Reviews | John Byner

Reviews of Five Minutes, Mr. Byner!

The impetus for John Byner’s showmanship clearly came at an early age. After seeing Bing Crosby’s big screen performance in “Here Come the Waves” back home, the 6-year old launched into a lively impersonation of the popular crooner’s song and dance routine. The positive family response not only fueled young Byner’s talents, but soon helped him realize it provided an easy path towards making friends. Laughter, he notes, is like a drug … “When you can make people laugh, when you make them happy … the experience is addictive.”

Fast forward from that childhood debut, Byner’s special gift has taken him from talent competitions and nightclub gigs, to television, Broadway, and the big screen. Whether recording voices for animation or doing character actor work with giants in the industry, Byner has clearly made his mark. In this enlightening and entertaining memoir, Byner collaborates with 35-year Hollywood veteran Douglas Wellman to showcase the joyous moments of a life-well lived, inevitably entwined with the history of entertainment. Here the gifted impersonator and comic performer relates memories and milestones of the past, with a genuine voice and from a heartfelt insider’s perspective.

Open, honest, and engaging, Byner’s story moves in and out over years of recollections. Nostalgic remembrances draw us into a childhood growing up in New York, with a loving and devoted Irish mother and a mechanical genius father. Byner was the fifth of six children, a motivational incentive to develop his voice talents and garner attention amidst the sibling brood. From family song fests around the old oil stove, midnight pinball escapades into NYC, and the memorable purchase of a 17-inch Admiral TV, a new form of entertainment that had a major impact on Byner’s development, the future performer relates a happy childhood. Byner quit high school to join the Navy. As a civilian he worked various traditional jobs to support his marriage and family. Then an opportunity for a 3-month stint at a Long Island nightclub, soon led to bookings in jazz clubs where he would perform between the musical acts. Byner aptly highlights a chance to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” as his big break in show business. Here he paints an important narrative portrait for those unfamiliar with the popularity of Sullivan’s variety acts and details of his distinctive persona. Amidst a cultural revolution the show provided history-making entertainment and ran for 23 years.

This captivating account also includes humorous anecdotes from the road. Byner’s first out-of-town gig included the venue’s loud espresso machine often overriding his punchline. Travelling as the naive “kid” amidst a group of worldly jazz musicians, Byner recalls a sudden scramble and sighs of relief after a moment of passing through Canadian customs.

The ’60s and ’70s proved a great time for performers like Byner. In addition to sitcoms and drama it was the era of comedy-variety shows. As part of his extensive repertoire, Byner proudly held court with his own comedy hour featuring unforgettable sketches like “The Bland Family”, “Father O Father”, and “Joe De Loser”. Monologues here were often drawn from the artist’s club material and included interesting voices put to unusual creatures.

Yet, even amidst such star-studded ventures, on the roller coaster of life there are some down turns. In Byner’s case think drunken hecklers, a few weird fans, and work with a disgruntled chimpanzee. Thankfully, as a glass half full kind of guy, Byner’s primary focus is on the positive. Likening his unique craft to that of a travelling salesman with the ability to make friends where ever he roams, Byner’s industry namedropping is undoubtedly a heartfelt tribute to the legends he’s felt honored to know and/or work with. Consider Fred Astaire, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Elvis Presley, Carol Burnett, Dinah Shore, and Johnny Carson, just a few on the roster. Black & white photos featuring Byner and several of his comedy cohorts prove a nice addition.

With the precarious state of the world today, here as in his comical club/stage and screen performances, Byner exhibits perfect timing in sharing this uplifting autobiographical account.”

Pacific Book Review

5 stars. “Reading “Five Minutes, Mr. Byner” was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Byner’s book is like a walking history of the entertainment industry. Over the course of his four-decade career he worked with or for almost everyone that was anyone in show business from Steve Allen to Elvis to Henry Fonda.

Byner’s had a very successful career and it’s refreshing to hear a professional reflect on his life with honesty and humility. This is not an “I’m great and this is why tale,” nor is it a gossipy even-the-score tell-all. Byner has hundreds of interesting anecdotes, but he doesn’t take any cheapshots. About the only entertainer who doesn’t come off well is Woody Allen.

I suggest that anyone who reads the book ought to check out the Youtube videos of John Byner performing (there are hundreds). It makes his story even more memorable.

Highly recommended.”

— Len Joy, author of Everyone Dies Famous

5 stars. “A lifetime of laughter? Humor is the most significant single item in life that everyone uses for the benefit of others. Byner is no different. He brags about coming from a normal family, being the fifth of six children, and about the blessings he experienced as the son of a rather talented mechanic. I found his description of his family to be refreshingly normal. That word flitted about throughout the book and usually felt reasonably fitting.

Byner’s natural state of existence isn’t really funny. His simple overworking of life’s ups and downs, however, is humorous. He tells the stories of his life in a feel-good way that warms your heart and soul. Even the part where he loses his father at a young age, his mother still had three children at home, reveals a warm love of family and good times. He was loved, cherished, and valued as a child, which allows him to share life from a warm and friendly place.

His mother’s job changes and unfortunate toxic burns brought actual tears to my eyes. The experience of being a working mom and not having the ability to do what she needed to do reminded me of real life. Nothing is fair, but she didn’t look at the unfairness of it, nor did he. They responded to the challenge and ‘measured up’.

Byner’s big moment arrived on the community stage where he sang the solo response to “Billy Boy” in front of a real audience. Except it didn’t. His family moved before the actual show happened. Sly Byner solved his part of the problem by not telling anyone he wouldn’t be there for the opening night until they moved. That way he got to play the part until he wasn’t there.

I laughed my way through the majority of his childhood stories, reminiscing through my own childhood. Some similarities appeared, which often happens when reading a biography. Age similarities, or location, or even similar experiences sound familiar. I always find I enjoy a biography more if I can identify with the author on some level.

The part of the book that I found most exciting was the messages he shared from his time in the Navy. As a military mom, I can so totally relate to that experience. Stationed in San Diego and finding ways to connect with his chosen career of entertainer were particularly meaningful parts of the book. Jobs and skillsets made him a fitting candidate for many jobs in entertainment. The stories he was building through these experiences would carry him far. If there was a point of no return, I think it came with The Ed Sullivan Show. He had a toe in the door at that point, and the rest — as they say — was history.

This was definitely a page-turner, real book in my hand, it took me about five hours to read it because I kept laughing my way through and going back to read something else. I love the book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves biographies, show business, and laughter.

I’ll still be laughing next month from this one!”

Jan Verhoeff

“An absolute ‘must read’ for the legions of John Byner fans,”Five Minutes, Mr. Byner: A Lifetime of Laughter” (written with the assistance of Douglas Wellman and enhanced with an informative Foreword by Nathan Lane)is an inherently fascinating, entertaining and memorable account of a life in show business. While especially and unreservedly recommended for both community and college/university library Contemporary American Biography collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists…”

Midwest Book Review