My parents were not theatergoers and my youthful memories are not filled with reveries of family trips to New York to see shows. I can remember being taken to the theatre only twice as a youth by my parents, once in 1969 in New Haven (Fiddler on the Roof, national tour) and once in about 1975 on Broadway (The Magic Show). Yet there was something embedded in my DNA which made me interested in performance; I was writing plays (almost all adaptations of existing works) in elementary school with very little frame of reference and undoubtedly even less skill.
I longed to be an actor, and vividly remember my envy of Danny Bonaduce on The Partridge Family, thinking if he could be on TV, so could I. This was a bit odd, because I was a rather socially awkward child who didn’t mix well with most kids in my elementary years; I read constantly and had to be pushed outside into fresh air, where I invariably kept reading. Unlike many drawn to performing, music didn’t have a big role in my childhood, outside of Top 40 AM fare once I had my own little transistor radio. My parents didn’t have a record collection to speak of; I do recall my mother’s beloved two-disc set of Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, and some assorted children’s records, such as the Mary Poppins soundtrack and Danny Kaye’s Mommy, Give Me a Drink Of Water and Tubby the Tuba. Cast recordings, which loom large in the memories of theatre pros, were absent, save for Fiddler on the Roof (culturally imperative, but rarely played) and West Side Story (likewise, but we only listened to “Dear Officer Krupke”).
So I’ve often wondered how I managed to be cast in lead roles in each and every show (save one) that I auditioned for in junior high, high school, community theatre and college, and why being on stage or in speaking in front of large groups has never frightened me. I’ve come to understand that part of the appeal, and the ease, came from the stage offering the exact opposite of day to day life. On stage, I always knew what to say and when to say it, and when I did it right, I was rewarded with laughter and applause. It was a startling contrast from the uncertainty of casual interaction. Where did I learn this skill? Comedy records.
As a tween and teen in the early 70s, in the pre home video era, I was completely entranced by comedy recordings both current and from the relatively recent past. My brother and I came together primarily over our basement record player and the comedy collection scavenged from yard sales (and Monty Python on PBS). We had a bunch of the earliest Bill Cosby albums, the deeply politically incorrect Jose Jimenez In Orbit, a Smothers Brothers disc and (purchased new, smuggled in) George Carlin’s AM/FM and Class Clown. These are the ones that come to mind; there may have been more.
We listened to these albums over and over as if they were music, and reached the point where we knew entire routines by heart. Not just the words, but the pacing, the inflections, the comics impersonations of other characters and performers. Each routine was a song, and we would recite along with the records. We worked to perfect Carlin’s Spike Jones “hiccup” before we’d ever heard a Spike Jones record. We were mesmerized by them, long after the surprise of the jokes had faded; of course, the contraband Carlin album made us very adventuresome among our peers because of its “dirty” language (we were perhaps 12 or 13 at the time).
I never of thought about these records as scripts, but they were almost sacred texts to us. If we learn to perform first by imitating and later by finding our own style, then we were taking a suburban master class from performers at places like The hungry i in San Francisco before we’d ever been on an airplane and before we would have been old enough to gain admittance even had we managed the trek. The lessons ran deep: a couple of years ago, a gift set of Carlin CDs accompanied me on a road trip, and my wife was both amused and annoyed by my ability to recall every moment with precision, despite my not having heard the material in many years. Did I ever find a style of my own, moving beyond mimicry? That’s for others to say.
My actual performing years were brief, covering 1977 to 1981, 10 shows in all. I was perhaps the fussiest Oscar Madison in history, since most see me as a Felix; I probably shouted more than any one of the 12 Angry Men as Juror 3; I managed to make the characters of Will Parker and Albert Peterson the most inept dancers in their history. I suspect I was best in roles that called for comedy over movement or voice: the Woody Allen stand-in Axel Magee in Don’t Drink The Water, the meek Motel Kamzoil in Fiddler, and the dirty old man Senex in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (my college’s newspaper noted a distinct Jewish paternalism in my performance at age 19). Whatever I had, I owed not to the performers from the Golden Age of Theatre, who I would only come to know later, but to the stand-up comedians who were the writers and performers I took close to heart – if for no other reasons than that they were repeatedly accessible on the technology that was available to me.
I do not suggest that aspiring performers should run out and start learning comedy albums by heart, though one could do worse for understanding timing and pace. Of course, now we can watch and not merely listen to comedians and work out their full routines step by step; I wonder whether the visuals would have added to our mimicry or distracted us from the deep concentration on words and delivery that took place as a ritual in our cluttered basement, our nightclub of the mind. But I am sure of one thing: there are many ways to find one’s way to the stage, and mine was through the storytelling and punchlines of some modern masters of the comedy genre.
P.S. My vocal coaches were Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, and Allan Sherman. But that’s another story.