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Berle, 91, fires off lessons in comedy

A stroke and a fall have slowed Milton Berle's body but can't put the brakes on his wit.

At 91, Milton Berle can still finish off a joke _ even if the punch line still isn't his.

"The best joke I heard recently is about Mother Teresa. You heard it? So clever. She's dying. They're all around her, crying, consoling, giving her compliments: "There'll never be anyone like you ever. You've done so much for humanity. You've helped the poor, you've helped the sick, you've done so many great things, Mother Teresa. We want to do something for you, Mother Teresa. What is your wish? Any wish that you want, we'll give. What is your greatest wish?

"She says, "Well, my greatest wish is . . . I'd like to direct.' "

It is 3:30 in the afternoon, and Berle is having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the den of the spacious Westside condominium he shares with his second wife, Lorna. Berle is dressed in a robe tied at the waist, pants, no shirt, reclining on a sofa. He is aged but not addled _ in fact, he's a little ornery, greeting his visitor with: "So what ya wanna know?"

The question is daunting. Where do you begin, with the man who was television's first superstar and whose life literally spans a century in comedy, from vaudeville and silent movies to Adam Sandler and gross-out laughs?

Berle's ubiquitous, unlit cigar is never far away as he talks about Jack Benny ("Jack Benny was not afraid of silence. That's very important"), vaudeville ("They weren't ready for me, because I was too flippant, too fast") and the way comedians still mismanage audiences ("Whatever happened to "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen?' ").

Since suffering a stroke in December, Berle hasn't performed in public _ a kind of purgatory for comedians, who as a species tend not so much to retire as do their routines to smaller and smaller audiences. Berle's stroke has left him iffy on his feet, with failing eyesight _ in the kind of condition that suggests he will never perform again, though Berle would like to get back onstage.

"I've been taking it easy since last Christmas. I'm resting up. There's nothing wrong with my mind at all, but it seems that just before I had the stroke, I was doing my concert for my 90th birthday, and I slipped on the stage and fell, fell on my back. Of all things, that fall made me wobbly, off balance, off focus."

Off balance on his feet, perhaps, but not comedically.

"Whatever you want, I'll give you a joke on it," he said. "But to give it to you on the spur of the moment, that's the trick. That means the noggin's working."

Last month, on a Saturday night in his honor at the Friar's Club in Beverly Hills, Larry King, Jan Murray, Irving Brecher, Hal Kanter, Steve Allen and others paid tribute to Berle, who turned 91 on July 12. It was a night from another era _ Ed Ames onstage singing while actual cigarette smoke drifted forward from the bar in the back of the room.

Throughout, there were roast-like references to Berle's stinginess, to his womanizing habits, to his egomania, but the jabs were flicked, not delivered.

"You have not an enemy in the world," said Brecher, one of his former writers. "They all died."

Finally, after two hours of this, Berle stood up.

"I'll be brief," he told the crowd. "And if you believe that you believe there'll be a Richard Simmons Jr."

Berle, the club's abbot emeritus, is a fixture at the Friars, where he has lunch and holds court with fellow members. ("We tell jokes, but Milton's heard them all," singer Tony Martin says. "Every time we tell a story Milton'll say, "No no, that's not the way it goes' ").

At home, Berle is more than happy to give lessons in comedy history. "Who was the greatest non sequitur comic?" he quizzes, and when you don't answer right away he gets impatient. "Get with it now, be hip. Youngman," as in the late Henny Youngman.

Next question: "What are the three standard, opening lines of every stand-up comic? Ninety percent of the stand-up comics. I want to know the three opening lines."

"How are you feeling tonight?" you try.

"Wrong," he barks. " . . . The opening lines are this, look it up and see if I'm wrong. "How ya doin' out there?' "What's your name?' "This your boyfriend?' "What town you from?' That's the first four. Standard. Why? Ask me why."

"Why?"

"They have no material. They have no opening, no middle, no end. . . . You cannot do, you should not do, non sequiturs. Because it just looks like you have no faith or honesty in your monologue. . . . Today the stand-ups, they talk so fast. . .. There's a reason for that, you can't blame them all, because they get just a certain element of time. They get 10 minutes. Eight minutes. I don't know how good they can be in eight minutes _ where's the opening, where's the middle, where's the end?"

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