THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Alan King
Title: “My Life as a Humorist”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.
For years I haven’t even invited on it a performer or an entertainer, certainly not a comedian. Once on an earlier series I had had the temerity to ask Fred Allen and Steve Allen to join me on a program about Will Rogers. Otherwise, I’ve sort of maintained my franchise by not ever taking the risk of coming in second best to someone else’s one-liners. And I know that’s been cowardly of me, but I’m not very likely to change my ways in major part. Yet I did meet a particularly fascinating man the other week, who besides being an entrepreneur and philanthropist and a film and television producer and a tennis maven, he is one of the funniest men I’ve ever laughed with. Besides, he’s been a friend of the political mighty in this country, and he has profound insights into their thinking and their humor and our own that I’d like him to share with us. So I’ve taken the plunge and I’ve invited Alan King to join me today without even making him promise not to laugh me off stage center.
Alan, thanks for coming here on THE OPEN MIND. I’m gulping, trembling with fear because it is such a new experience for me.
KING: Well, I promise not to behave like Don Rickles.
HEFFNER: Fair enough.
HEFFNER: Fair enough. You know, someone said that the essence of true humor is love, not contempt or not hatred. And yet since Will Rogers’ time, that doesn’t seem to be the theme of American humor. And I wonder why it’s been quite as hostile as it has been, particularly political comedy.
KING: Well, I think of humor as a reflection of the times. And I think Will Rogers or starting with Will Rogers, I think we’ve become hostile, and I think what comedy’s done is act as a release from the problems. So it’s always funnier, basically it’s always funnier to make fun of something you really dislike than something you like.
HEFFNER: But that isn’t what you’ve done.
KING: Well, in a sense, I think, in the early days when I did jokes about my wife and kids I think the audience was aware of the fact that I loved them very much. They went along with that. But when I talk about the AMA or I talk about the airlines or I talk about the insurance companies or I talk about Ma Bell, I think they know that there’s a fine line, but a line of, let’s say not hate, but dislike for that part of the system. So I think it varies. I think it‘s the subject matter. But generally I think I’ve got to get angry at something before I find it funny.
HEFFNER: You mean it’s Alan King, philosopher or political scientist or politician or political thinker rather than Alan King, humorist?
KING: Well, I think it’s a bit of both. But I’ve known through the years that the success, or whatever success I’ve had has come from the fact that I have been attacking things that other people would like to attack, would like to see. It’s a release for them. And also it serves a purpose. I was just at the Denver airport during the 72-hour snowstorm. There’s no monologue in the world that could capture that scene. It was the evacuation of Saigon. I mean, the only thing they weren’t hanging from the bottom of the plane…But when they saw me, everybody said, “This is a routine for you!” And it seemed that everybody started to laugh. The fact that I was there and that they’d seen me talk about the situation. So maybe it made it a little easier for them.
HEFFNER: What about the politicians? What about the political honchos themselves and their kind of humor? You’ve known a lot of these people.
KING: Well, I think an example, let’s say Mort Saul, who is one of our foremost political humorists. I think of Mort Saul as more effective during the Eisenhower administration because I don’t think he instinctively, intellectually and emotionally agreed with the Eisenhower administration. So I think he was much more effective and in a sense more funny. When he tired to keep an even hand when Jack Kennedy came in, I think he lost a great deal of the humor. So again going back to it’s easier to make fun of what you dislike than what you like.
HEFFNER: Yeah. You talk about dislike, and yet it still seems to me that running through your humor, it isn’t contempt or it isn’t real hostility. I mean, you talk about the AMA, you talk about your other targets, and yet I’ve never really felt that there was a man who is trying to tear down. Is that a limitation on my feeling?
KING: Yes, I think so, Richard. I think there’s a great deal of hostility in what I do. It’s only become more hostile as I’ve become older and have become more hostile. When I was younger, I think there was a great deal of love, much more love in my work than there is now. But then of course I was talking about my family.
HEFFNER: You mean now you’re just old and crabby?
KING: I think so. I think I’m getting angry as I get older. It’s a great release for me, you know. I don‘t have to spend too much time on a couch. I just get up on a stage and scream for an hour. But I do find that instinctively if it annoys me, if I’m angry, it’s easier to make fun of.
HEFFNER: You know, you and I are just about contemporaries. You’re younger than I am, but we’ve been through the same storm and grind together. And you think you’re reflecting simply the aging process or the age in which we live when you talk about changing as you get older? Are you talking about something that goes on as the cells get older, or as the situation in which we live changes and worsens?
KING: Well, I can only reflect on my own career. I started as a very young boy just before World War II. And we had the type of comedian, the Milton Berle type of comedian, the devil-may-care, the so-called hat with the brim up in the air. And then we went through the war years, where I found the humor changing. Even more daring. There was less substance. Everyone was on a three-day pass and the humor reflected that, I think.
HEFFNER: Why do you say “less substance”?
KING: Well, because we didn’t deal with important things because I don’t think anybody wanted to hear. We were living important things in a sense. I’m sure that there were people who were doing important things at the time in humor, but generally as I reflect, I thought it was kind of wild and crazy and for the moment. Red Skelton – I’m not taking away from Red’s ability – but I mean it was the Skelton kind of humor, dunking donuts and falling down, the snappy kind of thing, the Bob Hope type of humor that came through World War II. Then I think everybody went back home and started all their lives together, families, children, wives. And I know my own life, I started telling stories about family and home, trying to get a house in the suburbs. And so in a sense that was the period that we went through. Then of course we went through the so-called Woodstock period, Woodstock time. Then the younger comedians started to come around. I found that, I found it very difficult to find a great deal of humor in Woodstock. But just there were comedians of just, you know, that particular vintage. And now, I mean, with unemployment and with the political situation the way it is and the threat of nuclear bombs or disarmament, and I feel that, I get the feeling that the average man is getting the shaft. And that’s what I seem to be focusing on. I think the lack of care, and I don’t do it as a preacher, but I do it…And the thing is that the people identify. All I said is, “Did you ever try to get a doctor at two o’clock in the morning?” And that’s it. I mean, they start laughing. First there’s the immediate recognition of the pain. Or try to tell a nurse that you really need the doctor, that it’s not an emergency but I’m under a truck, you know I was just hit by a steamroller. The insurance company that sends you the calendar every year while you’re paying your premiums until it comes time to collect, well then you have the wrong insurance. You have fire and theft or fire or theft. But trying to get…I mean, you’ve been recorded at the telephone company. “What number please?” And then they play you Lawrence Welk, music for ten minutes, you know. And they’re funny, but first they’re frustrating. And I think that that’s, I think more that hate, maybe I overstated it. I think frustration to me is one of the great fans of comedy. Somebody trying to get in, even going back to Buster Keaton. Somebody trying to get in a revolving door or trying to walk down an up escalator. I think that’s…And people seem to identify with the problems of the little guy, I guess.
HEFFNER: And yet you’ve been associated with and identified with the very politicians who have presided over this crazy, crazy society of ours.
KING: Oh, I’ve known political figures from both sides of the aisle. And I have just found a lifeline now where I say this, I say that I’ve known Ronald Reagan for 30 years, and I’ve made fun of seven presidents now, and I’m not going to stop now, especially now when it’s easy. You see? And I said the same thing about Jimmy Carter. I said the same thing about Jerry Ford.
HEFFNER: Do you say it about Jack Kennedy?
KING: No, I didn’t.
KING: Well, I was much younger.
HEFFNER: Less wise, you mean?
KING: No. Maybe I identified so closely, maybe it’s because I was so close to Jack and to his ideas, his visions, his dreams. Although I did make, you know, I did make jokes about Jack Kennedy. But not, I don’t think I was as pointed as I am with, say, Nixon or…
HEFFNER: You mean then the funnier you get the sadder the state of society? You’re a…in a sense.
KING: In a sense, yes, yes. But I think that the audience feels something that comes from me which I believe that there is hope. It’s not hope, when I talk about these things it’s not, I don’t present them as if it’s hopeless or that the world is coming to an end. But I think it’s time, you know, when you think of the quality of some of the men, you know, that we elect, the last 25 years, although I’m sure that Will Rogers, he had Calvin Coolidge who was another brain surgeon.
HEFFNER: I was going to ask you about that, because the fact of the matter is that Rogers had such a strong political bent to his humor that things seem not to have changed that much.
KING: Well, but I, you know, it wasn’t my time. I grew up with, you see, I grew up with Roosevelt, and it was a religion almost, you see. And then I liked the guts of Harry Truman. But I was still searching for a form, comedy form. And when, Eisenhower was a very nice time. He didn’t bother us, we didn’t bother him. It was a very gentle time or quiet time. And Mort was on Eisenhower’s back, he was on that kick. But when Nixon came in, I guess he was probably the first political figure I actually disliked, you see. And so I started telling stories about him. And don’t forget, I told stories about him when he was at the height of his popularity. And I had many nights where audiences stood up and challenged me about, you know, and of course I’d have to avert the flag and apple pie and the American way to say what I said.
HEFFNER: For needling the president.
KING: Yes, for needling the president.
HEFFNER: What would have happened, do you think, if you had come to full maturity professionally while your hero Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House or while Harry Truman was in the White House? You were just making it then when Truman was there. But you seem to be saying you need a target.
KING: Well, if I had reached maturity at that time I probably would have done what Will Rogers did – probably not as well and not as gently – Rogers’ style was sly, down home, country boy, you know. You know, his chewing gum.
HEFFNER: I can’t quite see you.
KING: No, no, no. I go for the jugular. There’s no finessing what I do. There’s no finesse.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but again, it was never that angry. You talk about anger. I don’t know, for some reason you seem to want to be God’s angry man.
KING: No, no, no, no.
KING: No, no. Well, I was a young angry man fairly intellectually. And it just started t o seep into my work. It was something I couldn’t avoid. Not that I tried to, but it was there. And I think it’s important to be angry.
HEFFNER: Alan, would you like not to have people think that your humor is a reflection of anger? You seem to want to be the guy who is angry and whose humor is a function of…
KING: Well, it makes it a lot easier for me in that I learned in the early Ed Sullivan days when you were only given six minutes to do your monologue, where someone would come out and say, “Well, it’s so nice to be here in New York, and I was walking on the street”. Now, that’s a minute and a half. But because of the style that was evolving, I would look out and just say, “Did you every try to get a doctor on the phone?” and everybody’d say, “Oh, now we’re going to hear six minutes about doctors”. And it made it a lot easier for me. It was, in a sense, a gimmick or a way of getting into it.
HEFFNER: What about young comedians today?
KING: Oh, I think there’s a great deal of anger again. I think comedy is in pretty good hands. I think every generation gives birth to their own. Funny is funny. We still laugh at Chaplin, Keaton. But I’m quite impressed with the young comedians. I’ve been spending a great deal of time…There was a period there where I didn’t want to see them because I didn’t want to know if they were good. I just couldn’t see them. And then I got involved in casting for certain things and I started watching these young comedians. But in a sense, as different as they think they are, they really aren’t. I mean, I come out in a tuxedo and they come out in a sweater or coveralls or jeans or something. But the tempo is there, the timing is there. Something goes through all the spoken word in comedy that remains pretty much the same.
HEFFNER: What about the targets of all of the comedians, all the humorists? Let’s go back to the politicians. You knew Jack Kennedy, you knew presidents since that time. Was Kennedy’s involvement with show business people so strong that he could really appreciate the humor, whatever humor was directed against him?
KING: Oh, yes. I thought all men of humor appreciate humor directed against them, or I think. Oh, absolutely. Jack Kennedy would…And there were many dinners that I went to where I did some jokes, you know, Jacqueline Kennedy, you know, was, I mean, he was a man of great humor, and he had this theatrical way about him. And he was a great audience. Adlai Stevenson, particularly, Hubert Humphrey. They were very witty, and yet they sat there and took a lot of…and laughed and understood it, not just laughed.
HEFFNER: You seem to be saying that good humor is a function of belonging to the Democratic Party.
KING: I’m not going to say that, Richard, no. No. I mean, I…that the first image I had of Senator Dole was one of, you know, very severe, unfunny. Of course I’ve come to know different now. I’ve seen him, I’ve watched him. He’s a man of great wit. No, I’m not…It’s just that I’ve been much more intimate with politicians in the Democratic Party. I believe in a two-party system as long as my party’s in power.
HEFFNER: And your party’s the funny one.
KING: Yes, we are. I think, maybe.
HEFFNER: The one with the sense of humor.
KING: I think so. I think so. Then no one every accused Bobby Kennedy of having a sense of humor. But I saw Bobby in his own way, a man of great…He did jokes about himself, about his inability…I remember when Ethel, when there was a horse being mistreated on the next farm and Ethel took the horse over to her place to protect the horse and it was in all the papers. And I remember Bobby making a speech, he says, “It’s not easy being the husband of a horse-thief”. And then I remember one time Bobby, Jack got the quotes, but Bobby was quite humorous. I remember when he said, I think it was his maiden speech tat one of the press groups, I think he’d just become senator, and he said that he had, he wanted to dispel all of the rumors that he wanted to be a president of the United States; neither did his wife, Ethelbert. So I mean, you know, there was great humor there.
HEFFNER: What about your old friend, Ronald Reagan?
KING: Ronald Reagan is a man of great wit. He’s a great delineator.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, “Delineator”?
KING: You give him a joke, and he’ll tell it well. I mean, the timing is there, the professionalism is there. And also Ronald Reagan has been around the theater, show business, call it what you will, for 45 years. He’s learned an awful lot. And he uses it very effectively. Ronald Reagan can be and is very witty.
HEFFNER: What do you think about the, how do you feel about the idea of show business people playing such an important role in our political lives, whether it’s George Murphy or Ronald Reagan?
KING: There must be a need. There must be a great need. It’s the new heroes, the new image makers. I don’t know. I’d like to believe that we’re not second-class citizens, that we don’t have the right to become president. I’m a little concerned about the fact that they do. I don’t, I never felt that anyone in particular, seriously. I’ve campaigned for many people and I don’t think I’ve ever changed the world. All I’ve ever done was hold together a crowd that would hear the words of my candidate or to raise funds. But I always thought that Gregory Peck should be president. I mean, he looks…
HEFFNER: He looks it.
KING: Doesn’t he?
HEFFNER: Sure he does.
KING: Even if he had a beard.
HEFFNER: He’d be Abraham Lincoln, as he was recently.
KING: No, I’m not, I don’t hold the fact that Ronald Reagan is an actor for 40-some-odd years against him. Some of his policies I’m against, but that has nothing to do with the fact he was an actor. Jack Warner said what I thought was the wittiest thing I’ve ever heard. When Ronald Reagan became governor, Jack Warner said, “It’s our fault. We should have given him better parts”.
HEFFNER: But when Charlton Heston and Paul Newman and Robert Redford start to do battle with each other and people, I gather, attend to them careful and what they say in terms of nuclear matters or whatever it might mean, are you uneasy, easy, satisfied, happy, displeased?
KING: No, I think, well, I don’t agree with a lot of the things that they say. It would be one side or the other. But I think they have the right to say it. I think that if they’re going to call Chuck Heston a conservative, I think he has every right to speak out on conservative causes. And if Robert Redford is for the ecology and saving the alligator, I think he has every right. And if Paul Newman is against, is for a nuclear ban, I think he has every right.
HEFFNER: Alan, I’m not talking about right. Clearly they have every right to say whatever it is they please.
KING: Well, the minute they say it somebody’s going to put a camera on them.
HEFFNER: I’m asking you about how easy or uneasy you are about the rise in importance of entertainment figures in our politics.
HEFFNER: Not right or wrong.
KING: No, I, well, what makes me uneasy is that people look to them as mavens, you know, as experts. But I think it can be harmful. But again, going back to the right, well, let’s say in answer to your question I am a little uneasy.
HEFFNER: How much is a little?
KING: A little is I think that it’s sad that people have to go to Chuck Heston and to Paul Newman and to Robert Redford for an opinion. Or at least if it changes their minds, if these people change their minds, I’m very worried about them, I’m very worried about the country. I’m really worried about the country. And I’m not so worried…I’m worried about rich men. I’m worried about rich men, that the Congress and the Senate are becoming a rich men’s’ club. It’s a private club, and we can’t afford, who can afford it? You’ve got to build a business and then at the age of 55 or 60 with an inheritance say, “I’m now going to run for Congress or for Senate”. That frightens me more than actors speaking out. That it’s become so selective. No one will be using all of these talented young people. And I think what we’ve seen is that politics has a bad name. I guess since the Nixon, Watergate situation it’s taken on a Tammany Hall kind of connotation about all politicians in the abstract. This bothers me a great deal, because politics is, it’s the religion of a free society. We’re losing all these young people because it’s very difficult.
HEFFNER: How do you explain though, the importance, the increasing importance numerically of people in the entertainment world? Is it perhaps because they are accustomed to being in the public eye and it’s such a wicked thing to lose your privacy these days that way, and there they are anyway?
KING: I think it helps. I think it helps that they have this background, this training, you know, to be able to get in front of a camera, to be very comfortable with people. But I don’t think that should prevent them to seek for office. But as against a Hines or a Kennedy…What really disturbs me is that politics is becoming the career of the very special, of the very, the rich or the famous. It just seems to me, I mean, I thought that you studied political science in school, you started as an assistant to a judge or you campaigned for a candidate and you grew up within the system, within the political system so that when it was time to make your move you had all of this training. What bothers me is the qualifications.
HEFFNER: But how, isn’t it particularly realistic those qualifications, well, or the capacity to perform, these are the areas in which we look to expertise among our politicians today, particularly the capacity to perform? It’s not so strange.
KING: Well, but they’re so superficial. Just the fact that someone is attractive and someone has the wealth to campaign is not, it’s not what good government is all about.
HEFFNER: It’s not the way it used to be.
KING: No. I mean, how do you tell your kids? I mean, Lincoln grew up and he had to walk and he had a log cabin and he split logs and he walked 17 miles to school and he held so many jobs and he had a legal background. He was the champion of the oppressed. I mean, if you look at his history and you look at his early days as a lawyer you knew that this man had feeling for people and grew up in the system. Roosevelt, I…well, in a sense I guess I’m contradicting myself because Ronald Reagan did have background in labor, he was the head of the union, he did become Governor of California. I guess what I’m saying is I’m very confused. But in answer to that original question, yes, I am a little disturbed.
HEFFNER: Alan King, I think that’s probably the point at which we say let’s end this program and sometime soon we’ll pick up with more of that disturbance. Thanks for joining me today.
KING: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.