The Great Comedians: What they Say about Comedy

“The jester is brother to the sage.” – Arthur Koestler In a conversation with my friend, Larry Wilde (New York Times says he is America’s best selling funny man) he said, “Making people laugh is the most specialized and respected talent in the arts. It does not matter how successful or famous or rich a comic becomes — each time he faces an audience he has got to be funny. That agonizing, persistent pressure, that constant challenge keeps the comedian honest — there is no let-up.

In my I attempt to shed some light on the serious business of making people laugh; an effort to comprehend the inscrutable; an endeavor to gain some insight into the mechanics and craft of comedy I invested 3 years interviewing The Great Comedians and wrote my book of that name.”

I was so fascinated with his stories of conversations with The Great Comedians, I convinced him to let me research his research and interview him on tape about the insights he gained, and life long lessons learned, as a young comedian fighting for interview opportunities talking to household names. The result is “The Gift of Laughter: Dialogues with The Great Comedians.”

Larry also told me, some sociologists believe a phenomenon of our times is that the love of laughter was inherent in most cultures of early history. Today’s laugh makers are the direct descendants of harlequins, clowns and court jesters. And like their historic counterparts the current crop of comics is irreverent, inventive and uncommonly gifted. They are blessed with stiletto-sharp insight as well as the colossal courage to joke about people, places and events that most persons hold sacred.

As a professional speaker and executive speech coach, I know even the most serious message delivered on the wings of humor can have a profound effect on the audience, and often enhances learning. I was curious to ask Larry:

  • How did they evoke laughter?
  • What motivated them to want to make an audience laugh?
  • Was this ability something anyone could learn or is it a talent one was born with?
  • Did the hysterically funny material they created come about by accident?
  • Were they meticulously written, planned and polished to perfection?
  • How much of what they did was really ad-lib?

Larry told me “Hearing the comedians talk about their craft you quickly comprehend that there is considerably more to making people laugh than skill in telling jokes.”

These are some of the insights Larry learned;

Jack Benny pointed out that simply evoking laughter was not enough. “There has to be something more than just getting laughs. Laughs are not everything. People can scream at a comedian and yet can’t remember anything afterwards to talk about. To become successful, they must like you very much — they must have a feeling, like, ‘Gee, I wish he was a friend of mine. I wish he was a relative.'”

Woody Allen’s view on achieving stardom is that “it isn’t the jokes … it’s the individual himself. It’s the funny-character emergence that does it. The best material in the world in the hands of a guy who is a hack or doesn’t know how to deliver jokes is not going to mean anything.”

Danny Thomas put it another way: “For the younger people coming up … it’s what you say and how you say it that gets you to where you become a who … and when you become a who your material doesn’t have to be as good.”

Although each comedian Larry interviewed represents a different area of the comedy spectrum, he said they all shared certain basic common characteristics: endless enthusiasm, enormous energy and extraordinary self-awareness.

What may come as a surprise to you as you listen to the interviews and Larry’s observations, and 20 excerpts of conversations, is the enormous intelligence, remarkable sensitivity and astonishing demand for perfectionism exhibited by those interviewed.

I was in awe of how thoughtfully The Great Comedians answered Larry’s questions …. they enjoyed talking to someone who’s life was seeped in comedy … which goes to prove my theory, that the quality of the information you receive depends on the quality of your questions. As I listened to the entire conversations in preparation for my part of the project, I heard Johnny Carson walk over to the telephone and tell his assistant, “Hold all calls,” and Maurice Chevalier say “I have never talked to anyone for so long.”