Norm Crosby, Comedian Who Had a (Wrong) Way With Words, Dies at 93

Norm Crosby, the comedian known as the master of malaprop because he spoke from his diagram and related many funny antidotes, often to a standing ovulation, died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 93.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Joan, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Mr. Crosby started telling jokes in the late 1950s, when comedians often relied on one type of gag for their acts: Don Rickles was the insult comic, Henny Youngman was the king of the one-liners. As a young comedian in New England, Mr. Crosby experimented with those forms and more.

“I was doing everybody’s material,” Mr. Crosby said in an interview with the show business historian Kliph Nesteroff in 2010. “I took from Buddy Hackett, Jan Murray and Red Buttons. Everybody!”

Mr. Crosby developed his own shtick after he was offered a job at the popular New York City nightclub the Latin Quarter, in Times Square.

“I was taking jokes from Ed Sullivan every week,” Mr. Crosby said in an interview for this obituary in 2013. “I couldn’t go to New York and do the stuff I was doing.”

He was trying to develop new material when a club owner made an offhand comment about one of the club’s cabaret dancers. The owner, who had given the young woman a ride, “came into my dressing room and he said to me, ‘Find out if the girl is staying over or if she communicates,’” Mr. Crosby recalled. “I said, ‘My God, a lot of people talk like that. Maybe that would be fun.’ So I started the play on words.”

He tried it in Massachusetts, he added, “and the places I worked, unfortunately, people didn’t get the difference.”

Because of the particulars of his Latin Quarter booking, Mr. Crosby’s routine was not an immediate breakthrough with Times Square audiences either. He started out performing 12-minute filler sets between stage acts during his weeklong engagement, and his jokes were largely ignored. “I was on for five minutes before anybody knew I was out there,” he said.

At the end of the week, a dejected Mr. Crosby packed his bags and went to pick up his check from the manager, who apologized for the difficult assignment and promised him a better slot in the show. Once audiences had a chance to get the joke, he was a hit. He stayed at the Latin Quarter for 18 weeks, after which the prestigious William Morris Agency began representing him.

He was soon opening for the singer Robert Goulet at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, and Mr. Goulet and his agent enjoyed Mr. Crosby’s act so much that they booked him as the opening act on a nationwide tour. The two worked together for the next three years. Mr. Crosby then toured with Tom Jones for a time before becoming a headliner in his own right.

He appeared on the television shows of Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin and on comedy series like “The Love Boat.” From 1978 to 1981, he hosted “The Comedy Shop,” a syndicated showcase for young stand-up comedians, and essentially played himself in the 1988-89 Showtime sitcom “The Boys,” about a club that closely resembled the Friars Club, where he often took part in roasts. Mr. Crosby was also a regular on Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts, where his targets included Senator Barry Goldwater and the actors Kirk Douglas and Carroll O’Connor.

Speaking of Senator Goldwater, he said, “When President Johnson declared war on puberty, it was Senator Goldwater who said, and I quote, ‘Wherever there is unemployment, you’ll find men out of work.’”

He was a pitchman in the late 1970s and early 1980s for Anheuser-Busch’s Natural Light beer, appearing in commercials with Mickey Mantle, Henny Youngman and Joe Frazier.

In one commercial, he declared, “I always keep Natural on hand while I watch these athletes perspiring to achieve victory, cause these sporting computations make me so dehybernated.”

He was also a frequent participant in Jerry Lewis’s muscular dystrophy telethon. That was not his only charitable cause; Mr. Crosby, who was hearing-impaired, also became the first national chairman of the Council for Better Speech and Hearing in 1979.

In 1982, Mr. Crosby’s name was, as he might have put it, immobilized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, placed between the stars of Jack Benny and Red Skelton.

Norman Lawrence Crosby was born on Sept. 15, 1927, in Boston. Known as a class card, he graduated from Dorchester High School and then studied advertising illustration at the Massachusetts School of Art but enlisted as a radar operator in the Coast Guard before he graduated.

His hearing was permanently damaged from depth charges that exploded while he was on anti-submarine patrol in the North Atlantic during World War II, although he did not notice hearing problems until long after he got home.

After the war, Mr. Crosby worked in advertising for a women’s shoe retailer in Boston that had about 40 stores, eventually becoming advertising manager. He dabbled in comedy at small clubs and restaurants in New England, becoming popular in the region before his opportunity at the Latin Quarter.

He married Joan Foley, a nightclub dancer and former Rockette, in 1967.

Besides his wife, survivors include their two sons, Andrew and Daniel, and two grandchildren.

In recent years, Mr. Crosby continued to perform on cruise ships and in Las Vegas well into his 80s and appeared sporadically on television. He also had small parts in Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups 2” and other movies.

Mr. Crosby was not the only person known for mangling words: So, too, was the 43rd president, George W. Bush. Mr. Bush’s misstatements reminded some of Mr. Crosby’s malaprops, even though they were not part of a routine.

“Everybody was saying, ‘Hey! He’s doing your act,’” Mr. Crosby said.

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