South Philly's Wid is a legend
Called the best prop comic ever, he chose to fly under the radar instead of claw for the top.
IT WAS A couple of decades ago, maybe more, at the Improv in L.A., back when it was still smoke-filled. Philadelphia's the Legendary Wid had just finished his set, recalls Steve Young, who was standing backstage next to the next comic to go on, Robin Williams.
"How do I follow that?" Williams wondered aloud.
Williams "meant it in a positive way. Wid was the best prop comedian ever, maybe still is," says Young, a comedian and one-time owner of Philly's Comedy Works. Williams broke through to stardom. The Wid never did.
In the hierarchy of show business, it is said, there is nothing lower than a prop comedian.
Sitting at the kitchen table in his three-bedroom South Philly rowhouse, I ask the Legendary Wid about that.
"In comedy, prop comedians are between mimes and guitar acts," he says, indicating the bottom of the batting order.
"I was told 'Don't do props and don't do puns.' I went out and got props and puns," he says with a shrug, as if his choices were inevitable, guided by a higher power.
A native of Cranford, N.J., many of Wid's props once were art in his New Brunswick antique shop. When people came in, Wid (under his given name of Michael Baldwin) would set up objects, make jokes and make people laugh. A lot.
Getting those laughs lit a spark and set him on a path. He moved to South Philadelphia and started hanging around the comedy clubs that were rocking in the '80s.
He began working the door at Young's Comedy Works on Chestnut Street above the Middle East belly-dance restaurant.
Young eventually offered Wid stage time, but not as "the Wid," which he called himself, because "it was too short," says Young. " 'Legendary' had rhythm, there wasn't much more thought put into it than that." (Baldwin adopted "Wid" after an arrest while hitchhiking in California. The cops told him he was WID - without identification. Bingo!)
He graduated to hosting open-mic nights at comedy clubs. "Being a prop comedian," he says, "other comedians were not threatened. I couldn't steal their material, and wouldn't." (Rip Taylor stole Wid's material, and said so openly, says Young.)
On the local comedy scene, which has shriveled in recent years, Wid is a legend. For a guy pushing 63, he's got a lot of hair, which he pushes off his forehead as he works. He's slim and, moving on stage, looks a couple of decades younger.
"I'm pretty lucky in my career," he says. "I'm always working. Maybe not the biggest gigs, but I pay my bills."
The middle of seven children, he's had girlfriends but never married.
"When you see my house you understand why." Half his living room is piled nearly to the ceiling with what you can call his props, or his junk, or his toys. It's how you look at it.
The upstairs bedrooms are filled with VCR movies. "I also hoarded records and books because I thought I was a keeper of the culture. Who knew this [he holds up a cellphone] would come along" to make his collection obsolete?
He's had the cellphone only for a few months, no computer, no manager. Despite that, he's done some TV, including two Jonathan Winters' specials.
Any shot he might have had of breaking through and becoming a nationally known prop comic such as Gallagher or Carrot Top never bloomed because of his aversion to technology and the "show" part of show business. He lacks the all-consuming ego to make it to the pinnacle.
"You can go to the top in comedy, they all know him and respect him, but the shame of it is, he just doesn't have a business sense," says Young.
Relaxing at home, behind his owlish glasses, Wid could pass for a nerd. Onstage, he's a tornado.
Wid was headlining at Parx casino last week. I stopped in to see his act, first time, long time.
He opens strong, looking for approval of his "Armani suit - Salvation Armani." He says he hates paying tolls "because that's like throwing money out the window."
Then out come the props, out of 20 large storage buckets. When they are revealed, the audience gasps.
Props and puns are flying - a toilet seat, a plastic cow, a stuffed snake, octopus, lion, penguin, donkey, baseball home plate, an oar, swim fin, hula hoops, dolls, toys, bric-a-brac and soon he is "sweating like Donald Trump at a Taco Bell."
Not every gag works, not every prop works and Wid isn't above milking the audience for applause. It's part comedy, part assault.
At the end of his half-hour act he's waist-deep in debris. The stage looks like an explosion at Forman Mills. John Kensil, Wid's friend and driver, says it takes an hour to repack everything.
He never got a lot of press, perhaps because he likes flying beneath the radar.
"I could have been further along in my career," he says without complaint, "but I like to keep it informal."
After the interview, I Google "prop comedians." There's Rip Taylor, Gallagher, Carrot Top, Steve Martin - the Grade A guys - and, yes, the Legendary Wid.
Who's happy with who he is.
On Twitter: @StuBykofsky