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He's Got a Million of 'Em

When Stanley Crane is onstage you can hear a pun drop.

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By Neal Pollack

All the stand-up comedians around town know Stanley Crane, which is only fitting, since Crane counts himself in their company. For the last several years, the 82-year-old retired postal worker has perfomed every Tuesday for five or ten minutes at the No Exit Cafe's comedy open mike. Tonight's audience is comprised of other stand-ups, a few teenagers, and a handful of oblivious, bearded middle-aged men huddled above their Go boards in a dark corner. Crane sits alone at a table, hovering over a cup of coffee. He tries to listen to the other routines, but it's difficult because his hearing's not so good. Then Crane takes the stage.

"People travel throughout the world," he says into the microphone, his voice high-pitched and gravelly. "You know who the furthest travelers in the world are?"

Who?

"The Romans. Hello! Think about it! One day I was at the elevated line, and there was a sign there: 'If you want to be on time, ride the elevated line.' Well, believe me, if I wanted to be on time, I know what I'd have to do!"

What?

"I'd get myself a clock. I would sit on my clock. And now I would be on time. Right?"

Groan.

"If you can top that, it will keep you spinning."

The crowd laughs.

"So anyhow, I was walking down the street and I saw a sign out there that said 'Open for lunch.' Believe me, I know what's open for lunch."

Pause.

"My mouth!"

Crane pulls a worn paperback from his jacket pocket. It's The Bell, the Clapper, and the Clock: Wit and Witticisms. He starts reading.

"So anyhow, churches and all that. You know what they find up there in the chapel? Birds of Pray! Right? When does a timid girl turn into a stone? When she becomes a little bolder. Right?"

Right!

"How do you fix a pumpkin?"

How?

"With a pumpkin patch! Why do melons have a church wedding? The answer's obvious. They can't elope. What do you get when you cross a cantaloupe with Lassie? A melancholy baby! Right? What did the grape say when the elephant stepped on it? It just let out a little wine."

With that, the emcee climbs onstage and takes over. The other comics start to mock Crane. One asks him if he knew the Marx Brothers. Another calls him "Mr. Comedy, 1936." He doesn't respond.

"Hey, Stanley," one stand-up says, "I made this up for you: Who are the fastest people in the world? The Russians!"

"I gotta take some writing lessons from you, Stanley," says another, who could use them. He holds the microphone loosely and leans over toward Crane's table. "How old is that book? Where'd you get that book?"

"What book?"

"The joke book."

"Joke book? I had it a few months."

"Oh, OK. All right!"

The comic returns to his routine.

"You know why I'm so good with the jokes?" Crane suddenly shouts.

The comic leans toward Crane and sneers. "Why's that, Stan?"

"This morning I had eggs. And eggs are full of yolks. Therefore, I'm very good with the jokes!"

Crane owns a condo on the top floor of a squat brick building behind a Dominick's at Pratt and Damen. He lives alone; Vivian, his wife of many years, is in a nursing home. His only daughter is grown and lives in Manhattan. He cooks his own meals, plays bridge at the retirement home next door, and listens to classical music on the radio. He never smokes or drinks. He sleeps four or five hours a night. "I feel fine," he says. "I don't philosophize. Just leave things go along." Crane holds season tickets to the CSO, the Lyric Opera, and Victory Gardens Theater. He also regularly attends dance and music performances at Northwestern and DePaul. In the summers he goes to a lot of Cubs games. He gets around on foot, by el, or by bus; he's never owned a car and never bothered to learn how to drive.

Crane's equally nonchalant about his stand-up act. He says he didn't start doing it for any particular reason: sometimes, he explains, he'd be around people, he'd tell a joke, and they'd laugh. An open-mike night seemed like the next logical step. "I like to do it, that's why I do it," he says. "I think I got a certain natural ability for that comedy stuff. I don't know why. I don't think much about it."

No Exit started its comedy open-mike in 1993. Brian Kozin, who runs the cafe with his wife, Sue, says Crane started showing up within the first few weeks. "He hasn't changed his bit at all," Kozin says. "It's exactly the same. He just does what he does. He memorizes jokes out of joke books. And sometimes his memory isn't so good, so he'll stand there and read them. It's kind of become a cult thing with the other comics. Sure they make fun of him, but comedy is cruel. It really is. When Tiny Tim played a gig, were people laughing with him and getting his joke or laughing at him because he was a ludicrous spectacle? Where's the line? Some people are laughing with Stanley because they know he's having a good time. Some people are laughing at him because they can't believe he's real.

"He's just an average guy who thinks he's funny. That's what sets him apart from the average guy: he thinks he's funny. And sometimes he is. His timing is shitty, but it's like the million monkeys with the million typewriters. Every once in a while his timing is right there. You get a good one out of him."

After the Tuesday night show ends, usually around 11 PM, Crane finishes his coffee and walks the mile and a half home. He keeps up a steady pace as he shuffles along Glenwood Avenue, limping on his right leg and breathing heavily. "I do a lot of walking in my life," he says. "I thought of a joke just now. There was a woman, she was a funny seamstress. She always kept her customers in stitches. Right? That'll hold 'em for a while. Did they love me? It was unbelievable! Did I get the compliments when I got through! I like that. I like to get on the stage and do my act. It's what I like to do. It's the best thing about the comedy shows. Getting on the stage and doing my act. Some of the guys, they get on the stage there and they don't have anything funny to say. They got a talk that will last them for ten minutes and that's it. But they get away with it. Me, I don't think anybody is that funny. I don't look up to anybody. I see that all comedians are about the same ability. I don't see any of them better than the rest."

We turn onto Pratt. Large groups of teenagers are hanging out. On one block the police are making an arrest. Crane keeps walking, looking straight ahead.

"They're not friendly to me at all, the people. They like my stuff, but they're not really friendly to me. They don't talk to me much. They form their own group, and I'm usually down there by myself. You're the first guy who's ever talked to me during the whole session."

Crane crosses Clark. He ignores an oncoming car.

"I just go by myself," he says. "And I don't go to any parties. Lotta times at the theater, I'll start talking to people. They're not even interested in talking to me. They're around me. They've got their friends. They've got their cliques, and afterwards they get together with their friends and I'm left alone. It bothers me a little. My wife's in a nursing home, and I live by myself. I don't see her at all. We never had anything in common. How about you? You'll meet some young girl, and the two of you will get married. Take a girl out for a short time, and then you propose to her and you get married. That's it."

Crane's apartment has two bedrooms, but he hardly uses them. He spends most of his time in his living room, sitting on a dilapidated old couch. The room is lit by a shadeless lamp, and scraps of newspaper and crossword puzzles are spread out across the floor. In one corner sits a stack of old Esquire magazines. There are pictures of Crane and his grandchildren on the wall. A shelf holds Vivian's bowling trophies, and a "Mother of the Year" plaque, dated 1975, hangs over the couch.

Crane leans back into the sofa and looks around his place. "Home hasn't anything to do with my comedy," he says. "I'll see people on the street and all of a sudden I'll think of a joke. And I use it. Or like right now I'm talking to you, and you'll say something. All of a sudden I'll think of a joke, and I'll tell it to you, and I'll get a laugh out of you, and I'll remember it down at the comedy club. Sometimes I get it from other sources. But home has nothing to do with comedy. Like we're talking here--I don't think of any jokes. It's all right, though. Tonight I thought of a couple of more jokes that I didn't tell to the group there. OK, let's see now. Walkin' down the street I met a woman there. I said, 'You look pretty.' She said, 'Thank you, thank you.' Then I told her, 'I'd like to take you home, but my wife would object.' Heh, heh, heh. You like that one? OK! How 'bout this one? I was walking down the street and I met a friend of mine. He said he'd gone to the hospital to meet a friend who'd had a heart attack. I told him I once had a heart attack. 'When was that?' he said. When I met my wife. That's a heart attack! That's an original one. Sometimes a person comes up to me and says, 'How do you do?' I tell him, 'I do everybody I can.' That's it! Short jokes and to the point!

"I've never had any friends, but I'm doing all right," he says. "I don't know why. It's pretty hard to say. Just can't hit it off. I'm alone. The only place they like me is at the comedy clubs. It's pretty hard to explain. I'll be honest with you, I think I get more laughs than the other people. They tell me there that they love me. I've never heard them go up and tell the others that they like their stuff. Besides that, I never had much luck in life. Sometimes it bothers me. But I have to leave it alone. What else can I do?"

The digital clock by the couch says it's midnight. I get up to leave.

"You going?" he says. "That clock's an hour slow."

It's what?

"Hour slow. It's one o'clock in the morning. The clock went an hour slow one day, and I couldn't figure out how to fix it."

I press a couple of buttons and set the right time.

"That's that," he says.

Stanley, how did you keep track of the time?

"It's easy," he says. "Everything was an hour slow."

On the first Tuesday of each month, Crane attends a meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, chapter 198, on Clark Street in Rogers Park. He spent two years in the Pacific during World War II--Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii. He fought in the battle of Guadalcanal. After the war he came home to Chicago and almost immediately took a job as a mail handler at the downtown post office. Once in a while he would be assigned to handle mail at the Jefferson Park station. He retired 35 years later.

For more years than he can recall, he's been the chaplain of this particular VFW chapter. From time to time other members have run against him, but he's easily repulsed all challenges. Every month he says three prayers: one to open the meeting, one to close it, and one for the children at the VFW orphanage. If a member of the chapter has passed away recently, he will say a fourth.

Meetings are scheduled to begin at 7:30 PM. About a dozen men have turned out. They say they don't mind having a Jewish chaplain since the VFW is nondenominational. "You never know what you'll get with Stanley anyway," one of them says. Veterans of several different wars, the men are of various ethnic backgrounds and in various states of health. They hang out at the bar, around a pool table, or in the basement, where there's a kitchen and several long tables. It's 7:29 PM. Crane has not yet arrived, and the meeting won't begin until he does.

"Mark my words," says one veteran at the bar, "in one minute, when that clock turns 7:30, Stanley will walk in that door. You can set the clock by Stanley."

The clock turns 7:30, and Crane walks in the door wearing his VFW cap.

The meeting lasts an hour, during which the chapter plans its annual raffle and picnic. Crane says his usual prayers, then cold cuts are served. Crane eats a baloney sandwich and drinks a Coke.

"You know, Manny was complaining to me about the Bible," he says. "That it was holy. I didn't see any holes in it. How could it be holy?"

No one laughs. "That's why I never tell jokes to the fellas," Crane says. "There's no response from them."

But Charles Randle says they do pay attention. "I treat him like family," Randle says. "It's like if your brother tells you jokes, you listen, and if you don't think it was funny you don't have to laugh. Sometimes he'll forget the punch line, and remember it an hour later. If you're in a good mood, you'll listen. If you're not, you don't. I feel like he tells me jokes just to make me feel special. He sits there so nonchalant, and he'll hit you with a line out of the blue. You're not even there, and he hits you. But I guess that's the trademark of a professional."

After the meeting Crane walks several blocks to the No Exit and signs up on the list for the open mike. He prefers to do his act early in the evening, but tonight he's late and will be going seventh.

The comic who precedes Crane lives in Los Angeles. In addition to his stand-up, he says, he stars in pornographic movies. His act includes pulling a sausage from his pants, many jokes about anal sex, a three-foot inflatable penis, numerous bad-taste shots at an imaginary female porn star named Susie Squirts, and the advice that "cold Snapple on your balls works wonders on the set."

Then it's Crane's turn.

"So previously John was talking about sex," he begins. "Well, you know, that's because sex is sex-tra good! Right? Well, anyhow, I was walking down the street there and I met a friend of mine. He said, 'Are you going to take the bus home?' I said, 'I'd like to take the bus home, but I can't fit it in my house.' Right? Right! What's good? What's not bad. Right? Anyhow, can you use the words defeat, defense, and detail in a sentence? Defeat went over defense before detail. Right? Anyhow, well, anyhow, why did Adam and Eve have the best time in the world? Because they were Abel to raise Cain. Right? OK. You know, I met my wife on a skating rink. That's where I fell for her. Right? I met my wife on a merry-go-round, and we've been going around ever since. Two women were standing on the corner there. One of them says, 'Here comes the mailman.' The other says, 'What did you expect? A female man?' Right? So now, oh yeah, you know when they say prayers, they always say 'Amen.' How come they never say 'A woman'? It's a strange mystery to me. They always have hymns, they never have hers. How come? So now, you know, there was a baseball player, and they said he stole second. He didn't steal second. If he'd have stole second, he would have gone down to second base and run out of the park with the base. Then he would have stolen the base. So then I was walking down the street one day, and I ran into some baseball players. One of them said he played first base. The other one said he played left field. They asked me what I played, so I told 'em: I played left out."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Lloyd DeGrane.

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