Born in Chicago, Morey Amsterdam was raised in California, where his musician father was in charge of the San Francisco Symphony. Originally intending to be a cello player, Amsterdam instead gravitated to entertaining with words. A well-above-average student, Amsterdam was enrolled at the University of California at the age of 14, but quit after one year to go on the road with a comedy act. At 16, he was master of ceremonies at Colosimo's, a Chicago speakeasy run by Al Capone. Amsterdam got along fine with big Al, but after getting caught in the middle of a gangland shoot out, the young comic sought out safer work in California. He wrote gags and special material for such prominent laughmakers as Jimmy Durante, Fannie Brice and Will Rogers, and in 1939 made his television debut in an experimental Hollywood broadcast. He spent the war years touring with the USO, taking time out to write radio and movie scripts and to pen the popular novelty song "Rum and Coca-Cola." After the war, he was headlined on several radio and TV programs, notably NBC's Broadway Open House, the 1950 precursor to The Tonight Show. By the mid-1950s, Amsterdam was renowned far and wide as "The Human Joke Machine," able to come up with a joke on literally any topic without even pausing for breath. In 1960, his livelihood was sorely threatened when he suffered a head injury while appearing in the film Murder Inc.; for three tension-filled weeks, he completely forgot every one of the thousands of jokes he'd filed away in his memory banks. Happily, he recovered, and by 1961 he was gainfully employed as Buddy Sorrell on the long-running TV sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. After Van Dyke's series folded in 1966, Amsterdam continued to play nightclub dates and make TV guest-star appearances (he briefly produced and hosted a 1970 TV revival of the old radio series Can You Top This?) As funny as ever in his eighth decade, Morey Amsterdam surprised his fans by playing a villainous role on the CBS daytime drama The Young and the Restless. Amersterdam died of a heart attack on October 27, 1996.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Entered college at age 14, but left within a year to pursue an entertainment career.
- Was an accomplished cellist.
- Began a vaudeville act at age 15 with his brother Teddy.
- Worked in a Chicago speakeasy owned by Al Capone, who would occasionally invite him to his home to play the cello and, in return, would make him spaghetti.
- Decided to head to Los Angeles after being caught in the middle of a speakeasy shootout in Chicago.
- Once appeared on 75 radio shows in a week.
- Composed several songs, including the Andrews Sisters' hit "Rum and Coca-Cola."
- Was known as the "Human Joke Machine" because he had jokes for all subjects.
- First met and befriended fellow Dick Van Dyke Show costar Rose Marie when she was 9 and billed as Baby Rose Marie; she appeared on a radio show that he wrote for.
- Wrote jokes for six U.S. presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Also penned jokes for other comedians, including Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Henny Youngman.
- Became friends with Ronald Reagan during the 1940s, when Amsterdam was a screenwriter and Reagan was Screen Actors Guild president.
- Taught a comedy class at UCLA.