Roundtable: Comedy Legends

Comedy Legends
Chris Buck

(From left): Mel Brooks, Phyllis Diller, Dick Cavett, Tim Conway and Carl Reiner.

Did you hear the one about Dick Cavett playing straight man to THR's 80th anniversary roundtable? That's the daunting task the longtime talk-show host took on in wrangling a table stocked with comedy legends from stage, screen and cinema.

Watch video of THR's Comedy Roundtable.

Did you hear the one about Dick Cavett playing straight man at THR’s 80th anniversary roundtable? Mel Brooks, Phyllis Diller, Tim Conway and Carl Reiner talk Shakespeare, fart jokes and how Oscar needs a sense of humor.

Aren’t I the lucky lady?” cracked Phyllis Diller, the 93-year-old stand-up great (and veteran of 23 Bob Hope TV specials), as she took a seat to discuss comedy with a trio of old cronies: Mel Brooks, 84, who has won every major showbiz award — the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony (making him that rarest of Hollywood icon, an “EGOT”); nine-time Emmy winner Carl Reiner, 88, whose career spans Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show, four movies with Steve Martin (starting with The Jerk) and an on-camera romance with Betty White (in TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland); and Tim Conway, 77, who has won five Emmys for side-splitting work on The Carol Burnett Show and, more recently, 30 Rock. These comedy legends gathered to swap stories Dec. 9 at Siren Studios in Hollywood with guest moderator Dick Cavett, arguably TV’s greatest — and most erudite — conversationalist and author of the new book Talk Show. After more than an hour, they were all still laughing.

Dick Cavett: Let me start our talk by promising that we will not discuss that hoary old story of the ancient actor who is asked, “Is dying hard?” And he says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

Reiner: Dying is very easy for everybody. Comedy is very easy for comedians.

Cavett: Can you remember when you first realized “I am able to make other humans laugh.”

Brooks: I remember. I was about a month old. I remember the faces ringing my crib looking down at me and bursting into laughter. And I said: “OK, this is what I do. That’s my job.” I knew it instinctively. 

Carl Reiner: I remember when I was in the third grade, we had to do something for Christmas. Somebody sang, somebody tap danced, and I could put both my legs behind my head and walk on my hands. And people thought that was funny. They laughed. And then I could stand on one leg and hop around with one behind my head. So I did that a lot.

Tim Conway: Did you have any clothes on at the time? That could be even more humorous.

Mel Brooks: When did you know, Tom? Tom is Tim’s real name, he had to change it.

Conway: My real name is Betty.  Actually, I was funny at my Baptism. I don’t remember it, but I was about 4 months old when I was baptized — a Greek Orthodox ceremony which is a strange way of doing things. They put the child in a crib, and they walk around with their heads bowed and go round and round. Then they stop and look down, and I am gone. My father, in his wisdom, said, “He has risen.” And the priest said, “No, he has fallen.” I had fallen off the thing. So it started there. I said to myself, “I’m going to stick with this.”

Cavett: I’m told that I got laughs repeatedly when I was very little. My mother had taught me Shakespeare sonnets, and I recited them. Can you imagine what W.C. Fields would say? Amusing little homunculus.

Reiner: Robbie Reiner, my oldest child, was about 2 years old and had started to talk, and people were teaching him “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and my wife said: “Curds and whey? He doesn’t know what curds and whey are.”  We had a little disc of Hamlet, and my wife said he might as well learn a little Shakespeare. So at 2, he’s walking around saying: “To be or not to be/that is the question … whether ’tis noblers — he said ‘noblers’ — to suffer the swings — not slings — and arrows of outrageous fortune or by opposing end them,” and he’d walk away. 

Brooks: I have a funny thing that I’m going to announce.

Cavett: Thanks for the warning.

Brooks: Carl Reiner …

Reiner: Ooh, that’s me.

Brooks: About 100 years ago, and I’m not kidding, he auditioned as a lad to get into a Shakespearean company, and the man who ran the company suffered from an ailment that Carl didn’t recognize at all. So ladies and gentleman, Carl Reiner will tell you about his first audition in a Shakespearean company.

Reiner: I was 17 years old, and the head of the company was a guy named Harold Selwyn. He says, “Come here, young man.”  He had a funny look, and he tapped me on the head — his face was this close — and he says, “Say after me … Now is the winter of our dithhcontent.” And so I said, “Now is the winter of our dithhcontent.” And he says, “Enough, very good.” I was feeling great. I walked offstage, and I came to my friend Gene Lyons, and he said, “What the hell did you do?” I said, “I did exactly what he said.” He says, “You just impersonated a guy with a stroke!” Everybody there thought I was a schmuck.

Cavett: My most embarrassing moment was in one of those Shakespeare recitations. My mother tells me that at the end, I would say, “Now everybody crap … .” Mel said something really provocative the other night that “nobody respects comedy as cinema art.”

Phyllis Diller: That’s because they never give an Oscar to a comedy.

Cavett: It’s something of a scandal that Cary Grant never got an Oscar. Is it thought that what he did was easier to do than what Spencer Tracy or Ray Milland did? What’s the mentality that led to that?

Diller: If you’re talking about mentality, don’t look at me. 

Conway: I think it’s in the titles of pictures as well. [Announcer voice.] The award nominations are The Godfather, From Here to Eternity and The Apple Dumpling Gang. [Laughter.] If you’re in The Apple Dumpling Gang, you’re not going to get nominated.

Brooks: If I’d known that earlier, I wouldn’t have used Blazing Saddles as a title. Every movie I made would have been None but the Lonely Heart, None but the Lonely Heart IINone but the Lonely Heart III.

Diller: One of the great lines of all time was in Young Frankenstein when Cloris Leachman says in a deep German accent, “He vas my boyfriend.”

Reiner: That’s a great line. “He vas my boyfriend.” Mel, you do the line.

Brooks: [No accent, sounding flirty.] He was my boyfriend.

Cavett: Phyllis, would it have been any easier for you to achieve all you have if you’d been a man in comedy?

Diller: No it was easier for me as a woman.

Cavett: Because you were a novelty?

Diller: Yeah, because I was like a hen’s tooth.

Cavett: And what was it between you and Mr. Bob Hope?

Diller: Everything. [Cackles.] Just about everything.

Reiner: Does everybody know that Phyllis Diller is the one who broke it open for female comedians?

Cavett: She really took her finger out of the dyke. … What I mean to say is, you led the way for a deluge of comediennes, some of whom should get lost.

Diller: That’s right, but they can’t all be good.

Brooks: Carol Burnett was good.

Diller: She’s the world’s greatest comic actress.

Reiner: Not only is she the greatest comic actress, she’s one of the greatest performers of all time. She could do everything. And she’s nice.

Brooks: Tom/Tim will tell us the backstage story of Carol Burnett.

Conway: Now what makes a great comedian is the ability to come up with that line that is going to save everything. We were doing a takeoff of Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies, and in the background was a horse. Carol was singing, and the horse decides to take a leak. So the wrangler comes up with a pail and puts it under the horse. And Carol is singing and can’t imagine why the audience is hysterical. She glances around and sees what is going on, and in that moment you must come up with that line that has got to top the horse.  Carol said to the orchestra leader, “Peter, let’s take it from the top. Do you want to take it from No. 1 or No. 2?” 

Diller: Brilliant.

Brooks: [To Conway.] You’re not a bad looking guy.  

Conway: What are you doing for dinner?

Brooks: But the other night I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and you look like Grumpy. You really do. You have a nice little nose and a little red face.  

Reiner: May I add, why is this man so funny? He really is one of the funniest human beings I know.

Brooks: He’s not even Jewish.

Conway: My father was Irish, and you could not tell him he was wrong. Once, he bought a little doorbell and hooks it up backwards so that it rings all the time — except when you press the doorbell. I swear to God. So we would sit at home at night, and you’d hear, “riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnngggg.” And you could not tell him it was backwards. So it would go, “rriiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnggg.” And when it would stop he’d say, “Oh, I’ll get it.”

Reiner: So with a father like that, how could Tim not be funny?

Conway: I did this thing to Jack Riley once — we were doing Mister Roberts in a small theater. And everybody had done Mister Roberts, the movie had been out, and everyone knew the lines. I was Ensign Pulver, and I get this telegram, and I go, “Oh no,” and Jack is supposed to say, “What happened?” And I say, “It’s Mr. Roberts, he’s been killed in action.” And everyone goes, “Oh God, oh Jesus, oh God.” One night, I look out in the audience, and everybody is falling asleep and mumbling the words with us, and the cast is not listening, and we come to this part where I get the telegram, and I look at it and go, “Oh no,” and Jack says, “What’s wrong?” And I say, “It’s Mr. Roberts.” And he says, “What happened?” And
I said, “They reposessed his car.”   

Cavett: Is there any reason to think Phyllis and Tim, being from Ohio, would be any funnier if they came from New York, where these two guys come from?

Diller: I have made a list of comics from Ohio.  Danny Thomas, Bob Hope, Martin Mull, Jonathan Winters. There are at least 30 major talents.

Cavett: There’s this idea that comedy is largely Jewish and from the Borscht Belt or from the Bronx, and there’s that endless list of comics you can name. But has anyone here seen anyone else from the world of comedy who is as utterly unprecedented as Jonathan Winters?

All: No.

Brooks: He came from Mars. So different.

Conway: Johnny calls me about three or four times a week. I never answer the phone. I always leave the answering machine on. And I must have 50 or 60 messages from him. He was just 85 years old, and I went to his birthday party, and he got up and thanked everybody for coming — and did two hours [of stand-up]. We kept singing “Happy Birthday” hoping he’d get off. He is such an influence.

Cavett: My guess is he would be a classic case of a woefully badly managed career. Because he should have been more legendary. You couldn’t have been funnier or more special. What moron handled his career?

Reiner: I spent a lot of time just chatting with him on the set of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Just chatting and roaring with laughter.

Brooks: When I did Blazing Saddles, I worked with Slim Pickens, who was just delicious. He and Ben Johnson were reputed to be the best horse riders.  I said to him: “I’m so thrilled.  You’ve done 100 pictures, and I’ve done four.  Can you give me some advice on directing movies?” And he said, “Well I tell you pal, anytime you get a chance, sit down. It’s very tiring, and you’ll run out of energy by the end of the day. They’ve got your name on a chair — when you see it, sit down.” I said, “OK.”

Cavett: I ran across a phrase new to me: “Write Jewish, cast Gentile.” Does anyone know any application of that?

Reiner: I understand that. I had a series called The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I wrote for myself and cast Dick Van Dyke. With me, it didn’t work. We did a pilot, and it was OK.  It was myself, Barbara Billingsley and Morty Gunty. The pilot didn’t work. And I wrote 13 episodes for myself, and it was laying there for a year or so, and I went on to movies. [Producer] Sheldon Leonard had the same agent, and he called us in and said, “These are very good stories.” And I said, “I don’t want to fail again.” And he said: “You won’t fail. We’ll get a better actor to play you!” It was written Jewish and cast gentile. There it is.

Cavett: Who thought of Dick Van Dyke?

Reiner: Sheldon Leonard. I went to New York to see Dick in Bye Bye Birdie. And there he was: the best situation comedy actor of all time.

Brooks: I write Jewish, and I cast Jewish. I cast Gene Wilder in everything. I’ve done very well — I’ve made $100.  I tried to make myself more gentile. There’s a way of shading your nose.

Reiner: He made himself more gentile right at the beginning of his career.  His name is Melvin Kaminsky. This is Mel Brooks.

Cavett: Who gets credit among the greats for saying, “Let no man count himself lucky till he has had a good death”?

Brooks: I would have amended that and made it, “Let no man count himself lucky until he has had a good bowel movement.”  That’s because I go for down-and-dirty comedy, and a good death will not get you a good laugh, but a bowel movement will.

Cavett: Is there an insult so bad it can’t be funny? [TV personality] Robert Q. Lewis was hated by his staff. He had deep pock marks on his face. This guy came in to quit, and he goes out. And he comes back for a moment, and h e says, “Hey Bob, I’ve always wondered, what’s par for your right cheek?” [Everyone groans.]

Brooks: That’s funny. There’s no such thing as good taste. It’s only funny or not funny. … Tim, I want to say before we go, I miss Harvey Korman. He was such a patsy for you.

Reiner: When was the last time you saw him before he passed [in 2008]?

Conway: Three weeks after he passed.  [Laughter.] No, in the hospital. He was in a kind of coma — you couldn’t talk to him. But I bought a 2011 calendar and put it up on the wall in case he came around, and then he’d go, “What the hell happened?”

Cavett: One thing we’ve all been plagued by through our careers is hearing, “That’s going over the line,” but they never tell you exactly where the line is. Is there something you’d never say?

Brooks: I’ve dealt with Hitler and Nazis comfortably all my life. Happily, I’ve made a very nice living with Hitler. But the truth is, even in my soulless, terrible, mindless way, I’ve never ever mentioned the Holocaust because it was too horrific, too sad, too brutally inhuman to have fun with.

Cavett: I saw someone do so last week at a Friar’s Roast. The subject was shoes. And someone said of Uma Thurman, “She has more women’s shoes than Dachau.” And the groaning went across the room.

Diller: You don’t touch those things.

Cavett: It’s too beyond the line. On the other hand, I’ve always said you can joke about anything. Well, you can. But it isn’t good.

Diller: I found out one year when I wanted to make jokes about Abraham Lincoln. You can’t. There’s just one joke — the one we all know — “And what did you think of the play?” Other than that, they will not laugh at Lincoln. They’ll laugh at Washington but never at Lincoln.

Brooks: You come from Lincoln, Neb., don’t you Dick? That’s pretty funny.  Anybody coming from Lincoln, Neb., I wouldn’t spend a lot of time with, but I’ve made an exception in your case. I think it’s amazing —  you’re quite literate. Apart from being spectacularly gentile. 

Cavett: I didn’t ask to be born this way… . Were there any heroes of yours who were disappointing when you met them?

Brooks Oh, sure. You meet someone like Errol Flynn, and he farts? Errol Flynn suddenly lets a silent one go?

Cavett: Can you prove this?

Brooks: No, I made that up. Every bit of that is false.