Why did Burton search for the Nile? Why did Amundsen trek to the South Pole? Why did McGuire seek Amsterdam? The answer is simple: It was their destiny. Plus, somebody else paid the way.
For years I nursed the dream of going out to Hollywood and divining comedic truth from my mythical dean, Morey Amsterdam. I longed to understand the cosmic mysteries of comedy: Why is funny funny? How does one become funny? Am I funny enough? Somewhere in those Hollywood Hills I knew I could find the answers.
My role model is the Beatles, who went out to the Himalayas and asked the maharishi for the words to some good songs. They came back with wisdom and lots more hair. Given the rapid spread of my bald spot, I figured the extra hair would be a nice bonus.
In an inspiring moment of journalistic courage, the editor of our Existential section gives the OK for my quest — although there is a very minor flap later. “I thought you were just gonna make a few phone calls,” he gasps as he looks up from my expense statement. Naturally, I laugh, for the boss is coming right out of Lesson 14: the Misunderstanding Element.
Anyway, the first thing I do is confirm that Morey, now 85, is still well and residing in good humor in Beverly Hills. I track him down by phone, and in a cloying blurtation of hero worship, beg for an audience. His thrilling response is brief, but rich with that familiar, sarcastic Buddy Sorrell chuckle: “Sure. Why not.”
I grab the next flight to Los Angeles and sit beside a glib sportswriter heading for the coast to cover a baseball game. He spends five wired hours alternating a wearying barrage of one-liners with chapters from a tragic story that many fringe comedians know all too well: Neither his boss nor his wife thinks he is the least bit funny.
In Los Angeles I check the phone book but find no listing for the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. Hmm. Unlisted perhaps? To guard against a daily flood of unsolicited bad jokes?
With time to kill before the next day’s interview with Morey, I drive up through the Hollywood Hills, north of Los Angeles, to the Laurel Canyon home of a friend, Bob Ward. Once an acclaimed intellectual novelist from Baltimore, he’d tired of being poor and defected to Hollywood nine years earlier to write TV scripts. In spite of his literary pedigree, Ward is one of those truly manic comic geniuses who is always loud, always outrageous, always on. His wife, Celeste, is out when I arrive, and he’s just put his 3-year-old son Robbie to bed. He comes down the stairs wearing a pair of those goofy fake eyeglasses, where the plastic eyeballs, attached to slinky springs, dangle grossly at cheek level.
The perfect guy to help me prepare for Morey Amsterdam.
Ward piles some cold spinach linguine onto a plate and stands in the middle of the kitchen, shoveling it in while I wax on about the Hollywood School, Dean Amsterdam, and comedy theory.
He interrupts with a story about how he and a friend had once spent an evening reading aloud from Henri Bergson, the Proust-era French philosopher of time and memory, who’d also written a theory of comedy. “It was so dry,” he laughs, spitting bits of pasta. “There was this one line where Bergson says ‘Now, you may laugh at a hat . . .’ We kept repeating that line all night long and laughing hysterically at it. It just seemed so absurd.”
The more I thought about it, the more the unlisted number began to make sense.
“I tried stand-up in New York years ago,” Ward says. “The first time I did it, I was a hit. The second time I got cocky and did it off the top of my head and I got killed.”
Later, a man he considered his mentor pulled him aside. “Bob,” he scolded, “you’re just an existential clown.” Guilt-ridden, he spent a year writing a dour, socialistic novel, but even so, found he couldn’t keep the human element out of it.
“You need a sense of your own comedy,” he tells me. “To me comedy and sadness are the same thing, one bleeds into the other. The very same thing that could be funny one minute could be sad the next. Hollywood wants movies to be all funny or all serious, but what was the No. 1 movie last week? ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’ It’s just like real life; it has both comedy and sadness. I mean, you and I are laughing one day and the next day someone dies. It doesn’t mean the comedy wasn’t real or the sadness wasn’t real. Both are real.”
Which is why, he says, he has shied away from writing for sitcoms, and has stuck with writing and producing gritty, real-life dramas like “Hill Street Blues” and “Miami Vice.”
“On comedy shows you’ve got to keep coming up with gags,” he says. “It’s a gag every minute. After a while it gets monotonous.”
But gags, I protest, are what Morey and the Hollywood School hold out as the essence of life. He shrugs and writes me a list of comedy-writer friends to interview. I notice, then, he is favoring his back. He winces and says he pulled a muscle, and had tried explaining to his son that he couldn’t give him a piggy-back ride.
“He gives me this sad, knowing look,” says Ward, “and he says, ‘Daddy, I’m so sorry your back hurts. But . . . it’s time to play fire engine!’ ”
I head back to my hotel, Ward’s pained laughter rattling my brain. That and the curious echo of “Remember, you may laugh at a hat . . .”