Funny is as Funny Does
VTR Date: April 4, 1987
Guest: Allen, Steve.
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Steve Allen
Title: “Funny Is As Funny Does”
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, I vowed a long time ago to stick to my own last in broadcasting (as in the rest of my life), realizing that even to try to stretch whatever minor information I do have beyond its obvious and quite pronounced limitations was to invite disaster…was unwise.
Translated into English, that means that over the years I’ve invited to THE OPEN MIND doctors and writers and lawyers and journalists and philosophers and publishers and politicians and business tycoons and publicists and pollsters and any other any ancient journalist who’s been around as long as I have, could legitimately at least try to deal with. But only once, I think, have I invited to THE OPEN MIND an entertainer-humorist, in fact, and would you know, I slipped on a banana peel, fell right on my face, didn’t do justice to my very talented guest or to my very patient audience…and certainly no to my very embarrassed self. So I resolved: never again.
So that it only seems as though I’m going back on my word by inviting entertainer, humorist Steve Allen here today. Because – though since the 1950’s late-night Steve Allen show back in Pat Weaver’s wonderfully exciting early days of television I have thought of my guest today as a favorite entertainer and humorist, and I am so pleased that now he’s come back to New York to that better medium, radio – still he’s always been so darn much more than that, too, that I’m going to deal with him here and now essentially as citizen Steve Allen. No jokes. All serious. Or so it would seem. Steve, I welcome you here.
ALLEN: Thank you, Richard, it’s an honor to be with you.
HEFFNER: Well, I know that comedians want to be tragedians and tragedians want to be comedians. But you’ve been them all. You’ve done just about everything.
ALLEN: Well, I have never, as a performer, consciously thought I’d like to do, you know, Hamlet or anything of that sort. But oddly enough, whenever I am hired in a straight acting role, it is almost never to perform a comedy. I don’t know why that is; maybe others see something in me I don’t see in myself.
HEFFNER: Yes, but, you know, I go back over the list of books, not just how to be funny, Steve Allen with Jane Wollman, McGraw, Hill, Discovering the Comic You Can Be, but I go back to, well, this book of what was it, ’79?
HEFFNER: Steve Allen’s The Ripoff, the Corruption That Plagues America and I wondered how did this entertainer, this humorist, who always made me laugh and makes me laugh now, how did he come to be quite serious about quite so many fundamental wrongs in our society?
ALLEN: As distinguished from comedians – and that’s an honorable profession, too – humorists, I think, have very serious intentions. If we think of the great ones – among whom I’m unfortunately not numbered – Voltaire, Twain, Thurber, whatever names you want to throw on the table, they were up to something quite serious, generally. Even Robert Benchley had a good social conscience, although much of his best work was purely silly. So it’s not all that puzzling, I think. One uses one’s gifts to make others laugh or smile, to make, very often, important points. Some of my work comes out of anger which I feel in my capacity as a citizen. As a comic, I just laugh a lot all day long at the foibles and inadequacies of the whole universe, come to think of it. But I got into writing that book, Ripoff, because of a…oh, maybe a 30-year period of study about organized crime and attendant corruption in this country, and there have even a number of instances over the years where I’ve spoken publicly on that subject and written publicly on it. But, again, there aren’t too my laughs in Ripoff, but I was a citizen, as I’ve said before, before I was an entertainer, so in that capacity, I write such studies.
HEFFNER: What has been the impact, not just of the book, Ripoff, but your other serious, more serious message oriented…
ALLEN: Well, one (laughter), one impact is that there are certain nightclubs and other entertainment spots around the country where I’m not hirable, which is interesting. The reason is obvious enough; the people who run those places are more kindly disposed to organized crime than they are to organized law enforcement. And if I could induce some of my law enforcement friends to open a few nightclubs, I’d be working there even more often. But I’m not complaining about that because I work a seven day week anyway.
HEFFNER: But you know, Steve, in reading Ripoff I had to keep thinking how in the world does this guy keep working, and you do, as you say, I thought it was an eight day week…
HEFFNER: …when I look at all the things you’ve written and all the things you do…
ALLEN: I don’t know. I can take no credit for anything I do really, any more than I can take credit for the color of my eyes, for precisely the same reasons. I was never consulted as to what color my eyes might turn out to be. And neither God nor man or any other force I could recognize has ever asked me if I wanted to be funny or to be tall or to be able to write dozens of songs a day and that sort of thing. It just happens.
HEFFNER: Comes on now.
ALLEN: I am. I am coming on.
HEFFNER: Sure, you are tall. But writing dozens of songs and writing these books and being a “cause” person – and you do take up many causes – that’s not just as it all lay there to begin with.
ALLEN: I think it is. And it’s sad because (laughter), I say it’s sad because there’s nothing therefore that can be learned from it. I wish I could say, “Young people of America, I was born a dummy and I made myself smart.” No, I guess I was always smart and again, I’m not taking credit for it. It’s like always I was tall, at least after I grew up. I’m on pretty much automatic pilot. Forget me, forget I’d ever been born, it’s easier to make these points about others. Oscar Peterson is not the best piano player simply because he practiced more and had more determination; he is simply superior. Leonardo daVinci was not a freak of versatility as well as an all around genius, because he went to a Dale Carnegie course or he had an uncle who encouraged him a lot. Nothing of that sort was operative. And now, to return to myself, it’s never even operative in my case. I have been encouraged by certain teachers, I was discouraged by a greater number, come to think of it. And my family did not recognize that I was in any way unusual, they thought I talked a little too much, up until the time I was about seven. But I never studied composition; I’m a musical illiterate, in fact. Of course, some very great musicians are musical illiterates. My favorite pianist, the late Harold Gerner, could not read music, but he was still my favorite piano player. So there’s something genetic, I think, about, well, perhaps all human gifts. Which is not to say that environmental influences are not important; they can make you better, or they can ruin you.
HEFFNER: But, you know, there seems to me to be some kind of contradiction between that emphasis upon that genetics, if you would, heredity, and your own social conscience, which is obviously quite profound.
ALLEN: I feel strong emotions at contemplation of injustice, but, then again, that’s like perspiring when it’s hot. I didn’t decide to do that. Sometimes people say, “Isn’t it wonderful how courageous?” No. To the extent that I’m conscious of feeling any emotion in some situations, it’s an emotion of cowardice or fear or apprehension. I know that I’m getting into hot water sometimes, but I have to speak my mind, if there are people lying in the streets or other people being poisoned by radiation or whatever the issue is. Now I think all, practically all, concerned citizens feel these same general reactions, and I’m lucky in that I’m already in the public eye. If I were running a supermarket in Altoona, Pennsylvania, I might do even more as a citizen. But you wouldn’t be interviewing me now.
HEFFNER: Well, let’s go back to this question of humorists having something more to do in their lives than make jokes. Is that true, do you feel, of most of the humorists today? You mentioned a number of humorists in the past, Twain and others, who used their humor purposefully.
ALLEN: Yeah. Art Buchwald says some of the wisest things being said about matters of government and the goings on in Washington. Russell Baker certainly does, Erma Bombeck not so much, perhaps. Although I don’t read Erma every day, so I’m not an authority on her. But I think it’s fairly common for the humorist, again, as distinguished from the punster or the comedian or the clown, to be up to something. And even those comedians who are clowns or pantomime artists or whatever, very often are responsible, concerned citizens. You see them picketing or sending thousand dollar checks to some good organization, that sort of thing.
HEFFNER: Course I was reminded in the researches that Meg Hanlon dug up, and I’d really forgotten this, that not very recently, 22 years ago now, you were about to run for Congress, too. To show just how serious you were about being serious.
ALLEN: (Laughter) That was not the purpose of it. I had been asked to run for one office or another ever since about 1959, ’60. I moved from New York to Los Angeles. The first person to bring the possibility to my attention was Norman Cousins, a dear man and a great citizen. He should be President or anything. But in any event, he wanted to see me…we had lunch. And we made small talk for a moment, and then he said, “Let me get down to business here.” He said, “I’m glad you’ve returned here to California and apparently you’re going to be based here now permanently.” I said, “Apparently.” He said, “I want you to being to prepare yourself for service in the Senate.” (laughter) I remember it literally, I laughed in his face. It sounded, you know, like as if he was saying, “I want you to prepare yourself, you’re going to be a saint” or something. It seemed to me preposterous. I later, as I got older and more mature and a bit wiser, I realized that while I have no interest in running for office, nevertheless the reason I laughed at his proposition was because I had a sort of an ideal Frank Capra image of what a senator was. Now that I know what Senators are, there really wouldn’t have been much of a problem. But, anyway, I said, “Well, thank you Norman and for now, no, I’m busy.” And there were three or four other races, there were some people came to me about the Governorship of California, some others came to me about a Congressional situation. The answer was, “No, thank you.” And then one instance came up, I’ll try to make this quick cause it’s fairly dull. Jim Roosevelt who had been…was in the middle of a sixth term as Congressman from the 26th District in the Los Angeles area, retired for what reasons we still don’t know and it left 10 months of his term unfilled. And that called for a special election, so some of the party people came back to me and said, “Here’s a special situation we want to bring to your attention. We want you to run here, if we could induce you to do so, only 10 months of your time will be required to serve in Congress. If you like it, you could do it again and if you didn’t, so what have you wasted, only 10 months.” And on that basis I got interested. So I called Hubert Humphrey to solicit his advice, and I called Bobby Kennedy – we were friends – and they were both very encouraging, and Bobby gave me a little more practical advice than Mr. Humphrey did. He said, “You already have a great deal of social influence when you speak out on something.” He said, “Therefore, you should only run if it’s practically certain that you will win.” He said, “In Congress,” he said, “you could do a great deal of good. But if you lost, your influence would be weakened.” Very practical advice, indeed. There wouldn’t have been much difficulty about winning. It has nothing to do with my own virtues, if any; it was an overwhelming Democratic and Liberal district. So I started the race and I had a marvelous time for about three weeks. Turned out I loved campaigning. And then they realized that I was registered as an Independent, a fact they should have checked at the outset or should have asked me about. And there’s a lot more fine print to the story, but that ended it right there, for all practical purposes. And I don’t plan to repeat the experiment.
HEFFNER: To your sorrow? Ended it?
ALLEN: Well, there’s a certain disappointment. I mean, if you’re going to go bowling on Thursday and suddenly it rains, you’re disappointed that you’re not bowling. But the disappointment wasn’t much more severe than that. I was already doing 14 other things for a living.
HEFFNER: How do you feel as a performer, as an entertainer, about those in your chosen profession who have gone into politics?
ALLEN: Yes, there were those who used to say that actors shouldn’t get into politics. Since Ronnie got into it, I haven’t heard that anymore. Of course, one could make out the same argument (laughter), looking at the evidence from the other side. But you don’t really hear that much any more. Clint Eastwood ran for something…Fred, whatever his name is, from “The Love Boat,” he’s now a Congressman, I believe, in Iowa. Yeah, certainly if an actor has done his homework, if he is not just, you know, a hired announcer, a hired mouth, to mouth one political philosophy or another, which I disapprove of. I think there ought to be intelligence in office on any level. But granted that, an actor or an entertainer has as much right there as a dentist or an undertaker or a farmer, and we’ve had all of those in Congress.
HEFFNER: You’re not uncomfortable about that, then. By and large, given the entertainers you’ve known. I mean, you can’t separate the question…
ALLEN: I know some conservative entertainers or actors and some liberal entertainers or actors, so this is not a partisan statement, who I would not want to see in office, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s all they are selling is a front, a cardboard front, they smile, they wave and they’re charming, but very often their knowledge isn’t that deep about important issues on which, at least, it ought to be that deep. So again, I don’t care whether they are liberals or conservatives. I would want to know how much homework they’ve done and how intelligent they are.
HEFFNER: Of course, there are those who say they have the primary requisite and that it is an ability to relate to audiences, to the American people.
ALLEN: That is true. It’s both a good thing and a bad thing. We do have to communicate and some very good men in office, or who like to be in office, are deprived of, at least recognition of their expertise or greatness, if any, because they’re terrible speakers. I did a book about a year ago called How to Make a Speech, which grew out of that concern. I once introduced Senator Eugene McCarthy…I can do him no harm now by making this minor revelation. And I admired him greatly; he was courageous, and he looked marvelous, wouldn’t he have made a handsome President? I can just see his face on a 50 cent piece…great. All Presidents should look like Gene McCarthy. And a scholar, gentleman, he had 74 great, you know, qualifications. And I gave him a rather fiery introduction; I was all fired up about whatever that night. And in five minutes, Gene, dear fellow that he is, had put the audience to sleep. I had the same experience once in introducing Jimmy Carter, who did get to be President, but turned out to be a very ineffective communicator as President. So there is that problem and again, that’s not a partisan statement. Both parties have dull speakers, sometimes who are very good men.
HEFFNER: Of course you remind me, perfect cue, to let Jeff Square know that we’re going to show a clip of you saying something about the role that an entertainer has.
HEFFNER: You may remember, although you’re so much younger than I am, you may not. But 35 years ago, we did a program together, not on THE OPEN MIND, but another program, you and Fred Allen and I were talking about Will Rogers.
ALLEN: There was a humorist who was up to something.
HEFFNER: Up to something, you mean in terms of politics?
ALLEN: Yes, and he was a brilliant man, and he said some wonderful things. Yes. He cared about the people.
HEFFNER: Well, the point I was making was that there was a point in the program, and we’ve run the tape to that point, at which you commented on what’s required of a guy who on the Make Believe Ballroom or the Steve Allen Show, is the impresario. And I’m going to ask that it be shown now. Let’s just look at it with the audience for a moment.
ALLEN: I can’t wait to see what I said 30 years or so ago.
ALLEN: 35, my goodness.
ALLEN: (from clip) The reason for that too is that, the reason that some of us do a lot of work and seem to keep working is that we do very little. If you pay close attention, the people who do less on television, I think, last the longest. Ed Sullivan, for example, I’m an admirer of Ed’s, I don’t mean this as a criticism, just an observation.
FRED ALLEN: (from clip) He’s the one.
ALLEN: (Laughter) He really doesn’t do anything, if you get down to it, except say, “And here they come,” you know.
HEFFNER: Still true, that people in that position, all they have to do is point and say, “Here they come?”
ALLEN: Well, it was Fred Allen, oddly enough, coincidentally enough, who once referred to such people as “pointers.” He put it in a much more funny way. He said, “You could rub meat on the actors and a dog, a cocker spaniel, could point to them.” (Laughter) Lift his little paw, and there they are. And that is true, Ed Sullivan was a pointer. He was certainly not an entertainer, although he was a dear fellow. But in the talk show setting, very much, I think that still holds up. The talk show people that have lasted over the years in some cases have literally no talent whatever. They had other qualities, thank God, but talent was not included. And then there are still other talk show hosts who did have talent, or do. But, again, the point is talent is certainly not required. And many people have tried to host talk shows over the years and they had so much talent that you didn’t want to see them every day. Jerry Lewis is about as funny as a human being ever gets, but 90 minutes of Jerry a night was too much, you know. And I love his work. Donald O’Connor, one of the most talented men in the history of show business; Sammy Davis, certainly a very talented fellow. And there are other instances we could cite, just were not right. There was too much to them, they were too busy and too adorable. Whereas a guy like Dave Garroway, who was a lovely man and a great citizen, but had zero degree talent, he made great sense; he put you at ease. He was “good Old Dave” back again this morning, or had he been late at night, it would have been the same thing. So there’s something to that just being a nice guy and not annoying people which can give you 30 or 40 years on television.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, not annoying people…I watched the full half-hour of that old Man of the Year show and some points, for some reason or other, you and Fred Allen began to talk about chewing gum or doing things on the air. And you made the point that yes, you had once annoyed the daylights…
HEFFNER: …out of a viewer by chewing gum.
ALLEN: I think a lot of viewers. I think I got about 20 angry letters. I didn’t realize I had the gum in my mouth. I’d been chewing it back stage and somebody said, “You’re on, and here he is, Steve,” and I walked out – this was, I guess, eight o’clock Tuesday night or something, full network. And during my opening monologue I was chewing a little bit and I got very close to hate mail. “How uncouth!” “How vulgar!” “How common!” You know, people hated that. So in my answer I said, “Well, Will Rogers used to chew gum and I loved him, you know.” It wasn’t much of a defense because I guess one should not chew gum on the air. Or while making the Gettysburg Address or whatever.
HEFFNER: Well you know, go back for a moment to this question of what talent is. I remember watching you and thinking when you’d break off one of the moments in your show and start to play the piano, and I’d think, “My God, this guy has so much talent,” whether you were talking, pointing, or playing the piano. What do you felt you find most comfortable doing now, besides writing the books, writing the songs, making the speech, doing the meeting of minds, whatever it may be?
ALLEN: My answer will probably disappoint you because one wants to hear me say, “I prefer tap dancing most of all” or whatever it might be. I really have an equal degree of enjoyment from all my activities. I am not equally competent at them all. My primary gift is for the composition of music. I’m a pretty good pianist, good enough to fool the people; they think I’m much better than I really am. I can’t even play the scale in the key B natural, for example. But I make a lot of albums and they’re pretty good. But I’m a very good composer. Why be modest? I am a damn good composer. As to how funny I am, one guy will say, “Very funny,” other people will say, “I never laughed at him.” So that’s a matter of individual judgment. But I love them all. I like to write a short story just as much, not more, than I like to, as I like to write a poem.
HEFFNER: And The Make Believe Ballroom?
ALLEN: That is a fascinating experiment or experience. For those who don’t know what we’re talking about, other parts of the country, I’m on the air either two or four hours, five days a week, for WNEW, here in town. It started out as a 90 minute, or rather 90 percent records and 10 percent comedy show. We’re now about 65 percent comedy and playing a few less records. I didn’t plan it that way, but it’s just turning out that way. And that’s what’s exciting the listeners, I think, who call in.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but I remember Martin Block, what was it, 99 percent…
ALLEN: Oh, yes. And for many years…
ALLEN: Under the late William B. Williams.
ALLEN: Both excellent disc jockeys. I’m not a disc jockey. I’m not putting that down, it’s just that that’s not what I do for a living. So I approach that program in my capacity as composer, humorist, comedian.
HEFFNER: Now. Now, how much politics in the humor? How much would you permit? How much would be permitted?
ALLEN: You mean how much would I do, how much would I permit myself? I’ve always said pretty much whatever is on my mind. And I comment, oddly enough that’s 99 plus percent ad libbed program, those four hours a day. The comedy is practically all right off the cuff. And whatever is in the news, I’ll comment on. Every comedian in America, with the possible exception of – well, I can’t even think of an exception at the moment – must have been doing jokes in recent weeks and months about Ronald Reagan’s memory, about him saying to Nancy, “Get off my back,” about Don Regan hanging up on Nancy, about the whole Contragate thing. Whatever is in the news and whatever has some inherently ridiculous components to it, this is grist for the mill for not only editorialists and social philosophers, but funny folk, too. So I do that sort of thing.
HEFFNER: Now, question that occurs to me, of course, is how important is that funnyman commentary on the news in terms of making, creating, molding public opinion?
ALLEN: Very important. A French thinker is reported to have said, “I care not who writes the laws of a nation, were I permitted to write its songs.” I think you could even make a more emphatic statement, “Were I permitted to write its jokes, its humorous columns.” The combination of what Russell Baker and Art Buchwald and Johnny Carson’s opening monologues and Woody Allen’s latest movie. This accumulates into a very profound, I think, impression on the public consciousness. And for the most part, for the good, I think.
HEFFNER: More now than before, do you think?
ALLEN: Yes. There were certain comics in the past whose views, whose popularity was so dominant, that of Will Rogers, to return to him. He was the only thoroughly beloved comedian in history. Nobody ever disliked Will Rogers. For the rest of us, you can always find somebody who’s not that too thrilled with us. Everybody loved Will Rogers, and he said some great things. In fact, if you see one of those one-man shows, he sounds like a wild left-winger and here he was saying these things 50 and 60 years ago, you know. Because he cared about the people. He came from the people. He was a beautiful man. Not so much now to that extent in any one man, but there are many more people doing it now. They are outnumbered. I mean, we always have had very few Mort Sahl’s and Lenny Bruce’s. But even Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, who are not really social philosophers, nevertheless do jokes from the subject matter of the front pages. And I think they do a lot of good in that way.
HEFFNER: But mostly the jokes that have a political taint to them. Taint, strike the word. Angle to them. One-sided or another?
ALLEN: They’re pretty one-sided, but that has nothing to do with a conspiracy among left-wingers or Democrats or Liberals.
HEFFNER: What does it have to do with, then?
ALLEN: It has to do with the mystery of creativity and where it is sprinkled into the political spectrum. In most cases, creative people, whether they are sculptors, painters, whatever they are – they tend to be left of center. I don’t mean they tend to be Marxist; very few of them are, if any. But they do tend to be left of center. Johnny Carson is really not a very political person. Bob Hope is very conservative. And yet I think Bob would be surprised to be told that his last 800 jokes have been very liberal. That’s of course because he doesn’t write them (laughter) and he doesn’t even care what they say; all he cares is, “Are they funny?” If they are, he’ll do them. And he’s a conservative Republican, but he does a lot of anti-Reagan jokes simply because he knows they’ll get a big laugh during a given 18-day period.
HEFFNER: Now this, this mystical something, the way it happens. Develop that.
ALLEN: It has to do with the subject, I think, of criticism, or the place of the artist and the creative philosopher in society. The creative artists work with what’s wrong; they try to take chaos and make order out of it. They try to take ugliness and make beauty out of it. They try to take nonsense and make sense out of it. I never thought of this before (laughter); I should talk to you more often. And that is generally a matter of criticizing the status quo. The status quo in this country changes every few years and even then The Man is there or another Man is there, the currents move slower, but they do move. And in our context that means you’re generally attacking a kind of either middle of the road or a generally conservative form of philosophy. So it’s coming in from the left side of that. And that is why most of Johnny Carson’s jokes are, are left-wing, even though he, himself, is not, particularly. And Nancy once called him up and said could he please stop doing all those jokes about Ronnie, and he was just doing them because they were funny. But the Reagans were, I guess, being wounded by them.
HEFFNER: Well, you, yourself, just said that you think that these jokes, that the humor, accumulatively has a considerable impact.
ALLEN: Yes. Well, there’s proof of it in that telephone call from the White House. But I think it’s clear, if one had ever been the butt of jokes, even anyone watching right now, if there are eight guys at the office doing jokes about you, you’re not too thrilled with that, perhaps. Depending, of course, on what the jokes say. If there’s a lot of good-humored joshing, which you may love because it’s about how gorgeous your hair is or whatever the subject matter might be. But generally comedy is about tragedy. And if the tragedy is yours, you may not be all that amused if you’re the butt of the joke.
HEFFNER: Listen, maybe we ought to license comics then.
ALLEN: (Laughter). Well, I’ll take that under advisement. I won’t reject that out of hand. If I could be the licensor, then we (laughter) we might have something.
HEFFNER: Steve Allen, I do appreciate you joining me today. And do come back and I’ll stimulate you to these…
HEFFNER: …to these cosmic thoughts.
ALLEN: I’m honored, as I said earlier, to be here, Richard. Thank you and you have made me think…oh, eight or 10 brand new thoughts.
HEFFNER: Thanks, Steve.
ALLEN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please do write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 01050. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation.