A Comedy Education From Late Legend Buck Henry
Originally appeared on Vulture, Jan 10, 2020
A shorter version of this interview was originally published in Mike Sacks’s 2009 book And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft.
In 2009, I put out a book of interviews I conducted with my favorite comedy writers. It was called And Here’s the Kicker. The writers I interviewed included David Sedaris, Merrill Markoe, Harold Ramis, Robert Smigel, Allison Silverman, and, of course, Buck Henry.
Buck’s interview leads off the book, which I always thought was appropriate because he bridged two vastly different comedy periods — maybe more. His mother had been a silent-film actress in the 1920s, and Buck wrote for early televised comedy programs like The Steve Allen Show and The Garry Moore Show in the ’50s and ’60s. In the mid-’70s, at the relatively senior age of 44, he appeared ten times as host for a new comedy show that defined a fresh sensibility: Saturday Night Live. Twenty years after that, he was still starring in movies, including Robert Altman’s The Player and Short Cuts. Fifteen years after that, he was guest-starring on 30 Rock as Liz’s father, Dick Lemon, an 80-year-old man who takes a “gentleman’s intermission” from his wife of 45 years.
Buck Henry is going to be missed for many reasons, not least of which are his brilliant script of The Graduate, the creation of Get Smart, and the ahead-of-its-time but short-lived TV sci-fi satire Quark, as well as his SNL characters, a lot of whom (as the saying goes) would never get anywhere close to airtime these days — such as his version of Charles Lindbergh, who, on his first solo flight across the Atlantic, anxiously passes the time by jerking off to the pornographic magazines he brought with him.
With Buck’s passing on Wednesday at the age of 89, I’d love for you to read the extended version of the interview I conducted with him back in 2009, before it was cut down for inclusion in my book.
There’s a Heaven Can Wait reference I could use right now, but I’ll save you the time and agony. Instead, I’ll just say this:
Is there a more prophetic line in all of comedy?
Buck Henry seemed destined for a life in show business from an early age. At just sixteen, he was performing as one of the sons in the touring production of the mega-hit Life with Father (1947). A few years later, stationed in Germany and maintaining helicopters and aircraft, he found time to write, direct, and star in a cheerful (if somewhat unorthodox) musical review called Beyond the Moon, in which two GIs are accidentally rocketed to a distant planet, where they find a race of “weird but gorgeous women.”
The sixties were, by all accounts, a golden era for Henry. In 1965, he and Mel Brooks co-created the Emmy Award–winning sitcom Get Smart, which ran until 1970. Though fans and critics adored its obvious spoofing of the James Bond spy genre, Get Smart was also a satire of government incompetence (and possible menace), a topic Henry revisited in his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970). But, arguably, Henry’s biggest cultural impact was the screenplay for The Graduate (1967), the Mike Nichols–directed comedy about alienation, plastics, and MILFs, which would soon come to define the baby-boomer generation.
In the seventies, Henry continued to create or co-create original TV shows, such as the little-seen but well-remembered 1975 Robin Hood parody When Things Were Rotten, and, in 1977, the science-fiction spoof Quark, starring Richard Benjamin as the outer-space garbage collector Captain Adam Quark. Henry also wrote hugely popular feature films, such as the Barbra Streisand vehicles The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972). But it was Saturday Night Live that turned Henry into a household name. During the late-night sketch show’s first five years (1975–1980), Henry hosted a remarkable ten times, becoming (along with Steve Martin) a de facto cast member. He’s probably best remembered for playing Uncle Roy, the middle-aged pedophile babysitter who invited two young girls, played by Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner, to find his “buried treasure.”
Henry’s later comedy was never as dangerous, but for every misstep or creative flop during the eighties — First Family, Protocol — he would come up with something to remind his fans that he still had a few fresh tricks to offer, whether it was writing the celebrity satire To Die For (1995) or doing a hilarious parody of himself — all too eager to sacrifice his own masterpiece The Graduate for sequel material — in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992). And then came his biggest coup: in August 2007, Henry, in his eighth decade, was hired by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show as its “Senior Historical Perspectivist.” His first segment was introduced as “The Henry Stops Here,” and when host Jon Stewart questioned the title, Henry informed him, “Well, Jon, it’s because my name is Henry, and I’m stopping right here. It’s just common sense.”
In I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life, the autobiography of Al Goldstein, the former editor of Screw magazine, there’s a passage about you visiting a San Francisco striptease club in 1981, where Goldstein had sex onstage with five women. True?
All true. I’ve been in various seedy and unacceptable places for many years with Al Goldstein, although we stopped communicating a few years ago.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you have a voyeur nature. Is this an example?
I think all writers should have a voyeur nature. You have to look and listen. That’s why some writers might run out of material; they’re not looking, they’re not listening.
How do you achieve this? Where do you look and when do you listen?
I think the problem is that, if you live in California — and especially if you live in Hollywood — you aren’t connected to what the rest of the world thinks of as real life. Your observations are based on what you see on television and not what is going on in reality.
If you ride in limos for too long, you tend to forget what cabs, buses, and subways are like. You lose contact. I think it’s important to stay in contact with the outside world.
How early did you begin writing?
Early. The first piece I wrote was in elementary school, and it was an O. Henry–type of story with an appropriate twist.
What was the twist?
I don’t remember. But a few years later, when I was twelve or thirteen, I was actually accused of plagiarism for another piece I wrote. This was in a military school, the Harvard School for Boys, in California. I wrote a story that had a paragraph that was metaphorical; I compared a piece of machinery to a caged beast. I’m sure it would be completely humiliating to read today, but I was thrilled with the metaphor at the time. That is, until a couple of teachers in the school started going through magazines and books, searching for this metaphor. I was living at the school, and the teachers looked through all the reading material I might have seen or read.
It was very much like the idiot senator and his staff years later, during the hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas. You know, going through every book until they finally found a pubic-hair reference and then raising the offending paper above their heads with a “Eureka!” shriek.
Did your teachers ever find that metaphor and successfully prove the plagiarism charge?
No, they didn’t.
This doesn’t necessarily sound like an environment conducive to creativity.
There were maybe one or two teachers who were helpful and good, but for the most part this was a military school, and I was a kid. There wasn’t a lot of need for the student body to be doing creative writing.
You had a dichotomous childhood — military on one hand, Hollywood and show business on the other.
That’s true. My mother was an actress who had left Portland, Oregon, to make it in Hollywood. She acted in a lot of silent movies, but when she got married and simultaneously pregnant, she quit show business.
My father was a general in the Air Force, and a stockbroker and a political conservative, but one of his closest friends was Humphrey Bogart. Go figure.
Did you always gravitate toward comedy rather than other genres? Did it always come easily to you?
Yes, but I’m actually more a fan of other genres than I am of comedy. I rarely go to comedies. I just don’t find comedy as interesting as the forms that I don’t do myself. It’s harder to make me laugh than it is to make me cry.
You once said that comedy covers a lot of faults.
It is defensive in nature. With comedy, you deflect danger. You cover up emotion. You engage your enemy without getting your face smashed in.
Comedy is also harder to write. Things are either funny or they’re not. If you were writing, say, a story about Jesus getting married and having children, you can go for a long period of time faking it before you have to do anything even pretending to be meaningful. You can’t fake it with comedy.
How did you first get involved in show business? What was your first professional writing job?
My first job was with an improvisational theater group called The Premise in New York City. I had been involved with writing and acting at Dartmouth, and this seemed like a natural thing for me to do. Improv came easily to me, and it didn’t seem like a special art form in and of itself. Not everyone was capable of doing it, though. It’s sort of like sight-reading. Some actors can do it, and some can’t. And that in no way suggests whether you have real talent or not.
That job really led to everything else. After The Premise, I got a job writing for The Steve Allen Show in the early sixties.
What was it like writing for Steve Allen?
He was one of the most interesting comedians working. He was great with language, and he was really more contemporary than anyone else. He also had a good eye for talent. Those who first appeared on that one short-lived show included me, the Smothers Brothers, and Tim Conway. Steve was also one of the first hosts to have Lenny Bruce on his show.
Steve was genial and funny, and he had a lot of interests, including jazz piano. He wrote a lot of songs, which still bring in money. People only remember “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” but he wrote literally thousands of others.
He was very influential with talk-show hosts that came after him. I know that David Letterman was a big fan.
Not just with hosts, but with comedy writers.
Why do you think that was?
It was the type of humor that he performed. There were never any sitcom-type jokes written for Steve, ever. We mostly wrote parodies and satires of politicians and political events, and also pop-culture situations. This was really different from the show that I worked on after Steve Allen, which was The Garry Moore Show.
Garry Moore is a talent one doesn’t hear about much anymore. Who was he?
He was an actor and a comedian. He had a huge following in the forties and fifties among normal people. There was nothing hip or contemporary or modern or pretentious in any way about him. He was just the nicest, most straightforward guy. Very square.
As opposed to The Steve Allen Show, Garry’s show was very conventional. He did a lot of strict parodies and that sort of thing. Garry had a segment on his show called “That Wonderful Year,” and it was just an excuse for him to sing a song and do a sketch with the best comedians in the country. One week it would be George Gobel; the next week, someone else. And I would write a parody of a movie or a play or maybe a political event.
How did you come to be so proficient with parodies?
I think that it was built-in from having written for my college humor magazine, The Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern.
Do you prefer one form to the other? You’re better known for satire than parody.
One is a child of the other. Satire is usually more political, parody is usually more cultural. But on The Garry Moore Show, parody was what was called for. You know, if you have to write a skit based on a famous movie, you’re not going to write a satire.
With Steve Allen, we did all sorts of different things. Steve was really ahead of his time. He was responsible for a lot of bits and ideas that ran for years and years and that late-night shows still do. All of the “man in the street” bits originated with Steve. Also, Steve fooled around with language. I don’t think anyone else was doing that at the time: puns, plays on words, strange captions.
He was a smart man. When we rehearsed the show, we never used real punch lines. We substituted nonsense words for the punch lines. Just dummy text, like “Hutsut rawlston on the rillaw.” Nonsense stuff.
So that the band wouldn’t know what the punch lines were. It was important to Steve that the band laugh during the show; it meant more to him. We used to call this the “hot laugh,” and it was when the band would laugh at a joke they had never heard before. Sometimes you would hear this very strange laugh on the air, because it would be unbalanced on the band side, particularly if the joke was very hip and the audience didn’t quite get it.
I tried to get a hot laugh years later when I was acting in Robert Altman’s The Player. The joke was that I was pitching a sequel to The Graduate.
The pitch was that Ben and Elaine were living in a big, old spooky house with Mrs. Robinson, who had suffered a stroke. You said it would be “dark and weird and funny and with a stroke.”
Well, I tried to withhold that joke until the end, but of course I couldn’t. There were eight takes, but once the first take was over, everyone knew what the joke was.
By the way, a film executive approached me in the lobby immediately after the screening of The Player and said, “You’ve made a big joke out of it, but I think we could seriously talk about the possibility of a sequel for The Graduate.” I then quit listening.
Did you see the potential right away in the Charles Webb book The Graduate when you were asked to write the screenplay?
Yes, but I don’t think I read the book until Mike Nichols gave it to me. Once I did, my feeling was, This is going to make a very good movie. There were strong characters and a good story.
The book is dialogue-heavy. Did that make the process of translating it to the screen easier for you?
Sure. The more there is to steal, the easier the job — although, in some cases, it isn’t. In fact, sometimes it’s just the opposite, because you can’t figure out what to get rid of.
I was going to ask if you had any idea whether The Graduate would become such a phenomenon, but does anyone ever really know?
Oh, absolutely not. You never really know.
With The Graduate, nobody expected that what happened was going to happen. I mean, I thought the movie was going to be a hit, but I didn’t know it was going to be that kind of hit.
How about specific lines and jokes? As a screenwriter, do you ever really know if a line or joke will break through?
I can usually tell if a joke will work, but I can’t predict if a joke or a line will become iconic.
Such as the famous “plastics” line?
Right. I had no idea what would happen with that line. I just thought that the line was good as a passing moment. Everything about that scene appealed to me, and the “plastics” line was only a part of it.
The line was not in the book. What made you want to write it into the movie?
I had a professor of philosophy at Dartmouth, and he would rail against the “plastic world.” I always remembered that phrase. The party scene needed something, just a little something, and “plastics” seemed to be the right word to use. I could have used “mohair” or another word, and if the actors had done it right, it still would have received a laugh. But “plastics” was just perfect. It captured something in that scene that another word never could have.
Everyone’s been through it. Me especially. Every guy in my generation who went to college and had ambivalent relationships with his parents. Every guy who stood around talking with his parents’ friends, who were perfectly nice but who were people you’d have paid to not have to stand around with … Well, we’ve all been through that. Everybody in the middle class, anyway.
I found a copy of the original script and noticed that the beginning of the movie was different from what eventually ended up on the screen.
That’s right. The original beginning was going to show a graduation scene that Mike Nichols and I had talked about. It was a terrific idea. Dustin [Hoffman] gives a valedictory speech at his graduation ceremony, but it’s a windy day. As he’s reading the speech, which mostly concerned “What was the point of all of these years at college?” his papers keep blowing away. Dustin’s character becomes more and more frantic, and he’s unable to improvise a new speech.
Mike and I cribbed this idea from an incident that actually happened at President Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, when Robert Frost gave a poetic benediction. It’s an incredible piece of American cultural history. Frost, who was quite old at the time, was standing at the podium, about to read one of his poems, and it was a freezing day in Washington, and the sun was in his eyes and he was unable to read the poem he had written for the occasion. And a few men, including L.B.J., moved to the podium to help Frost. Jesus Christ, I’m going to cry just thinking about it. It was an image that I never forgot, and I thought it would be fitting for the movie.
Why didn’t that scene make the final cut?
I think we saved the scene for the end of the shoot, for technical reasons, at which point Mike said, “Well, wait a minute. We’ve got a whole film here. What do we need to go with that for?”
I’ll sometimes start a movie with a scene that’s a teeny, teeny capsule version of the movie’s sensibility. And this was an example. The movie was about a bright kid who is incapable of dealing with the niceties of social behavior. The elements are against him, and he’s going to have to struggle. And that graduation scene captured that essence.
But the movie’s sensibility was also captured with the second scene that ended up in the movie, when Dustin is traveling along on the airport’s moving sidewalk. It became just as good, if not better, than the graduation scene.
Is that a lesson for screenwriters — that you can sometimes achieve just as much through simplicity?
You bet it is. Absolutely. Less is more; it just works for everything. In the end, who needed that more elaborate scene?
I was struck by how detailed the stage directions were in the shooting script for The Graduate and how a lot of these descriptions ended up on the screen just as you imagined them. Here’s one example: “Ben walks quickly into Elaine’s room, crosses to the bed and puts the purse down. As he starts to turn back, he looks up at Elaine’s portrait. There is a movement reflected in the glass of the portrait. He turns quickly. Mrs. Robinson, naked, is shutting the door to the bedroom behind her.”
Directors encourage you to not write anything that has to do with the camera’s movement, and I usually try not to do that; it’s really up to the director to shoot the way they see fit. With Nichols, though, we were on the same wavelength. There were quite a few descriptions in the Graduate script where I was amazed at how closely they resembled what was shot for the movie.
Which other scenes, in particular, made the successful transition from the page to the screen?
Just after Benjamin tells Elaine about the affair with her mother. In the script, I put in a description of how the camera should focus on Mrs. Robinson as she watches Benjamin walk away. And Nichols made it look exactly as I had written it.
Now, there really is a big jump from putting a description on a page to putting it on film, but Mike was able to do it to the point where I later thought, Ah, yes. That’s my exact vision up on the screen.
As a writer, this made me feel very good, whether it was true or not.
Mike and I just had an understanding. We came from the same time and place; we had the same cultural references. But later on, I sometimes didn’t have quite the same relationship with directors or actors. Words and phrases were misinterpreted or sometimes completely misunderstood. I was encouraged by a couple of producers to overexplain everything in the scripts. They wanted me to insert those terrible adverbs and phrases, like “succinctly,” or “with a smile,” or “meaningfully, but not pretentiously.” I sometimes had to put in all that junk description, because very often studio readers couldn’t get a sense of the dialogue without them. I hate those signposts. I’d rather leave it to the actors’ imaginations.
One of the descriptions not in your Graduate script was Benjamin’s and Elaine’s facial expressions as they sat in the back of the bus just having escaped from the church. The only description you wrote was: “They are breathing heavily.”
The expressions on both Dustin’s and Katharine Ross’s faces were not planned, at least to my knowledge. Mike simply let the camera focus on these two people, who were a little lost and a little confused about what had just happened.
Over the years, those expressions have been interpreted as being very meaningful.
They are meaningful, but not in the sense of “Now we can predict what their next ten years are going to be like.” But it is meaningful in the sense of “This is very much like life.” Movies in Hollywood usually end with two characters, hand in hand, saying, “We’re okay. Let’s go home. Everything’s swell.”
In the case of The Graduate, these two characters had just busted up a wedding, they’re on the lam, they don’t have any money. Where the hell are they going to go? They’ve made a huge leap into an unknown future, and that’s what the ending becomes.
I actually wrote a couple of lines of dialogue that we never shot. Something like “Well, what do we do now?” And the other responds: “I don’t know.” But we didn’t need it. Dustin gives that funny little laugh and a handclap, and then both he and Elaine look at all these dopey-looking people on the bus. It’s sort of like life. I think it’s a terrific end moment. It’s the happiest ending I ever wrote.
Are you as happy with Catch-22 as you are with The Graduate?
I love the way that the film looks, and I think Alan Arkin, who played Yossarian, gave a great performance. But it was very difficult. It doesn’t have the same tone as the book; it has its own interesting kind of tone, which is surrealistic. The book isn’t about surrealism. The book is a black comedy of another kind, but it was hard to figure out how to translate that.
We wanted the movie to be like a dream, and we wanted to have a lot of dreamlike segues. Actually, I always thought of the movie as a fever. Yossarian’s fever.
Do comedies work well within that surreal and dreamlike format?
I think it’s possible to pull off a comedy that’s dreamlike, but it’s not easy. I wanted to find a style equivalent to the book, and I thought that was what the book did so brilliantly, which was to take the reader — almost from midsentence — from one place to another. I tried to find interesting ways to do that on film. Most of the scenes worked; a few didn’t. The few that didn’t, though, were harmful to the rest of the movie.
Which scenes do you think didn’t work?
One in particular. It’s the scene in which Yossarian takes the place of the soldier who’s dying in a hospital bed. The dying soldier’s family comes in, and they have this weird pretense that Yossarian is their son. I think it’s one of the most powerful sequences I’ve ever seen in my life. It makes me cry. But when we screened Catch-22, the reaction to this moment was shocking. The first two audiences, back-to-back, laughed during it. And that completely destroyed what I thought we had intended.
Why do you think they laughed?
They lost their emotional bearings. Or we lost it for them, and that’s always bothered me.
In retrospect, what would you have done differently?
I don’t know what I would have done. I probably would have tried to make it all more accessible. Also, I know I screwed up where the actual plot is concerned. I had read the book ten times, but the audience hadn’t. Maybe I knew the book too well. I knew which character was running away from which character; I knew which character stabbed which character. The audience might not have known that, but they really should have known or else the point is gone.
It’s one of the most beautiful comedies I think I’ve ever seen. It’s gorgeous to look at.
It is great to look at. David Watkin was the cinematographer, and I love the Watkin look. He also did Chariots of Fire and Out of Africa. It’s very beautiful and very moving in its own way. But maybe it was moving in the wrong way for a comedy. I don’t think you can do laugh-out-loud comedy that is beautifully backlit.
That’s an interesting point — early comedies aren’t necessarily beautiful.
Not at all. No one gives a shit. If you look at those early films, such as Laurel and Hardy or Chaplin movies, you can see shadows where there shouldn’t be shadows. God knows what the light sources were. The comedies looked terrible. But at least you could make out facial expressions — you can’t when a scene is lit from behind. And that’s true in films up into the late fifties, actually.
Did Joseph Heller ever comment on the movie?
He did. He was very nice about it. He apparently had written a different version of Catch-22 at some point, and he said that our movie was similar to that earlier version. I didn’t believe him when he said that, but I think he meant it in the best possible way. I once heard him on a radio show in L.A., and the host tried to bait him into insulting the movie. He wouldn’t do it; he wouldn’t fall for it.
Did your years in military school, and later in the army, prove helpful when you wrote the screenplay to Catch-22?
Oh, absolutely. I knew what the military felt like, what it sounded like. Some war films get it right, and some don’t. Some writers who were never in the military could capture that by osmosis, I suppose. It depends on how you, as a writer, process things.
A lot of films are made by filmmakers who know nothing except other films. All the great filmmakers from the past knew something about real life.
Do you think that filmmakers today don’t know enough about life?
Maybe not. It used to be that writers wanted to experience the world and write the Great American Novel, but that stopped a long time ago. Then they wanted to write for Carson or Letterman. And that lasted about fifteen years, until they thought, No, wait a minute — the real money is in sitcoms or hour-long shows.
By the way, there are a lot of writers nowadays doing something that I find really interesting.
Which is what?
They write for other writers. They write for the owners, and the owner finishes the script. There’s a whole bunch of these shows now.
What do you mean by “the owner”?
Well, I mean … take [screenwriter and producer] Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin writes all those scripts, but there are other writers writing for him. It’s like writing for a soap opera—you write for him and he’s got the skill and the ingenuity to sit down and put together all that material into a finished product. At least that’s the way I understand it. But I think that’s great, actually. I think it’s a great way to go. It’s like the old studio system in a way. I would do a TV series if I had four or six clever people writing ideas, stories, and outlines.
That’s something you’d like to do — create a TV series?
I would, I would. I wouldn’t mind doing it in that context, because I can’t think up stories. I’m not that prolific when it comes to writing plot.
Actually, we used to do something like this for Get Smart. Leonard Stern, a writer and an executive producer for the show, was brilliant at plot, and he would just feed me the plot, and I would write the dialogue. I can write dialogue forever. There were three teams of writers coming up with stories, and I’d add jokes — or maybe just add a beginning or an end. It was very easy for me.
Is it true that ABC turned down Get Smart, which eventually ran on NBC and CBS from 1965 to 1970, because they considered it un-American?
Yes. Well, that was their excuse, anyway. I mean, in the pilot, here was this dopey hero. And here was this woman who the hero didn’t even know was a woman until she took off her cap and let her hair down. And the show also featured a cowardly dog.
All of this is un-American?
Who knows. There was a joke in the pilot about rubber garbage. Maxwell Smart solves a mystery, because he realizes that the garbage is made out of rubber. Oh, it was complicated. Anyway, the executives thought that people shouldn’t be eating dinner and be faced with rubber garbage. They thought it was creepy and smarmy.
Mel Brooks was the co-creator of that show. What was it like to work with him? Did you feel that it was a good pairing?
It was, but we took much too long on the script. It took forever to write the pilot, something like four or five months.
Because we were lazy, and we fucked off a lot and played pool. And we’re both no good at plot.
Do you have any regrets about specific jokes from any of your movies or TV shows? Jokes that you believe have not held up well?
I loved What’s Up, Doc? I think everything came together so beautifully in that movie. It rattles along, and it has a great mechanism. I think the chase scenes are great. But I think there was one joke in the last scene that didn’t work. I wrote a joke that was a parody of the famous line in Erich Segal’s Love Story — “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I had a character say that line, and another character respond with, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” The joke was okay for about ten minutes, but I should have been able to find something that would have had an impact ten, twenty years later.
I’d like to talk about one of your movies, To Die For, which still has a strong impact all these years later. The deep hunger for fame and celebrity has only grown more intense since the movie was released in 1995. As one of the characters says, “You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV.”
That’s an American disease. And it’s only become truer now than it was when the movie came out. God almighty, the reality shows alone! You know, it’s that mentality of, “Get me on the show, humiliate me, beat me with a stick!” I can give a show like that five minutes, and then that’s it. I find it completely revolting.
You’ve said that to accurately reflect the characters’ lack of intelligence in To Die For, you took great care in writing carefully structured grammatical errors.
That’s true. That sort of thing drives me crazy. Nobody can speak proper English anymore. The kids in that movie, and even Nicole Kidman’s character, say lines or words that are purposely wrong.
Most of the characters in that movie aren’t very bright, but I’m very fond of them. You can’t write characters and not be fond of them, I think.
Were you fond of Nicole Kidman’s character, Suzanne? She was a murderer.
Oh, totally. I’m crazy about her. Victims are interesting to me, but even more interesting are the victimizers. Don’t we all love the girls who do bad things, who break guys out of jail?
Well, I married one.
Has she got a sister?
Switching gears now to Saturday Night Live. You hosted the show ten times, starting in its first season, 1975 to 1976. You were forty-four when the show first aired and quite a bit older than the cast at the time. What do you think Lorne Michaels saw in you?
I think Lorne was a big fan of The Graduate, and he couldn’t get Mike Nichols. That may be a little bit unfair, I suppose, but I was an actor. And I was a performer. I had done loads and loads of variety shows. And it was different in the early years. The hosts for the show were people you wouldn’t think of as being hosts. They weren’t just actors plugging famous movies. They were people like Desi Arnaz or Broderick Crawford, from All the King’s Men . They were peculiar hosts, almost punch lines.
What was your opinion of the younger writers on SNL, such as Michael O’Donoghue, who came from that slash-and-burn sensibility of National Lampoon?
I liked O’Donoghue immediately. It took me a couple shows to figure out who was writing what, but on my first show, Lorne told me that O’Donoghue had written a sketch about Citizen Kane. Lorne said, “Do you think you’d be interested in being in it?” I said, “God yes. Where else could you ever do something like that? Let’s do it.”
What was the sketch about?
It was a little odd. It wasn’t filled with laughs in the old-fashioned sense, but it was so original and I was so amused by the shaggy-dog punch line that I just had to do it. The joke was that Kane wasn’t looking for Rosebud after all; he was simply trying to get a roast-beef sandwich.
At the next show, Lorne said to me, “I want you to see something O’Donoghue does, and I want to see if it interests you.” O’Donoghue came into the office, and he did this routine about being an impressionist. He did an imitation, which was no imitation whatsoever, of talk-show host Mike Douglas shoving six-inch steel spikes into his eyes and screaming in pain. It was pure Dada. I laughed so hard I fell on the floor.
But, you know, I don’t think that joke ever quite lived up to how funny it was that first time in Lorne’s office.
In the early years of SNL, there seemed to be a lot of jokes done strictly for the writers’ amusement — if the audience didn’t understand them, it didn’t seem to matter.
Listen, I have some friends who could never figure out O’Donoghue’s stuff. In fact, I have a literal-minded friend who is a well-known name in the business, and extremely talented and intelligent, but he could never understand the concept of O’Donoghue playing this impressionist. He would say, “He doesn’t sound anything like the guy! He’s not doing Mike Douglas. Why would Mike Douglas put his eyes out?”
You were responsible for one element of SNL that is either lauded or criticized: the repeating of characters week after week.
I did suggest repeating certain characters, which didn’t seem to me exactly revolutionary, since every comedy I’ve ever been involved with, including movies, depends on repetition of a kind. I know Lorne has given me credit for saying that he should do certain characters over and over, but if I hadn’t, then someone else would have — it was so obvious. Why not do the samurai character in different situations over and over again? The repetition is funny in and of itself.
John Belushi’s samurai character had been done before I got there; I think it was “Samurai Hotel.” When I came on the show, I said, “Let’s do ‘Samurai Delicatessen’ or something like that.” And then came “Samurai Tailor” and “Samurai Stockbroker” and “Samurai Optometrist,” and on and on.
What was it like to work so closely with John Belushi? There’s been a lot written about his “genius.” Do you think he was a genius?
I thought of him as being very, very funny, but he was not the only one there that I thought this about. They were all highly original minds. All of them had a wealth of characters they could do, and they were wonderful to work with. In particular, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase were two of the funniest humans I have ever known.
I don’t know what it was about John that made him so good. I think partly it was because he was such a shambles to look at, but he was also so disciplined with physical comedy. It was a great contrast and enjoyable to watch.
What do you think made Gilda Radner so good? You not only worked with her on SNL but also directed her in the 1980 movie First Family.
No matter what Gilda did, she never lost any adorability; there were no hard edges to her work. But it wasn’t as if she was working off sentiment. There’s a difference between sentiment and affection. She had affection for all of those characters she played, and it showed. But she also had a sadness to her. I would find her crying from time to time — during shows and after shows. I’m not sure why, really. When she was happy, she was wildly happy, but she had her down times.
It’s amazing to look back at those early shows and see how young the cast was. The comedy was so smart, even when it was broad, and yet the cast was mostly in their twenties or early thirties.
When you’ve been in improvisational theater, you get used to capturing the characteristics of people who are really out there in the world. And if you’re up onstage every night for a year, or two years, or three years, with the audience yelling suggestions at you like “Do Chekhov, but do it with Chinese characters,” you get used to an immediate commitment to lunatic ideas. You gain a confidence. Most of the SNL cast members came from that background.
You played one of the more bizarre and lecherous characters on the show, Uncle Roy, the middle-aged pedophile babysitter. I wonder how many guest hosts today would ever play such a role.
He wasn’t the only creepy character I played. I played Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic and jerking off to a pornographic magazine. I welcomed the weirdness of that sketch and others.
I don’t think you could do a sketch like “Uncle Roy” these days. I think one of the reasons why it worked was because the two little-girl characters, played by Gilda and Laraine, love their Uncle Roy in the nicest possible way. The games they play are great fun to them. Also, the sketch was written by two women, Anne Beatts and Rosie Shuster, which helped get it on the air. Anne and Rosie were better at convincing the show’s censor than two male writers would have been.
We only did a few of those Uncle Roy sketches. In one of them, the parents came back home and said something like, “Oh, Uncle Roy, you’re like nobody else. You’re so great!” I looked at the camera and said, “Oh, that’s not true. I bet there’s an Uncle Roy in every family.” I thought, This is going to be interesting. I wonder if kids across America will turn to their parents and say, “You know, Dad, your brother Jack is just like Uncle Roy.”
Watching those early shows, it seems there was a real sense of camaraderie between you and the cast.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve talked about this before, but in one of the samurai sketches, John hit me in the forehead with a samurai sword. He put a real gash in it, and I needed a bandage. And by the end of the show, when the cast members were saying good-bye, all of them had bandages on their heads. I mean, to have the freedom and imagination to do that, it was just great. Obviously, the show has to be live and spontaneous and funny, and all of those elements were incorporated into that event.
Why were you only on SNL the first five seasons?
Because on the last show of the fifth season, I said good-bye for myself and good-bye for the cast. We turned off the lights and left. The next year a new cast was brought onto the show, and I never returned.
You’ve said that luck plays a big part in any creative career. Do you think it played a part in your career?
Oh, sure. Timing is everything.
In what sense?
Timing is when a movie comes out. Timing is what the country’s political disposition is when a movie is released. It’s what people are thinking about — what they want to see.
You really can’t control that as a writer. But if you’re talented, it’ll all work out in the end. I mean, not all the talented writers will make it, of course. In spite of what’s said, there is a great writer out there whose work no one has discovered, and there is a great painter out there whose work nobody has seen or will see. But, for the most part, if you’re talented, I think somebody will find you.
Any last words?
In this life? “These were my last words.”
In this interview? “No.”