Crying With Laughter…
It was sometime late during the summer vacation of 1964 that a remarkable performance took place in front of a tiny audience in Mead Theatre. It was a political benefit for a campaign to defeat some piece of reactionary legislature, the details of which are lost to me now and the performer was Bill Cosby.
Now Bill Cosby was famous to me at this time because I had listened to and loved his records which were mostly recorded live at the Hungry i, but the Hollywood fame which would come after he co-starred with Robert Culp in the TV show I Spy, was at least a year away. So to most people my age he was not so famous. For that reason our audience that Sunday afternoon numbered no more than about twenty people and one motorcycle cop from the Marin County Sheriff’s Department. My brother Jim and I were joined by Tommy Harper, Mark Symmes and Ray Ray Sterios and, though we were small in number, we were a hell of a good audience.
I knew all Cosby’s routines pretty much by heart and he did them exactly as I’d heard them on the records. He performed for us like we were in Carnegie Hall. He did all his best material: God speaking to Noah, trying to park on the steepest hill in San Francisco, Toothache, Medic…the works. The wonderful thing about being such a small audience was that we were able, literally, to roll around laughing as there was plenty of room to do it.
He was one of a handful of comedians in the early 1960s whose material spoke directly to my inner world. He knew and was able to articulate several key details about being a kid. Like having his music going inside his head when he walked somewhere. That was me all over. I was always composing and performing the soundtrack score to the movie of my life.
Cosby was also more honest about his real feelings. In his Medic sketch he told of volunteering for the medical corps when he was in the army in Korea. The Geneva Convention clearly stated that they should not be shot at by either side, so he figured that wearing a helmet with a red cross on it would help keep him alive. Then when he was landing on the beach with the troops he was informed that the enemy was not adhering to the Geneva Convention. In his routine about parking on one of those practically vertical hills in North Beach, he shared his insecurities as a driver with us in a hilariously candid way.
Cosby did one routine which was a direct echo of something that had actually happened to me while playing after school out on the Pixie Trail with my friend Johnny Lem. There were two different trails and I was on the lower one while John was on the upper. We couldn’t see each other. He must have thrown a rock down in my direction and, peculiarly, it landed smack on the top of my head. It hurt but the shock was greater than the pain. In fact I’d almost forgotten about it when I suddenly felt something wet dripping off the tip of my nose. It was blood. I was bleeding from the top of my head. I didn’t panic and began the short walk home at a brisk pace.
I knew that my mother Beth would be washing the dishes behind the window on our front porch. As I walked I felt confident that everything was okay but that this was clearly an opportunity for some dramatic acting. I began working on my performance as I walked up the trail. There was now a lot of blood dripping down my face and onto my hands so that required no exaggeration. I began staggering like a seriously wounded man. By the time I reached our house I was very bloody indeed and lurched down the steps to find that she was right where I’d hoped she would be. Before she caught sight of me I added a few extra touches like dragging one arm along the ground to give the impression that I was losing consciousness. My audience of one swallowed it in its entirety. I was, after all, bleeding and her horror at the sight of me was genuine but I knew I would live and the fuss she made of me was hugely enjoyable.
Cosby was absolutely in touch with his childhood experiences and shared them all with us that day in Mead Theatre.
The comedians of the early 1960s were a new breed who brought neurosis into their material. The first time I ever saw Woody Allen was on Augie Belden’s television set. Allen was hosting The Tonight Show for a week and I had never seen anything like him. He was so funny and his humour was completely new. He didn’t tell jokes so much as interestingly involving stories with surreal gags thrown in.
In one yarn from his school days, Allen described a walk home from his violin lesson when he passed the pool hall. Because he had red hair this guy called out: “Hey Red.” Allen then put down his violin, walked up to him and told the guy that wasn’t his name and proceeded to articulate his proper name. A pause of inordinate length followed this information. The audience waited patiently and finally he said: “I spent that winter in a wheelchair. A team of doctors laboured to remove the violin.”
A favourite record of mine was by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks which featured a routine that Bruce Crawford and I were going to do for a rally at Tam but we never got around to it. It was The 2 Hour Old Baby. Bruce would do the Carl Reiner part and I was to play the baby. What made this particular routine funny to me was when Mel Brooks started turning back into the naturally inarticulate baby after yakking on like an adult for most of the sketch. Somehow that transition always made me fall to the floor laughing.
When Carl Reiner asked him how he felt about his father he answered: “I feel that dad is the kind of guy that will ga-ga-sahn.” As Reiner immediately asked what that meant he continued: “I feel that my father will always be the kind of guy that will take me to ball games and we’ll be buddies and we’ll syany…syanyfoy.”
“Syanyfoy?” asks Reiner, “I don’t understand. What does that mean: Syanyfoy?”
“I think that my father and I will probably get along well together since we’re both boys, we’ll probably run around and play ball and myanai….maniahyde.”
By this time I was convulsed and if Bruce and I had ever got the act organised it would have been a severe test of my professionalism to keep a straight face.
Jerry Lewis also caught me with the same transition in his movie The Nutty Professor. It was a reverse of the Jekyll & Hyde story in which this goofy looking scientist invents a potion which turns him into a smooth talking womaniser and while out on a date with beautiful Stella Stevens, Lewis suddenly began reverting to his true personna, blurting out nonsense in a quacking voice.
My brother Jim and I shared very little during our teenage years but one thing we always had in common was our sense of humour. Just as we had freely rolled around the wooden benches of Mead Theatre, we also would roll around the downstairs section of the Sequoia whenever a Road Runner cartoon was on. Of course the desert bird was not what made us laugh. It was Wile E. Coyote whose idiocy and physicality was so ridiculous that Jim and I would collapse laughing at pretty much anything he did.
I remember one scene opening with a shot of the road and a gutter off to the side. The camera followed the gutter as it snaked up the mountain to a place where the smug looking coyote stood next to a box full of cannon balls with fuses. There was a plug which could be pulled out, releasing the cannon balls down the mountain.
The “Beep! Beep!” of the approaching Road Runner rang out. With an expression on his face like victory itself, the coyote proceeded to strike a match and light each of the fuses. He then pulled the plug out but the cannon balls remained lodged in the box. “Hmmmm,” he seemed to say as he stroked his chin. His next move was to climb into the box and, while holding the top with his hands, he attempted to push the cannon balls out with his feet. The next move was him turning to camera with a look of tragic realisation. The screen then filled with a massive cartoon explosion which left him charred. This formula never failed for my brother and I. The coyote’s inability to recognise the obvious danger of whatever situation was the key.
There were a few people we went to school with who had a very professional way with their comedy. Jared Dreyfus was one. Jar’s story telling was always executed with great panache and he regularly held court amongst a gaggle of students hanging on his every word. Another was Tommy Harper who could reduce Jimmy and I to helpless jelly with the raise of an eyebrow. Tom had all the equipment of a professional comedian and I recall him regaling us with Jonathan Winters routines.
The best comedy of this time was more to do with characters rather than jokes. My brother and I were never good at telling jokes because we would always begin laughing at the punchline before it arrived.
Stan Freberg brought out an LP in 1960 entitled Stan Freeberg Presents The United States Of America. Jar Dreyfus and I would, over the years and without any encouragement from others, lapse into word perfect renditions of the various sketches. In fact this became a ritual with my siblings too and my nephew Matt Thornton performed the Ben Franklin routine at school to great acclaim. When Dan Caldwell overheard me doing Ben Franklin with Dreyfus one day he asked why I hadn’t used that voice while playing the part of Francis Nurse in his production of The Crucible.
The comedy of this time took over from pop music for me. So to have the opportunity to enjoy Bill Cosby in Mead Theatre was a rare treat indeed. After all you had to be 21 to get into the Hungry i and I, though 17, still looked about 12.