It is a screwy sort of talent contest. One contestant comes out juggling two balls and a barstool. Another sings a nonsensical song and generates moans from the audience. The last is a woman dressed in a skirt and fur-lined sleeveless vest. She faces the host, smiles nervously and snaps open the vest, revealing a pair of more-than-well-developed breasts. The host announces with mounting excitement, “We’ve found our winner!”
Thus begins another episode of Bizarre, cable television’s popular and longest-running comedy program, which, in addition to bare-breasted women, offers a mix of sophomoric sketches, lascivious language and unpardonable puns, all presented within the confines of a modest budget that would make even Roger Corman blanch. At the center of this Bizarre madness is the show’s host, John Byner, a former club comic en route to becoming this decade’s Ernie Kovacs. Among Byner’s crazed characters are Mr. P, the world’s greatest and oldest bodyguard; Mr. Godwrench, faith healer to the cars; and the proprietor of a video store that sells “rare tapes of McLean Stevenson getting a laugh.”
Byner, 46, is quick to defend his show, now in its fourth year on Showtime. “There are a lot of grosser programs,” he points out. “On Saturday Night Live I saw some people eat vomit. We wouldn’t do that. We’d snort vomit.”
Despite his hipster attitude, the program required an adjustment for Byner. “Before I got into this show,” he says, “I never offended anybody. I never did put-down humor. To do Bizarre, I had to lose a lot of my sensitivities.” He eventually concluded that “it was easier to open up, have a good time and let people see just how ridiculous ethnic jokes are.” Such as this characteristic not-for-prime-time tidbit: “What do Italian garbagemen do with their trucks when they’re through with them?” Pause. “They sell them to the Poles as campers.” Insists Byner of such gags: “They’re nothing to start a war over.”
The show, produced in Canada and highly rated on commercial TV in that country, also lets Byner exhibit his well-honed skills as an impersonator. So far the iconoclastic comic has reeled off spoofs of Gandhi, the Godfather, Stevie Wonder, a Neanderthal football player and Donald Duck. Reports co-producer Bob Einstein: “In four years there’s nothing we’ve given him that he couldn’t do. He’s an undiscovered gem.”
The chances of discovery were indeed bleak for Byner during his early years. The fifth of six children of Michael and Christina Biener, John does not have warm memories of his upbringing in Rockville Centre on Long Island, N.Y. His mother, a mental hospital attendant, proved to be the family’s consistent provider, as his truck mechanic father was more often out of work than in. “My father,” John says, “dreamed his life away.” Byner admits to having been “a collar-up, peg-pants, pain-in-the-pants punk. We didn’t have as much money as a lot of the kids in my neighborhood, so it was a lot easier to hang around with kids on the other side of the tracks.”
After joining the Navy, John headed for Guam, where there were “lots of beaches and no women.” Out of boredom, he became an entertainer in enlisted-men’s clubs, trying out his impersonations. Two years later he was back on Long Island working as a gas station attendant and doing his best imitation of a struggling comic and newlywed. However, his marriage to Eleanor Belcher was frowned upon by his wife’s family. “They said I was a dreamer,” says John. “They wanted to know why I didn’t join the Republican Club.”
Byner’s break came in 1963, when he won a spot on a talent-scout segment of The Garry Moore Show. That, in turn, led to The Ed Sullivan Show, his own short-lived series on CBS and thousands of one-night club stands. But his marriage couldn’t withstand the pressures of a performer’s life. “There was jealousy,” says John. “Eleanor was a bit uncomfortable with the kinds of people we were meeting.” The couple, who were divorced in 1965, have three daughters and a son: Sandra, 23, Rosine, 22, Don, 20, and Patricia, 18.
The kids spend summers with John, and he is still atoning for his absences in the past. Notes Rosine: “He says he watched his kids grow up in his rear-view mirror.” Byner made an impulsive second stab at matrimony last year, which proved disastrous. Thirty-six hours after the marriage ceremony, he asked her for a divorce. “I’ve had lots of relationships but very little communication,” he says.
Bizarre has given Byner the luxuries of leisure and money. He shoots 24 episodes of the show during a 10-week stretch in Toronto each summer. And he owns a piece of the show, which will be syndicated in a sanitized version next year. Bizarre also allows Byner time to visit his latest love, the Fiji island of Tovu, which he and partner Jay Handelman bought in 1981 for $300,000.
On that 150-acre island, the natives refer to him as “Mr. John.” Laughs Byner: “They have no idea who the hell I am. There I can walk into any store without having someone say, ‘Why don’t you do some routine for my son, you creep?’ They do like it when I wiggle my ears.”
Although his current island accommodations consist of a three-room cement-block structure, Byner intends to build a large, modern home. He has already brought his own electric generator to Tovu, plus a 30-foot fiberglass cabin cruiser and a 17-foot, 800-pound submarine. “The island has become a terrific thing in my life,” he says. “Who knows, maybe I’ll even decide to be buried there.” For a New York-bred comic, that would indeed be a bizarre ending.