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Iwasaki Library

Interviews

These are excerpts from some of our oral history interviews. Topics include:


What is Comedy?

Comedy frees everybody. Comedy reveals more about who we are than any other thing we do. What makes us laugh? It comes, you're not prepared. You're committing yourself when you laugh. You can hold back tears. You can't hold back a laugh... But it was the ability to look at myself-- and I think this is true of all people in comedy-- and remove the pain from painful situations and get to the absurdity of how we behave.
– Bill Persky, Writer & Director (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, Kate & Allie)

I think it goes back to the comedy is victory idea. If you can comment with Wit about the pain you're in, then you've somehow won.
– Larry Gelbart, Writer (Duffy's Tavern, Your Show of Shows, M*A*S*H, Tootsie)

And we can laugh at each other. That's what comedy is all about. The perfect comic is the comic who will say something, and you say, "Oh my God -- I thought I was the only one who felt that way! I thought I was a pervert, or I thought I was a racist, or I thought I was an idiot..." You laugh -- you've opened up this dam you'd carried inside yourself all your life.
– Fred Willard, Comedian (Fernwood 2Nite, Best in Show)

Anybody can make you cry if he's got anything at all. Takes a hell of a guy to make you laugh. Especially if you're hurting.
– Jonathan Winters, Comedian

If you look back on the ancient Greeks, they would have their nasty play where somebody came out and slaughtered an entire family, that it would be followed immediately by a play, by one of the comedies-- that same evening! You know, everybody got to laugh-- And so I guess it’s always been there that we have to give somebody an escape valve, ‘cause they can’t take all the tragedy all the time. And, of course, it’s used to deflect trouble, which I think is even bigger. To make somebody laugh is to disarm them and that’s really what it’s about, I think.
– Buck Henry, Writer (Get Smart, The Graduate)

World works like comedy. When there's a tragedy-- you can't walk up on stage today and do an hours worth of jokes about what happened in New Orleans. They'll come a time you can. Well, let me tell you what time. You and I were standing outside the Ford Theater when Lincoln was shot. When they bring the body out, blood splash on your shirt and my shirt. I go wash my shirt. You kept your shirt. And now, 2005, your children's children's children's children have that shirt. Man, there ain't a Rembrandt that would be worth that shirt is. That's what time'll do. It's incredible what time will do-- it heals everything. And then you can come in with comedy.
– Dick Gregory, Comedian

What is the most important thing I should know about comedy? This has nothing to do with writing. It has to do with living. But that’s what writing is about. The moment. The moment is everything.
– Norman Lear, Producer (All in the Family, The Jeffersons)

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The Importance of Comedy and Humor

I think that humor is the heart of humanity. And you know, that's one of the things that sets us apart from the lower species, I think, is a sense of humor. And it helps to give you a perspective. I think humor, properly understood, is a very serious business.
– Hugh M. Hefner, Publisher (Playboy)

There's no measure to the value of comedy-- it's sanity maintenance, it's what keeps people on their toes, it's what provides humility, it's the insulation -- not only does it open us but it insulates us from everything.
– Lewis Black, Comedian

It's a form of reportage, in a sense. You're really reporting on the current attitudes and mores of a society.
– Arte Johnson, Comedian (Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In)

I had a great teacher (who) taught comedy as seriously as Greek tragedy. I mean, Moliere used comedy as a way of making social comment, and so did even the Greek comedies. They were about something. They were ridiculing something. They were showing you life from a point of view. You've got to figure out what it is before you can start being funny.
– Tony Roberts, Actor (Annie Hall)

I think that comedians throughout history are the only ones who have been able to speak, because they find a way to do it. They are the ones who invariably have the wisdom or at least use wisdom in order to get a message across, obliquely. You just tiptoe sometimes, you just snap 'em on the nose a little bit and you get it said.
– Shelley Berman, Comedian

I think humor's probably the best avenue to make a point. Whether social, economic, or whatever, humor always can address an quicker and faster than any other form of communication that I'm aware of.
– Hal Kanter, Writer (Amos 'n Andy, Julia)

Well I think of the importance of comedy today it's not just today, it's always been important. I think it goes back to the time of the court jesters. These guys who make fun of the kings and queens-- they had to, talk about tongue in cheek and kidding on the square! These were the real heroes. These are the real rebels.
– Jonathan Winters, Comedian

I remember the high point for me was I got a letter from a lady who said “I want to thank you for Kate and Allie. I am recently divorced with two kids. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm scared to death, and I'm glad to know that I'm not crazy, and I'm not alone.” That to me was a series worth doing.
– Bill Persky, Writer & Director (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, Kate & Allie)

To me humor's what's saving us.
– Leonard Stern, Writer (The Honeymooners, Get Smart)

It's gilding a huge lily to talk about the value of comedy. And I have to tell you, there's no bigger fan than myself of people who can provoke genuine laughter.. If you're going to go out there and try to make people laugh, to realize that the responsibility, the craft that you're learning now is just as important as brain surgery.
– Bill Dana, Writer, Comedian (The Steve Allen Show, The Bill Dana Show)

I don't think anybody ever died laughing. A lot of people die crying, you know?
– Larry Gelbart, Writer (Duffy's Tavern, Your Show of Shows, M*A*S*H, Tootsie)

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Teaching Comedy

First off, everyone who says you can't teach funny is full of shit. It’s not that you can't teach funny... what you can do is develop someone's sense of humor -- there are so few courses taught, anywhere, in the entire country, in terms of development of humor, and not even in terms of them being funny, but if you develop somebody's sense of humor in the way in which they look at the world they will become funny, it's just natural. You know, it's really just one of the most impossible crafts to kind of comprehend, and it also is not treated as a craft because it's so f*cking off the wall.
– Lewis Black, Comedian

You can teach them how to access [their] own font of humor.
– Shelley Berman, Comedian

You don't start off as a good comic. There's a thing called timing, and you don't buy that. You don’t get that just because your dad or your momma was a comic or cause you was the life of the party.
– Dick Gregory, Comedian

I mean, you can’t teach opera-- either someone has those pipes and you can teach them some technique, but you can't teach somebody to sing opera. If they have no voice, forget about it. What it took me years to learn was that I was just doing comedy for comedy's sake and until I started to find my own voice and try to do what I knew as funny, what I, you know, what was inside me and then I started to see success.
– Howard Storm, Director (Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy)

And you have to have a beginning, middle, and an end. The last thing I learned was how to get on. I just couldn't say hello to an audience. And it's very important. You have to have a 'hello'.
– Phyllis Diller, Comedian

A sense of humor is something you can aquire by exposure to humor.
– Hal Kanter, Writer(Amos 'n Andy, Julia)

It's not treated as an academic subject because we're not academic. And yet we would be more than willing to sit down as a group and help define this -- And we scare them, and that's the reason too; we scare them.
– Lewis Black, Comedian

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Where Humor Comes From: Sources for Comedy

I claim that all humor rises out of tragedy. If everything goes well, you have nothing funny! But if the bride's train comes off and shows that she's wearing panties that say "Tuesday," and it's Wednesday… Then we've got a joke.
– Phyllis Diller, Comedian

Well, we do survive through humor. The fact that we were so poor ...what are you going to do? You’re going to make fun of it. It was part of our adapting. Humor is an adaptation to, you know, tough stuff.
– Don Knotts, Comedic Actor (The Steve Allen Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Three's Company)

Comedy comes out of anger, you know? And the need to express that anger in a softer way, you know to find a way to get around it.
– Howard Storm, Director (Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy)

You've got to combat fear. (singing to the tune of “Mr. Sandman”) "Mr. Prozac. You're a wonderful pill! Each time I take you, I feel a thrill. You have caused quite a sensation. Everybody's taking you all over the nation! Mr. Prozac..." Whatever I do in my life, and whatever I have in my life, I tell the audience about it, you know.
– Shecky Greene, Comedian

That was what great comedy was about, drawing from the stuff you had lived. It has to start with a sense of humor about yourself. Comedy is about being honest.
– Bill Persky, Writer & Director (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, Kate & Allie)

What might Archie and Edith be going through now?The economy was bad. Or, you read that hypertension in black males is on the rise. Well, there’s an idea for James on Good Times.. But we were serious people so the things we chose to talk about, write about, were the serious matters we faced.
– Norman Lear, Producer (All in the Family, The Jeffersons)

The best comics tell stories. The story can be told in any number of ways. And if you look at the guides -- Berman and Newhart are really masters of it. All stand-up is, is the ability to move. You're sitting here talking to a group of people, and then all you do really is move to your two feet and stand up. That's it. That's all you do. It's the two f*cking feet that kill you.
– Lewis Black, Comedian

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What is Funny

I claim that if you can't dance to it it's not funny. The main thing is to get that audience in the rhythm. And then you've got them. They're rolled up, and they're with you. And you go off together like a symphony. You're the conductor, you see? Have to know exactly when to pick it up, exactly when to let it go.
– Phyllis Diller, Comedian

I don't know what the hell it is! I know this, that if you confess what your little dirty little sins are, you're going to get a whole audience laughing, because they all have the same dirty little sin.
– Shelley Berman, Comedian

What makes me laugh? The unexpected.
– Hal Kanter, Writer (Amos 'n Andy, Julia)

And I came out and I sang, “I used to believe in the days I was pure…” and the audience started laughing. I thought what the hell are they laughing at? And then I sang, {spoken, in deep voice} “…and I was pure like you used to be.” And they laughed again and I thought 'well yes.' That’s what it is. You just do something for real and it’s right.
– Bea Arthur, Actor (Maude, The Golden Girls)

Humor is such a rhythm thing. The writers spend hours laboring over a sentence to get, to get the beats, to get the -- a line will come out, why did the chicken cross the road? To get on the other side. You can't say, "uh, there was this chicken and he was walking down the street and he decided to cross over, I wonder why he did that? Well maybe he saw something on the other side" -- you know there's no laugh in there. It's like, hearing the beat in music. You feel it more than hear it, you just feel it.
– Betty White, Actor (Life with Elizabeth, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls)

Conflict is the key, and by conflict you don't have to be angry, or sullen: In opposition. Gleason was marvelous -- He never let us have a telephone in the set. If you had a telephone for one episode you had to take it out. And finally I said to him, "Jackie, why?" He said, "Because if you have a phone then you'll do all the exposition on the phone, and you won't hear the other person, and you won't get the conflict -- you won't get the difference, the disagreement." And so, he was perfectly right.
– Leonard B. Stern, Writer (The Honeymooners, Get Smart)

It's how people deal with pain. It's always the most compelling thing to watch. How people deal with it, comedy or drama-- you must do it in a real manner. If you do it in a manner that is real, you'll get the biggest laugh and the biggest emotion if what you are doing is drama.
– Ed Begley, Jr. Comedian, Writer (St. Elsewhere, This is Spinal Tap)

How can comedy change? We are who we are as people. We laugh at what we laugh at. We laugh at what we're scared of, we laugh at what we're delighted with. Mostly we have a lot of trouble laughing at ourselves, which is where it should really start. Because if you don't do that, then you really have no license to laugh at anything else. But there's nothing new under the sun, only the people who provide it.
– Larry Gelbart, Writer (Duffy's Tavern, Your Show of Shows, M*A*S*H, Tootsie)

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Developing Technique

Go to the comedy clubs go wherever comedy is being performed, steal one joke a night. Find a particular joke that seems to fit you, switch it so that it's not a theft -- not an outright theft -- one a night, and by the end of a couple of weeks, you've got a full act.
– Tom Poston, Comedian (The Steve Allen Show, Newhart)

All you need is a start. You start a standup life with one line. Tell five of your hottest jokes and keep going. And that is it. That is it. That way, they never have a chance to hate you. They're laughing.
– Phyllis Diller, Comedian

First, go get them old [jokes] and then develop your own. And then technique-- You can do it either real slow or real fast. You can come out and sound like you're real brilliant or real stupid. That's the technique that that separates you. And you can do somebody else's joke. You can do old jokes. Old standard jokes that's been out there. Look at the preacher. You got different preachers and they're working out the same Bible!
– Dick Gregory, Comedian

It sounds too easy but you have to put down on the paper anything you think is funny. And I gave that advice back to Groucho (Marx), my other mentor and he said, well, (that's) certainly correct and I wish I could tell you more but I think that's it. Just put down what you think is funny. And you will emerge.
– Dick Cavett, Writer (The Jerry Lewis Show, The Dick Cavett Show)

There's always a paradigm because there ain't nothing new. So you can design a character around some kind of skeleton that you know and you put different flesh on it, is one way. Don Adams' total career, and my career, is thanks to William Powell. The voice that Don Adams has done in all of his characters is an impression of William Powell as "The Thin Man": (with accent) "There's your man, inspector; a liar, a cheat, a thief, and a homicidal maniac, but he's my son and I love him." So the basic question is how do you design? You can go back in a character who's voice you think you can reproduce and give it your own twist.
– Bill Dana, Writer (The Steve Allen Show, The Bill Dana Show)

The greatest, thing I did to try to improve as an actor and as a comedian, specifically comedy, was to go out and do clubs. You can't pay, there's no workshop, there's no school you can go to, there's no college in America, where you can find out right there -- it's very immediate -- what makes America laugh.
– Ed Begley, Jr. Comedian, Writer (St. Elsewhere, This is Spinal Tap)

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Profanity

I think you can be risqué, you can be blue, you can be naughty, you can be dirty, but it's another thing to be filthy. I know you can be funny without being filthy and I'm not standing on a box as a member of the clergy. Look at Groucho, look at Fields, look at Charlie, I mean these are giants. Look at Buster Keaton, look at Laurel and Hardy…You don't want to hurt the people out there.
– Jonathan Winters, Comedian

I never cussed, I never used profanity. And my second language is profanity. Never on stage. That was the law I had because that stage was my steel mill. That stage was my coal mine and you don't go to work in a coal mine to hit on a woman.
– Dick Gregory, Comedian

If you can say a four-letter word you don't have to come up with a six letter word... You know, it's an old story, about when they take your freedom away, then they really make you creative. You have to bang on the pipes in another way.
– Larry Gelbart, Writer (Duffy's Tavern, Your Show of Shows, M*A*S*H, Tootsie)

We had to do ‘above the belt’. You know, in those days married couples slept in separate beds. I mean you know, it’s so Victorian… but still it made us write better. We couldn’t go for the junk just to get a laugh you know because after a while that laugh is stale. It’s not funny anymore.
– Sam Denoff, Writer (McHale's Navy, That Girl)

If you take all of Richard Pryor's comedy and clip out all his profanity they're just as funny because he never used profanity as a punch line.
– Dick Gregory, Comedian

When Richard Pryor was doing the characters he did, that language was suitable because he was doing street guys, he was doing junkies and that's how they speak but when a comic gets up and just does it and does it for the sake of, you know, being hip.. now why did they need that word? It doesn't enhance the joke. It doesn't make the joke any funnier.
– Howard Storm, Director (Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy)

I had never, wanted to be the first one to say the F word on television. I mean there are people whose whole career is based on wanting to do that. I've never done that cause once you say it, it replaces paragraphs and pages of wonderful stuff by not saying it. I've said “sex on television is like a bunch of kids writing a dirty word on the blackboard while the teacher is out and then waiting for her to come back in and see it”. It's snickering, sex. It isn't anything.
– Bill Persky, Writer & Director (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, Kate & Allie)

A current comedian and a current audience is -- sometimes are demanding to be told what it's about. When I saw Gone With The Wind the first time, this guy carried that beautiful woman upstairs and into that bedroom. They dissolve and there she was in bed the next day with a big smile on her face. Today, you go into that bedroom, you watch them undress or they frantically tear off each other's clothes and then you have to watch the act for as much as they can tell you, and that's pretty much. What have we lost here? Where is the gain in artistry if we are no longer trusting of humanity, if we don't trust the audience? If we have to hand feed them before they'll know they're eating, what the hell is the gain? Well, the same thing is happening with comedy. We hand it to you. Have you seen the one where they're selling rubbers, huh? Do we have to be told that? Can't we just acknowledge that these are very intelligent people out here? Take the chance. We can fill it all in. But comedy will suffer terribly if we have to do this.
– Shelley Berman, Comedian

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The Role of the Entertainer: Comedy with a Message Versus Delivering a Message

A pointless joke is nothing to me, does not have the interest and the excitement and the fascination as if there's a subject matter behind it. And it fascinates or challenges your mentality and you say to yourself "Hey, I just see a whole new point of view about something, I just learned something, I'm experiencing something." It's not just jokes.
– Jackie Mason, Comedian

At the same time, it wasn’t the desire to send a message. The desire was to make an audience laugh. And I was always fond of saying, “bringing an audience to its knees.” You stand behind a couple hundred people when they are really laughing. When their belly laughs. And you watch them go up- the bodies, and down, and come up again in a wave. And it’s, it’s spiritual a moment as anything. Everybody -- not on the same page. On the same word, on the same syllable. On the same breath. That’s what we were always after.
– Norman Lear, Producer (All in the Family, The Jeffersons)

My personal philosophy is I want to do a show where I could see a Truth. You know-- it's television, it's a comedy. But there's some real human emotions there.
– Jay Sandrich, Director (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls)

I said 'without you girls, I would have been publishing a literary magazine'. Well, the same is also true for the cartoons. You can say things in humor; whether it’s an article or stand-up comedy or a cartoon, that deflates hypocrisy and speaks to lifestyle.
– Hugh M. Hefner, Publisher (Playboy)

Maury Amsterdam was funny, Henny Youngman was funny, Milton Berle was funny. But it was not about anything except being funny. We've come to expect, I think, social comment and material that we identify with as people from our modern-day comics.
– Larry Gelbart, Writer (Duffy's Tavern, Your Show of Shows, M*A*S*H, Tootsie)

I think there's a real big gulf between the message and comedy. Because once you give them the message, the comedy's shot to shit.
– Lewis Black, Comedian

I can say this directly to anybody who's a student of comedy, it's a very, very dangerous weapon. You'd better make sure it ain't loaded or it's loaded with the right stuff before you shoot it. And great responsibility--People out there looking at you, trusting you. You're daddy, mommy, you're everything to them. And that's, if you've got it, you've got yourself a huge responsibility to respect your weapon.
– Bill Dana, Writer, Comedian (The Steve Allen Show, The Bill Dana Show)

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Advice to Those Starting Out

The advice I give actors and actresses, when they ask me, "What do you think? Should I go in the business?" Or comedians. I always tell them, absolutely not. If you have to ask that question, the answer is no... But if you say to me, "I have a passion, a desire beyond all words of measure -- I have to do it. I'm waiting tables, but still, I got to go act in my free time and be part of a little play." I say, "Good, OK. You're going to be fine. Keep doing that; get out there, pick the best material, and then give them the list from there." But if anybody ever asks, you know, "Should I be an actor? Should I be a comedian?" No way. If it's an option, no.
– Ed Begley, Jr., Actor (St. Elsewhere, This is Spinal Tap)

I have only love and admiration for people starting out in this business -- And my heartfelt suggestion is don't be afraid. Nervousness and anxiety and stage fright, that's fine. But don't be afraid that you've chosen the wrong career. Don't be afraid that somebody's going to turn you down because somebody is going to turn you down over and over and over and over but that's just part of it. That's as much a part of our business as learning lines or putting on make-up.
– Tom Poston, Comedian (The Steve Allen Show, Newhart)

Don't expect anything to happen. Be prepared. I mean, I was a night watchman on the Brooklyn Waterfront. I was a cabdriver. I wasn't making any money. I lived in a room without a window, literally, without a window, bathroom down the hall, no stove, just a sink... Didn't bother me either. It was exciting to know you were getting better.
– Charles Grodin, Actor (The Heartbreak Kid, Midnight Run)

And if you're funny, you've got to get up and do it every night and fail and I believe in almost all of this business, no matter what it is you do, you become a success by your failures.
– Howard Storm, Director (Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy)

Don't be afraid of people. Because when you're there you're by yourself. Not a singer. Not music. Not -- you out there all by yourself. And do it. Be prepared. Don't go up tired. Because the people coming to see you tired? And so if I was with young comics today I would just say learn to have a profound respect for that audience. Profound respect. These are people who don't know you that's coming in and when they leave their arthritis don't hurt. Hm? Their headache's gone! That's what you can do with that.
– Dick Gregory, Comedian

Go back, look at those shows. Look at Bill Dana and Saturday Night Live and Laugh-In and Ernie Kovacs, and all of the rich heritage that we have. Look at it and study it and understand what it is they did. Don't copy it. But in order to do your own thing, you have to understand what came before you.
– George Schlatter, Producer (Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In)

You got to know what you want to do and it's important that you follow it. One chance you get, to go around the block. You know?
– Louis Nye, Comedian ( 1922- 2005 )

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