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What I Learned About Laughter from the Legends

President Gerald Ford: People Enjoy Humor
President Gerald Ford taught me a lesson about comedy. As a writer for Bob Hope, a few of my favorite lines were written about the former President and his errant golf shots.  When he retired from office, he moved to Palm Springs. I penned a line for Bob Hope that read, “There are 186 golf courses in the Palm Springs area and Gerald Ford never knows which one he’s going to play until his second shot.”

“The Prez,” as Bob Hope called him, was also known to hit a few spectators. Bob Hope said, “When you play with Jerry Ford, you don’t have to keep score.  You just look back along the fairway and count the wounded.”

I had the privilege of meeting President Ford once and I apologized to him. I said, “Mr. President, every time I hand in jokes, there’s at least one page of gags about your golf.” 

He said, “Keep writing more of them. I steal them and use them in my speeches.” 

His comments taught me that people enjoy humor. They enjoy it even when it’s about them. Perhaps they enjoy it most when it’s about them.

(Gene Perret: Center Left and Bob Hope: Center Right)

Bob Hope: You’re Always Learning Something New
Humor is a fascinating study. Once working late on a television show, Bob Hope began practicing his golf swing. He told me that he had a lesson that afternoon from one of the pros who was playing in his golf tournament. Hope said, “He showed me how to begin the downswing correctly” and he illustrated that. 

I said, “Bob, how long have you been playing golf?” 

He said, “Oh, I started in vaudeville. Probably over 50 years.” 

I said, “And you just learned now how to begin your downswing correctly?” 

Hope said, “That’s the thing about golf. You’re always learning something new.” That’s true of comedy, also. Over the years, many of the legends of comedy taught me some valuable lessons. 

Phyllis Diller: Good Comedy Must Be Based in Truth
I used to mail my jokes to Phyllis Diller. She would mark the ones she wanted and send me a check. One particular gag was marked for payment and then erased. This was many years ago, but the gag remains in my mind. It was a routine about how badly she treated the family car. 

It read, “Fang complained about my driving. He said, ‘I’ve had to replace the clutch three times.’ I said, ‘Don’t blame me. I never use the clutch.'” 

When I asked Phyllis why she changed her mind she said, “If you don’t use the clutch, you would have to replace the transmission.” Then she added, “Honey, if it’s not true, don’t send it to me.” She taught me that good comedy must be based in truth.  It may be exaggerated or distorted, but there must be a recognizable element of truth to it.

(Phyllis Diller and Gene Perret)

Jack Benny: There Must Be Authenticity
Jack Benny also taught me a lesson about honesty in humor. I had written a piece for Jack which he had problems with. He was not happy with any of the proposed solutions. He felt they were not realistic. His manager then suggested, “Jack, it’s only a short bit, why don’t you just do it.” 

Jack said, “How many times do I have to tell you? If I’m doing a joke about my Stradivarius, I have to be holding my Stradivarius.” Jack was telling all of us that there must be an authenticity to humor.

Bob Hope: The Goal of Humor Is to Get Laughs
Another time, I was rehearsing with Bob Hope and he was not feeling well. He had extensive dental work done that day and he was worried that it might affect his performance. I said, “Tell the audience what you went through. They’ll understand.” 

He responded with, “I don’t want sympathy; I want laughs.” 

At one writers meeting, Hope asked for a line and I ad-libbed one. He said, “That’s not very funny.” It wasn’t, really, but I felt compelled to defend my joke. 

I said, “Yes, but it delivers a solid message. If you deliver that line in front of an audience, you’ll get applause.” 

He stared at me for awhile and then asked, “How long have you been writing philosophy?”

Those exchanges taught me something that seems to be overlooked more and more in comedy—that the goal of humor is to get laughs. 

With all due respect, there were times when I taught Mr. Hope some realities about comedy, too. At one rehearsal, the entire cast which included quite a few major stars, sat around a table reading through the script. After one joke didn’t get a solid response, Hope said to me, “We need a new joke there.” I tossed an ad-lib at him. He said, “No, that’s not it.” I immediately tried another gag off the top of my head. It wasn’t much better and Hope rejected it. I tried a third. Hope said loud enough for all the cast to hear, “Gene, when we do a joke on my show, we like to have people know what the heck we’re talking about.”  I feigned anger, slammed my script shut, tossed my pencil to a far corner of the rehearsal hall and said, “Bob, now you’re getting into more expensive comedy.”

There’s always something more to learn and enjoy about good comedy.

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I’m basically a comedy writer and much of my experience has been in television. I’ve won three Emmies and one Writers Guild Award for work on the “Carol Burnett Show” staff. I worked for Bob Hope for over 28 years and for Phyllis Diller even longer. … Read More


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