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Hollywood Money Man Steals $1.36 Million

Robert Cataldo | 'The Aristocrats' | Radio Payola Scandal

Hollywood Money Man Steals $1.36 Million

No one seems to care, but in Hollywood a tale of thievery has finally ended with the culprit going to jail.

Last week in a Manhattan federal court, Robert Cataldo was sentenced to 37 months in prison for stealing $1.36 million from the health and retirement fund of the union that covers TV and radio performers, including people such as Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa, Howard Stern and Susan Lucci. He will officially surrender to authorities on Sept. 19.

Cataldo was in a good position to embezzle the money: He had been the director of finance for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Health and Retirement funds.

At a time when the AFTRA funds are facing federal lawsuits by artists who haven't got proper pension payments, you would think this would be a big deal — a million dollars is a lot of money.

Oddly enough, Cataldo first pled guilty to embezzlement 11 months ago. He was supposed to have been sentenced last December. But the case was postponed several times. Under federal guidelines, Cataldo probably won't serve more than a year-and-a-half in jail.

Meanwhile, the AFTRA has made sure to keep the matter quiet. The two main trade papers, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, have remained mostly silent on the subject. Maybe all the members of the AFTRA health and pension plans would like to know how their union is being run.

According to Cataldo's attorney, Tom Curran, the union originally asked the judge in the case to reimburse it for about $700,000 it said it spent to investigate the case. That request was subsequently dropped.

The Dirtiest Joke Makes It to the Screen

Gilbert Gottfried and Phyllis Diller may not have the headline appeal of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes or Brangelina, but they're the runaway stars of a new documentary that debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival and now threatens to be the sleeper hit of the summer when it opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

"The Aristocrats" is directed by comedian Paul Provenza, with help from Penn Jillette and their friend Peter Adam Golden.

It's all about a bunch of famous comics who explain and tell and retell the dirtiest, most inappropriate joke they know. It's such a well-known joke that the directors were able to visit 100 individual comedians and get many different versions of the joke.

Some theater chains are banning this film. Of course, this is ridiculous.

I'd rather hear "The Aristocrats" told many times than ever see anything on "The Island" blow up again. But hey, what can you do? A ban of this movie is probably the best publicity it can get.

The comics in the movie are a who's who of the best in the business. They run the gamut from great old-timers such as Diller, Pat Cooper, Larry Storch, Chuck McCann and Shelley Berman to current superstars like Robin Williams, Drew Carey, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart and Paul Reiser. Joe Franklin even puts in an appearance.

The best overall performance may be from Sarah Silverman, whom I never cared for much prior to this. Kevin Pollak does a neat imitation of Christopher Walken, Hank Azaria does one of his great accented characters and my old college mate Eddie Gorodetsky — the funniest man I've ever known — does not fail to entertain. Dana Gould, a very underrated comic, also scores points.

The whole thing seems to be, at least in part, the idea of Frank DiGiacomo, a New York journalist who has always taken Friars Club Roasts more seriously than I have. In the fall of 2001, DiGiacomo was stopped in his tracks when Gottfried told "The Aristocrats" to the crowd.

The gist of the joke is that it's about a colorful family act being presented by a bad talent agent to a booker. The act can be bent and twisted because it includes all forms of obscene and disgusting behavior — things that would make Howard Stern and Andrew Dice Clay cringe. The punch line, which can come anywhere from a few minutes to two hours later, is that the act's name is, incongruously, "The Aristocrats."

What makes Provenza's film so much more than just the telling of a dirty joke is the way we get a very lovely and detailed look inside the world of American comedians. The camaraderie is the key. The joke links comedians of both sexes, all races and ages.

You're almost sorry that Ben Stiller, Anne Meara, Jerry Seinfeld, Elayne Boosler and Carol Leifer aren't included. But nearly everyone else is, and the stunning array of them all bound together by this one bit shows off a tightly knit community. For example, you learn that Robin Williams and Drew Carey are more alike than they would think.

Phyllis Diller gets my vote for most unexpected and brilliant performance. She just turned 88. Maybe they filmed her when she was 86 or 87.

She's sharp as a tack, and then some. She's also hysterical, and has comic timing that every kid would give his or her eyeteeth for. It's time for a Diller renaissance. A movie about her, a New Yorker profile, all of it.

In the meantime, it's also time for "The Aristocrats." Don't miss it.

Radio Payola Scandal Play Out More Like Crayola

Isn't it ironic, as Alanis Morissette might warble.

Today, Sony Music will know at last how Michael Jackson felt in 1993 when he settled with that accusing 13-year-old boy for $20 million.

The company is going to pay $10 million to the Rockefeller Partners Advisory, as part of a settlement with the New York state attorney general's office.

It's not like it's going to fight the report. Just as $20 million was nothing to Jackson in 1994, $10 million is a drop in the bucket to Sony.

In fact, it's probably tax deductible. But no one seems to know for sure, and no one from Rockefeller Partners Advisory — which is supposed to receive the $10 million donation from Sony for distribution to other charities — can answer the question. They simply refer the matter to a PR firm. The $10 million is supposed to go to music education.

Look, there are no angels in this story — not New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, not the Rockefeller Partners Advisory, not Sony.

One thing's for certain. People at Sony are not taking this too seriously. The payola scandals of years past make this one seem rather paltry. It's not as if Franz Ferdinand or Jennifer Lopez's singles became such big deals after Sony paid for extra spins on the radio.

"Get Right," the Lopez single, was like fingernails on a blackboard. I suspect listeners would have paid to keep it off the radio.

At Sony, Spitzer's office dug up e-mails that showed radio disc jockeys had been sent on trips and given computers and music players. There's no allegation of drugs, which was typical of the independent-promoter payola scandals in the '70s. No one got a house, a car or a pool. There are no records of bags of cash, as there were in the 1950s.

The Spitzer 2005 payola investigation of Sony looked hot yesterday. In the sobering light of day, however, it's been a bit of a tempest in a teapot so far.

Ousted because of this investigation is Sony subsidiary Epic Records' vice president of promotions, Joel Klaiman. The story needed a scapegoat. Klaiman, who oversaw J-Lo and Celine Dion, was an easy choice.

Klaiman is no Joe Isgro, though. The infamous Isgro, as documented in Frederick Dannen's excellent book about the '70s payola scandals, "Hit Men," managed to survive two separate trials, although he was convicted of extortion. Maybe the most notorious of record promo guys, Isgro was often accompanied by bodyguards.

"Isgro," Dannen wrote, "entertained label executives in Las Vegas, paying for their food and lodging and often carrying more than $100,000 in cash."

Isgro, wherever he is right now, must be laughing when he reads about Klaiman et al. Laptop computers? Klaiman is Mary Richards to Isgro's Al Capone.

At Isgro's 1990 trial for racketeering, Dannen wrote, Isgro's bodyguard testified that his boss used to stuff cash into record album covers and mail the bribes to disc jockeys.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Record promoters, disc jockeys and radio programmers have conspired to make extra money off the business since the beginning of the rock 'n' roll era. There's nothing new about that.

Isgro, Alan Freed, Morris Levy and Henry Stone are all infamous names and subjects of outlandish anecdotes in an industry that has always been run like a Wild West saloon rather than from steel-and-glass skyscrapers in the big city.

Spitzer's office had better come up with something more than gifts or trips if it wants to lend some gravitas to this investigation. My guess is it will find more fertile material in the rap arena, where truckloads of CDs are said to be selling every week even when there is no evidence of customers buying them.