Funny thing happened on career path
Time spent with Woody Allen shaped my stab at...
I know. It’s not easy being funny. I know. I’ve tried. And it’s even worse to not be funny, to be unfunny, when you’re trying to be funny. A couple of recent events have had me thinking about humor and its role in my life over 65-plus years now; the passing of Wisconsin native Gene Wilder, and the anniversary of the two days I spent “working” with comedic actor, writer and director Woody Allen.
I need to state at the beginning that my current thinking about humor is a result of finding so little of it in life today. There’s plenty of laughing at each other, but not enough appreciating the absurdities of life that can make life … funny. Like so much in life, if we don’t exercise our ability to laugh, it atrophies and dies. I’ve long been determined to not let that happen.
But I was predisposed to find comedy a necessary part of the human experience. As the oldest of 11 children, I found early on that humor was an effective way of being acknowledged at the crowded dinner table. It was a suitable alternative to being a jock in high school. Making people laugh was fun. So when I had the opportunity some years later, after I moved to Madison in 1974, to join a local comedy troupe, I jumped at the chance. We did Woody Allen material, short comic pieces from Allen’s books “Getting Even” and “Without Feathers” that our founder and director had rewritten for the stage. And we had the audacity to charge people to see us perform them on the stage at La Creperie restaurant on the second floor of a building at the corner of Gilman and State streets. Even more audacious, that same director went to New York, waited for a break during Allen’s regular Monday gig playing clarinet at Michael’s and told him what we were up to. A few months later we found ourselves performing Match Wits with Woody to an audience of two, Woody Allen and his manager Jack Rollins in a studio Allen had rented. The next day we were in Allen’s office, pushing back the furniture and running through the sketches the way Allen wanted them done. He wasn’t crazy about my portrayal of the Pope as a Mafia “don.” “Be the Pope,” he instructed. Talk about a change in approach.
Still, I was pretty sure we’d hit the big time and a move to New York to begin an engagement Off-Broadway was imminent.
It wasn’t. Allen said he wanted us to tour college campuses in the Midwest and if our stuff worked in those venues we’d talk. A week later he invited our lead actress to come back to New York where she eventually landed roles in a couple of his movies as well as a spot in the 1980 cast of Saturday Night Live. The same Saturday Night Live that once featured Gilda Radner who eventually married Gene Wilder. More than slightly heartbroken at my comparative lack of success, I spent a couple of months trying to write comedy, realized I was terrible and my acting career eventually came to an end. What did not come to an end was my appreciation for humor and comedic writing.
Even as I transitioned into journalism I found humor an essential component of my work. And I found elements of truth in movies like Wilder’s “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” that I could reference in my more “serious” writing. I remember hearing then-New York Times editorial page editor Howell Raines talk about his determination to inject some humor into the vast, dense, gray and self-consciously serious Times editorials and the positive readers response it generated. We could use more of that. Woody Allen’s star has since tarnished, but I wonder what he’d say about my approach today.
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