Entertainment: Fryeing the President

Original Publication: Newsweek, January 28, 1974

Shoulder hunched, eyes flickering and glowering, it’s none other than Richard Nixon on the nightclub stage. “They say I should have foreseen the energy crisis,” says the unmistakable voice, “but that would have been the easy thing to do.” Then comes the answer to everybody’s questions: “Checkers ate the tapes. He’s a freak for high sounds.”

Comic David Frye, President Nixon’s satiric nemesis, is unloading his scathing brand of political humor and mimicry at Jimmy’s, a New York nightclub and hangout for the political crowd. These days, when actual events seem far more bizarre than any comedian’s material, Frye is managing to keep apace hilariously, both on records – his latest (on Buddah) is “Richard Nixon: A Fantasy” – and in person. “Rose Mary Woods is the only woman in the world who can type 150 words a minute and erase 350 with one foot,” cracks Frye. Then he goose-steps around the stage, intoning with a familiar Teutonic accent: “No one is more brillian than Henry Kissinger. No one is more horny than Henry Kissinger.” Frye’s final sally comes when he does George Wallace. “There’s only one way to get rid of Nixon,” the governor proclaims at the top of his drawl. “Have Teddy take him for a drive tomorrow.”

Curtain: One of the highlights of Frye’s act is a film of Nixon in embarrassing poses that is accompanied by Frye crooning “My Way.” “And now the end is near,” he warbles in perfect, hush Nixonian tones, “and so I face the final curtain . . .” The film closes with shots of Hubert Humphrey becoming so carried away in mid-speech that he inadvertently makes a naughty gesture. In Frye’s world no politician is sacred. This worries some people. Commercials for his latest Nixon album were banned on all three network stations in New York.

And there are those in his audience who are outraged by Frye’s irreverence. At one performance last week a distinguished-looking middle-aged man got up and told him, “You don’t offend me, you offend my country.” The heckler managed to cut right through the satirical masks that Frye’s face wears when performing. The comedian lost his poise and never quite regained it. Not even the laughter of his diminutive friend Jimmy Caesar, a fellow impressionist who sits in different parts of the audience and makes sure Frye gets at least one laugh to each joke, could help.  Frey kept going long after he should have ended, as if each new try might redeem him. He finally closed with an embarrassingly awkward rendition of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

Later in his dressing room Frye was tense as he gulped a drink. “Go ahead, ask me anything you want,” he said. “If you hurt me I’ll understand.” It’s obvious that the strains on Richard Nixon are also affecting the President’s leading satiric gadfly. “Frankly, I would prefer him to remain in office,” says Frye. “He’s the most effective impression I’ve ever had. There’s no one as funny as he is.” Why? “It’s his gestures, his movements, his neurosis,” Frye explains. “Humphrey’s not neurotic, he’s just a compulsive talker. But Nixon is a neurotic. He’s as neurotic a President as we can imagine.”

Even though Frye works in the tradition of cutting satire, there are those he will not impersonate.  Martha Mitchell is one. “She’s no longer funny,” says Frye.. “She’s tragic.” He feels the same way about Pat Nixon: “Pat Nixon is more tragic because she’s the wife of a possible wrongdoer. If he goes down, she goes down with him.” 

‘Closer’: Frye rehearses his characters every day in front of a mirror and constantly rewrites his act to keep up with current events. It now includes Nelson Rockefeller as Presidential candidate and Abe Beame, the new mayor of New York City. But there’s no question of Frye is at his best with Nixon, suggesting perhaps that his uncanny ability to look and sound like the President goes beyond mere topicality. Frye himself seems perfectly clear about this. “I’m a neurotic man,” says Frye, “and neurosis comes easy to me.”

If events bring about the accession of President Ford, Frye’s not sure what he’ll do. “I don’t even know if I can imitate him,” he admits. But he already includes material about Ford in his act: “He’s the dullest s.o.b. I’ve seen in my life,” says one of Frye’s characters about the new Veep. As Frye proclaims with confidence, “I have this very acute ability to do any voice. I can do almost anyone.” And he adds: “I like and respect David Frye very much.”

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.