Mike Hanson (00:09):
Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the Well-Read Investor, the podcast that profits your mind and your money.
We’ve got a rare treat for you today. We spoke with comedy writing legend Gene Perret about how comedy works, and a lifetime spent writing jokes for the likes of Bob Hope, Carrol Burnet and Phyllus Diller, to name just a few.
You may have noticed by now that this podcast frequently veers from traditional investing topics. That’s because I personally approach investing as a kind of liberal art, and often as much a humanity as a science. Our guests reflect the types of topics I’ve valued in my work in one way or another. Because markets are abstract things, having many ways of thinking about them understanding them, seeing them, really matters.
So, in having Gene on the program, I was eager to speak about his philosophy of comedy because I think it has many parallels to investing. Setting aside the fact that on most days life is more like comedy than triumph or tragedy, I think a comedic mindset is one that keeps you open to surprise and novelty, I think it promotes the idea of reflecting back upon ourselves own absurdities in a format we can deal with. And all of those things I think we could use more of these days. You’ll hear in this interview why Gene believes the way to comedic insight is to try and see reality as clearly as possible. Because when you do, that’s when the absurdities of life appear most starkly. I couldn’t possibly give better advice to an eager young stock analyst.
So, a bit more on Gene. He’s earned three Emmy Awards for his work on The Carol Burnett Show. He wrote for Bob Hope from 1969 until the performer’s retirement, serving the last 15 years as his head writer. Gene’s television career includes producing Welcome Back, Kotter, Three’s Company, and The Tim Conway Show. The list goes on: Mama’s Family, All in the Family, Laugh-In, and many others.
But he spent a significant portion of his career writing books and teaching about comedy as well. He’s on today to speak about his book, The New Comedy Writing Step by Step. Which is still considered by many to be a standard textbook for comedy writing. I’m no comedian at all as anyone who sits near me can attest, though I did do—rather badly—an improv troupe when I was much younger. And it’s really difficult; it requires tremendous focus and energy to be comedically creative, not to mention you must have a huge awareness of culture. But since I do a lot of public speaking I’ve always appreciated how well-honed the great comedians have their timing and sense of rhythm, as well as their storytelling choices. All the way down to the syllable. Comedy is very poetic in that way and many famous poems of course are comedic. And so good comedy is a lot like good writing, and good thinking in general: a good joke gets to essences and strips all nonessential details away. Again, that’s a superior investing mindset if I’ve ever heard one.
So let’s do this without further ado. Here’s Gene Perrett.
Mike Hanson (03:28):
Gene, thanks again for being on the show. I've watched a lot of your shows, particularly when I was a kid, but I still do. But your body of work, especially the fact that you've taught so much about comedy has been a real boon to me in my career. want to start off by asking you how you got started. Is it true that you were an engineer at General Electric?
Gene Perret (03:48):
I was an engineer at GE. My first supervisor retired and they said, why don't you do a little show for them? So I did. And it went over very well and they said, we've got another party coming up. They asked me to do the next one. I did that. And then I became like the Toastmaster General of GE. Whenever they had a party, I would open it with a little 8, 10 minute monologue and then go from there. So they got familiar with my comedy and were very, very supportive. And because of that, I got into speaking, I got into the comedy thing. Phyllis Diller came to town and a friend of mine who worked at GE mentioned to her that, there's a guy at work that writes some funny stuff. She said, tell him to send it to me. And I sent it and sold half of it. And that was the beginning of the career, it really picked up from there.
Mike Hanson (04:53):
So you were sort of the Bob Hope of General Electric as the Toastmaster before you even met Bob Hope, it seems like. How did you work those things out though? Did you just write comedy on your own? Is it something that was just interesting to you?
Gene Perret (05:08):
It’s funny that you mentioned Bob Hope. I studied Bob Hope. I would tape his radio shows and then type them out, And then I would study the format of them and then I'd put them in a drawer for two weeks and then I'd pull them out later with new topics. I'd get the current topics of the day and try and duplicate his style with the new topics. When I met Bob Hope, first time he called me, he said, write something for the Academy Awards for me. So I did. And he used a lot of it, and he said, boy, it looks like you've been writing for me all your life. I said, Mr. Hope I have, but you didn't know about it.
Mike Hanson (05:52):
Now, there's a ton of failure in comedy. And just like you said, you sold about half of what you wrote, even on the first try. How much failure is there in comedy writing?
Gene Perret (06:01):
There's quite a bit of failure in it. It's built on failure. You keep trying until you get the right joke. Think a writer's meeting, we keep throwing jokes out and everybody says, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, that's it. And finally you get the line you want and you put it in. But it takes that kind of effort, that kind of work to keep it going until you get the right line. Comedy performing, people go out and perform and they go and try stuff at local clubs, they all try it and they have jokes that they think work and they don't work and they throw them out.
Mike Hanson (06:42):
So you mentioned Phyllis Diller who recently passed, of course. Tell us about one of your favorite stories or reminiscences about her or working with her.
Gene Perret (06:51):
Oh boy. We did some lines about her cooking and she said, her cooking is so bad, she serves her meals in three parts: cook the food, serve the food, bury the dead. She said one her children were misbehaving, so she sent him to bed without his supper. And the next morning he sent her a thank you note. Oh yeah. We were in Acapulco and we were working there. We went to see the cliff divers. You know the procedure, they climb up the rocks and then they dive off and it's amazing. And Bob Hope is standing there and he said, boy, isn't this amazing? And she said, all my blind dates do that. She was a funny lady and a very generous lady. She helped me an awful lot. And she helped others too. She would be very willing to help. She was a devotee of comedy and anybody that was in comedy.
Mike Hanson (7:53):
Yeah. It seemed like she could do almost anything, and after you began selling some of your jokes over time in your career, you got involved in TV writing, production, some of the most notable shows of the era. How did you get involved in television then?
Gene Perret (08:08):
Phyllis Diller. I was writing for Phyllis for a number of years through the mails and over the phone and so on and so forth. And then Phyllis came up with a show called The Beautiful Phyllis Diller show. It was in 1968, she went to the producers and said, I want this guy to write my monologues. That's how I got into television. I worked from home and sent material in, they’d mail me the script, I'd pick up the script and I'd work on it for two or three days and then send it back to them and they'd include whatever they want it to include from my jokes. And then the next season, the Phyllis Diller Show was canceled. These two producers talked to all their friends and recommended me. And I got two offers, the Lennon Sisters and Jimmy Duranti and the Jim Neighbors show. And I took the first one that came in, so I worked on the Jim Neighbors show for two years.
Mike Hanson (09:09):
In the latter part of your career, or you spend a lot of time, not just writing books, but really teaching. And you've had a mission of teaching comedy and how others can learn to do it as a craft. What made you decide to do that?
Gene Perret (09:22):
Well, I met so many people that enjoyed comedy and wanted to work in comedy. I traveled as a speaker for a while and you always have people come up to you, ‘How can I get into television? How can I get into writing’ and so on and so forth. And I said, I'm going to put a book together that has everything that I think is important. We’d come up with a book called Comedy Writing Step-By-Step actually, it was first called How to Write and Sell your Sense of Humor, but we changed it to this one where it was republished. And I just put in there, everything, step-by-step is what it literally is. We'd go from the beginning to the end and how do you do it? And what should you work on? And so on and so forth. And I just did it because I thought it was needed. There was no book like that out at the time. There are several out now. So I just took it on as my goal and have enjoyed it. It did very well, still doing pretty well. And that was my little contribution to the comedy writing world.
Mike Hanson (10:31):
I encourage our analysts to read your new comedy writing secrets, if for no other reason than it teaches hard work and practice and that you don't get things right on the first try. And that it is very difficult because investing is just full of failure. But did you ever have a writer's block? And when you did, what did you do about it?
Gene Perret (10:51):
Only about once a day, you know. We always believed that there was no such thing as writer's block. Now, I'm talking about the Bob Hope writers. A friend of mine said that you can turn in good jokes to Bob Hope, or you can turn in bad jokes to Bob Hope, but you can't literally turn in no jokes. We get into that area where you, you think your jokes are never going to come, you get a topic. And you say, there is nothing funny about this topic, and I'll never write any jokes about it. And then you give it a little bit of time. And pretty soon, once the jokes start coming, they come so fast. You just want to keep up with them and not lose them as you're writing. So we would have a writer's block, but the only way you overcome that is to write is to sit down and write and devote yourself to it. You can break through it.
Gene Perret (11:46):
It exists, but we were never allowed to have it exist. There was a restaurant across the street from NBC where we taped everything. Some of us were in there eating that night. And Bob Hope come in and saw his writer sitting there. And he looked, just kept staring at him. You know, like with that eye of his, and the guy knew what was coming. And he said, Bob, I'll type some jokes when I get home, he said they don't have typewriters here?
Mike Hanson (12:16):
It actually reminds me. I just was going back through your book yesterday. And you have a quote from Thomas Maan. Who's one of my favorite authors, a German writer. He says a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, which I think is absolutely right. But how do you know your audience?
Gene Perret (12:35):
You see which jokes work. First of all, you know basically what people are like. You some research, really. For instance, if you're on a cruise ship, you do some research about that. And you write jokes about a cruise ship. You do some research about the captain, and you write jokes about that. When I was doing my standup routines for General Electric, there was always a guest of honor, I mean, we had the party for somebody. So I talked to the family and I'd say, tell me about so-and-so. Does he like this? What's his favorite past time? And you get enough material, so you build it up. The same thing with Bob Hope, when we did material for the overseas shows.
Gene Perret (13:24):
You do research on what's happening. When Bob Hope comes out and talks to the kids, it applies to them. He knows what the captain does. He can do jokes about the chef, he said, I want to give you some good news, he is on our side. And he said that the chef said to him, do you know the difference between an anchor and a biscuit? Bob Hope said, no, what? He said, you're going to enjoy lunch. Find out what the people want to hear. And then you write the jokes that, to that audience, to those people.
Mike Hanson (14:03):
Research and preparation obviously seems very important. But then, when you talk about jokes, as the foundation of comedy is the foundation for monologues and all the rest of it, you talk a lot about putting different kinds of observations together to create something different or unexpected. You say things like, good comedy writers see things as they are, they recognize things are, and they accept things as they are. So it's almost as if comedy writers see reality more clearly. Talk about that a little.
Gene Perret (14:34):
That's very true. I think you do see reality and you do see things that other people don't see. And an example would be George Carlin's line about why do we park in driveways and drive in parkways? Well, that line was always there. And that observation was always there, but it took a comedian to recognize it and to bring it out to the people. One of the greatest jokes you can have is when you tell some stories about when you were growing up as a kid or something, and everybody in the audience says, yeah, yeah, yeah, that happened to me. So if they can recognize the joke, you've served your purpose, and you do that by observation and by research. You want to find out what these people did or know or talk about. You do the research and you do the observations and that's the important part of comedy, or it is an important part of comedy. The biggest part of comedy is surprise.
Mike Hanson (15:35):
There's irony, there there's surprise, and so there's these observations, there's sort of non-standard meanings of things. And you write a lot about the importance for comedy writers to have a facility, of course, with language which is interesting to me, because a lot of the comedians you wrote for did physical humor. So how are you able to communicate language, words, and how do they do the physical comedy?
Gene Perret (15:59):
A comedy writer is almost like a musician, where you take a tune and you can play that in many, many different ways. You can add a lilt to it, you can change it so that it sounds different, but it's the same melody. And you do the same thing with comedy. For instance, I worked for Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, same style of comedy. And I became very good at that because they were my mentors. Each person you write for kind of brings a different style. You find out that after a while you pick up his nuances, you pick up his facial expressions and you learn to use those, because that's who you're working for. That's who you have to write for. Once you pick up that style, that once you get that sound in your ears, now you can write for it.
Mike Hanson (17:00):
There's sort of a difference between being the writer of the jokes and the commander of the ship. And you have to select the jokes and be the one that discerns between what you'll use and won't use, you've been in both positions. And I just wonder what are the differences between those things?
Gene Perret (17:14):
One thing is very relaxing because you can write jokes. For instance, writing for Bob Hope. If he calls up and says, I need an introduction for such and such. Well, you write 15 lines. And he picks the two that he wants. They may agree with the two that you like, they may not. But as a writer, you have that luxury of saying, I'm just going to write jokes until he finds one, you know. One time we, we were working, we did the all American team, which we did every year. And we were in Miami and we came up with all lines, except for the quarterback but he was a Heisman trophy winner. And Bob Hope, wanted a great joke for him. And we could, we had jokes, 40 jokes that we had written to begin with. I wrote some new ones. He didn't buy them. I called everybody at home. 10 guys were writing. They turned in, 100, 200 jokes. And finally he said, Hey, I liked that joke. So I run it down to cue cards real quick. And when I come back and we're relaxing, I said, Bob, we must've written 300, 400 jokes for you. Why did you pick that one? He said, cause I liked that one. So it's up to him, what they pick. But it's up to us, talked about failure before, to write like 400 jokes and have 399 of them fail is tough work. But that's what you got to do. That's your job.
Mike Hanson (18:45):
In your experience, did you write and do comedy to get the laughter of others? Or do you do it for yourself?
Gene Perret (18:53):
Well, I think you do it to get the laughter from others. That's the goal. You want the laugh. The secret is to find out how to get that. And that's the purpose of the comedy writer. Now you want to do it for yourself too. You want to enjoy the joke when you put it down on paper, but basically, if it doesn't get a laugh, it's worthless. You want to get that laugh and you work hard to get it, you write to get it. You're looking for the laugh.
Mike Hanson (19:24):
So you've seen a lot of things come and go now. Styles change in comedy, but is comedy universal and are there parts of it that never changed?
Gene Perret (19:34):
Yes. There are parts of it that never change. One thing is surprise. Surprise is the basis of comedy. So that's always got to be in there. Now you travel around the world and you find people laugh pretty much at the same things. Now, depending on the style of the comic, things will change. But basically if you have fun up there, people will have fun with you. no matter what language you're speaking or what country you're in, you find that they're basically the same kind of laughs. So it is universal, I believe.
Mike Hanson (20:15):
I've heard you in interviews, you've done over the last several years, say that comedy has taken a bit of a darker tone in the last years than it has, let’s say, during the time when you were working with people like Carol Burnett and Bob Hope. How do you see comedy these days and where it's going? Do you have any thoughts about, is it going to get a brighter tone again one day?
Gene Perret (20:35):
Well, I have two, two complaints about it. First of all, is the language. I don't think it's necessary. I think if you take some great jokes that you've heard over the years and you add an obscenity to it, it doesn't make the joke better, It makes it worse. Comedy was meant to be fun. Nowadays it's meant to be a weapon. A lot of comedy hurts, it's meant to hurt, and the people say it to hurt. And it doesn't give comedy the luster that it used to have, as far as I'm concerned.
Gene Perret (21:08):
I worked with Bob Hope and we kidded every president that was in office. And yet Bob Hope could do the jokes that we wrote and go out to dinner that night with Mr. President because the jokes weren’t harmful. They were fun jokes. He had one that I love from way back before my time about Harry Truman. He said, he rules the country with an iron fist, same way he plays the piano. Doesn't hurt anybody. I did jokes for Jerry Ford, met him one time and I said, I got to apologize. Every time I turn in a page of jokes, I have one or two or three that apply to you. He said, keep writing the jokes cause I steal them and use them in my act. If comedy can be not harmful, it's more delightful. It's just more fun. When they turned it into a weapon or something vicious it takes a little bit away from comedy.
Mike Hanson (22:12):
Well, those are very wise words and a great way to finish this conversation. Comedy writing, legend, Gene Parrett. Thank you so much again for taking the time to speak with us.
Gene Perret (22:22):
Oh, my pleasure. Enjoyed it.
That was our conversation with Gene Perret. A guest like him is the reason we do this podcast, what a privilege to speak with him. As I said at the top of the show there’s so much life wisdom there, and I do believe there are lessons for investors—a group who needs a sense of humor if there ever was one. We could all I think use a few more laughs anyway and Gene certainly gave me some!
If you like what you’re hearing make sure to follow us on social media. We’re on Twitter @wellreadpod and Instagram at @wellreadinvestorpod or just google the Well Read Investor to see what I’m reading, reviewing, and talking about week in and out.
And come back in two weeks on March 31st for our irreverent, high energy, and completely fun talk with Deirdre McClosky and Art Carden as they discuss “Leave me alone and I’ll make you rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World”. A fun book to read that serves as a kind of introduction to McCloskey’s ideas about economic development over the last several hundred years. In my humble opinion, McCloskey is of the finest caliber as an economic historian, and a tremendous rhetorician. That’s in two weeks.
Until then, may all your reading profit your mind and your money. Take care.
Investing in securities involves the risk of loss, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The content of this podcast represents the opinions and viewpoints of Fisher Investments, and should not be regarded and personal investment advice. No assurances are made we will continue to hold these views, which may change at any time, based on new information, analysis or reconsideration. Copyright Fisher Investments, 2021.