By Joe Hobby
When my cell phone rang, the name on the screen flashed Paul Finebaum. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence because I had been writing jokes for Paul to use at his many speaking engagements. We also occasionally ate lunch together.
No death threats please – I like Paul. While I don’t always care for his schtick, I know he’s not like his radio persona. For example, once during a conversation, I told him how much I liked Pat Conroy, the great southern author. A few weeks later, Paul called me and said, “I’ve got Conroy on the show tomorrow. Why don’t you come up and meet him? You can talk to him during the commercial breaks.” An act of kindness I’ve never forgotten.
I digress. Unusual call or not, my curiosity was piqued. I picked up my cell, and after some chit-chat, Finebaum told me why he phoned.
“You know about that charity roast of me coming up in a couple of weeks?” Of course I knew. The airwaves had been hawking it for over a month. “Well, I just got just got a call from Joe Namath’s lawyer. Joe’s one of the roasters, and needs some material. I told him I would handle it. It’s short notice, but can you do it?”
Can I write for Joe Namath? Is the Pope Catholic? Is Finebaum bald?
“Of course!”, I answered. I didn’t ask what it paid. I didn’t ask how many jokes. I just said yes. There was no way I was turning down an opportunity to write for one of my heroes.
Time was indeed short, so I called my writing partner John, a friend who collaborated with me on jokes for Leno. We got to work immediately, frantically throwing out ideas to each other. Both of us knew that this writing project came with some pressure. Tonight Show monologues involved a number of writers. These jokes belonged entirely to us. If Namath bombed, it was our fault.
Within a few days, we sat down with Paul to review what we had. Overall, he seemed satisfied with our work, with the exception of the opening joke. Charles Barkley had recently been arrested for a DUI while looking for a lady of the night. Namath was going to say, ‘I’m just glad I never got drunk and did anything stupid in front of millions of people.”, a self-deprecating reference to his famous drunk interview with a female reporter. We wondered if Joe would be insulted by that joke. Finally, Paul said, “Let’s just type all of them up, and let Namath decide. It’s not like he hasn’t done this before.” Then he paused and said, “You guys are coming, right?”
“I didn’t know we were invited.”
“Of course. I know you’ll want to see how the material goes over.”
John and I exchanged smiles. We didn’t expect to attend the roast, but eagerly accepted the invitation. Another kind gesture from Paul.
What an event it was. People from all walks of life were there. There were celebrities, heavy hitters from the world of athletics, and enough politicians to fill a small prison. John and I hung with Paul, who was gracious enough to introduce us around. When I met Tim Brando, Paul said, “Tim, I’ve seen your schtick at roasts before, you need this guy. He writes for Leno.”
Finally, the big dogs began to arrive. We met Bo Jackson, who worked the room before gravitating towards Pat Dye and some Auburn folks.
I’ve always heard that there are some people who have “it”. I’ve never known what “it” is – until Joe Willie Namath walked in that cocktail party. I still can’t tell you what “it” is, but I know I’ve seen “it”. Bo Jackson was a superstar that got everyone’s attention, but when Joe Namath arrived, things changed. The room seemed lighter. The buzz of the crowd was different. I’ll swear I thought I saw an aura around him.
Paul introduced us. Normally, meeting celebrities has no effect on me, but I got weak kneed shaking his hand. This was Broadway Joe!
The conversation between us flowed freely because we had something in common – Alabama. Joe and I talked about some of our old haunts in Tuscaloosa – he even remembered one of my fraternity brothers who managed his restaurant. We talked how much the campus has changed. We talked about our kids. After an autograph, Joe was on to charm the next starry-eyed person. I needed to smoke a cigarette.
Finally, the roast began. John and I sat near the front, nervously shifting in our seats as we waited for Namath to take the podium. This was a different feeling for me. I’ve watched Leno on television, but now we were up close and personal. I felt a bead of sweat trickle down my forehead.
Namath stepped up to the microphone. John and I exchanged nervous glances. . To our surprise, Joe began with the Barkley joke! I felt a knot in my stomach. Namath gave a smooth set-up, paused, and deadpanned the punchline, saying, “What kind of person gets drunk and humiliates himself in front of millions of people?” The place exploded in laughter. Good ol’ self-deprecating humor. We laughed too – mostly in relief. I clicked my glass to John’s and said, “Let’s enjoy the next 15 minutes, buddy!” And we did. Joe was the highlight of the event.
After the roast ended, Paul walked up, smiled, and said, “It went well. You guys happy?” We smiled and nodded. Then he turned to Brando and said again, “Tim you really need these guys.” It was a great evening that led us to collaborate with Paul on similar projects.
Of course, I’m still waiting on that call from Tim Brando. You have my number, Tim. It’s not too late.