March 11, 1991 12:00 PM

Nobody quite knew why George Gobel was funny, least of all Gobel himself. He tried his darnedest to explain it to his audience when his show premiered on NBC back in 1954: “Now, it’s not the greatest show in the world—I mean it’s not hilarious. Jocular is what it—uh, humor…well, it might just keep you from getting sullen.”

That was Lonesome George, hanging around kind of sheepishly somewhere in the melancholy comic terrain between Charlie Chaplin and Charlie Brown. Maybe viewers didn’t quite get it either, but it didn’t stop them from going around parroting Gobelisms like “well-then-there-now” and his permanent self-assessment: “Well, I’ll be a dirty bird.”

Gobel died last week at 70, leaving his fans still smiling and still scratching their heads a little, the way he used to scratch his trademark bristle-cut. He would scratch, then gaze quizzically at his audience, as if to say. “What else can you expect from a guy who was named after his grandfather’s tugboat?”

Or so he claimed. He was born in Chicago in an apartment over his father’s grocery store, where he picked up a passel of the folksy stories he would later tell with such deft self-deprecation. At age 11, he was singing on a local radio show. In Oklahoma during World War II. he was a flight instructor who jollied his fellow troops with songs and jokes in the evenings. Eight years of nightclub and TV stints later, NBC took a chance and built The George Gobel Show around him. He quickly made a service announcement: “This program is being beamed to our armed forces at Helsing’s Vaudvil Restaurant. And let me say something to our fighting men there. Men, stop fighting.”

Gobel’s wife figured as the character “Spooky Ol’ Alice” in many of his routines. “I’ve only had one argument with her in all our years together.” he told his audience, “but for just two people, we’ve kept it going pretty good.” In actuality, a devoted Gobel stayed married to Alice for 49 years, and they raised a son and two daughters who made them grandparents three times over.

Gobel’s show disappeared after three years, but the comedian—all 5’5″ of him—kept bobbing up: in movies, in nightclubs and, most notably, as a slow-talking, quick-witted sniper on Hollywood Squares. As popular as he was. this was all he would claim about his impact on humankind: “When I go to a party, nobody says hello. But when I leave, everybody says goodbye.” Maybe so. But it’s a sure bet that George Gobel left those dirty birds a little less sullen.

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