Jimmy Durante

By: Mike Fleisch
February 10, 2014


People loved JIMMY DURANTE (1893–1980). Roughly the same kind of old for 50 years, he gave character makers a prototype so specific and useful, it’s hard to remember it didn’t always exist. An entertainer who mined the vibrations between feigned stupidity, authentic joy, and contagious ragtime relatability, Durante let everybody think they were only noticing his nose, which he called “Schnozzola.” But if you’re impersonating that particular kind of musical funnyman from the ’30s to the ’50s, then you’re using Durante’s voice, the descending, halting New York rasp of declarative fact, “I got a million of ’em,” that same cadence, whether, “Everybody wants to get into the act,” or “Hotch-cha-cha-cha-cha.” These have the Shakespearean quality of feeling as if they’ve always been a part of our English (or American), but that voice couldn’t lie, and over time it acquired a privileged and mythical authenticity, the innocent wisdom of a blue-collar sage, tattered hat and oversized coat… It became fashionable to include his covers of standards in sentimental movie soundtracks. But Durante had played the bewildered worker all his life, foil to jazz bands and clear-voiced men in tuxedos, always trying harder than everybody else to get a smile. “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”


HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Don Rickles | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Jerry Lewis | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Frances Moore Lappe, Bertolt Brecht.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Modernist (1884–93) and Hardboiled (1894-1903) Generations.