The gentle charm and wit of Victor Borge
THEY say I'm one of a kind? If you've only got one, you can't have a kind. . . . ''What is the essence of true genius? Well, Einstein and I both have mustaches. . . .
''You've honestly no idea how I got into comedy? Well, that makes two of us. . . .''
The media minions are fumbling all over themselves trying to get straight answers from this elfin elder statesman of music and mirth. This preconcert news conference is, after all, kicking off the 75th year of a living legend - a weighty affair worthy of reverence and serious reflection.
But the birthday boy, in a pin-striped business-blue suit and polka-dot tie, the man who looks like Albert Einstein with a haircut and Jimmy Durante's nose, is not biting.
''This is all a lot of fun, but I've got to get back to work now,'' says Victor Borge, rising from his chair and making his way to an alcove where a statue has been removed from its pedestal. He mounts the pedestal and poses, with utmost seriousness in his eyes, as Napoleon, Michelangelo's David, Caesar. The cameras flash.
It is this impish sense of the absurd - a doting, undermined dignity topped with gentle charm and clean wit - that defines the Borge image. For 40 years he has performed around the globe in four languages. During that time he has been honored by the United States Congress and United Nations and been called ''the funniest man in the world'' by the New York Times.
Add to his humor a mastery of the piano refined over decades on stage, radio, TV, and in movies, and you have the Danish-born pianist/comedian/conductor's formula for four knighthoods and carte blanche invitations to any stage in the world.
This diamond-anniversary year he has accepted invitations to every region of the United States and will wind up with 12 performances at New York's Carnegie Hall in December. It is a year that will include many conducting dates with major US orchestras and opera companies, besides his standard ''Comedy in Music'' shtick developed 25 years ago on Broadway.
''I am (x h may I've conducted the major symphonies in the world. And they've asked me back again,'' he says the day after his press conference - between two concert dates in Boston. ''After rehearsals many times the musicians have applauded me,'' says the man who abandoned a career in classical piano because of stage fright. ''And I take great pride in that.''
Always wanting to be taken seriously as a musician as well as a comedian, Borge is also proud of his own concert-opera version of ''Carmen,'' which he will conduct at the Connecticut Opera in June.
He marked the actual beginning of his celebration year with a January command performance at Town Hall in Copenhagen, conducting Denmark's Royal Philharmonic. Borge's father played violin for 35 years with that orchestra. (He remarks, ''His mother hardly recognized him when he came home.'')
After greeting his interviewer in a penthouse hotel suite overlooking the Boston Common, Borge settles down for a glance back over his long career. It is a career remarkably free of trauma and full of satisfaction, he says. At present , a nearly 200-appearance yearly schedule centers on life with his wife and five children in Greenwich, Conn.
''My format has always been the same,'' he says of the combination of sight gags, verbal quips, and musical satire now instantly recognizable by generations of followers. He has been criticized for only minimally altering his material over 40 years, but responds: ''How many times does an orchestra play Beethoven's Ninth, Fifth, or Sixth? . . . But people go back to hear it year in and year out.''
He says he gets letters anytime a performance neglects his most famous sketches: signaling his page-turner by a pull of the tie, Liszt with four hands (extra pianist needed), and playing the theme of ''Happy Birthday'' throughout the works of Debussy, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. And, of course, his trademark is verbal punctuation, where he invents sounds for periods, commas, and exclamation points.
''I want my show to somehow to maintain a delicate balance between the interests of the musical and nonmusical members of the audience. There has to be enough musical content to please the sophisticated, and enough broad humor to satisfy those who have come just to laugh,'' he says.
And what is it that makes that humor so enduring?
''Unlike the Joan Riverses and Don Rickleses of this world, he doesn't poke holes in people or politicians or causes,'' says Corinne Sawyer, a professor of English at Clemson University, who teaches a class in popular culture. ''People immediately find his humor nonthreatening; they can sit back and relax.''
She says not making fun of particular people is one reason for Borge's ''endearing endurance.'' Nor does he mock current events. ''He plays on common human impulses, which never change,'' Professor Sawyer says. ''If making fun of people is your stock in trade, your star can fade when they do,'' she says.
''Borge has that finely tuned wit that can make fun of American customs without making fun of Americans.'' (''It's your language,'' Borge is fond of quipping after dropping puns; ''I'm just trying to use it.'')
''I satirize the things people do,'' says Borge, ''the way music is performed. There is a lot of fun to be extracted from the attempt to do a serious concert.''
''His humor is very rare, very civilized,'' says Prof. Edwin Jahiel, director of Illinois University's Cinema Studies Unit, who wrote a PhD on comedy. ''It's not the overgregarious . . . pushy humor that is ubiquitous in America today. It's low key, and it's not sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious. He's a cultivated, cultural comedian - like the Monty Python group. No matter how off the wall, the patter is from literature, music, the arts. His accent helps.''
What things have altered America's comic sense of itself? The greatest influence, Borge says, has been TV. ''How many television shows in its history have been truly funny?'' he asks. ''The shallow writing on most sitcoms, week in and week out, shows how difficult the task of humor is. . . .''
Borge says the values that shape his comedy derive from the community where he grew up in Denmark. ''My parents were both very cultured, and there were certain things that you just didn't do.'' Two of those, says Borge, are referring to things that are unpleasant, or mocking physical infirmities.''I used to have a joke about a man with a wooden leg - 'My father got mad and burned him to the ground,' '' Borge says. But then one night I saw a man in the audience with one, and I saw how insensitive the whole thing was.''
Borge says he has, all in all, about 10 full hours of vintage Borge shtick, which he puts together spontaneously each performance. ''I play the audience,'' he says. ''They're the show, I just guide them.'' And he says if he lived to be 200 years old, he'd keep the format the same. ''I'm like apple pie,'' he says. ''Generations come and go, they like it, understand it. It doesn't have to change with the times.''
Asked for the most exciting direction in his life, Borge expresses delight in his newfound love of conducting. ''It's an extension of your 10 fingers - into violins, flutes, brass. I love it. And one thing that's marvelous when you conduct - you can't hit a wrong note.''