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Services Monday For Comedian Bert 'Chili' Challis

Courtesy Thaddeus Challis
Comedian Bert "Chili" Challis

Of course, the funeral service for comedian Bert "Chili" Challis – who died Tuesday, Oct. 9, after a brief hospitalization – will be an open mic night.

"Basically, it's not a religious service. We're going to let his friends speak," says his son, Thaddeus Challis, a comedian who had performed often with his father over the past nine years.

Visitation will be 6-8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15, at Tredway-Pollitt-Staver Funeral Home, 2131 Cameron Ave., Norwood. The service starts at 8 p.m.

"At 8 p.m., it's show time, as it usually was for him at 8 o'clock," his son says.

Credit Courtesy Thaddeus Challis
Bert "Chili" Challis and Jay Leno in the early 1990s.

The Norwood native, who would have turned 68 in December, got his start at the old D.W. Eye comedy club in Clifton in the early 1980s, during Cincinnati's Golden Age of Comedy. In the 1990s, he wrote jokes for Jay Leno's Tonight Show from his Norwood home, and eventually moved to Los Angeles to be one of Leno's staff writers.

Along with Challis, comedians Drew Hastings, Michael Flannery, Roger Naylor, Mike Irwin, John Riggi, Chip Chinery, Jack Previty, Rico Bruce Wade Diaz and Alex Bernstein got their start at the old Calhoun Street club.  At the D.W. Eye reunion last year at the 20th Century Theatre in Oakley, Bert and Thaddeus performed together.

Flannery sent me a copy of a column I wrote about Challis on Feb. 14, 1994. I described how Challis would write jokes for Leno "after he consumed ample quantities of coffee and newspapers," and fax jokes to Leno nightly after watching the Tonight Show monologue.

"It's always such a rush to watch him do one, because you're sitting there at your word processor, envisioning him doing it… Thank God for the fax machine," Challis said in 1993. (Of course it was 1993, back in the days of word processors and fax machines.)

Challis had scored on Leno in 1994 with jokes about the Super Bowl, the Menendez brothers' murder trial, Michael Jackson, Beverly Hills 90210 star Shannen Doherty and Olympic skater Tonya Harding.

"If Tonya Harding is charged and convicted, what do you think her prison number would be? I'd suggest: 9.5, 9.5, 9.9, 9.8 and 10."

Challis made his reputation – not a living – as a Leno contributor. Leno paid $50 for every joke he used. The ones Leno rejected, Challis used in his stand-up act or sold to Mike Peters' Mother Goose & Grim comic strip, he told me.

Peters used this one from a story about radiation experiments on people in the 1950s and '60s: "Well, that kind of explains some of the guys in the World Wrestling Federation."

Eventually, Leno hired Challis, and he moved to Los Angeles. Fellow comedians say Leno gave Challis his "Chili" nickname; Thaddeus says his father first was called "Chili" as a kid growing up in Norwood.

"Leno called him it one day, and that was it," his son says.

After leaving the Tonight Show in 2001, he moved to Toledo. Throughout his career, he was agenerous mentor, or "dojo," to stand-up comics, including his son. "He was always helping people. He taught people how to write comedy from the inside out," Flannery said.

A few weeks ago, Challis moved back to Cincinnati to be close to his son and 18-month-old grandson.

"He started feeling ill, and wanted to know what was going on, so we took him to the hospital on Tuesday, Oct. 2. Seven days later, his heart stopped," Thaddeus says.

His comedy friends want to hold a memorial concert sometime in the next six months, Thaddeus says. "We might make it a yearly event, and do it as a fundraiser for comedians who have medical expenses or need money. We're thinking about calling it the 'Chili Challis Foundation For Comics,' " he says.

When his obituary is posted, I'll add it to this story.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.