Ya Want More Eric Kornfeld? Here Ya Go!

Brassy concerts always Bette on local humor:
Mike Lloyd
The Grand Rapids Press.
Mar 14, 2004.

“I have seen your rapids.”

“Both of them,” smirked Bette Midler.

Her “Kiss My Brass” tour stop in Grand Rapids got off to a brassy start when she suggested that the guy who called them “grand” must have more to brag about (you get the picture) than the DaVinci horse at Meijer Gardens.

The audience roared. The joke was, well, huge.

It was Eric Kornfeld’s. For Bette. With Bette. “You honestly have to say with Bette,” he explains. “Because she works on every joke with me. It’s her show. She picks. She chooses.”

The Grand Rapids arena marked Stop 44 on Bette Midler’ 30-city concert tour, which has grown to 50 since opening Dec. 10 in Chicago.

For each, the singer strategically starts with jokes tailored to that town. The writer and detective for this work is Eric. “I have it down to a science,” he said. “There is a template, obviously. Every town has an east side and a west side, neighborhoods with identities. There’s always some really bad intersection with a horrible traffic problem or a transportation department that’s, like, totally inept.”

He described a concert in Virginia. That state’s Department of Transportation is a frequent subject of general ridicule, so Midler’s monologue included: “Ah, Virginia, where life’s a little slower . . . thanks to V-DOT.”

“The joke just killed,” he said. “People went crazy.”

Sometimes the foil can be a sports team. Her tour stop in Philadelphia came right after the Eagles made the NFL playoffs. All the diva had to do was come on stage and shout, “E-A-G-L-E-S,” and she’d kicked off her show with a touchdown.

Eric is a professional comedy writer. He wrote — (it had to be briefly) — for her television show, “Bette,” and, before that, for Rosie O’Donnell and Comedy Central. He’s particularly strong at song parodies. He wrote the cleverest piece in the Midler show. A flippered ensemble costumed as mermaids did a parody of “All That Jazz” from “Chicago” — four fish singing “All that Shad.” Not bad for a guy whose first gig was playing Six Bits Slocum in the “Hoop de Do” review at Disney World.

Eric, 44, should have had an advantage in his research on Grand Rapids. He played Dr. Grins in the B.O.B. for four nights in 1998. “He was bright, a very cerebral kind of stand-up comic,” said John Yoder, owner of Funny Business, the agency that booked Eric. “You can tell which ones are performers and which ones are writers. He was a great writer, very clever, very quick.”

On the other hand, Eric is not quite sure which hotel (the Days Inn) he stayed in. And he does not remember anything of his time here other than playing pool at the B.O.B. and walking into some old theater downtown (Civic Theatre). Personal memories weren’t going to be a big help when he began his long-distance research on Grand Rapids via telephone from his apartment-office in Brooklyn. “Hey, dude, tell me some stuff that’s funny about your town,” Eric said when I picked up the phone. “You’re the editor. You must know something.”

He’d talked with the concierge at the Grand Plaza Hotel who was “no help,” a tourist bureau official with a “limited sense of humor,” Press Entertainment Editor John Gonzalez, “Does he laugh at everything?” and columnist John Douglas, “His wife is funnier.”

Almost every review of a “Kiss My Brass” show mentions the humor. In Friday’s Press, Sue Merrell’s was no exception. “Bette tells so many jokes it isn’t funny,” Eric said. “Pun intended. But the first jokes, the ones about the local folks, they have to be special. Her work ethic is amazing. You give her a bunch of stuff. ‘This is too much.’ Then it’s, ‘What else have you got?’ ”

“Bette likes fast jokes, one or two lines, and she likes rhymes. These are arena shows. The jokes have to land big. Boom, boom, boom.” Eric grabs something Douglas has passed along: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much. Ding. That’s a hit!”

He targets Amway: “I’m staying at the Amway Grand Plaza,” he writes for Bette. “I can’t check out until I get 10 more people to check in.”

He asks about the weather. “Cold? Is it snowing?” That leads to the joke: “I want to spend the summer in Grand Rapids. Which day in August is it?”

There’s a salute to her friends from Saugatuck and Douglas, asking, “Isn’t it ironic that the only town out there that isn’t gay is Ferrysburg?”

And, of course, the fish ladder: “All those salmon swimming to their death; anything to get out of town.”

But the biggest joke of the night was a neighborhood combo. First the star pointed to the seats front and center: “These people did whatever it takes to get down front. They lied. They cheated. They had sex with people they don’t even like. My kind of people. My own little East Grand Rapids.”

Then she looked way to the far reaches of the hall, the cheapest seats, and said, “I love you West Siders.”

Out on the arena concourse at intermission, people talked about how she knew all this inside stuff. A friend came up, noting how well Midler had nailed Grand Rapids, adding his own punch line: “She certainly didn’t get any of her material from the local paper.”

Ba-dump bump.

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