Making a Schmock-Schmockery of Humor
The Creative Gift of Steve Allen

Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1988 -- All rights reserved
This first appeared in Laughing Matters Volume 2, Number 4


Steve Allen's is definitely a mind worth meeting. In the previous issue of LAUGHING MATTERS, I talked with Norman Cousins about the connection between humor and creativity. Steve Allen is the personification of that connection.

Andy Williams once said, "Steve Allen does so many things, he's the only man I know who's listed on every one of the Yellow Pages." It is difficult, in fact, to believe there is only one Steve Allen. He is the creator of the TONIGHT show, has authored over two dozen books, has starred on Broadway and in motion pictures, has recorded some 40 record albums, has created and starred in many tv shows (e.g., THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW, THE STEVE ALLEN COMEDY HOUR, the Emmy award-winning PBS series, MEETING OF MINDS, etc.), and has written over 4000 songs (e.g., "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," "Impossible," etc.-- he sees himself as a pianoholic), and on and on.

Steve is a pushover for comedy. He loves to write it, act it, and watch it. Some 92% of today's comedians break him up. He worries why he doesn't laugh at the remaining eight percent.

For years he has been known as one of the greatest ad-libbers in the business, taking advantage of situations as they come up and getting laughs out of them. Hundreds of his off-the-cuff one- liners are legendary. Announcing the final score of a big game between Harvard and William and Mary, it came out: "Harvard 14, William 12, Mary 6." When someone in the studio audience once asked him if they get his program in Boston, he quipped, "They see it, but they don't get it." A psychologist once interviewed on an Allen show announced that the only two instinctive fears in humans are the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling. "I have a great fear," replied Steve without missing a beat, "of making a loud noise while falling."

"When I ad-lib something, I laugh. I laugh for the same reason the audience does; I never heard that joke before-- and I'm just as surprised as they are." This statement captures the essence of Steve Allen's success for 40 years in the spontaneous creation of humor in front of an audience.

I have marvelled at and enjoyed Mr. Allen's abilities over the years, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview him for LAUGHING MATTERS. What follows is an up-close and personal look at the man who has made a schmock-schmockery of humor, and a taste for some of his insights on the humor-creativity connection.


Joel Goodman: When I give a speech or lead a workshop, one of my goals is to invite people to think while at the same time enjoying themselves. That seems to be a cornerstone of your work, too.

Steve Allen: I recall a professor of biology at Drake University my freshman year who started out his lecture the very first day by tossing a hard-boiled egg out to the class. I caught it because it came in my direction. He was funny, and because of that I was interested in what he had to say. Although I've never been a particularly scientific sort, I nevertheless got high marks in biology that year. I was fascinated by everything in the course and I attribute that greatly to the humorous approach.

JG: Did you bring a baseball glove to class after that first day?

SA: No, but I was lucky, because he didn't throw any more eggs.

JG: I'm not pulling your egg when I say this-- you and Norman Cousins are two of the people I greatly admire. Both of you have the ability to balance seriousness and silliness. This is in contrast to many professionals who take themselves so seriously. I think it's very possible to be a serious person without being solemn.

SA: Most-- or perhaps all-- of the people whom I've met in public life who impressed me the most had a sense of humor.

JG: In previous writings, you have commented that "comedy is about tragedy." You had some tough times in your early life-- did that play a part in your own humor evolution?

SA: I suppose it did but I was never conscious of that while it was taking place. My mother and father were a vaudeville comedy team, and she was a very witty woman. And wit was indeed a common element and mode of communication in our home (I say "our" because I was raised by my mother's side of the family). There was only one aunt who was square and all the others were witty. It's hard to say how things would have been different had I had an absolutely marvelous experience as a child. I don't know whether the negative factors in that early experience had any effect on my humor, but they certainly helped serve as a survival mechanism.

JG: You've also written that "many events are not humorous at the time, but only in retrospect." With the cushion of hindsight, are there any situations that have tickled you years later?

SA: None that are hysterically amusing.

JG: I'll even settle for historically amusing.

SA: There are some things I look back on with some degree of amusement that were not funny when they occurred. In fact, they were embarrassing. Had they been captured on film, we could have used them on the tv specials I'm doing, "Life's Most Embarrassing Moments." One example-- one Christmas when the children were young, I realized that I was several days late in getting our Christmas tree.

There was a tree lot about three blocks from our home, so I jumped in the car one night and raced over there to pick up a tree. After selecting one, I had the task of getting it from the lot to the house. I didn't have any rope to tie it on top of the car, so I thought I'd just put it on top of the car and drive very slowly. I'd hole on with one hand...I only had three blocks to go on side streets with little traffic.

So, I put the tree on top of the car, got in the car, reached up and got a good grip on the trunk of the tree, and then reached over and closed the door firmly-- on my arm.

There was nothing funny about that when it happened, but it's a perfect example of the kinds of things that seem funny later. In fact, there's an utterly unrealistic aspect to much of what's called "situation comedy" today. That is, there's the illusion of realism-- people speak in the vernacular and scratch their stomachs while talking and all sorts of real-life things. However, they are speaking in a way that, were they to address others so in real life, it would very rarely elicit laughter, largely because most of the dialogue consists of insults. On tv, they put in any kind of insult and the audience will laugh at it-- and if they don't the laugh machine will.

JG: It's interesting to juxtapose what you just said with Victor Borge's notion that "laughter is the shortest distance between two people." When used in a positive, nurturing way, humor certainly can bring people together. I'm curious about important people for you-- who were some humor mentors or models for you?

SA: The first professional person I had a conscious sense of idolizing was Robert Benchley. I must have been 14 when I chanced to come across one of his books in a second-hand bookstore. I was hooked by him on the first page, if I had to wait that long. For the next several years, I made it my business to track him down in second-hand stores and libraries. I must have read his every word.

After Benchley, I would list Fred Allen as someone I appreciated. I began to listen to him attentively when I was 15 or 16 and enjoyed his workright to the end of his radio career. I love his humor and was very fond of him as a person.

I also loved Groucho. We were real friends. He was funny just hanging around. No matter what you said, especially if there was an audience, he would make it funny.

JG: You talked earlier about your mother being a witty person. She must have served as an early model and reinforcer for you.

SA: Yes, I think that's a valuable insight on your part. We all learn, right or wrong, and we tend to start learning very early. Whatever works for us, we keep in the act, so to speak. Like a little kid-- he's got one tooth missing or his hair sticks up or whatever the heck it is about the kid that makes people laugh-- he recognizes early, never consciously, but easily, that laughter is a form of approval. Whatever is rewarded, we tend to keep doing.

JG: In case somebody didn't get rewarded early on, in case someone wasn't the "class clown," in growing up...is it too late to "teach an old dog new tricks?"

SA: It's never too late. It's not impossible to teach people anything, although there are certain times when learning takes place more easily. The best time to learn a language, for example, is between one and a half and five. But you can certainly learn it later. The same is true with humor.

JG: My initial hypothesis in starting The HUMOR Project was that it is possible to "make sense of humor"-- for people to be intentional about inviting laughter into their lives.

SA: Yes, people could do some formal or at least casual study about humor, and that need not be a stuffy exercise. In fact, it's not likely to be, since the raw material they're studying is funny by definition. God knows, there's enough commercially-available materials to them. There are funny books. Let them pick up a book by Woody Allen. Let them see a movie with Peter Sellers in it. A Richard Pryor concert. There's more than enough available. In our society, funniness is available in every hand.

And I agree with you that people can take charge. Look at Norman Cousins, who was in the opinion of medical authorities on his death bed or at least on the way. He simply took the matter in hand and decided he wasn't ready to die yet. He employed the device of humor to lift himself out of what otherwise could have been a very depressing situation.

JG: Would the same kind of humor work for everyone? I subscribe to the philosophy of "different jokes for different folks." In your books, FUNNY PEOPLE and MORE FUNNY PEOPLE, I am struck by the fact that there is incredible diversity in the senses or styles of humor. At the same time, I wonder if comedians or humorists have anything in common.

SA: I've worked with so many funny people...I'd have great difficulty boiling it down to essential elements. One of the reasons for that is that humor is, among other things, a matter of opinion. Some people say, "I think Eddie Murphy is the funniest man of the century," and others say, "You're crazy-- he's not funny at all." And they're both right in terms of their own perspective. The reason we laugh at Mort Sahl have nothing to dowith the reasons we laugh at Steve Martin.

I draw the analogy of sports. You might think of your 100 most gifted athletes. What can you say if you boil them all down? I think they have in common nothing much at all, except reasonably good health. The point is, you can't compare swimmers with people who run the mile. It seems to me that comedy is differentiated in almost as clearcut ways.

JG: You're someone who has been "running the smile" for sometime- - and you seem to be picking up speed. I know, for instance, that you did no significant writing before you were 30. How has your thinking evolved on "creativity" since you started to "write away?"

SA: Well, at the age of 30, my first marriage collapsed, which sent me into a sort of philosophical tail-spin. I began for the first time in my life to do serious reading and to make some sense out of life itself and the human experience generally.

The central factors explaining creativity seem to be profoundly mysterious. I am enormously pleased that we are taking a formal interest in the subject of creativity. Think of it-- the world has progressed almost entirely by the individual creative ideas of a rare handful of inventive individuals, men and women who refused merely to accept what was handed down to them but insisted on questioning what they had been taught, and committed the further radical and dangerous sin of adding to the body of common knowledge.

JG: Have you discovered any "tricks of the trade" when it comes to creativity-- any ways of turning on the light bulb when you need it?

SA: Independently I arrived at a working idea that I was later gratified to learn is now a fundamental principle of the art and discipline of encouraging creative behavior. Alex Osborn of the Creative Education Foundation, a pioneer in the field, taught that judgment should be totally suspended while the creative process is flowing. Although I lerned about Osborn's theories fairly recently, I had discovered that my own creative work flowed most freely if I simply decided to delay judgmental decisions until a later stage, at which time I could function perfectly freely as editor of my earlier output. But if I were self-critical at the moment an idea was developing, I could inhibit the full expression of it. Even in group-think sessions, sometimes in the context of television production, I have often instructed my staff people, "Let's just suggest any damn thing we think of at this stage. We can always throw something out later if it's not any good."

It is sometimes thought that there is a wide gulf between creative thinking on the one hand and organized, structured preparation on the other. But this is not the case. Some of my jokes are written in a sheer, out-of-the-blue way, but in other cases I can create jokes, of equal quality, on a more orderly basis. I discovered a good technique for priming the creative pump is to simply make a list of ideas or concepts commonly associated with a large area in question. For example, if I were writing a western or cowboy sketch, I would make a list of words such as: bunkhouse, sagebrush, critter, Gabby Hayes, six-gun, two-gun, ornery, side- winder, head of cattle, cactus, purple sage, sheriff, posse, Indian, pony, corral, etc. These words and phrases would then be the initial grain-of-sand around which a pearl of a joke might subsequently coalesce. (Editor's note: See "Up Your Thinking!" in the next issue of LAUGHING MATTERS.)

Another thing I discovered early in the joke-writing game was that the collaboration of others in a team process was helpful. Humorous ideas are, it seems to me, somehow structurally different from scientific ideas. In the case of basic science, there is something that pre-exists, in almost a Platonic sense, waiting to be discovered. Newton did not invent gravity; he discovered it. Einstein did not invent his famous formula; he discovered it. But as regards jokes, they are not only the result of new combinations of words or ideas but also grow out of attitudes. And the attitudes of others around you affect your thinking. I not only seem to be, I literally am funnier in the presence of certain people.

JG: In addition to "getting by with a little help from your (humorous/creative) friends," I've noticed that you also have a collection of "friends" here in your office: hundreds of black books filled with ideas that you have generated, clippings, etc. on a variety of subjects.

SA: I have a character weakness that makes me interested in everything. The whole world turns me on. I think if I was locked in an isolation cell and was given just one object a day, I could get by. I would much prefer to be in Cleveland, of course.

I am something of a compulsive reader, and a lot of facts and information come to my attention. I save whatever seems to be of particular significance or whatever relates to issues or questions that I have some curiosity about. Fortunately, I have an office staff that helps in the filing of this material. I do the underlining. They organize it for me, so when I say, "Give me the material on capital punishment," they have the material I need. I'm not sure how creative it makes me, but it is a very effective personal reference library.

JG: I know you also use a tape recorder to capture your ideas and creativity. Rumor has it that you "don't leave home without it."

SA: I'm so busy dictating that I don't have any time to decide whether what I'm dictating is any good or not. My brain is just constantly clicking with ideas...good ideas, lousy ideas, irrelevant ideas. Again, my "tip" to people would be: "Don't censor yourself at the early stages." A lot of people think of an idea for a piece of work and immediately before setting it down begin to put themselves down, even in their own heads. They'll think, "Oh, come to think of it, I read something like that once" or "Where would I sell it?" or "I don't think it's really such a hot idea."

That is very DUMB! Now it may turn out that it is a lousy idea and you can't sell it anyplace. But you don't know that. All you know in the early stages is that you have an idea. My advice is: Get it out! Make the statue! Draw the picture! Write the poem! You can always at any future time up to the time you drop dead have the great fun of tearing the thing up or burning it or throwing it in the garbage can. So don't get in your own way at the moment of creation. Let it flow!

JG: Speaking of dropping dead...you once said "It kills me that I have to die. I don't see how I'll ever get it all done." You certainly have done a lot with regard to important social issues- - whether it be dealing with injustice, nuclear weapons, etc. In fact, Bob Hope once introduced you as "the Adlai Stevenson of comedy," whereupon you flipped it with, "You might say I'm the Henny Youngman of politics." What is your thinking on applying humor to serious social issues?

SA: I do comedy for a living, and secondly, as you've observed, I have a serious interest in various questions. But I've never consciously thought, "Aha, because I'm funny or can write funny, I will therefore address the issue of capital punishment." I've never done that. It, nevertheless, has happened.

Occasionally, a funny song about pollution has occurred to me. For instance, I did a song about nuclear radiation in some of my comedy concerts and shows. I introduce it as a typical Hawaiian Island song, and talk about ukuleles and women with grass skirts and hula hula. After planting this idea of island music in the audience's mind, I then sing "Three Mile Island," written in typical, ukulele Hawaiian style. So that's an instance where the funny part of me addresses a serious issue. I simply got the idea and then wrote the song.

JG: I recently had the pleasure of meeting your son, Steve, Jr., who is a medical doctor who also juggles and does workshops on stress management. His humor and creativity certainly are wonderful to be around.

SA: I saw him in action recently, and was very impressed with the two presentations he did. He has a nice, easy style with the audience. It seems his own style. He's not a carbon copy of me, by any means. We share a sense of humor and that's always been an important element in our own communication. He likes the same funny things I like-- the old Sid Caesar form of comedy, and we can communicate on that level.

JG: I have an image of you going on WHAT'S MY LINE? as the father of the juggling medical doctor. Or, as the person who once said, "I'm not worried about my tv rating. I'm worried about mankind's rating." With your humor, creativity, and compassion, mankind's rating is definitely up!


And now, from the Steve Allen Ad-Lib Hall of Fame....

Interviewer: Mr. Allen, what do you think of sex on television? Steve Allen: Well, you've got to watch out for those antennas-- a middle-aged man could hurt his back.

You can get 8000 poems written if you don't spend all your life re-writing the first seven.

Interviewer: Mr. Allen, what do you think of Red China? Steve Allen: Personally, we use pink melmac at our house.

Without laughter life on our planet would be intolerable.


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