[ I ]
This isAmerica?" The German is perplexed. That the world-renowned Friars Clubcelebrates the world-class achievements of a world-famous American--in thiscase Don King--by repeatedly telling him that the world would be better offwithout 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 themilk bottle of a long, pale face. The expression on that face is one of earnestcuriosity. Across the white hotel tablecloth and the white hotel plates and theflorets of white hotel butter and the white-noise clatter of dull hotel cutleryhe emphasizes neither "This" for sarcastic effect, nor"America" to indicate scorn.
He is asportswriter from Bild--arguably the best-selling newspaper in the Westernworld, thanks, inarguably, to full-page nude-photo essays with headlines likeICH BIN DIE MISS PLAYBOY!--and having flown 3,800 miles from Hamburg to NewYork City to write about Don King, der gro√üe Boxveranstalter (super fightpromoter), and finding himself among 1,200 howling Amerikaner, and sittingbelow the immense cut-glass daggers of the icicle chandeliers and the 10,000yards of bloodred velvet draped above them all in the titanic ballroom of theNew York Hilton, on the occasion of the Friars Club Roast of Herr King, andhaving asked, "This is America?" he bends a pen to his notebook, raiseshis eyebrows high in a gesture of abject innocence, stares at his Americancolleagues and waits for an answer.
His Americantablemates squint briefly at him across that arctic expanse of starch-stifflinen. At last one shrugs. "Sure, Georg," he says with a tired smile ofuncertain sincerity, slowly twirling his index finger to indicate the room andeveryone and everything in it. "This is America."
The German nodsand, as the drawbridge brows swing down, begins to scribble.
In the most basicway, this is correct. We are on the island fortress of Manhattan after all, andare therefore tethered to greater America, even if only tenuously. And we areon the Avenue of the Americas, in a huge ugly room, shoehorned wall-to-wallwith decidedly American types--stand-up comics and beat-down boxers, nightclubwiseguys and their inflatable molls, politicians and press agents and cabaretsingers, sportsmen and showmen, cutmen and cornermen and chorus girls--familiarto everyone everywhere who has ever seen an American movie of the 1930s.
From the dais tothe back row the grand hall is a lively diorama of clichéd young movers andpalsied old shakers, of the great and the ingrate, of has-beens and might-bes,of nugget cufflinks and Prada knockoffs, of dandruff and adultery, ofcauliflower ears and mammaplasty scars, of hand-painted leopard-skin necktiesand tans from a can, of hair delivered precut from a warehouse in New Jerseyand gray-market cologne so potent you could clip it to your key ring and use itto take down a mugger. There's Botox in Spandex and Viagra in vicu√±a seatedshank to bony shank, and everywhere the crippling weight of gangsterbling--gangblang--even by the wet and diamond-studded mouthful. Deep cleavage,sure, and deeper cynicism and, even unfired, there are cigars being wavedaround that could bring down the walls of a city.
Harder toexplain, perhaps impossible, is that these nearly fictive citizens of ournational imagination have gathered today in the grand American show-businesstradition of pretending to honor a man by pretending to love him by pretendingto hate him. Are there words enough in any tongue to explain that they've comenot to praise Don King, but to bury him--beneath a ceremonial mound of theirobscene and ornate scorn?
It's much easier,really, and more correct, just to point at the honoree himself, to point at DonKing and say, "This is America."
[ II ]
Now 74 years old,Don King has through four decades been the one boxing promoter anyone anywheremight reasonably be able to name, his fame dating to 1975 and the mythicbeginnings of his second life: the promotion of that epic fight, theAli-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle. That African adventure would have broken asmaller man, a weaker man, a less flexible man; that Conradian paddle back upthe river Congo should have finished King before he'd even started--"MistahKing, he bankrupt"--but instead made his global bones. He has been theconstant, outrageous presence on the ring apron of our collective consciousnessever since.
King's successesand failures are the stuff of rumor and report and folklore, of books, essays,articles, jeremiads, polemics, documentaries and movies of the week. He's beennamed in more lawsuits than you've had hot meals. By dint of his junkyarddoggedness and our national habit of forbearance, though, and eased by athousand TV interviews and a hundred magazine covers, he has aged somehow intoour most beloved buccaneer, our comic Blackbeard, the laughing captain of ourhappy damnation.
Having inheritedthe corkscrew DNA of storied manager-promoters like Doc Kearns and Mike Jacobs,those backstage giants who guzzled the heavy cream off the careers of Dempseyand Louis, King has long been their natural, merry heir. And like them theconflict of his interests runs so deep that his negotiations are a kind ofcomic schizophrenia--King haggling only with himself.
Chanting hismantra, "Only in America!" and wrapping himself literally andfiguratively in the flag, he presents himself as the living embodiment of theAmerican dream: a good man, self-made and self-reliant, up from the gutter byhis storied bootstraps to dazzling fame and fortune, his hardworking life atriumph of personal industry in the Land of One More Chance, his success andreputation lofted into the sunshine on the very wings of free enterprise.
But he also seemsthe very nightmare American, the man of whom we all despair, the Prometheanexaggerator and Faustian bamboozler, a man for whom the simplest truth is neverless than a three-rail bankshot. He is either the perfection of sweetpatriotism, or the apotheosis of patriotic hypocrisy--the incorruptible red,white and blue devoted solely to eternal honor, or to the further purchase ofhis own magisterial luxuries. Last refuge of a scoundrel and so forth, hecarries those little American flags he's always waving even when no one'slooking.
Let's say alsothat 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'sthe two faces of America and that he harbors multitudes: black and white, richand poor, sacred and profane, good and evil. Look long and honest and hard andin Don King we find the worst and the best in each and every one of us. And bycaricaturing every American trait and impulse, every wanton appetite andviolent itch, he is, thus, America itself.
It is too easy tosay, as many have, that the real trip into the heart of darkness is the onewe've all taken in the years since that jungle rumble, trying to plumb thelightless mystery of Don King's nature. Wouldn't it be quicker and moreilluminating to simply acknowledge the love of hucksters and of violentspectacle in our own American nature? At least that would explain why he's morerecognizable by far than any fighter anywhere currently plying that ancienttrade.
His stature, ofcourse, is largely associative. By seeing him stand with greater men in greatertimes, 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 championshipfights and not a mark on him. Flyweight to heavyweight and all sizes inbetween. Soliloquizer, elegizer, spoonerizer--crackpot supersizer of the King'sown English--his deft and grasping reach is planetary, his global puppet showssold by satellite from dateline to dateline and pole to pole.
We know King tooby his tirades and indictments. We know the rap sheet and the mug shots and theinjunctions, suit and countersuit, all the hard work and the dirty work. Weknow the names of the two men he killed in his first life--one in anger, one inself-defense--back on the cracked and hopeless streets of East Cleveland: SamGarrett and Hillary Brown. We know his crime and punishment. The time servedand the debt paid and the pardon won. The reputations made and squandered, theboxers broken on the adamantine fists of their own ambitions. Some say Kingbought trouble for every fighter he ever touched, but still forgive himeverything. Others damn him forever just for letting Ali stay too long inharm's way, and see in King's smiling eyes the withering evil at the root ofAli's diminishment.
And yet, whileany case pitting King's storied history against our sporting sense of fair playmay never be resolved, that history proves his business acumen uncanny fromfirst to last. For example, 1973, the not-yet-famous but insatiably ambitiousDon King rides in the limousine--and on the coattails--of histitleholder-client Joe Frazier to a boxing ring in Jamaica, where King takeshis seat in the champeen's corner for a title fight. George Foreman, challengerand unholy brute, lays waste to Smokin' Joe through each successive round, andas he does so King changes seats and sentiments, one chair at a time, until themoment Foreman hammers Frazier down and takes away his fancy belt. By whichclimax King, ass and aspiration, has arrived around the ring at a seat inForeman'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 thetime, and to this day, "I came with the champion, and I left with thechampion." It is his mission statement and business model. He is as Godmade 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 andyour terrifying friend. Yes, he's magnificently generous, as befits a king, butthe killing's in the vig. His ominous contracts are famously simple; under hishard stare, you make your mark for his whispered promises. He is smarter thanyou are, avid as a shark, bulletproof. Question him, and he will batter youwith nonsense. If you think him witless, he will outwit you. Shiftless, he willoutwork you--then break you for the insult.
He is theruthless clown, the numbers-racket genius, the self-mocking jailhouse cribberof misremembered Shakespeare, the inexhaustible transcendentalist negotiatormisquoting Thoreau in search of inner peace and another 7% of the gate. Andbrush up on your Bible because even Satan uses Scripture when it suits him.
He has been theP.T. Barnum of our age, the infinitely striving, endlessly spieling barker atthe tent mouth of the Don King Big Top. Once inside, we find that he's the onlyreturning attraction on the bill. Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Tyson come and go,tracking bloodied sawdust after them, but the ringmaster never leaves.
He is modernboxing's ruin and its only real asset. He is the creator-destroyer of today'sdying fight game, the man who puts the shiv back in Shiva.
he remainsinsatiable, always famished. I watched him eat a bowl of soup in a New Yorkcafé a couple of days before the roast, and his eating was mechanical. The bigspoon small in his hand and slow in the bowl, his eyes fixed on his meal, hebrought each steady spoonful to the great mouth, unhurried, never a dropspilled. Quiet, tidy and rhythmic, he leaned to the bowl as he emptied it. Andas 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 andpresented him a contract. A couple of fights on a premier cable network. Thisboxer or that one, on one night or another. Who knows? Who cares? Plug them inlater.
King held thecontract in one hand and cut furrows in that cooling soup with the other. Heate as he read. For the next five minutes the executives fidgeted in theirHickey Freeman suits, tapped their cap-toe oxfords and watched King's soupspoon.
The spoonstopped. King, in his offstage voice, the deal-making voice the public neverhears, spoke down into the soup. "The skeleton is there. But we need themeat."
He chuckled low,and the spoon resumed its work.
Hungering, evenas he eats, he is hunger itself, voracious, and the feeding makes him hungrierstill.
For better andworse Don King embodies in the vastness of his good-natured greed the hungeringabundance of America in all its mindless dualities and stubborn oppositions; inits soaring entrepreneurial spirit and its murderous bureaucracy, in its lovingcharity and its sterile lust for money and power. It's all there in one man. Asit 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 sweetpeace in the world is just like you. He is us.
"My magiclies in my people's ties!"
He is HoratioAlger with a gun!
"I work forthe day when all people will be clothed in dignity!"
Or have at leasthad the wool of dignity pulled over their eyes!
And this is hisday.
[ III ]
Up and out of thelimo and into the Hilton lobby, Don King is greeted by hoots and squeals ofrecognition and a lightning storm of camera flashes. "Yes, yes, yes!"he trumpets as he strides across the polished marble, that nasal voice cuttingthe air like a cleaver, that one voice a klaxon above a hundred others."Only in America!"
He is energizednow--larger than life and his blue-ribbon smile dazzling--and he moves with agraceful sense of mighty purpose, Father Bountiful sowing prosperity with hisevery 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 ofoccasions--the fine shirt of Egyptian cotton stretched tight on the belly andthe tie one size too big, too Cleveland--King, resplendent in his naturalplumage, makes his way upstairs. "Let's go get slaughtered!" he keens,sweeping up the escalator in his evening dress.
It is 10:30 inthe morning.
Today's affair isa luncheon, the surreality of which requires a dozen comics working blue tobring their filthiest material to bear in broad daylight on an audience neithersufficiently lubricated nor adequately unhurried to fully appreciate it. Infact, the whole megillah has a furtive vibe to it, half shameful, as if we'reall crowding into the TomCat Triple-X for the businessman's matinee. This isgoing to be a tough house.
"Big pussy!Big Pussy! Big Pussy!" King hollas across the greenroom, those plosive B'sand 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 toneis set.
"MichaelSpinks!" King bawls. "My man!"
"LeRoyNeiman!" King crows. "My man!"
"PatO'Brien!" King wails. "My man!"
"Kreskin!" King bellows. "My amazing man!" He pumps thementalist's hand as if trying to draw deep water from a desert well handle.
To which thenightclub swami replies, glasses dancing on his nose, "I knew you weregoing to say that."
On and on theyarrive, the lounge-act tenor and the weatherman, actors forgettable andforgotten, comics on their way up or on their way out--a telethon's worth ofmen and women who've made the climb but never reached the summit, citizens ingood standing on America's celebrity B-list.
Joe Frazier limpsin, the legs that carried him so near immortality now barely able to carry himacross the room. His son Marvis steadies him at his elbow as he walks, everybowlegged step a tender reminder of Joe's legendary doggedness, of hisfearlessness when within range of another man's fists. "Joe Frayzhuh! JoeFrayzhuh! Yes, yes, yes! Smokin' Joe! Smokin' Joe! My man!" oompahs thehuman sousaphone.
Frazier, whodeserved more affection and respect from America than we ever gave him, wears awide-brim black Stetson atop a double-breasted suit of electric teal over athermal-underwear tee. You suspect the suit was chosen from a closet full ofsuch Technicolor dream clothes, Frazier's subconscious fashion palette a vividone, 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 eyesnever meet--Noble Joe moves to a seat nearby to ease his legs and back. As hepasses he trails behind him, fittingly if not exactly magically, the smell ofrecent, mellow smoke. His breakfast cigar perhaps. A small crowd of truebelievers follows, to bathe his aches with their belated regard.
Freddie Roman, 50years 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 AbeVigoda, old as the pharaohs.
Above all theseseptuagenarians 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 torecord the labored gibes and wisecracks. Seen from across the room, the audiorig looks dire indeed, remarkably and unfortunately like the Reaper's own eagerscythe held high.
[ IV ]
Corralled bypublicists and herded out, we are driven down a chute into another, largerroom, where 50 or more shooters stand arrayed in front of a small stage. Forthe next hour it's "Look to the left! The LEFT!" and "Over here!Over HERE!" as the paparazzi raise their photo-op prayers to theselow-hanging stars.
King is pairedand re-paired with various attendees, that smile frozen hard on his face as heand his brother Friars are arranged like puzzle pieces by their variouspublicists. This is perhaps the only moment in history when the words"Where's Dick Capri? Get me Dick Capri!" have been spoken with realurgency.
King is shown thecommemorative he will receive as part of the day's honors: a cut-glass friarstanding in a ring of cut-glass flames. Depending on the heresies of yourmisspent youth, this will remind you either of your parents' dusty bottle ofhazelnut liqueur or of the Spanish Inquisition. And while vaguely aware of thehistorical horror of the latter, I must confess to an intimate teenageacquaintance with the horrors of the former.
King then holdsaloft for the cameras a pair of red boxing gloves--"To the left! To theLEFT!"--an autographed gift from the President of the United States on theoccasion of Don King's roasting day. King campaigned vigorously and sonorouslyfor George W. Bush in Florida and Ohio in 2004. Given the slim margins of thePresident's victories in these states, it is possible to argue, at least ifyou're Don King, that Don King, by mobilizing the African-American vote inthese areas, tipped the election in Bush's favor. In return for which thePresident himself might have appeared here today, but couldn't, according toKing, because he was "embroiled in so much other minutiae." The GlobalWar on Terror being, if nothing else, a real scheduling headache.
Spinks andFrazier and heavyweight contender Lamon Brewster and comic Gilbert Gottfriedhave all been photographed with their fists cocked beneath King's chin, and thephoto pros from the world's tabloids are running out of visual clichés andsteam. Just as the energy threatens to drain entirely from the room, DonaldTrump arrives. Still wearing his trademark scowl and a faceful of stagepancake--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 thisis," he says to no one as he enters. "Very prestigious."*
Excepting certaintinhorn heads of state with large standing armies, Trump is the only person inthe last quarter-century to publicly rival King's matchless ego or to equal hisself-loving zeal. Trump is King's tonsorial doppelg√§nger, and the funhousemirror in which King's rags-to-riches tale is bent into the shortshort story ofrich to richer. Trump's business plan over the years, as simple and efficientas King's, is a two-step philosophy. It works, apparently, like this:
Step 1: Takecredit.
Step 2: Assignblame.
Accountable onlyto themselves, the double Dons have built their empires on bluster; each manfloating majestically above the American skyline in a giant bologna skin filledwith his own hot air. That they remain aloft against the stubborn gravity ofreality speaks to our endless credulity in the face of celebrity.
These few momentsof Trump l'oeil having finally produced sufficient imagery to litter every newsdesk 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 interestof full disclosure, I must alert the reader that Mr. Trump once took publicexception to a book review I'd written, in which I jokingly theorized that manyNew Yorkers would be willing, even eager, to drop a nonlethal flowerpot on hisincredible head.
[ V ]
Seating 70 dustyluminaries from the antique worlds of vaudeville and the fistic arts, the daisis more than 200 feet long. At its midpoint is a lectern, above which hangs theFriars' motto, Prae Omnia Fraternitas--translated loosely from the Latin as,How many of you folks are from out of town?
Stand-up comedyand boxing have a great deal more in common than one might think. Both lookeasy. Both are hard. Both abide outside the inflexible margins of politesuburban propriety. Both are solitary acts of bravery and barely controlledaggression in which one party struggles to provoke a reflex in the centralnervous system of its target. In boxing the desired response is theunconsciousness of the concussed opponent; in comedy, Carrot Topnotwithstanding, the sought-after reflex is the helpless laughter of the payingcustomers. In the second case the audience is the adversary. Why, after all, doyou think they call it a punch line?
But there's notime for etymology now, as Freddie Roman, having warmed up this chilly daytimecrowd, has at last brought to the lectern Roastmaster Donald Trump, who leansinto 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 heKILLED PEOPLE? This guy KILLED PEOPLE. I'm going to say things about him, and IDON'T WANT TO BE KILLED.... " He waits, maybe for comic effect, maybe tolet the echo fade. "How come there are so FEW BOXERS HERE? Because DON KINGhas SCREWED so many BOXERS, nobody WANTS TO COME!"
There is anawkward silence, punctuated by a flurry of nervous laughs. If this were afight, 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 afireplug, grinning gamely but inscrutably. Trump, to his thick-skinned credit,breathes deeply, rises up and loudly, EMPHATICALLY, tries again.
"Let's FACEit. DON KING IS A BIG, FAT, F------ THIEF!"
There is anotherbrief, 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 longestafternoon 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 anddesperately need a laugh, decides to tie its opponent up in a clinch and keephim 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 theKIND OF CRAP they WRITE," Trump shouts, reading from his script. "'Ihave a CATCHPHRASE, You're FIRED! Don has a catchphrase, Not GUILTY!' ... Thisis FREDDIE and his GREAT group of GENIUS writers.... 'Don is a big FAN of TheApprentice. 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 thisEVENT, Old JEWS and the NEGROES Who Frighten Them.'"
Having assignedblame, 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 looksexactly like the picture you have in your head right now of a man in latemiddle-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 amillion and a half dollars to give lectures on how to be a millionaire? Yourfather gave you 40 million dollars, that's how!...Don King at least did it witha gun--you're just full of s---."
Which generatesthe first belly laugh since we all walked in. Trump scowls that well-knownscowl, all gunfighter squint and powdered jowls, a dour look that must havebought 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 Isay about Don King that hasn't already been said by a D.A., a judge and aparole 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 hisexit, directed at either or both of the two Dons, at once apt and poignant,"You deserve what's coming to you."
In aninexplicable theatrical miscue, the next two speakers are civilians. Suffice tosay that by comparison they make Trump look like Fanny Brice, and that theysquander what little comic steam Stone had managed to stoke. It becomesapparent why the various dignitaries fight so hard to sit on the dais: so theydon't have to watch.
A brief momenthere while the entire audience frantically reloads its wineglasses.
[ VI ]
The Friars Clubis a fraternal order of outsiders who made themselves insiders, of comedians,actors, publicists and other show folk who invented for themselves a centuryago just about the only club in that anti-Semitic age they'd ever be invited tojoin, then perfected these savage roasts as a way to express their fierceloyalty to one another. Still, even after luring some of the bright new lightsof comedy to join them in the last few years, the membership has a median agesomewhere between "He used to open for Louis Prima at The Sands" and"He's coding!"
The best-keptsecret of these roasts is not how hard and yet fragile a thing stand-up comedyis (or how profoundly lonely), but rather how hard it is to find a guest ofhonor. Whomever you see in the hot seat next year, or in one of those stagedPage Six photos the day after, he or she likely wasn't the Friars' firstchoice. Or even the second. Or seventh.
"That'salways our biggest problem," I was told by an elder Friar in good standinga few nights before the event. (In service of that standing, I'll maintain hisanonymity.) "People are terrified by the idea of being roasted. Mostcelebrities have no sense of humor about themselves. We go through a dozencandidates sometimes before we land anybody willing to do it."
Don't be deceivedby 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 thepopular (and heavily edited) Comedy Central version of Friars Club roasts. Inits unadulterated form a Friars Club roast isn't merely obscene, it's alsobrutal. "I think we made Chevy Chase cry," said the insider.
"Worst day ofhis life," added another.
[ VII ]
In a fine displayof synchronized drinking the audience has refilled, tossed back and refilledtheir glasses again. Thanks to those two unfunny farshtinkener momzers, and thequick ingestion of 200 gallons of institutional wine, the crowd is headrushed,restless and desperate for real laughs. Lisa Lampanelli, all energy andoffense, comes out swinging and delivers.
Sadly, most ofher aggressive best cannot be printed in most magazines. Here's a schematicexample of a Lisa Lampanelli joke: Don King is so BLANK BLANK that he has toBLANK his BLANK in his BLANK when he BLANKS to BLANK.
In deference tothe trademark holders at Mad Libs¬Æ, Match Game fans and the prevailing moralstandards of your community, and by subtracting the n word, the c word, the tword, the a word, the b word, the d word and the p word, I transcribe these fewexcerpts:
"There's nodenying it's been a great year for Donald Trump. First and foremost, he's happywith his beautiful wife, INSERT NAME HERE. But what do you say to a barber toget that kind of a haircut, anyway? 'I f----- your daughter'?
"The AmazingKreskin 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 byhim thinking, 'Man, what a d----- bag!'?"
Other than DonKing, she's the only person on this dais who actually killed.
Al Sharpton's upnext, and as he stands at the lectern between Donald Trump and Don King, it'slike seeing your favorite characters from the novels of Tom Wolfe gathered fora portrait, a trinity of charismatic rascals. The Reverend, one of the fewpresidential 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 ofTrump Real Estate Properties.
"Racism'sstill alive. You'll notice we have two slicksters up here--one they call amogul, one they call a mugger. That's race in America."
The Rev knowsbetter than most that you should always leave your audience wanting more. Andhe does.
As the day wearson, one senses a grave and growing tear in the very fabric of the time--goodtaste continuum. Dick Capri, a yeoman comic of 40 years' service, opens thus:"A quadruple amputee's lying on the beach... " He works fast, the jokeswell-tuned to the room--filthy, offensive, unprintable.
Next up is Jackie(The Jokeman) Martling, best known for his work with Howard Stern. Hissignature is that he giggles at his own jokes. Today he's the only onelaughing. "What can you say about a man who combs his hair withelectricity?" Nothing evidently. The twilight sound of crickets overwhelmsthe ballroom. At the midpoint of his infinite five minutes, Martling notes,"Wow, it's quiet up here," and even the crickets are silent. Heactually 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 hismouth. "I don't know if I can follow Jackie, but I'll try." And histopper, 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, acharming little apple-core doll of a man, a pro's pro and indomitable, throwsdown a solid-blue set from the old school. The audience pours sugar all overhim for having done so. Here's the only joke that's printable: "Don King isa smart man, he knows things....He knows the similarities between Bill Clintonand Abraham Lincoln. One got his brains blown out. The other wasassassinated."
[ VIII ]
Don King sitsmildly by with one long arm draped over the chair next to his, fiddles with hiscigar, laughs when the moment requires it, smiles beatifically at all othertimes. Good comic or bad, he takes his lumps with apparent fine humor and inthe spirit, whatever that might actually be, of the occasion.
The comics teeoff on the man's mythology, busting him on all the familiar signifiers--thehair, the criminal history, the famous names on the fight cards, the money andthe jewelry--all the things you already knew you knew about him. The manhimself remains unmoved. In that way he is perhaps the best honoree the Friarshave ever had, fireproof, shockproof, shtickproof. What can any of these peoplesay that might somehow wound or touch or even interest him?
The honor andduty of closing the show go to Pat Cooper, another stand-up stand-up veteranfrom the long-gone tail-fin days of Ed Sullivan, supper clubs and crepe dechine cocktail dresses. Cooper has no act to speak of, and is the first toadmit it; rather he relies on the moment, and on his perpetual state ofconsummate rage, to carry him through. It is comedy as peeved improvisation. Totry to transcribe more than a sentence or two would be a disservice to history,and to Cooper.
"I shouldn'thave bothered with that shower.... What the f--- is your story, Trump?... I sawyou six years ago.... You sent me a letter, Don, and you said, 'Pat, anythingyou need, please call me.' I've been calling you for six f------ years. Whenthe f--- do you [pick up] the f------ phone?
"It's been anice afternoon that I'll certainly forget. I'd like to get off, ladies andgentlemen, but I've got no ending."
The audience,grateful to Cooper, rewards him with a generous hand. But it is now almost 3p.m., the show running very late indeed, so the energy beneath the applausefeels nearly frantic, as if the crowd can't wait to go. As the Cooper ovationsubsides, people fold their napkins, fuss with their coat-check tickets andbeaded bags, yawn and stretch. It is into the palpable tension of thisimpending getaway that the final speaker of the afternoon is introduced. Theunspoken covenant with the audience is, of course, that he will keep thingsbrief. But brevity is not Don King's long suit. Nor is linearity of thought.Nor are his remarks organized in written form.
In considerationof space, sense and trying to reproduce the exact manner in which the addresswas received by the wine-woozy, enervated audience in the Hilton ballroom thatday, I compress here as best I can the 12 minutes of King's remarks, drawn fromthe torrential stream of consciousness into which sportswriters have beendipping their little buckets for the last 30 years. Ironically, the rhetoricaladhesive that holds many of King's sentences together is the phrase Do you knowwhat I mean?
"Thankyou.... Well, it's been a great day. Many people have come up here to abuse andmisuse, do wild accusations, unfounded, unwarranted; nevertheless I've been therecipient of all this pain, but from pain comes gain.... "
(Varioushistorical discursive asides now follow, including, but not limited to oldendays, a joke about a funeral home, slavery, prejudice, the Civil War, theReconstruction and the indiscriminate, prolific roasting of strangers notnamed, but....)
"The Friarsbring people together...."
(Asides now onDonald Trump and his rich father, his turn in military school, then at Wharton,how he handles himself with "aplomb," and how one might even considerTrump, with his "extracurricular peccadilloes," a "macaroni" ora "playa," which leads naturally into the Biblical instruction to goforth and bear children. Trump, the prolific paterfamilias, the story ofAbraham and Sarah, be fruitful and multiply, etc....)
"I'm standingup here blamed for everything that's ever happened in this country from theJohnstown Flood to World War II to the Lindbergh kidnapping, you know. I acceptit graciously.... "
(Asides nowreferring to sticks, clubs, running through the jungle in a loincloth, AlSharpton crying out in the wilderness and the general--albeit painfullyslow--trend toward the moral progress of mankind....)
"I have tosay to all of you who don't like George Walker Bush ... George Walker Bush is arevolutionary!"
While King'senthusiasm at this point is unquestionable, several people in the audience moanaudibly; 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 theUnited States...."
(Asides nowinclude "chic and steel," Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and thesecurity of "350 million people," "lyin', cheatin', stealin'.""He raised the bar of dignity, he raised the bar of pride, he raised thebar 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 "sweatpoppin' 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 theworld." "More sacrifice," "the Friars exemplify bravery andperfect union." A submarine....)
At which moment aman at the table behind us gets up and leaves, saying, "This is nonsense,just nonsense."
("Performanceis what counts ... I am the godfather of hip-hop.... Treat your woman as yourequal if not your superior. They don't understand that, but a macaronidoes." ...)
"This hasbeen a wonderful day!"
("Legitimizethe articulation.... That's the blackology that Don has, ... that smile, thatinfectious smile that's so addictive." ...)
"I loveAmerica! George Walker Bush! Only in America!"
Sensing an end,or at least willing one, the audience rises and applauds as it jogs for theexits--a rolling ovation out the door. "We only roast the ones welove," says Freddie Roman to their backs as the room rapidly empties.
"This isAmerica?" the German reporter asks again.
[ IX ]
Trump flees thescene like a line handler beneath the Hindenburg. In his haste he leaves behindhis script. A millionaire perhaps, but not a strong speller, and he has indeedmade several edits, including the elimination of any jokes poking fun athimself.
In his wake LloydPrice, the singer who first brought King and Ali together in 1972, judges theday "magnificent," as he slips into his cashmere coat, laughing."Just a wonderful, wonderful day."
Evander Holyfieldstands a few feet away. Saying nothing, staring into the middle distance, hewaits 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, heis an impossible stillness, his face as stoic and unknowable as any statue onEaster Island.
King circulatesquietly in the afterglow with a handful of friends, tired now, signingautographs for stragglers in the abandoned ballroom. He is told by one of hisseveral 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 thismoment to feel sympathy, even empathy, for Don King. To pine on his behalf fora day's rest, a day's respect, a day's fun, for a truce, however momentary, inthe unending battle he himself set in motion so long ago.
Someone asks himhow he feels.
"Hungry,"comes the reply.
[ X ]
Out the side doorand around the corner to a steakhouse. New York in October, a careless eastwind kicking the city's trash through the streets. That hot yellow LamborghiniGallardo parked out front belongs to Zab Judah, the soon-to-be ex-welterweightchamp. Elaborate as a Mars lander, sexy as silk stockings, the car costs$200,000. Inside the restaurant King stands in a quiet corner counting outcrisp 50 dollar bills so Zab can put some gas in it. King smiles. Zab murmurs"Thanks" through diamond-studded teeth.
King never got toeat his rubber lunch, but this is Zab Judah's birthday party too. He turned 28yesterday and was on the dais for the roast; King had ordered a cake, andbrought a dozen and a half folks--friends and employees and entourage--overhere to celebrate both moments with a very late, very large lunch. King oftengathers his intimates for meals like this while away from home. This is histraveling family, his musical-chairs defense against the loneliness of theroad. And Father Bountiful, ever gracious, ever generous, inviting you in withhis hand on your shoulder and his eyes on your wallet, is a perfectly charminghost.
At a fine bigtable in the private dining room King judges his day a fair one. "I thoughtit went very well," he says. "They're supposed to level pain on youthere. It's a good coming together, though. It makes you feel good."
He speaks clearlybut softly as he sits back in his chair, taking his ease. Only the week beforehe had undergone angioplasty, a well-kept secret, the heart at the heart ofdarkness now threatened rather than threatening. He passes the mashed potatoesand reminds us all to clean our plates.
Later, stillworking, always working, he will talk with Holyfield. And that too-old fighterand 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 getsmade.
To sit with DonKing is to visit something singular in the American character, at onceadmirable 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 hiswill is somehow inspiring. But at what cost? And to whom?
Nearirresistibly, you are drawn to him. Despite your fears, he carries youwillingly to the very brink of something. Once there, unbidden, you look down.And there you see the two unmistakable faces of the great Americangrotesque--the benevolent malevolent, carrying all good and bringing all evil,welcoming you, arms flung wide, affection and death both beckoning, Americaitself gathering you up for a loving hug as it suffocates you.
When Zab Judah'scake arrives, the candles firing shadows up the walls, the room kindled orangeand red, Don King, American, happy and famous and rich, a man at once soothedand amused and enraged by the dire light of his terrifying fame and comfortedby the hard-won luxuries of his terrible prosperity, will smile yet again,unashamed, unchastened and unafraid, and in full voice, loud with hismultitudes, yours and mine, the voice of America itself, will sing out clearand happy and strong.
And you will tryvery hard, in that flickering moment of joy, to forgive him. But in yourdespair, you will fail.
He is the P.T. Barnum of our age, the infinitelystriving, endlessly spieling barker at the tent mouth of the Don King Big Top.He is modern boxing's ruin and its only real asset. He is the CREATOR-DESTROYERof today's dying fight game, the man who put the shiv back in Shiva.
President Bush might have appeared today, but Kingsays he was "embroiled in so much other minutiae." The Global War onTerror is, if nothing else, a real SCHEDULING HEADACHE.
The Friars Club brothers, who perfected these roastsas a way to express their fierce loyalty to one another, have a median agebetween "He used to open for Louis Prima," and "HE'SCODING!"
Quinn says that when Trump, Sharpton and King standarm in arm, "their hair looks like the THREE STAGES OF A FORESTFIRE."
King's remarks are drawn from the TORRENTIAL STREAM ofconsciousness into which sportswriters have been dipping their little bucketsfor the last 30 years.
Photographs by David Bergman
Photographs by David Bergman
GLADHANDS -¬†King greets (from left) Trump and Sharpton, and thenKreskin.
Photographs by David Bergman
PUNCHER'S CHANCE -¬†The Don made time for Gottfried (below) andFrazier.