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(Joe McNally)

Being Funny

How the pathbreaking comedian got his act together

"Wait," I thought, "let me explain my theory!"

In Los Angeles, there were an exploding number of afternoon television talk shows: "The Della Reese Show," "The Merv Griffin Show," "The Virginia Graham Show," "The Dinah Shore Show," "The Mike Douglas Show" and my favorite, "The Steve Allen Show." Steve Allen had a vibrant comedy spirit, and you might catch him playing Ping-Pong while suspended from a crane a hundred feet in the air, or becoming a human tea bag by dropping himself in a tank of water filled with lemons. In his standard studio audience warm-up, when he was asked, "Do they get this show in Omaha?" Steve would answer, "They see it, but they don't get it."

On May 6, 1969, I wangled an audition for Steve Allen's two producers, Elias Davis and David Pollock. They accepted me with more ease than I expected, and for my first appearance on "The Steve Allen Show"—which was also my first appearance on television as a stand-up—I wore black pants and a bright blue marching-band coat I had picked up in a San Francisco thrift shop. Steve's introduction of me was ad-libbed perfectly. "This next young man is a comedian, and..." he stammered, "...at first you might not get it"—he stammered again—"but then you think about it for a while, and you still don't get it"—stammer, stammer—"then, you might want to come up onstage and talk to him about it."

The "Steve Allen" appearance went well—he loved the offbeat, and his cackle was enough to make any comedian feel confident. Seated on the sofa, though, I was hammered by another guest, Morey Amsterdam of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," for being unconventional. But I bore no grudge; I was so naive I didn't even know I had been insulted. The "Steve Allen" credit opened a few doors, and I bounced around all of the afternoon shows, juggling material, trying not to repeat myself.

I recently viewed a musty video of an appearance on "The Virginia Graham Show," circa 1970. I looked grotesque. I had a hairdo like a helmet, which I blow-dried to a puffy bouffant, for reasons I no longer understand. I wore a frock coat and a silk shirt, and my delivery was mannered, slow and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority. After reviewing the show, I was depressed for a week. But later, searching my mind for at least one redeeming quality in the performance, I became aware that not one joke was normal, that even though I was the one who said the lines, I did not know what was coming next. The audience might have thought what I am thinking now: "Was that terrible? Or was it good?"

From these television appearances, I got a welcome job in 1971 with Ann-Margret, five weeks opening the show for her at the International Hilton in Vegas, a huge, unfunny barn with sculptured pink cherubs hanging from the corners of the proscenium. Laughter in these poorly designed places rose a few feet into the air and dissipated like steam, always giving me the feeling I was bombing. One night, from my dressing room, I saw a vision in white gliding down the hall—a tall, striking woman, moving like an apparition along the backstage corridor. It turned out to be Priscilla Presley, coming to visit Ann-Margret backstage after having seen the show. When she turned the corner, she revealed an even more indelible presence walking behind her. Elvis. Dressed in white. Jet-black hair. A diamond-studded buckle.

When Priscilla revealed Elvis to me, I was also revealed to Elvis. I'm sure he noticed that this 25-year-old stick figure was frozen firmly to the ground. About to pass me by, Elvis stopped, looked at me and said in his beautiful Mississippi drawl: "Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor." Later, after his visit with Ann-Margret, he stopped by my dressing room and told me that he, too, had an oblique sense of humor—which he did—but that his audience didn't get it. Then he said, "Do you want to see my guns?" After emptying the bullets into his palm, he showed me two pistols and a derringer.

The plum television appearance during the '60s and '70s was "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Bob Shayne, who in the late '60s booked "The Steve Allen Show," had moved over to "The Tonight Show" and mentioned me to its producer, Freddy De Cordova. Bob showed Freddy a kinescope of my appearance on "The Steve Allen Show," and Fred replied, "I don't think he's for us." But Bob persisted, and Johnny saw the kinescope and said, "Let's give him a try." I was booked on the show in October 1972.

There was a belief that one appearance on "The Tonight Show" made you a star. But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing. The sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, "Hi, I think we met at Harry's Christmas party." The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The 12th time you do the show, you might hear, "Oh, I know you. You're that guy."

But I didn't know that. Before the show, as I stood in the backstage darkness behind the curtain of "The Tonight Show," hearing the muffled laughter while Johnny spoke and waiting for the tap on the shoulder that would tell me I was on, an italicized sentence ticker-taped through my head: "I am about to do 'The Tonight Show.'" Then I walked out onstage, started my act and thought, "I am doing 'The Tonight Show.'" I finished my act and thought, "I have just done 'The Tonight Show.'" What happened while I was out there was very similar to an alien abduction: I remember very little of it, though I'm convinced it occurred.

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