Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1988 -- All rights reserved
Back in December 1977, when The HUMOR Project was just getting started, I had the good fortune to learn of the existence of a very decent and talented human being, Bob Orben. His support and encouragement through the years have meant mucho to me, and he has impressed me from the beginning with his genuine kindness, integrity, and graciousness. He is a real gentleman in every sense of the word.
In addition to being a decent human being (as if that weren't enough), Bob is also the dean of professional comedy writing. He has been a TV comedy writer for Jack Paar, Red Skelton, and Dick Gregory, a speechwriter and consultant for business leaders, Special Assistant to President Gerald Ford and Director of the White House Speechwriting Department. In his spare time (hoho), he conducts humor workshops for business and political communicators, and has written 46 books-- including such titles as 2400 JOKES TO BRIGHTEN YOUR SPEECHES, 2100 LAUGHS FOR ALL OCCASIONS, 2500 JOKES TO START 'EM LAUGHING, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ONE-LINER COMEDY, and THE AD-LIBBER'S HANDBOOK. For many years, he has also edited ORBEN'S CURRENT COMEDY, a valuable on-going humor service described in more detail at the end of this article.
Bob and I got together for this interview at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. a few months before the symposium on "Humor in the Presidency" mentioned in "Ed-Libs." It was not surprising to me that at the end of that symposium, President Ford was accompanied by his right-hand humor man, Bob Orben, in the closing press conference. President Ford noted that "Bob Orben launched me in my appreciation of the power and uses of humor."
Bob Orben has launched many laughs throughout the world in the past 40 years. He is omnipresent-- chances are that some of his 400,000 jokes have already landed in your life and tickled your funnybone. Write on, Bob!
Joel Goodman: One of the things I learned early on is that some of your humor roots are in the land of magic. Could you relive those thrilling days of yesteryear?
Robert Orben: I don't know about thrilling, but that was back in 1945. I was 18 years old and was demonstrating magic in a professional magic store called the Conjurer's Shop in New York City. Comedians major and minor used to come to the Conjurer's Shop searching for professional comedy material. But there wasn't any. There are thousands of joke books on the market, but most are meant to be read, rather than performed. I sensed a vacuum and when you're 18 years old you fear nothing, so I turned out a book called THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PATTER, which was an immediate hit and subsequently went through 20 or 30 printings. That pointed me on the way.
JG: I'm intrigued with the magic-humor connection. People like Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett were involved in magic before entering the world of comedy, and I just interviewed David Copperfield (see the previous issue of LAUGHING MATTERS). He's doing some intriguing work with magic and humor in hospital settings.
RO: There is a commonality between myself, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and others who have begun in magic, and the similarity is in our shyness. Magic was something to hide behind. If you're doing magic, the concentration is on the trick itself, so the audience theoretically isn't watching you. Of course, they are-- (laughter). I had what I considered the world's worst case of acne, and I was very much afraid to meet people, and certainly going on stage was a tremendously difficult thing for me to do. I used to suffer from stage fright terribly, and as a result I came to the conclusion that maybe I'd be better off as a writer. And indeed, only in the last 15-20 years do I now get up in front of audiences. For many years I wanted to be a writer because it was a way of being in show business without putting myself on the line to the extent that the performer goes on the line.
JG: How did you get your foot in the door with working with some of the people like Jack Paar and Dick Gregory?
RO: It began over a period of time. The books sold fantastically well in show business. For one whole generation, I'd say most comedians got their start using the Orben books. It was quite common in those days to have a young comedian go in to a booking agent and say "I do Orben-type material" which would be the topical one-liner short jokes. And in fact I came close to suing Lenny Bruce because he ran an ad in VARIETY, when he was first starting in the business, in which he was trying to point out that he did a different type of act. And it started off, "No corn, no Joe Miller, no Orben." Thirty years later, I look on that as sort of a compliment as to how well Orben had saturated the market, but at that point I got mad about it, and I was going to sue Lenny Bruce until my lawyer said, "Who knows Lenny Bruce?" (Laughter) Well, so much for foresight.
In 1955 or thereabouts, I got a letter from Dick Gregory, that was typical of many letters that I received and still receive, asking if I would write special material for him. But unlike others, Dick Gregory had said that he had been working on odd jobs and was also a performer in the south side nightclubs, and he had saved up $250, which was not an inconsiderable amount of money back in the '50s. He wanted me to write a monologue or an act for him, and he felt sure that this would help him in show business. I had sort of a form letter that I sent back at that time, saying that I could write material for you, but until you knew who Dick Gregory was, until you developed a unique persona, a unique point of view that was purely Dick Gregory, all I could do would be to give you more of the same type of material that you already have in the books, and I would not be giving you fair value for your $250. So at the point where you know who Dick Gregory is, please be in touch.
We fast forward now to 1961, and I'm coming back with my wife from a show and it's one or two o'clock in the morning, and there's a telegram under the door of our apartment, and it said, "Please be in touch with Dick Gregory at the Playboy Club in Chicago." I had no idea who Dick Gregory was. So I called, and he reminded me of the letter, and he said, "I've found my point of view, in fact in two days there will be a two-page story about me in TIME magazine, and I'd like you to now write for me. You and me are goin' places, Bob." And I said, "Well, I'll tell you, Mr. Gregory, (and I was thinking to myself, I've heard "You and me are goin' places, Bob" many times in my life), it's been a good year for me. I'll spring for the 50 cents for TIME magazine on Wednesday, and if there's a two-page story, I'll call you back." And come Wednesday, there was a two-page story about Greg, I called him back, on Thursday I was in Chicago, on Friday he was in New York, and we signed an agreement for me to write material on a daily basis, and for the next six years he got a page of material a day from me. It was a lovely arrangement; we never had a dispute, we never had an argument. I consider Dick Gregory one of the best employers I've ever had.
JG: Is there anything that stands out from the six years you spent with Red Skelton?
RO: Well, just the marvel of Red Skelton. It becomes a cliche to say these major comedians are our national treasures, but they are. Red so loves being on that stage, and making people laugh. I remember one time we came in to do the show in front of a live audience, of course. But we were told that Red was very sick, had some intense form of the flu, and we weren't sure that he was going to do the show, so we should stand by to have the show cancelled. Red decided to do the show, and he came out and he was a mass of sweat, and it was obvious that he had a fever, and was very weak on his feet, sort of swaying a little as he got into the opening monologue. Then he started to hear the laughs. It was as if type A plasma was being pumped into him and you could see the strength coming back to the point where not only did he do the show, but he was so exhilarated by the audience that he stayed there and did 20 minutes of his nightclub act afterwards, just to say "thank you" to the audience.
JG: In the introduction to 2100 LAUGHS FOR ALL OCCASIONS, you take a look at the humor-creativity connection and talk about Da Vinci and Edison. Could you elaborate a bit on your view of how humor and creativity come together?
RO: Da Vinci both wrote and performed comedy--what we would call stand-up comedy today, and Edison kept notebooks of jokes. Da Vinci and Edison had the same sort of mathematically-oriented mind that most comedy writers have. Now that seems like a contradiction, because many comedy writers are wild people who can't balance their checkbook or maintain a stable lifestyle. But there is much more of a computer matchup in premises, in subject matter, in formulae, in words and sounds in comedy than you might imagine. And consciously or unconsciously every comedy writer goes through this computer matchup in order to write jokes. There is much more order in the mind of the average comedy writer than the layman might perceive.
JG: I'm intrigued with what I call the discipline-freedom balance of both humor and creativity. Contrary to popular belief, there is an incredible amount of discipline involved. Certainly, in your career, as you meet your quota of creating 25 jokes a day, you put that discipline into practice.
RO: When I was on the Red Skelton show, occasionally CBS would get letters asking them to send out a real live comedy writer to one of the colleges to talk. Sometimes I was asked to do that.
I remember during the Q & A, many students would ask how difficult it is to get started in the business. I would always ask them, "How much time did you spend writing this week?" And they would say something like, "Well I spent two hours over the typewriter every day this week." I would always point out that I'm a professional, with at that time 20 years in the business, and I put in 70 hours. You can't wait for the muse to tap you on the shoulder. We couldn't tell Red Skelton, "I'm sorry Red, we couldn't think of anything this week," because he would find eight writers who could.
There's always a difference--I can tell in my own work what is inspiration and what is craft. If I'm not feeling particularly creative, I will still deliver the goods and the goods will work, because I have enough craft to rely on. But inspiration takes it one further step and you hope that will always be at your side, but many times it isn't.
JG: In some of my programs, I take a look at the humor-creativity connection, and talk about primary and secondary processes. The primary are those inspired times when you're "really cookin" and the stuff is just flowing out of you. The best thing to do then is to get out of your own way and let it happen. The secondary is when you're running into a block or can't think your way out of a paper bag--then you intentionally call on particular skills, tips, attitudes, and tricks of the trade to make it work.
This may be akin to asking Shakespeare to share the three most important lines out of his work, but are there three tips you might provide for those who would like to be more crafty when it comes to using and generating humor or comedy?
RO: The basic thing is to follow the advice that every writer has given to other writers, which is: you've got to write, and it isn't waiting until you feel like writing, you've got to write every day. I have turned some major comedians into their own writers, when I have told them, "You can write this as well as I can, if you sat down and did it." And I said, "Every day, you sit down with a pad, and if nothing happens, the next day you still sit down with a pad, and you think about what you want to write, and your style. Nobody knows you better than you do. You can write your own material."
The second is to see as much live comedy as possible. I'm not just talking about comedy clubs, because that's sort of a very narrow audience. Go see a variety of live show business that features comedy--Broadway productions, summer stock, little theatre, night clubs, anything where there's a live audience. We are turning out generations of would-be writers who get their impression of what's funny from situation comedies which are liberally laugh-tracked, and the laugh track likes everything, so you don't have a basis of determining what is funny and what isn't funny from laugh track.
I also suggest that you purchase a humor library, and it shouldn't be more than ten or fifteen years old, because humor does change radically. Read these books--not for hours on end-- rather for ten or fifteen minutes at a clip, two or three times a day. Just keep going through the books, over and over and over again. In time, you will get not only to know some jokes in a memory sense, but you will also absorb through osmosis the construction, what makes them funny, how to put the punch line and the punch word at the very end. You will learn comedy construction. And if you know the construction, then you can apply it to anything in your own life or business situation.
Third, be a performer yourself. I suggest that to speech writers. You will never be the maximum speech writer that you could be if you don't get up in front of an audience yourself.
JG: I talk about the notion of "prepared flexibility" in my workshops and programs, and I use a quote from Mark Twain where he notes, "It usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." In THE JOKE TELLER'S HANDBOOK, you talk about ad libbing, and that it doesn't have to be just by accident. If you do your "homework" and come up with a repertoire of lines to use, then when the situation presents itself, you magically can use the appropriate line.
RO: Absolutely. One of the things I have in all of my books is a contradiction in terms: Speakers' Ad Libs or "prepared ad libs." In any given situation, any speech, there are certain things that happen repetitively. You can count on the phone ringing at one point or another. Not every speech, but occasionally. You can count on the microphone not working. You can count on people being introduced to get an award and they're not in the audience. These are things that we've all seen time and time again. And you can just look embarrassed, or you can have in your memory bank answers to these situations. I've found that even the great ad libbers in show business are essentially drawing from memory banks of material that they've used before.
JG: In addition to "paying your dues," are there any don'ts in using humor about which we should be(a)ware?
RO: Sexist or racist material is absolutely out as is insensitivity in other areas. I remember three days after the Challenger exploded, I got three calls from reporters saying that they were shocked to hear that there were jokes about this, and I said it doesn't surprise me. I said, "You will never hear such a joke from me. I will give you the time-honored psychological rationale for these jokes," and did, but I said, "Frankly that does not explain the 99 and 99/100 percent of the people who not only do not think of the jokes but do not repeat them."
JG: In my own programs, I encourage people to look at the ethics of humor. We focus on laughing with others rather than laughing at others. We try to avoid the racist or sexist or other kinds of oppressive humor that will offend people.
RO: I sort of miscalled it--I have been saying for a number of years that people are tired of the hostile humor that has been prevalent in this country for fifteen years. I've predicted that there would be an era of gentler humor, and I thought it would go the zany route, and to some extent it has. But I never expected it to go the gentler route, and warmth route reflected in the Bill Cosby Show and all the copy shows that are springing from it.
JG: In looking back at your days working as head of the speech writing department for President Ford, are there examples of how humor entered your realm?
RO: President Ford liked and likes humor, and he feels it's a very important means of communicating with people and eliminating this enormous gulf that exists between a person in a powerful office and the average audience. And this is true whether you're the CEO of a large company, or the Pope, or President Ford. I used to be waiting in the ante room to the Oval Office, and there'd be somebody also waiting to go in. It might be somebody who was having a ten minute meeting with the President. You could see them moving their lips, rehearsing their first line to the President, and they'd come into the Oval Office, and start yammering. They couldn't get the words out in any coherent manner. President Ford always made some light comment to just give them a moment to regroup. He used this a great deal and he used a great deal of formal humor to put audiences at their ease. Certainly President Reagan has used it well, and so did Jack Kennedy, and even Lyndon Johnson, interestingly enough, used down-home stories a fair amount. I'd say a President of the United States or a CEO of a large corporation who does not have a sense of humor, and does not use a sense of humor is one down. And a pretty big step down.
JG: Do you have a joke hall of fame from your White House years?
RO: We tend to forget what tense times these were. As you look back, it seemed like such a simple transition that President Nixon resigned and the Vice President took over. History books will probably look at that more in depth, because nobody knew whether the system was going to work. We had no Vice President at that point, we had an unelected President, there were all kinds of questions about whether the public would accept it. There were rumors of the army being on special alert; we forget about all these things.
There was a tremendous need to communicate with the country. The second major speech that President Ford made was at Ohio State University. He began his speech by saying, "So much has happened since I accepted this invitation to be here today. I was then America's first instant Vice President. Today I'm America's first instant President. The U.S. Marine Corps Band is so confused they don't know whether to play 'Hail to the Chief' or 'You've Come A Long Way Baby.'" There was an interesting audience reaction. The President did this very straight, and there was a moment of split second silence when people were saying to themselves, "Did you hear that?" and then the place was up for grabs. It was a marvelously warm way of the President saying, "I realize that these are unusual circumstances that brought me to the Presidency, but I'm not intimidated by it."
JG: It's interesting again, another paradox. Humor can lead people to be "out of control," and "losing it," the place being up for grabs, but at the same time it's a way of showing you're in control.
RO: Humor is power.
JG: You've certainly demonstrated that there is life after the White House. You are the most prolific creator of one-liner topical humor in history-- or hysteria, as the case may be. Looking ahead, what do you want to be when you grow up?
RO: What I want to be is a sex symbol (laughter). But that's unlikely to happen. The trouble with being a workaholic is it carries you through a good part of your life, but at one point you start examining all of the things that workaholism has kept you from doing and enjoying, and I want to start filling in those gaps.
JG: If we were to have a toast for you at some point in the future, what we might say is that your hard work in creating over 400,000 one-liners over the years has brought much joy and laughter-- and has helped many people fill some gaps in their lives.
AN ORBEN SAMPLER....FROM CURRENT COMEDY
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