On May 5, Milton Berle’s joke files—four cabinets holding thousands of 3x5 cards, indexed by subject—will be sold in Los Angeles.
The comedian, who died in 2002, had a decades-long career in show biz, working in vaudeville, night clubs, films, radio, and finally and most famously on television.
Berle’s live variety show “Texaco Star Theater” was the highest-rated program on TV in the late 1940s. The show was the first “appointment television”: Local businesses reported empty shops and restaurants during its airing, and cities experienced drops in water pressure in the five minutes after it was over, as everyone who had been putting off visiting the facilities until the show was done finally found relief.
While this peak of success, which earned Berle the moniker “Mr. Television,” didn’t last, Berle remained a familiar figure on postwar TV, anchoring variety shows off and on through the late 1960s.
The cards pictured here hold bits of monologue from The Milton Berle Show’s third incarnation (ABC, 1966-1967). The cards contain the jokes themselves, as well as a line for his staff to indicate whether the jest had been approved, and another to record when it had been used.
Before Berle arrived on television, he had already accumulated many of the jokes filed in these cabinets during his years in vaudeville. During his first year on TV, Berle didn’t even have a writing staff, relying instead on his filed humor to fill monologues and sketches.
These file cabinets represent the combined efforts of Berle and the writers later employed on his show. And since Berle was famous for appropriating other people’s jokes—Jack Benny: “When you take a joke away from Milton Berle, it’s not stealing, it’s repossessing”—the cards in the cabinet also represent a larger history of 20th-century American comedy.
For those without the estimated selling price of $10,000 to $15,000 to spare, Berle published a book in 1992 drawing from these files.