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Putting it on the Line: Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

December 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin has so much to say and so much going on that I couldn’t fit it all into one story. That’s why in addition to the recent Omaha Star cover story I did on her, I wrote a Reader feature on this writer-actress best known for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” While she came to national attention with her work on that show, she’s no overnight sensation. She put many years into an improvisational comedy career before network TV gave her a mass media platform for her talents. Her performing start goes clear back to Omaha Benson High School and local theaters.

But first, here are some thoughts about Amber and her being part of a long legacy of African-Americans with Nebraska ties making their marks in the entertainment industry.

Amber Ruffin: A consideration

For the second year in a row Ruffin came home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event.

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:
Noble and George Johnson
Lloyd Hunter
Preston Love Sr.
Wynonie Harris
Anna Mae Winburn
Mildred Brown
Helen Jones Woods
Ruth Norman
Buddy Miles
Arno Lucas
Calvin Keys
Victor Lewis
Cathy Hughes
Carol Rogers
Nole Jeanpierre
Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris
John Beasley
Monty Ross
Kevyn Morrow
Randy Goodwin
Camille Steed
Sandra Organ
Alfred Liggins Jr.
Jade Jenise Dixon
Gabrielle Union
Yolonda Ross
Q Smith
Carleen Brice
Kim Louise
Victoria Benning
Omowale Akintunde
Michael Beasley
Lafayette Reed Jr.
Tim Christian
Beaufield Berry
Symone Sanders
Chanelle Elaine

 

Putting it on the Line

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Since joining NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014 as a writer-performer, Omaha native Amber Ruffin has made a name for herself. The gig made her the first black female writer in U.S. late-night network television.

Her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues are part of a disarming package. She can be sweet, silly, manic comedian or edgy commentator and provocateur.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury,” she skewers newsmakers and outs injustice. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (racism) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

This fresh TV face and voice is steeped in a long, deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals. Last month she came home to display her authentic, unvarnished self during an Inclusive Communities event at Slowdown. The audience got a taste of her formidable improv skills.

Replicating improv on TV is elusive.

“Oh, how I wish the feeling of improv translated to television. A lot of people have tried to get that feeling in a show, but it’s pretty difficult.”

Playing off a live audience is crucial.

“You’re constantly adjusting your tone, cadence because you have instant feedback and that allows you to give the best performance.”

Working in a corporate culture is still an adjustment.

“It is crazy for comedy to exist in an office. I’d never seen it before I was a part of it. I still find it shocking that it works.”

She’s learned to work within network TV boundaries.

“You can’t be crazy politically incorrect. When you’re on stage doing improv it only exists in that moment, so you can say whatever comes to mind, but on this show whatever you say exists forever. So you have to get it right so that 20 years from now when someone plays it you’ll still stand by it.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Ruffin said of her family. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her retired military parents are from the South. They met at Offutt Air Force Base. They later ran their own daycare business. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. Her sisters are also published writers.

Growing up, Ruffin used humor as escape.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day-to-day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Musically and dramatically inclined (she plays piano and sings), she developed an early passion for theater.

“I just love musicals.”

The movie The Wiz made a big impression for more than the music.

“It was rare to see a show with an all-black cast that has nothing to do with being black,” she said. “Often times, black people have to talk about their experience being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy. The movie, the live musical, every performance of it leaves so much room for you to express yourself. It reminds us the world wants us at our weirdest. When you pretend to fit in, you fade away.”

She contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at The Muny amphitheater in St. Louis. She hopes a national tour comes here on what could be a Broadway-bound path.

“What distinguishes our version is its timelessness. I wanted it to never have to be rewritten again.”

The stage bug bit while playing Princess Winnifred in an Omaha Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress. The Benson grad honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – working with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Within days of an unsuccessful “SNL” audition, she got hired by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers.

“I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. I haven’t found it (TV) to be too crazy because at Boom Chicago we would do short form, where the audience suggests the set-up and then you have to deliver punch lines. You have three or four seconds to come up with something. But on “Late Night” I have all day to come up with a punch line. It’s much more relaxed.”

She usually has a week to hone her “Late Night” routines.

“You write it up and you rewrite it a bunch and you show it to the audience and you get one last rewrite and then it has to go in the show.”

She believes she provides a good change-up.

“Because Seth is so grounded in his comedy there is room for an insane person like me.”

She doesn’t make a big deal about having been the first black female writer in the late-night lane.

“I am not sure if any of that matters. What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them – because there is.”

She says she was long ready for the opportunity. “I could have done this job years ago, for sure.” But happening when it did kept her real. “Now that I’m in this environment, I’m still me. If I had got this job years ago, I would have bent to what the culture was, and it’s my not having done that has made my career what it is.”

Her go-to topic, racism. is informed by her travels.

“The racism in Omaha is different than anywhere else. We don’t have a huge history of lynchings, scary slavery and Confederate monuments, and so we feel we are above racism, which is what puts us so far beneath it. No one’s really angry because you’re a black woman. People don’t think of you as much as a threat. They just think you are kind of gross.

“Omaha’s pretty bad. It’s way less in Chicago. In Amsterdam, way less, but still there – just a different kind. In L.A., there’s less palpable racism. It’s all institutionalized instead of in your face. In New York, people say something the tiniest bit racist and everyone knows it and sees it. It has gone from me being gross to racism itself being the gross thing, which is a relief.

“Now racism is fixed and over, so we win. Just kidding.”

Coming of age here, she craved diversity.

“I remember being in Omaha and just wanting there to be more me and to have a place where you felt like you could belong, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I just see how critically important it is, especially for young kids.”

Her diversity advocacy made her an apt choice as special guest for the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving fundraiser.

Meanwhile, she has an NBC development deal for a show, “Village Gazette,” on which she has co-writing and executive producer credits. It’s set in fictional Benson, Nebraska. The name is inspired by her real-life alma mater, Benson High, and the neighborhood that school is in.

She’s also writing feature film scripts. And she can be seen on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this many things, but I figure you only have so much time. I want to give it a shot.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Funny, yet serious, to the core: The Amber Ruffin story

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Add Amber Ruffin to the roster of folks with Omaha roots to find success beyond here in stage-screen-media. The writer-performer got her start in theater and improvisation in her native Omaha. After years honing her craft with major improv troupes around he U.S. and abroad, she broke onto the national scene by joining the writing staff and cast of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014. She also has a presence on Comedy Central. She’s working on developing her own TV show and she recently co-wrote a new stage adaptation of “The Wiz.”

For the second year in a row Ruffin has come home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event (this year’s iteration is today from Noon to 2 p.m. at Slowdown).

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:

Noble and George Johnson

Lloyd Hunter

Preston Love Sr.

Wynonie Harris

Anna Mae Winburn

Mildred Brown

Helen Jones Woods

Ruth Norman

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Calvin Keys

Victor Lewis

Cathy Hughes

Carol Rogers

Nole Jeanpierre

Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris

John Beasley

Monty Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Randy Goodwin

Camille Steed

Sandra Organ

Alfred Liggins Jr.

Jade Jenise Dixon

Gabrielle Union

Yolonda Ross

Q Smith

Carleen Brice

Kim Louise

Victoria Benning

Omowale Akintunde

Michael Beasley

Lafayette Reed Jr.

Tim Christian

Beaufield Berry

Symone Sanders

Chanelle Elaine

Funny, yet serious, to the core: 

The Amber Ruffin story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue of The Omaha Star (https://theomahastar.com)

NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” gives more than lip service to diversity thanks to Omaha native Amber Ruffin, a writer-performer on the New York-based show.

She’s a singular presence for her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues. She became the first black female writer in U.S. late night network television when she joined the staff in 2014. It marked her national debut. But she’s no newcomer. She comes from a deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury” she calls out newsmakers for everything from their stupid attire to their ugly rhetoric to their heinous acts. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (hate) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

The writer-actress headlines the Sunday, November 25 Inclusive Communities (IC) FriendsGiving at Slowdown.

Her high-energy performances sometimes find her flitting across stage as cameras try tracking her. While she can be serious when making a point, her default personality is sweet, silly, manic. She was voted Class Clown at Omaha Benson High School,

It seems this dynamo hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

“You think I’m a happy person, whoo-whee, my parents are really happy,” said Amber, whose mother was voted Class Clown at her high school in Savannah, Georgia.

As a kid, Amber used humor to deflect the hurtful things classmates said about her then-homely looks. Nobody thinks the vivacious Ruffin is homely anymore.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day to day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Her folks, Theresa and James Ruffin, are both from the South, They met at Offutt Air Fore Base while serving in the military. They later ran their own business, T and J Daycare Centers. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. She’ll be with family over the holiday when she comes home for the IC event. It’s her second year in a row doing it.

IC Executive Director Maggie Wood said Ruffin’s humor is appreciated by the organization.

“We know how heavy this work can be and the levity of laughter makes us a little more resilient to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination.”

Instead of a stand-up set or a speech, Ruffin will engage in conversation with the IC team on stage in response to some loosely scripted questions.

“Our donors, volunteers and supporters all know we need to face this work head on. That’s exactly what Amber does in her commentary. We’re so excited to have her back,” Wood said.

Growing up, Ruffin acutely felt Omaha’s lack of diversity.

“I remember just wanting there to be more me, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I’ve seen how important it is to have a place where you feel like you can belong and I’m also quite jealous of it because I’ve never had just a place like that where you can be as you as you want to be.”

Theresa Ruffin said dealing with Omaha’s lack of diversity “was challenging to say the least.” When she worked at Peter Kiewit Corp. for a year, she said, “I was the only black person in the building.”

Though Amber didn’t have any immediate show business role models, she gravitated to performing. She played piano at Omaha Trinity Hope Foursquare Church. She also developed an early love of theater.

“I just love musicals,” she said.

She got the bug playing Princess Winnifred in a Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress.

“I just spent so much time watching theater and doing a lot of theater that everything I love is theater-based.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Amber said. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her sisters are also published writers.

The movie The Wiz made a big impression on Amber.

“Many people believe The Wiz has the best music of any musical. I am one of those people. It was also rare to see a show with an all black cast that has nothing to be with being black. Often times, black people have to talk about their experience with being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy.”

She’s contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at the 11,000-seat Muny amphitheater in St. Louis.

“I rewrote the words with the original writer (William F. Brown) who is 91 in April. I have written a few musicals and my love of The Wiz is no secret. We’re going to take it on tour and see how close to Broadway we can get.

“One of the things that stands out to me about our version is that it is timeless. The original Wiz is very much of that era, like many rewrites since. I wanted our Wiz to never have to be rewritten again. It could be from this year, or 20 years ago or 20 years from now.”

Writing musicals has become a new niche.

“I just always assumed because it’s the funnest thing to write, everybody was writing musicals. But it turns out not a lot of people are. So, yeah, I’ll do it.”

Performing in a musical may be another matter.

“I can sing just fine, but I don’t know that I’d ever be in a musical, unless I wrote one for myself.”

 

 

She honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

“We had the best time. It’s how I learned that I love improv. To be a good improviser, you just have to trust whoever you’re improvising with. If you treat them like a genius, you’ll both end up looking good.”

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – where she worked with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

“Boom Chicago was terrifying and it was bad for awhile and there was nothing I could do. I just had to keep trying to survive. I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t have a lot of money. So there were times when I wanted to go home so bad, But I just had to stay. Thank God I did because it turned out great.”

Her parents encouraged her through the tough times.

“Because they think I’m great because they’re my parents, they were like, ‘You’re excellent and soon        everyone will be able to see that.’ That was very sweet of them.”

Ironically, she met her Dutch husband, Jan, in America. The couple struggled in L.A. for a period. She feels it only made them stronger.

“I did a lot of my own projects. I wrote musicals, made a bunch of funny videos and really did what I wanted to do. Financially, I struggled, but I also had a great time.”

An unsuccessful “SNL” audition was soon followed by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers hiring her.

“Those two things happened within days of each other,” Theresa Ruffin recalled. “Amber was very down about ‘SNL’ and over the moon when Seth called.”

Going from improv to “Late Night” has been seamless for Amber. “I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. “I vastly prefer a live audience to just being in front of a camera alone. Improvisers make a thousand corrections a minute every performance until they figure out what the audience likes. You can do that with scripted material, too.”

Being the designated comic who outs racism, narcissism and mendacity, she said, is “this odd space to exist in.”

“I kind of feel like if I don’t say it people might feel desperate and insane. I have to be like, Okay, the president said that, and that’s cuckoo, and you do not have to accept it  It sounds silly but it feels so good to have an adult say you’re a human being and you shouldn’t be treated like this. Until you hear it from someone you do not know and have never met,

it doesn’t carry the same weight.”

Theresa Ruffin loves that her daughter echoes what many black Americans feel. “She says most of the things we are already thinking.”

Every time Amber outs someone’s misbehavior, her mother said it’s cause to shout, “THAT’S OUR GIRL.”

As brutally honest as Amber is on “Late Night,” she must deal with network censors, which is why she feels she was “rowdier and took more chances” doing improv.

On her way up, she met one of her biggest influences, Whoopi Goldberg. “She’s great,” Ruffin said.

Amber’s close friend since childhood, Kristina Haecke of Omaha, said watching her bestie’s breakthrough has been “awesome and great but mostly it has been completely expected..” Haecke insists fame hasn’t changed Ruffin, calling her “very down to earth” and “almost too calm about it.”

Grounded, too. “Her on-screen is her off-screen, just with a platform,” said Haecke.

Fame hasn’t changed Ruffin’s lifestyle. Yet. “Maybe someone recognizes me on the street once a week. No one cares. So when someone says, ‘Hey, Amber.’ I still think it’s pretty neat.”

Her celebrity may grow should a new TV show she’s trying to get off the ground escapes the development hell that befell her previous attempts as a producer.

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say it, but I’m going to because I don’t know what the rules are. I have a show called ‘Village Gazette,’ which is the third show I’ve sold to NBC. The premise of it is I am the editor of a small town newspaper in Benson, Nebraska. The owner’s nephew is a big shot reporter fallen from grace after making up a story that people find out is false. He gets fired and this is the only job he can get and he doesn’t want to be in this small town. But then he realizes we’re not so bad.”

Her “boatload of other projects” includes movie scripts she’s’ writing. She also pulls duty on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

By now, she’s mostly over having cracked the glass ceiling in late night, though she feels she did strike a blow for inclusion.

“What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them because there is.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

Tickets to FriendsGiving with Amber Ruffin are $25 and include one drink and heavy hors d’oeuvres..The event is from Noon to 2 p.m.

Visit http://www.inclusive-communities.org for more details and to purchase tickets.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

August 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Standup comedian, panelist, commentator and author Paula Poundstone brings her wry humor to the Holland Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 24.

She owns history with two native Nebraska television comedy icons. She guested on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. At the 2012 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk honoring his legacy, she was joined by fellow satirist Dick Cavett, whose own talk show she’d done. Last fall she did a Lincoln gig with the venerable host, author and New York Times columnist.

“I love Dick Cavett,” she said\ “In 2014 we did this series in Los Angeles where writers interview writers in front of an audience, and I interviewed Dick for that. Somehow from that came this thing of he and I working together in Nebraska. It was so much fun.”

“Oh my God, that was a dream night,” Cavett said of their latest collaboration. “We have a rapport somehow on stage together. We just like each other. We don’t interrupt. There’s no trace of competition. That’s rare with two performers both out there pulling for laughs. It’s a little theatrical miracle. We both get each other’s rhythm and it starts climbing and it just gets into a freewheeling situation you don’t want to end. It plays so well you’d almost think it’s a well-directed play.”

“He’s a wordsmith,” Poundstone said of Cavett, “so mostly I try to make sure he has some space to do his thing. You know he’s got so many great stories. I don’t know if he did this by design or if it’s just the way life worked out, but he became friends with legends – Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx …”

Cavett confirmed it was by design he befriended these towering comic figures, but he added he counts himself fortunate to know Poundstone, too.

“Paula is a genuine wit. So smart and so funny. Seeing Paula work an audience is one of the great experiences in performing arts. She’s an acknowledged genius at it.”

He recalls she was one of his few guests who ever hand-wrote him a thank-you note. Chalk it up to her New Englander-by-way-of-Southern-good-mannered-parents-bringing-up. Meanwhile, she defers any IQ edge to her erudite colleague.

“Dick has me there. He’s corrected my grammar before in emails. So he wins.”

It still blows her mind he was targeted by President Richard Nixon. As a pundit, Cavett criticized Nixon and tackled the still unfolding Watergate scandal on national TV when no one else in mainstream media would touch it (see Dick Cavett’s Watergate on YouTube).

“I’ll tell you what Dick has that I’m so jealous of, which is audio tape of Nixon saying, ‘Is there any way we can screw him?” What I wouldn’t give for (Donald) Trump to go down and for them to later find him cursing me along the way that he will somehow get me.”

A Trump-aimed barb she tweeted in the 2016 campaign did trigger a response, only not from the man Cavett’s called “the missing Fifth Marx Brother – Trumpo,” but from what she suspects were his minions.

“For the next maybe 48 hours my Tweeter feed was busting with vicious, cruel, horrible comments about me,” she said, “and then it went away. I’m fairly certain it was, A, Putin, B, bots, and, C, an army of people Trump has ready to do that. But why me, I don’t know, because I’ve tweeted many things since then not flattering to him and it never happened again.

“But an automated tweet is not nearly as good as Nixon saying how can we screw him.”

Even though Trump provides steady fodder, she said, “I would be happy to never come up with another joke again in exchange for justice being served in terms of Donald Trump. I’ll gladly make stuff up. I don’t need our lives to suck in order to think of jokes.”

She’s never thought her work as frivolous but “as the years go by,” she said, “I personally value my job more and more and more.”

“I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry given the evidence of how important it is not just laughing but laughing with other people.”

“When people type LOL, generally speaking, it’s a lie. Looking at something on a screen when you’re by yourself you don’t laugh. You might acknowledge you think it’s funny, but you don’t laugh. The experience of laughing, even if you go by yourself to a theater or a movie or whatever, you have some connection to the rest of the audience. It’s important being in the room with other people.

“I don’t suggest people have to come see me, although wouldn’t that be nice, but it’s really important to go out and be with other people for a night of laughter. To me, the fact I get to do that and I get paid for it feels better and better every day that I live.”

Decades into her career, she feels freer being herself than ever before.

“There is something to be said for experience. The other thing is and I think this goes along with just life in general, I’m becoming more comfortable with who I am. What I endeavor to do on stage is actually to be the most me I can be, whereas when I was younger I don’t know if I was entirely comfortable with who I was in the way one becomes as time goes by.

“I went to my 40th high school reunion last fall and it was so damn much fun. I went to a couple of them before but none were as good as the 40th because you’re just old enough you don’t really feel the need to impress people, nor are you impressed by others who do feel that need. It just felt like everyone had taken a deep breath and exhaled.”

Her new book The Totally Unscientific Study Of The Search For Human Happiness(Algonquin Books) “is a series of experiments doing things that either I or other people thought would make me happy,” she said.

“Every chapter is written as an experiment with the conditions, the hypothesis, the qualitative and quantitative observations, the variable, et cetera. The real question for me wasn’t what I would enjoy because I know what I enjoy, but what can I do that will leave me with a bounce so that when I return to my regular life I have some reserve. My regular life being raising a handful of kids and animals and being a standup comic and being stuck being me 24 hours a day.

“In the analysis part of each chapter I check in with my regular life to see how things are going. it’s the story of raising my kids and by the end of the book they’re all out of the house.”

It took her seven years to write.

“It’s number one job is to be funny and I think it achieves that, But mercifully any number of reviewers noted it was more than that and that’s certainly satisfying..The audio version was one of five nominees for audio book of the year at the Audis last year, although it didn’t win. But it was up against A Hand Maid’s Tale, so I didn’t feel that bad about not winning. It’s pretty good company. You could do a lot worse.

“Now it’s a semifinalist in the James Thurber Prize for American Humor (competition).”

Fame is a relative thing and Poundstone’s content where she falls on the spectrum.

“I’m not a household name except in my house – where I insist on it. Nobody has to close a store for me to go shopping.”

“Crazy-making” is what she calls the social media expectations placed on creatives these days. “Now when your agent sells you to a promoter or a theater they want to know how many followers you have and what social media you do. All of that’s considered part of the package, which is too bad.”

She’s recently discovered the bliss of going unplugged.

“I’ve started doing this thing where I sometimes don’t have any devices on so I can just think. It’s a scary leap.

I can’t say I always like it. But I do find myself being a little bit more productive.”

She prefers authentic human connections. As Dick Cavett notes, she’s adept at improvising with audiences.

“In the beginning I thought I shouldn’t be doing that. But fairly early on I realized the heart of the show was in these unique things that weren’t going to happen in the other show – it’s just unique to that night and to that audience. Sometimes I kind of put my line out there. I’ll start talking to somebody and then I leave it and come back to it later. You just sort of weigh in little pieces of information that eventually connect and fill the show.

“It took awhile to recognize it is a very valuable thing to be doing and to get pretty good at.”

Her Omaha show starts at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit, ticketomaha.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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FROM 2012

In 2012, I also interviewed Paula Poundstone and Dick Cavett – that time on the everof their appearing at the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Nebraska. I refer to that event, which honors Johnny Carson, in the 2018 story featured above. Poundstone and Cavett both had Carson in common: she was a guest on the Tonight Show with the King of Late Night present and Cavett first wrote for Carson (before that, for Jack Paar) and then competed against him with his own talk-show, though they were always the friendliest of rivals.

 

One-liners and nonsequiturs will fly at the June 13-17 Viareo Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., where the late comic great Johnny Carson grew up.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in a 2012 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.

Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past Legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.

New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.

Poundstone and Cavett, long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.

She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.

“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”

She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips  on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.

“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”

She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.

“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am.

The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.

“It was there I gave up my day job.”

The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.

“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.

“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”

She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).

Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.

Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”

Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.

“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”

Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.

“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”

Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.

“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”

The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”

His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”

Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.

“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”

Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated.

They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.

“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”

That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here, He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.

Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf, at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.

For schedule and ticket info, call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org.

‘The Graduate’ revisited

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

‘The Graduate’ revisited

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

This is the 50th anniversary for a much beloved yet peculiar film,“The Graduate” (1967), that landed as a sensation in its time, became an adored artifact of the 1960s but has steadily lost some of its stature and allure over the proceeding half-century. I watched it again the other night and while it’s a film I’ve always admired and I still enjoy I can see now that it’s a strange thing to have resonated so deeply in any era, even in its own breaking-the-rules time.

I mean, the new college graduate protagonist Benjamin Braddock sleeps with the mother of a childhood friend and then falls in love with the daughter and interrupts her marriage to run off with her. It’s a preposterous plot line but it works, which is to say we go along with it, because the film is basically a farcical, satirical indictment of the establishment and an embrace of youthful rebellion and following your heart. The performances by a very fine cast mostly hold up. the writing perhaps less so and the direction is, well, needlessly showy. Mike Nichols was a Broadway wunderkind and a fresh force in cinema who helped push American filmmaking more in the direction of the various European New Wave movements with rapid cutting, restless camera, nonlinear structure and frank exposition. He veered dangerously close to going over the top with it all in his first three features – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?,” “The Graduate” and “Catch 22” – I suspect because he was enthralled with the new freedom cinema offered and was just insecure enough not to trust the material to hold our attention without using various tricks. His much later work (“Working Girl,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) is far more traditional, visually and technically speaking, but far more satisfying, too.

The best thing about the movie is Dustin Hoffman’s performance. It’s a tour de force that sneaks up on you. He is so present and in the moment in every shot and scene and so real and truthful to the buttoned-down character he plays that it seems like he’s doing nothing when in fact he’s doing everything an actor’s called to do. Much of his characterization is done without words. Indeed, his performance reminds me of those of the great silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton, only he’s less busy and big.

 

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photobooth the graduate

 

My take on “The Graduate” today is that if not for Simon and Garfunkel’s music, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as a ’60s counterculture piece. Indeed, other than the music there’s virtually nothing in the film that either overtly or even obliquely refers to the very decade it purportedly speaks to. There’s no mention of civil rights or the war in Vietnam or the burgeoning feminist movement or the end of Camelot or the culture wars ushered in by rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and free love. There’s no reference to politics either. Admittedly, Ben is from a privileged white suburbia world where some of those currents and issues would not be discussed or experienced. But even in those circles things would not have been so sterile or blind or one-dimensional that some of these things didn’t come up or resonate or cause a conflict. The generation gap the film depicts is so generic that it would be easy to forget what decade the film is set in except for that music.

On the other hand, the film is far superior to the vast majority of comedies made in that era, especially the lame youth films of that decade. Even though the men who wrote (Buck Henry and Calder Wilingham) and directed (Nichols) “The Graduate” were much older than the generation they were obviously siding with – even Hoffman was far older than the character he played – they managed to catch a certain ironical spirit of the time that really was a carryover from the 1950s as much as it was a purely ’60s sensibility.

Where the film is perhaps most interesting is in striking an odd but somehow effective balance of the romanticism, even idealism and anger of the ’60s tinged with the cynicism that the ’70s would more fully usher in. The end of the film echoes the beginning in that Ben is searching for his path in life. At the start, he’s alone as he tries finding his way. At the end, he’s with a girl, but still very much alone and adrift. Sure, he’s defied the cookie-cutter, plastic life of his parents and their friends but at a price. He’s lost his naiveté but gained a heavy does of reality that will, as we’ve come to know, likely find him following many of the very Establishment precepts he rejected as a young man.

Looked at today, the movie seems to have some mixed or superficial messages: the hot passions of life are all very ephemeral but desirable; going after what you want is a messy buisness but it’s worth it; conformity equals comfort if not contentment so why settle for less? It kind of sounds like the very things “The Graduate” supposedly rejected. Ben, in middle age, probably ended up in a similar circusmstace as his parents and their freinds, not that you could have convinced him of it at the time. And so it goes…

Hot Stuff: American comedy classic ‘Some Like It Hot’ pushed boundaries


Hot Movie Takes – “Some Like It Hot”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Ribald comedies are old hat in Hollywood.  If prostitution is the oldest profession, than comedies with a good dose of sexual intrigue in them, whether you call them romantic comedies or screwball comedies, comprise one of the oldest genres since the dawn of the sound era.  However, it’s one thing to use sex as a comic linchpin or prop – I mean, anyone can do that – but it’s quite another thing to go beyond being merely risque or naughty and fashion a really good story to support the old nudge, nudge, wink, wink, as a Monty Python bit put it, and present three-dimensional characters.  As my story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) argues, Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like it Hot miraculously turns what would essentially be a one-joke premise or sketch in the hands of most filmmakers into a satisfying two-hour farce tinged with pathos.  Wilder’s great script. expert direction and perfect cast pull it off.  Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is reviving this gem for one night only on the big screen, April 24, at the Joslyn Art Museum.  Introducing the film will be Kelly Curtis, a daughter of Tony Curis, the magnetic actor who was never better than in this tour de force performance in which he plays the straight man for most of the picture until his character wondefully imitates Cary Grant in order to seduce Marily Monroe’s Sugar Kane.  Curtis and Lemmon are great in drag and Monroe is never more fully Monroesque than in this film, where her voluptuous figure, sensual power, and emotional fragility create a most alluring combination.

Hot Stuff: American comedy classic ‘Some Like It Hot’ pushed boundaries

Tony Curtis’ daughter, Kelly, to introduce film in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2015 isssue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The 1959 gender-bending film farce Some Like It Hot came at an interesting juncture in the careers of writer-director Billy Wilder and stars Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.

For each legend it marked a career boost. It reaffirmed Wilder as a comedy genius after a succession of mediocre mid-’50s.dramas and comedies. It further stretched Curtis. It began Lemmon’s long, fruitful collaboration with Wilder. It represented Monroe’s last great comic role.

Paying tribute to a classic named the funniest American movie of all-time by the American Film Institute is a no-brainer for Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford. He’s presenting a one-night revival April 24 at Joslyn Art Museum as an Omaha Parks Foundation benefit.

“Some Like It Hot is to film comedy what Casablanca is to film romance,” says Crawford.

Casablanca found a magical mix of perfect casting, memorable lines and universal themes to make its wartime romance work for any generation, Hot miraculously made a one-joke men-in-drag-meet-sex goddess premise into a timeless romp of provocative puns, innuendos, sight gags and set pieces.

The 7 p.m. event will have special guest Kelly Curtis, the oldest daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, introduce the picture. Her sister is actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

Kelly accompanied her late mother to Omaha for a 1994 Crawford event feting Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. This time she’ll share reminiscences and insights about her father, who died at age 85 in 2010. In a recent Reader interview she spoke about how Hot came at a crucial time in his Hollywood ascent.

Starting with Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Vikings, The Defiant Ones and on through Hot and Spartacus, Curtis showed a heretofore unseen range in rich, demanding parts of enduring quality.

“I think he wanted to prove to himself and to the world he was more than than just a pretty face and those films gave him a great opportunity to do that,” Kelly says. “He loved that he was given a real gift in Some Like It Hot to be able to show his comedic talents as fully as he did. Doing comedy like that is very difficult.”

The plot finds two down-on-their-luck Depression-era Chicago musicians, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), needing to skip town after witnessing a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-style slaying. The only open gig is with a touring female band and so they pose as women musicians. Aboard the Florida-bound train they fall for the band’s woman-child singer,s Sugar Kane (Monroe), only Joe’s more determined to bed her once they hit the beach.

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Kelly Curis

Kelly says her father’s idea to impersonate Cary Grant within the context of his character posing as a millionaire in order to seduce Sugar Kane, reveals much about the man who became Tony Curtis.

Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx to Hungarian parents, he grew up running the streets with a gang. Talent agent-casting director Joyce Selznick discovered the aspiring actor at the New School in 1948. His quick rise to movie stardom as a Universal contract player was the American Dream made good. Kelly says it only made sense he would pay homage to Grant because the actor was his model for learning how to court women and to project a sophisticated facade.

“Once he had money my father really took to the trappings of being a suave, debonair, European-style playboy. He loved fine houses, fine wines, fine cars. He loved living the life of an Italian count. That was one of his personas and stages he went through. So I think jumping into a role like that to woo a woman is what he’d been playing at his whole life. Even back when he was in a Hungarian Jewish gang, he used his black hair, blue eyes and olive skin to pass as Italian so he could spy on the rival Italian gang I think he always pretended to be something he wasn’t just to survive.”

Much as Grant transformed himself from his poor Bristol origins as Archie Leach into the screen’s most desirable gent, Kelly says, “Tony Curtis was an avatar – it’s the man he invented for himself, which was an amalgamation of all his parts, yes, but it definitely was not Bernard Schwartz.” She adds, “Tony of the Movies is what he liked to call himself and that’s what he aspired his legacy to be.”

She says the multifaceted man she knew took his off-screen work as a painter, photographer, assemblage artist and sculptor seriously.

“It was much more than a hobby. He was constantly creating and he exhibited and sold his art late in his life.”

His heritage was important to him, too.

“My father was a lot more a Jewish man than he presented himself to the world. I think he had a deep sense of Jewish values and a deep love for Judaism. I think he wanted to be more religious but with his lifestyle and interests it just wasn’t to be.”

Kelly worked with her father on the Emanuel Foundation in raising money for the restoration of cemeteries and synagogues in Hungary damaged during World War II.

“It’s something he was very committed to and proud of and during that time we got very close. It was a very good time for us.”

Despite a “libertine” way of life as a notorious Hollywood wild man, she says her father was a staunch American patriot and conservative Republican. Yes, she says, he fell prey to the excesses of fame with his multiple marriages (six), infidelity and substance abuse problems, but he appreciated how far America allowed him to rise.

“Here’s this immigrants’ child who made it, who became rich and famous, which is why he considered himself an American prince. It’s why he loved America as a land of opportunity. The possibilities are endless. He said you just have to want it bad enough, have the talent to back it up and really go for it.”

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She says her father’s career descent after The Great Race and The Boston Strangler was largely self-made.

“He didn’t transition very well into New Hollywood. He wanted to but he wasn’t really interested in letting down the facade of the young virile guy by playing older roles. It bothered him until his death he wasn’t asked to do more but he burned a lot of bridges. He went through a lot of dark years in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. That could have been a lot riper time for him had he not fallen to prey to his demons.

“Here was this gorgeous man getting older, going through a mid-life crisis and perhaps an existential crisis of trying to figure out who he was and what he was. It was a very troubling time for him.”

There were a couple bright spots (The Last Tycoon, Insignificance) but mostly Tony Curtis was an artifact from a long gone Hollywood. He did live the last several years of his life sober. As his old studio peers died away and his own health failed, he could take solace in having made several stand-the-test-of-time films.

He thought enough of Hot to write a book about its making. Kelly says the movie allowed him to show “his chops” as an actor. He wrote that during the shoot he had an affair with Monroe, whom he claimed was his lover years before. Kelly says, “I don’t know if it’s just one of my father’s stories, but I would love to know.”

Tickets are $23 and available at all Omaha Hy-Vee stores.

For more info, call 402-926-8299 or visit http://www.omahafilmevent.com.

Bill Cosby on his own terms: Backstage with the comedy legend and old friend Bob Boozer

May 11, 2012 8 comments

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Bill Cosby with Bob Boozer, ©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

UPDATE: It is with a heavy heart I report that hoops legend Bob Boozer, whose friendship with Bill Cosby is glimpsed in this story, passed away May 19.  Photographer Marlon Wright and I were in Cosby’s dressing room when Boozer appeared with a pie in hand for the comedian.  As my story explains, the two went way back, as did the tradition of Boozer bringing his friend the pie.  This blog also contains a profile I did of Boozer some years ago as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness.  For younger readers who may not know the Boozer name, he was one of the best college players ever and a very good pro.  He had the distinction of playing in the NCAA Tournament, being a gold medal Olympian, and winning an NBA title.

My Bill Cosby odyssey continued in unexpected ways the first weekend in May.

After interviewing him by phone for two-plus hours in advance of his Sunday, May 6 show, I secured a face to face interview with him in his dressing room.  Photographer Marlon Wright accompanied me.  Only moments before our meeting, however, it appeared there would be no face time with the legend.  Word of our backstage interview somehow hadn’t reached Cosby and as we walked into his Orpheum Theater dressing room he was unsuccessfuly trying to confirm things with his PR handler.  That’s when I assured him I was the same reporter who had talked to him by phone at length.  When he gave me a look that said, “Do you know how many reporters I talk to?” I blurted out, “I’m the remedial man,” referring to our shared past of testing into remedial English in college, something that became a recurring joke between us during that marathan phone interview.  “Why didn’t you say so?” he said, and just like that we were in.

After 15 minutes or so I was prepared to thank him for his time when an assistant came back to announce that Cosby’s old Omaha friend, Bob Boozer, who was a college All-American. Olympic gold medalist and NBA titlist, was outside.  Cosby’s face lit up. Marlon and I exchanged a quick look that said, ‘Let’s stick around,” and so we did.  What played out next was an intimate look at how a King of Comedy holds court before going on. Boozer brought a sweet potato pie his wife Ella baked.

Cosby was obviously touched and kidded his friend with, “I appreciate you not getting into it.” These two former athletes traded good-natured jibes about each others’ ailments and at one point Cosby placed his hands on Boozer’s knees and intoned, like a faith healer, “Heal.”

Then the assistant popped in again with memorabilia fans had brought for Cosby to sign, which he did, and not long after that a contingent from Boys Town was ushered in to meet The Cos.  Family teachers Tony and Simone Jones, along with their son and nine young men who live with them, plus some BT staffers, all filed in and Cosby greeted each individually.  What played out right up until his curtain call was a scene in which Cosby peppered the adults and kids with probing questions, sometimes kidding with them, sometimes dead serious with them.  It turned into a mini lecture or seminar of sorts and a very cool opportunity for these young people, who might as well have been The Cosby Kids from Fat Albert or from his family sit-coms.

By the time we all said goodbye our expected 15 minutes with Cosby had turned into 45 minutes and we’d gotten a neat glimpse into how relaxed and down to earth the entertainer is and just how well and warmly he interacts with people.  I stayed for the show of course and it was more of the same, only a more animated Cosby was revealed.

 

 

photo©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

Bill Cosby on his own terms: Backstage with the comedy legend and old friend Bob Boozer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Holding court in his Orpheum Theater dressing room before his May 6 Omaha show, comedy legend Bill Cosby was thoroughly, authentically, well, Bill Cosby.

The living legend exuded the easy banter, sharp observations and occasional bluster that defines his comedic brand. He was variously lovable curmudgeon, cantankerous sage and mischievous child.

He appeared tired, having played Peoria just the night before, but his energy soared the more the room filled up.

With his concert start nearing and him blissfully unaware of the time, he played host to this reporter, photographer Marlon Writght, old chum Bob Boozer and the family teachers and youth residents of a Boys Town family home.

By turns Cosby was entertainer, lecturer, father-figure and cut-up as he shook hands, autographed items and told stories.

He’s made the world laugh for 50 years now as a standup comedian, though these days he performs sitting down. He said colleagues of his, including jazz musician Eubie Blake, have accused him of not having an act. Cosby simply tells stories, with occasional clips from his TV shows projected on an overhead screen.

“Eubie wasn’t angry when he said it, he was just jealous. He’s from the days of vaudeville where guys had set ups and then the punchline,” said Cosby. “I think he was looking for the set up and the punchline and all I was doing was the same thing when he’s at my house.”

By that Cosby means talking. He talks about everything and nothing at all. His genius is that he makes none of it seem designed, though his stories are based on written material he writes himself. What makes his riffs seem extemporaneous is his impromptu, conversational delivery, complete with pauses, asides and digressions, just like in real life. Then there are the hilarious faces, voices and sounds he makes to animate his stories. What sets him apart from just anyone talking, he said, “is the performance in the storytelling.”

His enduring appeal is his persona as friend or neighbor, and these days uncle or grandfather, regaling us with tales of familiar foibles. He invites us to laugh at ourselves through the prism of true-to-life missteps and adventures in growing up, courting, parenting and endless other touchstone experiences. Making light of the universal human condition makes his humor accessible to audiences of any age or background.

“That’s the whole idea of the writing – everybody identifying with it,” he said.

That’s been his approach ever since he began taking writing seriously as a student at Temple University in his native Philadelphia. He found his voice as a humanist observer while penning creative writing compositions for class.

“I was writing about the human experience. Who told me to do it? Nobody. I just wrote it. Was I trying to be funny? No. Was I reading any authors who inspired me? No.”

It’s not exactly true he didn’t have influences. His mother read Mark Twain to him and his younger brothers when he was young. Just as she could spin a yarn or two, he was himself a born storyteller amusing friends and teachers. He also admired such television comics as Sid Caesar and Jack Benny, among many others, he drew on to shape his comic alter ego.

He may never have done anything with his gifts if not for a series of events that  turned his life around. The high school drop out earned his GED, went to college, then left early to embark on his career, but famously returned to not only finish his bachelor’s degree but to go on and earn a master’s and a Ed.D in education.

 

 

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©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

 

 

 

He’s sreceived numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. There have been dark days too. His only son Ennis was murdered in 1997. The comic’s alleged infidelity made headlines.

Through it all, he’s made education his cause, both as advocate and critic. His unsparing views on education and parenting have drawn strong criticism from some but he hasn’t let the push back silence him.

He said growing up in a Philadelphia public housing project he was a bright but indifferent student, devoting more time to sports and hanging out than studying. He recalls only two teachers showing real interest in him.

“I wasn’t truant, I just didn’t care about doing anything. I was just there, man. I was still in the 11th grade at age 19.”

He describes what happened next as “divine intervention.” The high school drop-out joined the U.S. Navy., Cosby hated it at first. “That was a very rude epiphany.” He stuck it out though, working as a medical aide aboard several ships, and obtained his high school equivalency. “I spent four years revamping myself.”

He marveled a GED could get him into college. Despite awful test scores Temple University accepted him on an athletic scholarship in 1960.

“I was the happiest 23-year-old in the world. They put me in remedial everything and I knew I deserved it and I knew I was ready to work for it. I knew what I wanted to be and do. I wanted to become a school teacher. I wanted to jump those 7th and 8th grade boys who had this same idea I had of just sitting there in class.

“Being in remedial English, with the goal set, that’s the thing that began to make who I am now.”

Fully engaged in schoolwork for the first time, he threw himself into creative writing assignments. He wrote about pulling his own tooth as a kid and the elusive perfect point in sharpening a pencil.

The day dreaming that once hampered his studies became his ticket to fame. He said the idea for one of his popular early bits, “The Toss of the Coin,” came during Dr. Barnett’s American History class at Temple.

“I began to drift as he was talking about the Revolutionary War.”

Cosby imagined war as a sporting contest with referees, complete with captains from each team – the ragtag settlers and the professional British army. A coin toss decided sides. In the bit the referee instructs the settlers, “You will wear fur hats and blend into the forest and hide behind rocks and trees.” To the Red Coats, the referee says, “You will wear red and march in a straight line and play drums.”

The day dreams that used to land him in trouble were getting him noticed in the rights way. He recalls the impact it made when the professor held up his papers as shining examples and read them aloud in class to appreciative laughter.

“That was the kickoff. That’s when my mind started to go into another area of, Yes you can do, and I began to think, Gee whiz, I could write for comedians. And all my life from age 23 on, I was born again…in terms of what education and the value is. To study, to do something and be proud of it – an assignment.”

He’s well aware his life could have been quite different.

“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”

While a Temple student he worked at a coffee house and he first performed his humorous stories there. Then he began filling in for the house comic at a Philly club and warming-up the audience of a local live radio show.

 

 

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©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

Those early gigs helped him arrive at his signature style.

“When I was looking for that style I saw it a Chinese restaurant. It was a party of eight white people and there was a fellow talking and everybody was just laughing. Women were folding napkins up to cover their faces. This was not a professional performer. Upon analyzing it I noted three things. First of all, he’s a friend of the other seven. Secondly, he’s talking about something they all know that happened. Thirdly, it happened to him and they are enjoying listening to his experience from his viewpoint

“And so I decided that’s who I want to be, that’s the style, because my storytelling is the same thing, whether I’m talking about pulling my own tooth or sharpening a pencil until it’s nothing but metal and rubber.”

Or the vicissitudes of being a father or son.

Not everyone recognized Cosby’s talents.

“I showed this comedian working in a nightclub a thing I wrote about Clark Kent changing clothes in a phone booth. In the bit a cop shows up and says, ‘What are you doings?’ and Kent says, ‘I”m changing clothes into Superman,’ and the cop says, Look, come out of there.’ ‘No, I’m Superman, can’t you see this red S on my chest?’ And the cop says, ‘You’re going to have a red S and a black eye.’ The comic read it and said, ‘This is not funny’ Within a couple years it was on my first album.”

Cosby ventured to New York City and followed the stand-up circuit. Then came his big break on The Tonight Show. Sold out gigs and Grammy-winning recordings followed.

Along with Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell and Godfrey Cambridge, Cosby was among a select group of black comics who crossed over to give white audiences permission to laugh at themselves. None enjoyed the breakout success of Cosby. Without his opening the doors, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy would have found it more difficult to enjoy their mainstream acceptance.

“I would imagine it was something brand new for an awful lot of people – to see this black person talking and making a connection and laughing because, Yeah, that happened to me.”

The iconic comic’s raconteur style has translated to best selling albums and books, where he mines his favorite themes of family, fatherhood and children. His warm, witty approach has made him a television and film star.

In his dressing room he appeared fit and comfortable in the same simple, informal attire he wore on stage: gray sweatshirt with the words Thank You printed on it and gray sweatpants with a draw string. The only thing missing from his stage outfit was his flip-flops. He spoke to us in his socks.

Totally in his element, with light bulb-studded mirrors, a soft leather sofa and bottles of Perrier water within easy reach, he captivated the audience of two dozen inside the dressing room just as expertly as he did the 1,500 souls in the auditorium.

For a few minutes photographer Marlon Wright and I had The Cos all to ourselves.

Two weeks earlier I conducted a long phone interview with the comic in which he discussed the “born again” experience that led to his path as a writer-performer. We hit it off and I struck a real chord when I shared that, like him, I tested into remedial English as a college freshman.

“Hey, man, we’re remedial,” became our running private joke.

He agreed to a photo shoot. Only when Marlon and I arrived at the Orpheum his  aide informed us the appointment wasn’t booked on “Mr. Cosby’s” schedule. Escorted to his dressing room, I found Cosby trying to reach his publicist to confirm things. I reminded him of our phone interview from a couple weeks back and he shot me an exasperated look that said, Do you know how many reporters I talk to?

Determined not to blow this opportunity, I blurted out, “I’m the remedial man.” “Oh, why didn’t you say so?” he said, smiling broadly and inviting me to sit down. Just then, the phone rang. It was the PR person he’d tried earlier. “Yes, yes, I got him here.” he told her. “He finally said the key word, remedial, so I let him in.”

In the weeks preceding his concert Cosby did a local media blitz to try and boost lagging ticket sales. Sitting across from him in his dressing room, less than an hour before his performance, he expressed disappointment at the low number of tickets sold but pragmatically attributed it to the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday slot.

Asked what it is that still drives him to continue performing at age 74 and he answered, “I am still in the business. I’m still thinking, I’m still writing, I’m still performing extraordinarily well, and in a master sense.” It echoed something he said by phone about going on stage with a plan but being crafty enough to go where his instincts take him.

“Once I pass that threshold from those curtains to come out and sit down I know what I would like to do but I keep it wide open. I don’t know which way it’s going to shift, and a part of it has to do with the audience and the other part has to do with me  – where am I at that time and what’s the brain connecting with in terms of being excited about something.

“I did a show in Tyler, Texas and I started out with enthusiasm talking about something and then I didn’t like what I was doing and I shifted the material to nontrends to trends until finally they began to click in. In other words, some audiences are and are not, and you have to go out there and find that, find what keeps and what works. It’s 50 years now. I know exactly where to mine and what to do.”

 

 

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Bob Boozer holds the sweet potato pie as Cosby prays over his knees©photos by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

He knows he’ll eventually hit the sweet spots. As an American Instiution he has the luxury too of having audiences in the palm of his hand.

“Now, we already have a relationship that’s wonderful because people already know I’m funny, so there’s no guessing there, but on a given day, they are or they aren’t. Are they trusting you? Do I feel that way? It’s very complex but because I’m a master at it I think you want me in that driver’s seat to turn you on.”

It takes confidence, even courage to go out on that stage.

“Yes sir, and you need that, no matter what, I don’t care if you’re a driving instructor or what. If your confidence goes bad in comedy…” he said, his voice trailing off at the thought. “Whether you’re writing or getting ready to perform or sitting with friends and talking you have to have that confidence.”

He can’t conceive of slowing down when he still has the physical energy and mental edge to perform in peak fashion. Besides, he pointed out he’s not alone pursuing the comic craft at his age. Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl. Bill Dana, Dick Gregory, Dick Cavett and Joan Rivers are older yet and still performing at the top of their game.

He said he fully intends returning to Omaha and selling out next time.

“So there I am talking about coming back – see?”

Besides, comics never retire unless their mind goes or body fails. The way he looks, Cosby might be at this for decades more.

Asked if he has any favorite routines or rituals backstage, he said aside from resting and signing memorabilia, he generally does what’s made him famous – talk. He bends the ears and tickles the funny bones of theater staffers, promoters, personal assistants, friends, acquaintances, fans.

Then, as if on cue, his aide Daniel popped in to say Bob Boozer was outside. Cosby immediately lit up, saying, “Ahhhh, all right, bring Bobby in and tell him he cannot come in without my you know what.” Boozer, the hoops legend, lumbered in bearing a sweet potato pie his wife Ella baked.

“Here’s Ella’s contribution to 2012 Cosby,” Boozer said handing the prized dessert to Cosby, who accepted it with a covetous grin that would do Fat Albert proud.

“I appreciate that you didn’t get in it,” Cosby teased Boozer, who for decades has made a tradition of bringing the entertainer Ella’s home-made sweet potato pie whenever he performs here.

Boozer confided later, “He loves it. I never will forget one time at Ak-Sar-Ben he had the pie on-stage with him and somebody in the crowd asked if they could get a slice, and he he draped his arms over it and said, ‘Heavens no, this pie is going back on the plane with me…'”

The two men go way back, to when Boozer played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Cosby was shooting I Spy. A teammate of Boozer’s, Walt Hazzard, was a Philly native like Cosby and Hazzard introduced Cos to Boozer and they hit it off.

A coterie of black athletes and entertainers would gather at Cosby’s west coast pad for marathon rounds of the card game Bid Whist and free-flowing discussions.

“We usually would have a hilarious time,” Boozer recalled.

When the Lakers were on the road and Cosby was performing in the same town Boozer said he, Hazzard and Co. “would always show up at his performances and visit with him about old times and that kind of thing.”

Together again at the Orpheum the pair reminisced. They share much in common as black men of the same age who helped integrate different spheres of American culture. They were both athletes, though at vastly different levels. Cosby was a fair track and field competitor in high school, the U.S. Navy and at Temple University. Boozer was an all-state basketball player at Omaha Tech High, an All-American at Kansas State, a member of the 1960 gold medal-winning U.S, Olympic team and the 6th man for the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

When Boozer entered the then-fledgling National Basketball Association in 1960 blacks were still a rarity in the league. When he retired in ’71 he became one of the first black corporate executives in his hometown of Omaha at Northwestern Bell.

Cosby’s such a staple today that it’s easy to forget he helped usher in a soft revolution. At the same time his good friend Sidney Poitier was opening doors for African-Americans on the big screen, Cosby did the same on the small screen. He became the first black leading man on network TV when he teamed with Robert Culp in the groundbreaking episodic series, I Spy (1965-1968).

Cosby broke more ground with his TV specials, talk-variety show appearances  and his innovative educational children’s program, The Electric Company (1971-1973). He was the first black man to headline his own series, The Cosby Show (1969-1971). But it was his second sit-com, also called The Cosby Show (1984-1992), that became a national sensation for its popular, positive portrayals of black family life. The series made Cosby a fortune and a beloved national figure.

The two men have know each other through ups and downs. So when these two old war horses reunite there’s an unspoken rapport that transcends time.

Like any ex-athletes of a certain age they live with aches and pains. At one point Cosby placed his hands on Boozer’s knees and intoned, “Heal, heal.” Later, I asked Boozer if it did any good, and he said, “No, I wish it would though.”

Pie wasn’t the only thing Boozer brought that day. The Nebraska Board of Parole member volunteers with youth at Boys Town. A family home there he’s become particularly “attached to” is headed by family teachers Tony and Simone Jones, who at Boozer’s invitation arrived with the nine boys that live with them. Cosby went down the half-circle line of boys one by one to meet them – clasping hands, getting their names, asking questions, horsing around.

 

 

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Cosby with Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones

Cosby with words of wisdom for Carvel Jones

photoBoozer and Cosby listening to Boys Town guests, ©photos by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

When told that Tony and Simone are in charge of them all Cosby saw a teachable moment and asked, “You live with them? Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”

“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” said Simone.

“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” probed Cosby.

Tony next gave it a try, saying, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several of the boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked them. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”

“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself, because you can see he’s eating well,” Cosby teased the stout Jones. “And that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you,” Cosby told the kids.

 

 

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©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

The conversation then turned to what Cosby called “the hard knock life” these kids come from. He noted that youth today confront different challenges than what he or Boozer faced growing up and that Boys Town provides healthy mediation.

“We lived with our biological parents. Now my father drank too much and said he didn’t want any responsibility, which left the whole job on my mother, so we lived in a housing project.  Yet we didn’t have the pressures these guys have, the insanity that exists today, and by insanity I mean not normal. Yes, there is a normal. What is normal? Normal is, ‘Don’t do that’ – ‘OK.’ Abnormal is, ‘Don’t do that.’ ‘No, I’m going to do it because you said don’t do it.’

“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns but you had better than a 70-30 chance that gun would blow up in his hands. But now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”

Cosby said it comes down to caring and making good choices.

“The first black to score a point in the NBA, Earl Lloyd, wrote a book and he tells the story of being 14-15 years old and he comes home and his mother says, ‘Where’ve you been?’ He’s stammering, he knows he’s caught with something, avoiding telling her he’s been in a place she doesn’t want him. She says, ‘You were with those boys on that corner.’ and he says, ‘But Mama, I wasn’t doing anything.’  And his mother says, ‘If you’re not in the picture, you cant be framed,’ and if you don’t understand what I just said someone will explain it to you.

“But the idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. There’s a place called Girard College in my hometown. You need to look it up. Forty-three acres. I call it the 10th Wonder of the World.”

The college, where Cosby gave the commencement speech last year, has a largely African-American student enrollment and graduates a high percentage of its students, most of whom come from at-risk circumstances. He said it’s a shining example of what can be.

“What’s missing in this society for black people and people of color is to own something, a small business to build upon. Many of you because of your color you will get the feeling, Yeah I can study and I can be but once I step away from college and go outside of that there are too many people that look at my color and listen to my language and they wont really welcome me. And all of you here know exactly what that feels like.”

Then, turning to Tony and Simone and referring to the boys, he said, “We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing, to find business people willing to allow the boys to not go get coffee or to tie their shoes but to shadow, and it can happen in hospitals, it can happen in factories, businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”

Cosby clearly admires the difference that adults like Tony and Simone make, saying he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”

“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” said Simone.

And with that, the legend bid his guests goodbye. As the entourage filed out with smiles, handshakes and break-a-leg well wishes this reporter was reminded of what Cosby said about the possibilities he began to see for himself once his college English professor took notice.

“I knew I was on track with what I wanted to do.”

Things have come full circle now and Cosby embraces the each-one-to-teach-one position of inspiring young people to live their dreams, to realize their potential.

“Hey, hey, hey…”

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