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THE UNKNOWN COMIC

OFF THE WALL

By Bill Braunstein

Melissa Manchester had just finished her first song on opening night of a week-long engagement at the Diplomat Hotel's Cafe Cristal in Hollywood, Fla., when she walked across the stage and spotted a broken clear plastic cup.

It had been left by Manchester's opening act, the Unknown Comic, Murray Langston, a man who has taken a simple brown bag and filled it with a career. Before leaving the stage, Langston, whose bizarre brand of comedy was too wild, too earthy and too intense for this tie-and-tux crowd, had made one last attempt at a joke. Holding the glass high, he shattered it in his hand. "Is it live," he chortled, satirizing Manchester's TV commercials, "or is it Memorex?" Having elicited nothing more than a few titters, Langston must have wondered the same thing about the crowd.

Now, some ten minutes later, the broken cup is getting the biggest laugh of the night -- for Manchester. Looking at the plastic, she shrugs and tosses it over her shoulder. "Has Murray been drinking again?" The audience, a mob partial to Manchester, finally laughs at the comedian.

Langston, downstairs in his dressing room, is oblivious to the joke. In fact, he is drinking. He and his two-piece back-up band, the Brown-Baggers, are passing around bottles of Heineken. But they are celebrating more than just another opening night; the gig at the Diplomat is Langston's first appearance on the East Coast.

After a start seven years ago on Laugh-In, a regular stint on The Sonny and Cher Show, both as comic-actor Murray Langston, and 130 bagged appearances on The Gong Show, the Unknown Comic is on the verge of becoming known. The bag-headed comedian has been offered the lead role, without the bag, in a television pilot called Scared Stiff, about a bumbling private detective. He is also close to doing a syndicated half-hour variety show that would star the Unknown Comic, with the bag.

Langston's dressing room at the Diplomat is small but comfortable with one large mirror taking up an entire wall. A large black trunk, the kind you took to sleep-away camp, sits open on the dresser, his name in bold letters painted on the front. Inside is an assortment of paper bags, large ones, small ones ("Pictures of me as a child"), some with faces drawn on, and some clothes. The two musicians sit on stools as Langston washes and takes off his sweat-drenched shirt.

"There were a lot of logistic problems out there tonight," he says talking about Manchester's confining stage. "And the crowd, the crowd was, uh, very mellow."

The comedian pulls a clean tan knit shirt over his head, looks in the mirror, rearranges his hair. He has a slight, muscular build, a strong chin and a brown mustache that makes him resemble Sonny Bono. "Half the people seemed confused, not knowing whether to laugh or not. I imagine the older folks came in here, took one look at me and said, 'What the heck is that guy doing?'"

It's question not easily answered. On stage, Langston is a hysterically funny bagged bundle of raw adrenalin, frantically moving from one side of the stage to another, arms zigzagging in all directions like erratic thunderbolts. On top of his head is a simple brown bag, two holes for eyes, one for a mouth. The patter is a never-ending, nonstop swirl of deliberately bad one-liners:

"Good evening ladies and gentleman, this is my bag, you can take it or leave it...I just flew in from Los Angeles and got air sick. Trouble was, nobody noticed...Can you guess where I buy my clothes? Sacks Fifth Avenue...I used to wear a vacuum cleaner bag, but that sucked...And now for a song. 'He ain't heavy, he's my baggie...'"

He runs around the stage, bangs his head with the microphone, pours beer down his shirt, eats a napkin, and generally goes crazy, punctuating each line with a shrill quick laugh, reminiscent of ventriloquist Paul Winchell's dummy Knucklehead.

About halfway through the act, Langston removes the bag to perform as himself. His first words are meant as a joke, but more than the comedian's face is revealed. "I can't believe," he tells the audience, "that you bought all that bag crap."

Much of the nation has. After his first appearance on The Gong show about three years ago, Langston, unemployed and broke, started a mini-national phenomenon with his bagged buffoonery. Imitators galore popped up: an Unknown Disc Jockey, an Unknown Used Car Salesman, a University of Georgia student who ran for class president (and won) as the Unknown Candidate.

In the dressing room, a musician asks Langston to autograph a poster for a friend. The poster is the Unknown Comic's ultimate bag joke. Striking a reclining pose in the nude, Langston wears two bags; one as usual covers his head, the other is positioned a bit more strategically. What makes the picture ludicrous is the bag's size: it looks like is could hold a salami.

"There you go," says Langston. "I hope she likes it."

A few days later, Langston sits in the hotel restaurant eating breakfast, two pieces of whole wheat toast, and downing large swallows of coffee, truly an unknown comic. When he tries to charge the meal to his room, the waitress asks him to prove he is a hotel guest. Two tables down, some other people recognize him and wave.

Langston, 34, came to the United States 15 years ago from Canada and joined the service. The only thing close to stage experience was a radio show he had while in the Navy, "Musical Murray's Murray-Go-Round of Music." After a four-year hitch in the Navy aboard an aircraft carrier that stayed in Europe, Langston moved to Los Angeles where he eventually landed a job as a computer operator. After four years of punching cards, he was ready to expand his horizons.

"I called up Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, asked to speak to the producer and said I wanted to be on the show. He asked me what I did, so I told him I could do an impression of a fork. He said come on down."

As beautiful downtown Burbank's greatest impressionist, he appeared four times on Laugh-in during its last season in 1973, doing such classics as his fork, a grandfather clock and toothpaste. He was promptly fired from his computer job. "From then on," he remembers, "I was a typical Hollywood story. I didn't work for a year and a half."

Slowly, though, Langston managed to find work as a comic actor, appearing regularly in skits at Redd Foxx's Club and as a regular on The Sonny and Cher Show. When the show was retired, Langston, who had been pocketing about $1,500 a week, decided to call it quits too. He dropped out of performing for about a year and a half to open and manage his own Los Angeles nightclub, Showbiz.

"It was interesting for a while, and something I always wanted to do. Then when I realized I had to change the toilet paper and buy all the booze, I grew tired of it in a hurry." In 1977, nearly broke, he ditched the club. Enter the Unknown Comic.

"I was in the actor's union and I knew if I could get on The Gong Show I could earn the $250 fee they are required to pay. My inspiration was simply money and embarrassment. I needed the cash, but was too embarrassed to appear as a contestant, so I figured the simplest and cheapest disguise would be a paper bag."

Langston was what is called a "Curtain Closer," a person who did something utterly ridiculous or insulted host Chuck Barris right before the curtains were closed on him. When Barris asked him to be a semi-regular on the show that features irregulars, no one was more surprised than Langston. "I never expected to be on more than once."

He started taking the Unknown Comic act to different clubs around Los Angeles, which led to other jobs such as a character on The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, aimed at the Saturday morning kiddies, and a syndicated variety/talk show called Everyday. Though he hasn't yet taken the bag off during his television appearances, he finds that in lengthier live performances he must. "The bag thing is really just one joke stretched out. After about 15 minutes it starts to get old," he says. "Plus I also start to suffocate."

He rises from the coffee shop table and starts to walk. "I'll tell you one thing that's really strange. I can go into a restaurant or sit down somewhere and over-hear people talking about the Unknown Comic. Once, I asked two girls what they thought of him and they said he was awful. Naturally I agreed. Another time people were talking about him and I introduced myself and said I was the Unknown Comic. They said, 'Sure buddy'. They didn't believe me."

Langston reacts to those situations the way you would expect: he laughs them off. Comedy is his bag and the bag is his comedy and as his alter ego might put it, sack-cess is just around the corner. "Let's face it," he says, "right now people are coming to see the Unknown Comic and not Murray Langston, but that should change soon." Then, having given his prediction, Murray Langston walks up a flight of stairs, across the long hotel lobby and seems to disappear in the crowd.&

Bill Braunstein is a Gainesville, Florida freelance writer who seeks fame and fortune through any legal means; be aspires to be a talk show guest.

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