FAN of The Apprentice. IN FACT he'll SOON have his own show, it's called THE ACCOMPLICE.' ... LISTEN to this piece of CRAP. 'Don King wants to write a BOOK about this EVENT, Old JEWS and the NEGROES Who Frighten Them.'"
Having assigned blame, thereby also taking credit for whichever parts of the script he has "punched up," Trump is free to introduce the first professional comic, Stewie Stone, which, blessedly, he eventually does.
Stone, who looks exactly like the picture you have in your head right now of a man in late middle-age named Stewie, selects as his opening target the Roastmaster himself. "You're a mean c---------. I didn't know that about you. You're getting a million and a half dollars to give lectures on how to be a millionaire? Your father gave you 40 million dollars, that's how!...Don King at least did it with a gun--you're just full of s---."
Which generates the first belly laugh since we all walked in. Trump scowls that well-known scowl, all gunfighter squint and powdered jowls, a dour look that must have bought him all kinds of street cred with the other kids at military school. Stone works a solid five-minute set. The barely printable highlights:
"What can I say about Don King that hasn't already been said by a D.A., a judge and a parole officer?"
To Don King: "Trump's got worse f------ hair than you do!" Then to Donald Trump: "Do you realize you're turning prematurely orange?"
And, to cover his exit, directed at either or both of the two Dons, at once apt and poignant, "You deserve what's coming to you."
In an inexplicable theatrical miscue, the next two speakers are civilians. Suffice to say that by comparison they make Trump look like Fanny Brice, and that they squander what little comic steam Stone had managed to stoke. It becomes apparent why the various dignitaries fight so hard to sit on the dais: so they don't have to watch.
A brief moment here while the entire audience frantically reloads its wineglasses.
The Friars Club is a fraternal order of outsiders who made themselves insiders, of comedians, actors, publicists and other show folk who invented for themselves a century ago just about the only club in that anti-Semitic age they'd ever be invited to join, then perfected these savage roasts as a way to express their fierce loyalty to one another. Still, even after luring some of the bright new lights of comedy to join them in the last few years, the membership has a median age somewhere between "He used to open for Louis Prima at The Sands" and "He's coding!"
The best-kept secret of these roasts is not how hard and yet fragile a thing stand-up comedy is (or how profoundly lonely), but rather how hard it is to find a guest of honor. Whomever you see in the hot seat next year, or in one of those staged Page Six photos the day after, he or she likely wasn't the Friars' first choice. Or even the second. Or seventh.
"That's always our biggest problem," I was told by an elder Friar in good standing a few nights before the event. (In service of that standing, I'll maintain his anonymity.) "People are terrified by the idea of being roasted. Most celebrities have no sense of humor about themselves. We go through a dozen candidates sometimes before we land anybody willing to do it."
Don't be deceived by the soft-core imitations and broadcast spinoffs you've seen over the years, like the PG-rated Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts of the '60s and '70s, or the popular (and heavily edited) Comedy Central version of Friars Club roasts. In its unadulterated form a Friars Club roast isn't merely obscene, it's also brutal. "I think we made Chevy Chase cry," said the insider.
"Worst day of his life," added another.
In a fine display of synchronized drinking the audience has refilled, tossed back and refilled their glasses again. Thanks to those two unfunny farshtinkener momzers, and the quick ingestion of 200 gallons of institutional wine, the crowd is headrushed, restless and desperate for real laughs. Lisa Lampanelli, all energy and offense, comes out swinging and delivers.
Sadly, most of her aggressive best cannot be printed in most magazines. Here's a schematic example of a Lisa Lampanelli joke: Don King is so BLANK BLANK that he has to BLANK his BLANK in his BLANK when he BLANKS to BLANK.
In deference to the trademark holders at Mad Libs®, Match Game fans and the prevailing moral standards of your community, and by subtracting the n word, the c word, the t word, the a word, the b word, the d word and the p word, I transcribe these few excerpts:
"There's no denying it's been a great year for Donald Trump. First and foremost, he's happy with his beautiful wife, INSERT NAME HERE. But what do you say to a barber to get that kind of a haircut, anyway? 'I f----- your daughter'?
"The Amazing Kreskin is here. He's a mentalist, that guy--he can read people's thoughts. What a horrible gift. How many times tonight alone did he hear people walk by him thinking, 'Man, what a d----- bag!'?"
Other than Don King, she's the only person on this dais who actually killed.
Al Sharpton's up next, and as he stands at the lectern between Donald Trump and Don King, it's like seeing your favorite characters from the novels of Tom Wolfe gathered for a portrait, a trinity of charismatic rascals. The Reverend, one of the few presidential candidates of the modern age with a demonstrable sense of humor, does not disappoint.
"Thank you, Donald Trump.... I was in the bathroom having a meeting of the Black Tenants of Trump Real Estate Properties.
"Racism's still alive. You'll notice we have two slicksters up here--one they call a mogul, one they call a mugger. That's race in America."
The Rev knows better than most that you should always leave your audience wanting more. And he does.
As the day wears on, one senses a grave and growing tear in the very fabric of the time--good taste continuum. Dick Capri, a yeoman comic of 40 years' service, opens thus: "A quadruple amputee's lying on the beach... " He works fast, the jokes well-tuned to the room--filthy, offensive, unprintable.
Next up is Jackie (The Jokeman) Martling, best known for his work with Howard Stern. His signature is that he giggles at his own jokes. Today he's the only one laughing. "What can you say about a man who combs his hair with electricity?" Nothing evidently. The twilight sound of crickets overwhelms the ballroom. At the midpoint of his infinite five minutes, Martling notes, "Wow, it's quiet up here," and even the crickets are silent. He actually closes with the words, "I'm sorry I didn't do better."
Colin Quinn, greeting the silent audience, gets his biggest laugh the instant he opens his mouth. "I don't know if I can follow Jackie, but I'll try." And his topper, upon seeing Trump, Sharpton and King posed arm in arm for a photo: "Their hair looks like the three stages of a forest fire."
Norm Crosby, a charming little apple-core doll of a man, a pro's pro and indomitable, throws down a solid-blue set from the old school. The audience pours sugar all over him for having done so. Here's the only joke that's printable: "Don King is a smart man, he knows things....He knows the similarities between Bill Clinton and Abraham Lincoln. One got his brains blown out. The other was assassinated."
Don King sits mildly by with one long arm draped over the chair next to his, fiddles with his cigar, laughs when the moment requires it, smiles beatifically at all other times. Good comic or bad, he takes his lumps with apparent fine humor and in the spirit, whatever that might actually be, of the occasion.
The comics tee off on the man's mythology, busting him on all the familiar signifiers--the hair, the criminal history, the famous names on the fight cards, the money and the jewelry -- all the things you already knew you knew about him. The man himself remains unmoved. In that way he is perhaps the best honoree the Friars have ever had, fireproof, shockproof, shtickproof. What can any of these people say that might somehow wound or touch or even interest him?
The honor and duty of closing the show go to Pat Cooper, another stand-up stand-up veteran from the long-gone tail-fin days of Ed Sullivan, supper clubs and crepe de chine cocktail dresses. Cooper has no act to speak of, and is the first to admit it; rather he relies on the moment, and on his perpetual state of consummate rage, to carry him through. It is comedy as peeved improvisation. To try to transcribe more than a sentence or two would be a disservice to history, and to Cooper.
"I shouldn't have bothered with that shower.... What the f--- is your story, Trump?... I saw you six years ago.... You sent me a letter, Don, and you said, 'Pat, anything you need, please call me.' I've been calling you for six f------ years. When the f--- do you [pick up] the f------ phone?
"It's been a nice afternoon that I'll certainly forget. I'd like to get off, ladies and gentlemen, but I've got no ending."
The audience, grateful to Cooper, rewards him with a generous hand. But it is now almost 3 p.m., the show running very late indeed, so the energy beneath the applause feels nearly frantic, as if the crowd can't wait to go. As the Cooper ovation subsides, people fold their napkins, fuss with their coat-check tickets and beaded bags, yawn and stretch. It is into the palpable tension of this impending getaway that the final speaker of the afternoon is introduced. The unspoken covenant with the audience is, of course, that he will keep things brief. But brevity is not Don King's long suit. Nor is linearity of thought. Nor are his remarks organized in written form.
In consideration of space, sense and trying to reproduce the exact manner in which the address was received by the wine-woozy, enervated audience in the Hilton ballroom that day, I compress here as best I can the 12 minutes of King's remarks, drawn from the torrential stream of consciousness into which sportswriters have been dipping their little buckets for the last 30 years. Ironically, the rhetorical adhesive that holds many of King's sentences together is the phrase Do you know what I mean?
"Thank you.... Well, it's been a great day. Many people have come up here to abuse and misuse, do wild accusations, unfounded, unwarranted; nevertheless I've been the recipient of all this pain, but from pain comes gain.... "
(Various historical discursive asides now follow, including, but not limited to olden days, a joke about a funeral home, slavery, prejudice, the Civil War, the Reconstruction and the indiscriminate, prolific roasting of strangers not named, but....)
"The Friars bring people together...."
(Asides now on Donald Trump and his rich father, his turn in military school, then at Wharton, how he handles himself with "aplomb," and how one might even consider Trump, with his "extracurricular peccadilloes," a "macaroni" or a "playa," which leads naturally into the Biblical instruction to go forth and bear children. Trump, the prolific paterfamilias, the story of Abraham and Sarah, be fruitful and multiply, etc....)
"I'm standing up here blamed for everything that's ever happened in this country from the Johnstown Flood to World War II to the Lindbergh kidnapping, you know. I accept it graciously.... "
(Asides now referring to sticks, clubs, running through the jungle in a loincloth, Al Sharpton crying out in the wilderness and the general--albeit painfully slow--trend toward the moral progress of mankind....)
"I have to say to all of you who don't like George Walker Bush ... George Walker Bush is a revolutionary!"
While King's enthusiasm at this point is unquestionable, several people in the audience moan audibly; others simply start leaving. "Many blacks may not realize this, but he did more for blacks image-wise than any president in the history of the United States...."
(Asides now include "chic and steel," Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and the security of "350 million people," "lyin', cheatin', stealin'." "He raised the bar of dignity, he raised the bar of pride, he raised the bar of hope." The Klan, the CIA and "the slide and glide," camaraderie, conviviality, "God bless America!" and "Danny Aiello! His arms too short to box with God!" Freddie Roman and the "sweat poppin' off his brow!" "Which only a crazy man would do!" "Levity and jobs and programs and the brave sacrifice of the Screamin' Eagles--and the Friars, too." "Patriotism is the greatest thing in the world." "More sacrifice," "the Friars exemplify bravery and perfect union." A submarine....)
At which moment a man at the table behind us gets up and leaves, saying, "This is nonsense, just nonsense."
("Performance is what counts ... I am the godfather of hip-hop.... Treat your woman as your equal if not your superior. They don't understand that, but a macaroni does." ...)
"This has been a wonderful day!"
("Legitimize the articulation.... That's the blackology that Don has, ... that smile, that infectious smile that's so addictive." ...)
"I love America! George Walker Bush! Only in America!"
Sensing an end, or at least willing one, the audience rises and applauds as it jogs for the exits -- a rolling ovation out the door. "We only roast the ones we love," says Freddie Roman to their backs as the room rapidly empties.
"This is America?" the German reporter asks again.
[ IX ]
Trump flees the scene like a line handler beneath the Hindenburg. In his haste he leaves behind his script. A millionaire perhaps, but not a strong speller, and he has indeed made several edits, including the elimination of any jokes poking fun at himself.
In his wake Lloyd Price, the singer who first brought King and Ali together in 1972, judges the day "magnificent," as he slips into his cashmere coat, laughing. "Just a wonderful, wonderful day."
Evander Holyfield stands a few feet away. Saying nothing, staring into the middle distance, he waits for a word or two with King, a chance to plead for one more money fight. Against the blur and hurry of overworked waiters and stagehands on overtime, he is an impossible stillness, his face as stoic and unknowable as any statue on Easter Island.
King circulates quietly in the afterglow with a handful of friends, tired now, signing autographs for stragglers in the abandoned ballroom. He is told by one of his several attendants that they will be leaving the hotel through a side entrance. There is a process server in the lobby. King is being sued. Again. Even today, or perhaps especially today. He says nothing. It is somehow possible in this moment to feel sympathy, even empathy, for Don King. To pine on his behalf for a day's rest, a day's respect, a day's fun, for a truce, however momentary, in the unending battle he himself set in motion so long ago.
Someone asks him how he feels.
"Hungry," comes the reply.
[ X ]
Out the side door and around the corner to a steakhouse. New York in October, a careless east wind kicking the city's trash through the streets. That hot yellow Lamborghini Gallardo parked out front belongs to Zab Judah, the soon-to-be ex-welterweight champ. Elaborate as a Mars lander, sexy as silk stockings, the car costs $200,000. Inside the restaurant King stands in a quiet corner counting out crisp 50 dollar bills so Zab can put some gas in it. King smiles. Zab murmurs "Thanks" through diamond-studded teeth.
King never got to eat his rubber lunch, but this is Zab Judah's birthday party too. He turned 28 yesterday and was on the dais for the roast; King had ordered a cake, and brought a dozen and a half folks -- friends and employees and entourage -- over here to celebrate both moments with a very late, very large lunch. King often gathers his intimates for meals like this while away from home. This is his traveling family, his musical-chairs defense against the loneliness of the road. And Father Bountiful, ever gracious, ever generous, inviting you in with his hand on your shoulder and his eyes on your wallet, is a perfectly charming host.
At a fine big table in the private dining room King judges his day a fair one. "I thought it went very well," he says. "They're supposed to level pain on you there. It's a good coming together, though. It makes you feel good."
He speaks clearly but softly as he sits back in his chair, taking his ease. Only the week before he had undergone angioplasty, a well-kept secret, the heart at the heart of darkness now threatened rather than threatening. He passes the mashed potatoes and reminds us all to clean our plates.
Later, still working, always working, he will talk with Holyfield. And that too-old fighter and that ageless promoter, sitting bent in the lamplight, far from the others, will whisper, heads drawn close, about a deal you can only pray never gets made.
To sit with Don King is to visit something singular in the American character, at once admirable and appalling, a man all restless vigor and every appetite unchecked. That he made a life so large for so many on the strength of his wits and his will is somehow inspiring. But at what cost? And to whom?
Only in America.
Near irresistibly, you are drawn to him. Despite your fears, he carries you willingly to the very brink of something. Once there, unbidden, you look down. And there you see the two unmistakable faces of the great American grotesque--the benevolent malevolent, carrying all good and bringing all evil, welcoming you, arms flung wide, affection and death both beckoning, America itself gathering you up for a loving hug as it suffocates you.
When Zab Judah's cake arrives, the candles firing shadows up the walls, the room kindled orange and red, Don King, American, happy andfamous and rich, a man at once soothed and amused and enraged by the dire light of his terrifying fame and comforted by the hard-won luxuries of his terrible prosperity, will smile yet again, unashamed, unchastened and unafraid, and in full voice, loud with his multitudes, yours and mine, the voice of America itself, will sing out clear and happy and strong.
And you will try very hard, in that flickering moment of joy, to forgive him. But in your despair, you will fail.