There is one type of fellow we rarely find— He approaches a problem with open mind; Of another kind, though, there is never a drouth— He approaches a problem with open mouth.
LEONARD K. SCHIFF
It’s the same if we go to a doctor. He’s always supplying us with the latest joke while he taps our knees, peers down our throats and pumps air around our arms.
“Did you hear why the Brooklyn kid put the television set on the stove?” he asks, prodding a tonsil. “Well, he did it because he wanted to see Milton Boil. Get it? Milton Berle. Berle, Boil. It’s in Brooklyn, see? Ha-ha.”
A year ago when we had been chosen among the best-dressed men in Canada we thought maybe we’d be accepted as normal. It didn’t make any difference. A week later we were at a party when an elderly grey-haired woman came over to us. She was the sort of woman you wouldn’t want to have sitting opposite you if you didn’t know which fork to pick up. She had a stern haughty face and blue hair. But we were ready for her. We had the assurance of knowing we were correctly dressed. We greeted her grandly, like gracious stars. She leaned over and whispered, with no change of expression. “You’re a crazy couple of blankety-blanks.”
Sometimes it works the other way. People are so disappointed that we’re not funny that they get sore. There’s a stock joke in show business about a comedian who came out of a night club feeling sick and asked the doorman to call him a cab.
“I’ve got a headache,” he said.
The doorman sneered, “What’s so funny about that?”
A comedian doesn’t feel funny all the time. Not only that, he’s never sure he’s funny any of the time. We’re never absolutely sure what’s going over and what isn’t. In sheer desperation we put what we thought was one of our worst gags in a parody of The Brave Bulls. The toreador grabs the bull by the horns and the bull goes beep-beep like an old-fashioned auto horn and we crack, “Well what do you know—an Oldsmobull!” For some reason, that brought a terrific gale of laughter from the audience.
What we thought was one of our better gags didn’t even prompt a smile. It was in Henry the Twenty-Second, a take-off we did on Henry the Fifth. The script went like this—
WAYNE: Men, we shall fight this war even if it takes a hundred years.
SHUSTER: One hundred years — that’s awful.
WAYNE: Oh, I don’t knoiv, think of the veterans’ benefits.
Well, we thought it was funny anyway, even if nobody else did.
Another gag that struck us as good fell silently on its nose in a parody of Robin Hood. In this, one of us calls
for a glass of sack. The sack is all gone so he says, “Then how about a j sack of glass?” An equally stony silence greeted a line in a parody on the Three Musketeers, where d’Artagnan announces, “I’m a ding-dong ! daddy from Alexander Dumas.”
When we listen to someone else’s | program and it isn’t going over so well, we never say, “That stinks.” We know ! how hard he worked on it, and how j it feels to be up there knowing that you guessed wrong when you were working on the script. We feel more like buying the guy a drink.
On the other hand, we’ll sit right through a program with a blank expression on our faces and, when it’s over, switch off the radio and say, “That was one of the funniest shows | I’ve ever heard.”
Never Sold a Paper
We used to try our gags on our wives, but we don’t any more. Wives aren’t typical radio listeners. They like everything. We wouldn’t want it any other j way. Criticism we can get; good ¡ honest criticism by people who would like to slit our throats. We like our wives to think we’re wonderful.
Anyway, as soon as we try a gag on someone, he isn’t a normal audience. He becomes a judge. It’s like handing someone a drink of water and asking him if it’s good or not. The minute he has to think about it, he’s lost.
We like our work and feel that we’ve made a reasonable success of it. Not only that, we did it without selling newspapers at the corner of Toronto’s King and Yonge. According to most Canadian success stories, that corner must have been so crowded with newsboys in the good old days that pedestrians had to walk on the road to get past them. Our parents gave us a university education.
From the time we got together in Varsity days with a show called Wife Preservers, we’ve been lucky. WeVe never had one of those musical-comedy sponsors who keeps his talent trembling with the breakfast-table opinions of his wife, daughters and spaniel. Our sponsors have all left us alone. But we’ve had to produce, on schedule. We’ve been able to so far. One of the reasons is that we long ago decided it would be tough producing humor with ulcers. We decided we weren’t going to have any.
We’ve set a maximum point of worry about any gag. Often we arrive at a situation that is potentially funny. Like when we have a skit in which we take a rocket ship to the moon. We know we should have something hilarious about the moon being made of cheese, but we kick it around and it just won’t come. Probably it will come to us after the program but not when we’re working on the script. We struggle with it for three hours and can’t get it so we give up. We’ve learned just to keep working and take things as they come. It’s our belief we can keep people laughing as long as we don’t start thinking we’re so funny that we stop working.
In the meantime, we have a lot of
laughs out of people who think comedy is a matter of moods and mad inspirations. It does us good. Last May we did a show that went wrong. We knew we had a poor house from the minute we got the “on the air” signal. We ignored it: one of the golden rules of show business. We plowed through as if the whole audience was in the aisles. If you keep going as if nothing had happened, and try to give everything just that much more socko, you can usually get an audience back with you. We never take that tack of insulting the audience. Get them mad at you and it makes things worse. We haven’t been hit by any eggs yet, but we’re not taking chances.
Anyway, a poor house doesn’t necessarily mean your stuff is off. Maybe somebody fainted in the audience before you came on. If that happens, an audience can’t shake its mood.
Hut that night we went home not feeling too good, for several reasons. One of them was the poor house. Another was that our kids’ teacher had just congratulated our wives on having normal children, indicating that she’d expected them to wear false noses, squirt their playmates with trick flowers and give them exploding bubble gum. jn our business, you can be sensitive about this sort of thing and a remark made with the best of intentions such as the statement that your children are nice and normal—can get. under the skin.
As we were coming up our street a couple of children stopped us and started clamoring, “Tell us a joke.” They always do that. It’s hard to get jokes to please kids but we told them the one about how you can’t starve in a desert on account of all the sand-witches. They said what they always say: “That’s terrible.” This
is a tradition with kids, like catching frogs.
As we reached home it was raining and it was May 24 and we’d promised our youngsters we’d set off fireworks, so we felt worse than ever. We waited, but instead of easing off, the rain turned into a steady downpour.
A promise is a promise and we didn’t want to disappoint the children. So, although nobody else was lighting fireworks in our neighborhood, we got dressed up in sou’westers, oilskins and rubber boots. With the rain beating in our faces and trickling into our rubber boots we braved the torrent, went out on the lawn, fumbled with wet matches and sent a couple of soggy rockets skyward. They didn’t work very well. The other junk didn’t work very well either but at least we felt we were being good parents and not letting the kids down.
In about ten minutes we happened to look around and saw a small traffic jam out on the street. All the drivers were grinning. It dawned on us that they weren’t giving us credit for being good parents. They had that too familiar expression: “There’re those
maniacs Wayne and Shuster. Those guys are mad absolutely mad.” They were waiting for a show.
It began to strike us as funny. Suddenly, we felt a lot better. We put on a show there in the rain. We danced the sailor’s hornpipe, we bellowed nautical commands above the gale, we did everything hut hold Roman candles in our mouths. And the audience was with us. We had a good house, there in the rain. Nobody knew it was one of the few shows we hadn’t written, from nine till five with an hour and a half for lunch, and when we went indoors finally we decided it wasn’t so bad after all, having people think you’re funny. And we’d picked up a couple of ideas for next week’s show. ^
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