The next day I drive up above Sunset Boulevard into the older Truesdale Estates section of Beverly Hills. About three-quarters of the way up a steep hill, in a neighborhood lined with impossibly tall palm trees and incredibly posh dream houses, I find Morey’s place, a rambling, one-story structure spread over an acre and a half.
A woman in a crisp white uniform answers the door and I step into a bright, airy foyer tastefully appointed — as is the entire house — in the art and architecture of the Chinese Modern flavor.
I can see clear through to the large swimming pool out back, and, in a room just to the left, note a massive pool table. The woman shows me down a window-lined corridor to a cool, dark family room, adorned with paintings and rich wood paneling. The far wall is mostly glass, and the way the house is perched on the hillside, resplendent with lovely gardens, you can see practically to Tijuana. I am drawn to an adjacent wall, lined with bookshelves. The first volume that catches my eye is “Curly, The Improbable Stooge.”
On a shelf I note three photographs. One of Pat and Richard Nixon, one of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, each inscribed to Morey and Kay, his wife of 52 years, with warm wishes. The third shows Morey in the company of a familiar man I can’t immediately place. Then, from behind me I hear the shuffle of feet. I turn and see a thin, slow-moving, slightly built, very short man wearing glasses, a red flannel shirt, jeans and slippers without socks.
“You know who that is?” says Morey Amsterdam, shaking my hand and taking note of my interest in the third photo. “I’m in Vancouver playing a show and I get a call at my hotel. The voice at the other end says, ‘Morey? Phillip.’ ”
He says this, affecting a comic British accent.
“I say, ‘Phillip who?’ He says, ‘Prince Phillip!’ I say, ‘Oh, I thought it was the Phillip from Milk-of-Magnesia.’ ”
I laugh hysterically. It’s the dalai lama. The pope. The guru on the mountaintop. Sure his 85-year-old hair has a suspicious auburn tint, but it’s the Dean and I’m in his house. He smiles warmly, sensing a very easy audience. The show has just begun.
Several years ago the Saturday Review carried a piece in which famous comedians — Jack Benny and Fred Allen among them — named Morey Amsterdam as the leading authority on comedy in America. Though he says he was never the funny kid at school or even around the house — in fact, was raised by his concert-master father to be a serious, classical cello player — he went on to write jokes for just about everybody: Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Fanny Brice, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Red Buttons, Norm Crosby. He’s supplied five presidents with image-enhancing wit: Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
He also discovered stars like Art Carney, Vic Damone and Mel Torme on his radio and television show in the ’40s. Even before those five popular years with “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” from 1961-1966, his star was enshrined on Hollywood’s legendary Walk of Fame. What else from the only writer ever trusted by the legendary humorist Will Rogers to punch up his material?
“Here, I’ll show you an interesting picture,” he says, leading me into a small film-editing office off the family room. On the wall is a color photograph of perhaps 15 men in tuxedos, taken at a birthday party for Danny Thomas. It’s a breathtaking who’s who of early ’60s, Friars Club-style comedy. Along with Morey are Don Rickles, Milton Berle, Bob Newhart, Bob Hope, Art Linkletter, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Steve Lawrence, Red Buttons, Danny Thomas and George Burns. “George calls me in the hospital last year,” says Morey. “I had a blood clot on my leg. He says, ‘What the hell you doin’ in the hospital?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you, George, there was a man who was very, very sick and he couldn’t make it, so I’m filling in for him.’ ”
Each time Morey cracks wise it’s impossible not to hear Buddy Sorrell or see Mel Cooley come through the door. Instead, Morey heads back to the family room and takes a seat behind a desk where he has written gags every day for the 33 years he’s lived here.
“I tell people I’m the happiest fella I’ve ever met,” he says. “I look at the world through joke-colored glasses. My wife was asked how she would describe me and said, ‘He looks at an angel food cake and sees a pretzel.’ ”
Sitting opposite him, I have eased out the first volume from my dozen Hollywood School of Comedy Writing books. I start to babble something about it, but he’s already far away.
“I just wrote the craziest joke,” he says. “A magician in a theater says I need a little help from somebody in the audience. Some idiot puts his hand up and the magician says pick up this 2-by-4 and hit me over the head as hard as you can. The guy says, I can’t do that, I’ll knock your brains out. Please, he says, I’m the magician, I know the trick. Just do what I tell you. The guy picks up the 2-by-4 and whacks him on the head and knocks him unconscious. He’s in a coma for seven months. He wakes up one morning, he looks around and he goes ‘ta da!’ ”
He didn’t get that from his father, who, as head of the San Francisco Symphony and Chicago Opera Company, was the serious parent, regularly bringing home to dinner musical greats like Pablo Casals and Enrico Caruso. No, it was his mother, says Morey, who gave him his sense of humor.
“One day when I was about 10, the phone rang,” he says. “It was the butcher. Now, my father used to like brains and eggs for breakfast. My mother says to the butcher, ‘You got any brains?’ And she started to laugh. She said, ‘I mean have you got any brains at all?’ Finally she hung up the phone and the two of us sat there and laughed at each other. We just laughed. She was always saying something funny.”
As is he.
“My attitude is good,” says the Dean. “I never say anything bad about anybody. I think it’s a waste of time. One day on the Van Dyke show, we were all sitting around having lunch. Everybody you’d mention I’d say, ‘Gee, what a great guy,’ or ‘What a funny guy.’ Finally Carl Reiner looked at me said, ‘For Pete’s sake, isn’t there somebody you don’t like?’ I said, ‘Not that I can think of.’ He says, ‘What about Hitler?’ ‘Well,’ I says, ‘he wasn’t one of my favorites, but you got to admit he was the best in his line. He was the worst son-of-a-bitch who ever lived.’ ”
The mention of Hitler seems like a good time to bring up Ward’s theory about sadness and comedy being linked. But Morey frowns at me, as if I might not actually be funny after all.
“Oh, that’s a lot of crap.”
“But,” I stammer, “what about the idea that all great comedians had a rotten childhood? That all comedians are desperate of heart?” Impatiently, he taps the blotter on his desk. “That’s ridiculous. People who say that read it someplace. I think it probably makes ‘em sound like philosophers. All of a sudden a comic becomes a philosopher.”
No, he says, it was Bob Hope who set him straight on what he really was.
“The first act I did was in 1929 at the Stratford Theater in Chicago,” he says. “I wore a crazy outfit with big shoes. It was a security blanket. When you came out with a crazy outfit, you got a laugh. But Bob Hope said to me, ‘You’re a funny kid. You don’t need all that crap. Get rid of the outfit.’ ”
He did. No props now, no tortured philosophy, just his very quick comic mind. A lesson, he says, that today’s comedians haven’t learned.
“I ask the young comics why they use dirty material,” he says, shaking his head. “They say shock value. I say you’re out of your mind. Your material sounds like it was written on the back of a fence. It’s a security blanket. They get stuck, they use a dirty word. I tell them your audience becomes moronic the same as you are. You want an education? Look at Laurel and Hardy. Look at
Harold Lloyd. Look at Chaplin. They made people laugh just with love.”
I frown, momentarily confused. For in my reading of the 12 books from the Hollywood School, this is the first I have ever heard of the Love Element.