Sixty-five years of show business is coming to an end on Monday (April 5) at the Cobalt when comedy legend Shecky Grey retires (or dies). Grey's career spans all of four years, back to September of 2000. That's pre-9/11. It was a simpler time.
Confused? Grey is the old-time, pathologically grumpy comic who, legend has it, started his career in 1939 performing in the dying years of vaudeville. He also happens to be the alter-ego of Vancouver comic Kliph Nesteroff. Four years ago, the then-20-year-old standup found himself bombing at a Toronto open-mike show for about the 15th consecutive week. Frustrated with an audience that simply would not listen, Nesteroff turned around and smashed a cymbal that was part of a drum kit on stage for another act. Everybody's head snapped stageward, Nesteroff told his next joke, and huge laughs followed. He was onto something.
Using a beyond-gravelly voice and punctuating his punch lines by smashing his own beat-up cymbal, Nesteroff would deliver hokey one-liners that inevitably descended into abusive rants ("Recently Celine Dion was given the Order of Canada," goes one. "The order was: Stay the fuck out of our country!"). Eventually he devolved into Catskills comic extraordinaire Shecky Grey, the Mr. Hyde to Nesteroff's Dr. Jekyll.
"To be honest," he said on the phone from his East Van residence, "I didn't really consider it comedy. I felt like I was doing some weird act thing, like acting or just fucking around on an open stage."
In October of 2001, Nesteroff moved back to his native B.C., to which he soon introduced Shecky. This loving poke at old-school schtick became so popular at local cabarets, comedy nights, and even the odd standup club that the Cobalt asked him to put on a weekly show, an idea Nesteroff balked at, figuring the novelty would wear off too quickly. The Cobalt--a club better known for punk and metal than comedy--countered with a monthly show offer, but Nesteroff wasn't interested. "I don't like the pressure of putting on my own show," he said. Eventually, management said those three magic words: "We'll pay you." And an institution was born.
So, on the first Mondays of the last 14 months, Shecky Grey has been insulting his cult following (when his jokes are met with glazed stares he's been known to scream "Read the newspapers!"), while his good-guy counterpart Nesteroff has been honing his own act at other rooms across the city. But it was Shecky who soon won the popularity contest.
"The real reason I started doing Shecky more was because I started to become more and more comfortable performing as that character. I was still very nervous and apprehensive on-stage as myself. It made me gain a little more confidence."
In unleashing his inner asshole, Nesteroff has grown to the point where he no longer needs to hide behind any character, which is why he's bidding farewell to the old guy in a Hollywood-style roast entitled, somewhat ominously, The Death of Shecky Grey. "They're all expecting me to physically be offed on-stage. I'm afraid that if that doesn't occur, some people will be extremely disappointed," says Nesteroff.
Why kill such a comedic icon? Nesteroff cites two reasons: "I've used Shecky for what I've needed to use him for. I've become more comfortable on-stage....And I've been losing my voice. Maybe I'd still be doing Shecky if I had picked a different voice to do him in."