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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Attention, please, this is your pirate speaking

About writing jokes for The Tonight Show, way back when.

Comments (4)

I was working as a banquet waiter and Dick Cavett was the speaker at an event. I was a huge fan of his old talk show, because he had incredible guests, and was so intelligent. He could be witty and dry to a fault but every now and then you got to see him come up with comedy on the spot that was flat-out brilliant.

As this article points out, he was a joke writer originally and though I wasn't even aware that I'd be one, I was drawn to that field. Dick Cavett was so bright and well-respected that guests would really bring their A game just to deal with him. Comedians like Woody Allen, Groucho, and Mel Brooks. His original talk show was incredible times for late night TV.

In fact, there was a stretch after I had graduated from high school early and had not yet received permission to go hitchhiking around America, when it was just me and my Mom on this farm in New England, and we watched Dick Cavett every night. But I digress.

So Dick Cavett was speaking at this banquet here in Portland and he didn't want to eat at the function - he just wanted to come down and do the speech, and that's it. It made sense in a show biz way, but as I knew from his book, he's also a reclusive type and sadly has some serious depression issues.

Anyway, I was chosen to go up to his suite and bring him a banquet entree. He was a tiny person but he had that huge, distinctive voice. I told him how much my Mom and I loved his old show and he said, "Oh, you're the ones." I could see the entire comedian protocol - I was the audience and he was entertaining, but he was also kind and seemed genuine. I didn't sense any star trip at all and that's always nice.

I went in the main part of the room and set everything up, and he began to discuss how much he hated going to these events, and dreaded them. He kept saying how he was grateful I had brought the dinner because he couldn't stand banquets, and didn't want anything to do with the one that night. This is the setup, folks.

See, I also sensed that he wanted something funny to happen, just to burn off some kind of nervous energy he had. He did seem uncomfortable like he could use some kind of fun moment just for a laugh.

It's no mystery. Comedy is a way to keep things from getting awkward. It's partly an invention so shy people can be in social situations.

There was a large TV in the corner that had been quietly on with some show like COPS. Suddenly, it got really loud as these officers began arresting this man in a business suit.

Cavett was still talking about banquets, and how much he didn't want to go down to this one, but he turned to the TV and said, "What's going on here?" I felt the comedy force so I just said, "Oh my God, that's the banquet manager", and ran out of the room. I could still hear him laughing as I went down the hall.

Epilogue: It had gone so well as a comedic moment, that I actually thought he might mention it in his speech. He didn't - for one thing he had a zillion anecdotes that were amazing, but that was the time I met Dick Cavett and made him laugh.

Great story Bill!


I had the extreme high pleasure of having Molly Ivins repeat a joke I came up with. We had an ACLU fundraiser in western Michigan (dominated by Dutch reformed Calvinists). She was asking some of us about the politics, and I was explaining about the whole DeVos/Prince Amway/Blackwater thing and came up with "Think Utah with trees" and this giant guffaw came out. She not only repeated it in her "local color" before she got to the prepared remarks, she even gave me credit.

You get that high all the time. Me, likely that's my one per lifetime.

Nice. Wasn't Molly Ivins great? I guess I'm in a nostalgic mood partly because of changes in late night and Jack's hiatus. The name Molly Ivins reminds me of when I waited on Ann Richards. She had quite the sense of humor herself especially when it came to the first Bush president: ""Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

I sometimes think of how nearly it didn't happen for me. I was watching a certain late night talk show host on Larry King, and a guy called in from Portland saying he had sold a few jokes to the host and asked him for a job. This was in the early 90s. You could do that back then, so I thought I'd try it. I literally thought of the joke I'd send while taking a leak during the next commercial: "Now that the Mars probe has crashed NASA is scaling back their plans. On their next mission they're going to try and map Raymond Burr."

Like Dick Cavett, I just tried to do an impression of what these jokes sound like. It wasn't something I'd say in my own life. I did notice I could write them fast. I could do a marketable late night joke on every story of the nightly news in real time as the stories went by. That made me go, "Hmmm..."

So I wrote this first joke out and mailed it in and the next day, Raymond Burr died. I'm not kidding. Suddenly my joke seemed like a really sick thing. It was completely unintentional - I didn't even know Raymond Burr was ill. So I thought, "There goes that long-shot idea. Next."

A couple of days later, my letter came back. There was something wrong with the address so it had been returned. I opened it up and changed Raymond Burr to Dom Deluise and sent it back.

Shortly after that they sent me an independent contract form, and it's been a lot of laughs ever since. I just passed the 20th anniversary of my first joke that aired on national TV, and although I stopped counting years ago - after I hit joke #500 - I still get a kick out of it.

Here's one of mine from last week:

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