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By Phil Hall | December 9, 2005

If you are under the age of 40, you probably never heard of George Kirby – or at least you never saw him in performance. Kirby was among the first wave of African-American stand-up comics to achieve mainstream popularity, but unlike Richard Pryor or Bill Cosby he never quite managed to secure his own permanent niche in films or television (thus making his fame ephemeral). “On Location with George Kirby” is a 1978 HBO special which offers a taste of Kirby’s brand of humor. By contemporary standards, it is fairly tame and perhaps corny. But for Kirby fans who remember him back when, it is a pleasant nostalgia trip.

Shot at Grossinger’s Hotel in the Borscht Belt of New York’s Catskill Mountains, this one-man stage show offers tuxedo-clad Kirby doing what was best known for: astonishing celebrity imitations (ranging from a too-perfect acoustic facsimile of Brando’s Don Corleone to the self-indulgences of diva Sarah Vaughan and Pearl Bailey), intricate sound effects routines (including an airplane’s takeoff and a World War II battle) and charmingly benign jokes. Some material is racial, but in a harmless manner – such as the joke of the white man who received a black man’s heart in a transplant but died shortly afterwards because “he danced himself to death.” But most of the material is G-rated and goofy, such as a routine in which a child wonders how a baby got inside a mother’s stomach and another in which Adam gets pointers from God on how to live with Eve.

Kirby’s musical talent is also on display, with his graceful singing of the ballad “Just a Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and a piano romp during a tribute to Count Basie.

Old-fashioned? You bet. But since so little of Kirby’s work is available for review today, this sampling helps fill in a gaping void.

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  1. Smelly feet says:

    He was a genius I wish more people knew about him.

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