I have the vaguest memories of seeing The Unknown Comic on TV as a child; subconscious recollections of a comedian in a leisure suit, with an upside-down brown paper bag over his head, pacing back and forth across an orange and beige 1970’s prime time TV variety show stage… twitching out jokes with exaggerated body language while canned audience laughter came out in waves all around him. He was like The Comedian of Sleepy Hollow. How could a kid forget something like that? It was scary and surreal for a child, not funny. The jittery paper head, the way he was always using his hands and legs too much (which he was forced to do since he couldn’t use facial expressions), those creepy mouth and eye holes where you caught vague glimpses of eyelids and lashes (like a terrorist mask)… him holding a microphone up to where there wasn’t a mouth but sound seemed to come out. He jumped around the stage like Magilla Gorilla – but with a Ku Klux Klan hood. Or maybe he was like the Elephant Man on laughing gas. Trust me, at that age most adult stand-up comedy goes straight over your head. But dress like a cackling Batman villain – these are the kinds of things that grab a child’s attention. I’m pretty sure I caught other subconscious-penetrating glimpses of him on The Gong Show (or was it on The $1.98 Beauty Show?) At the time, I probably thought it was just another comedian with a grocery bag on his head. I guess as a tyke, I thought the whole thing was a trend in stand-up. Maybe everybody did it. Like smashing watermelons with sledgehammers or singing along to a Mighty Mouse record.
I also remember seeing a “centerfold” of him in the poster rack in the beaded curtain-separated back black light room at Spencer’s Gifts, circa 1979 (remember that place? …now I’m really showing my age). In the poster he was nude save for the bag over his head, and one over his genitalia. No doubts as to why that image stuck in my head. But was it all the same guy? Was The Unknown Comic a real comedian in the 1970’s or was he just the giggling, headless brunt of a childhood dream?
His real name is Murray Langston, and he’s famous to the point where today almost anyone in their thirties and older instantly remembers him. The story of how he stumbled upon his act is a typical show-biz success template. Before the bag, Langston had success as a regular stand-up comic for many years, appearing as a beloved regular on Laugh In, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Bobby Vinton Show and other big-time slots of the era. At one point in his career he invested in a comedy nightclub, which tanked and took all his savings with it. Soon after, he was offered an appearance on The Gong Show as Murray Langston. Needing the money, but embarrassed to be seen on “that” show, he decided to appear with a bag over his head and work the “anonymous comedian” shtick into the routine. It became a surprise smash of sorts. People instantly loved (and instantly remembered and talked about) it, quickly turning him into a household name as The Unknown Comic. He made over 100 appearances on The Gong Show during the height of it’s notorious popularity. He became parodied, and his name turned up in other comedian’s jokes and in TV news comentators’ between-segment banter. During the kooky t-shirt slogan craze of the 70’s; “I’m The Unknown Comic” became a popular seller. This second career became phenomenally more successful than he had been as Langston – vaulting him into the larger arena of Hollywood, even if only for several years.
The Unknown Comic became popular perhaps because people looked at him and said “I could do that!” Imagine being able to sidestep your opening night jitters and embrace your footlight dreams, only because you’ve finally figured out a way to avoid altogether the quivering-lip/jittering-eye combo that are the NERVOUS WRECKAGE signs of performing solo in front of an expectant audience. I’ll bet Debbie Reynolds’ character in Singin’ In the Rain was secretly happier before she could no longer hide behind the curtain as Lina Lamont’s fake voice. Being on stage without being on stage is it’s own blissful, fantastic comfort zone. The Unknown Comic was the man behind the curtain in his own gimmick-y head.
Here is a brief YouTube clip of him on The Gong Show (I can’t believe there aren’t more). Here’s the short version of his whole story at his Wikipedia entry. Here’s a recent interview with him at RetroCrush. Here’s a photo of him during an apperance on Sha-Na-Na. Here’s Murray Langston’s imdb.com entry.
At some momentous point, perhaps on one of the last Gong Show appearances, the grocery bag came off (KISS would wait another ten years to take off their make-up for cameras). Later in his career, he produced a big Las Vegas comedy show, as well as The Unknown Comedy Hour for the Playboy Channel, and writing screenplays for people like Linda Blair, Yakof Smirnoff and Ruth Buzzi (Night Patrol, Up Your Alley). After dropping out of show biz for a while to raise his daughter, he recently resurfaced in the films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Levity, and is working on other projects, as well as a book.