Film and television schools are churning out graduates by the gross. Their first hurdle will be finding a job. Their second hurdle will be surviving it. Paul Perlove reflects on surviving his first writing job in Montreal.
Testicles may be many things, but generally they are not funny. I found this out the hard way in Montreal in 1977 when my producer, Stan Jacobson, called me down to his hotel room at 6 a.m. to write the Arte Johnson sketch.
Stan, a bear of a man in his late 40s, wore a skimpy hotel-issue robe that barely covered his upper body, leaving the lower part to white jockey shorts. The elastic around the thighs of his underwear was shot, and as he sat in front of me eating from a plate of runny, scrambled eggs, one of Stan’s balls had squirmed its way to freedom.
This was my first job in show business, writing for a Canadian variety show called Julie.
Julie Amato (who died on April 4, 2022, at age 78) was a singer-comedienne and Stan was the producer who designed a show around her, made up of music, comedy sketches, and guest stars, usually Americans, some on the way up—Billy Crystal, and some just on their way to Montreal—Arte Johnson.
And in three hours we were going to rehearse Arte’s sketch, except we hadn’t written word one. Stan was a world-class procrastinator.
“It’s gloomy. We’ll write tomorrow when the sun’s out.” Or, “We’ll do it after lunch.” Or, “We’ll have a couple of drinks, then we’ll nail it.” Or, “We’ll be funnier after dinner.”
But now there were no more afters and I was a very nervous young writer in the middle of a major crunch with a hung-over producer who had one nut hanging out of his shorts.
“Alright, it’s time to put on our funny hats,” Stan growled.
To me, Stan didn’t look like a funny hat kind of guy. He looked like someone in full-blown panic, who wanted to be anywhere but in a Montreal hotel room with a novice writer trying to come up with something funny for Arte Johnson. His panic, however, didn’t keep him from eating, attacking his eggs with a frenzy, some food making its way to his mouth, some flying off elsewhere. At one point I checked my watch. There was a piece of egg on it.
If Stan was in a panic, I was almost catatonic. This was my shot and I felt like I was holding on to show business by my fingernails. If I blew this, I was back selling aluminum siding. (“Excuse me ma’am, I couldn’t help noticing your lovely house. Would you have any objections to it being used as a model home to demonstrate the beauty of our NorCam Aluminum Siding with the new Polyurethane Insulation?”) I was determined to show Stan I could write funny.
But right now, something was stopping me. Stan’s testicle. There it was, just lolling around on his thigh without a care in the world, like a kibitzer at a card game. I tried not to look, but somehow I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Today, I know how I should have handled it. I should have addressed the situation straight off. “Hey Stan. One of your testicles is hanging out.” But I was a rookie and I didn’t have the balls to speak out. Stan did. And I was looking at one of them.
Time ticked away and we came up with nothing. We sat there looking at each other, Stan, his testicle and I. Finally, Stan said, “Okay, let’s get something to hate.”
“We’ll just put something down on paper! To get a fucking start, then we’ll fix it later!” he snapped.
Despite his belligerence, Stan was basically a good-hearted person. But in the heat of battle, something happened. Love and hate got mixed up and a vicious streak would bubble to the surface. Stan also displayed a strange ambivalence toward me. Having given me my break in show business, he seemed equally determined to drum me out of it.
Finally, we came up with a premise. I don’t remember much except that it involved Arte being introduced from the studio audience as a world-famous Swedish mountain climber, who then found it almost impossible to climb up on the stage, two feet off the ground. And part of the piece, for some reason, involved Arte, in fractured English, telling a knock-knock joke.
“Uh… Stan… Maybe instead of Arte saying knock-knock, he should say k-nick-k-nick?”
“Good idea,” Stan said. I beamed. I got something in. I felt a surge of confidence.
“K-nick-k-nick,” I started to write on a yellow pad.
“What are you doing?” Stan barked.
“I’m writing k-nick-k-nick.”
“No, no, no! You don’t write it k-nick-k-nick. Write it knock-knock. Arte will deliver it k-nick-k–nick. If he doesn’t, we’ll quietly suggest it to him. He’s a professional. You, I’m not so sure of.”
The session went on like that. Every so often I would say something that Stan liked, most often not. I don’t want to make excuses for not coming through in the clutch, but you try pitching to a testicle. No really, try it.
We finished a few hours later. Stan told me to grab a cab to the studio, clean up the material on the way, and go to the rehearsal hall where the cast was already waiting for us and “bullshit the troops.” He was going to jump in the shower.
Before I could make an argument in favor of solidarity, he was gone and soon I was bouncing around in the back seat of a cab trying to make some sense of the gibberish on my yellow pad. It was a mess. It had a beginning, middle and end, but it was sloppy, like an unfinished suit in a tailor’s window, the stitching exposed, an arm missing. Some of the jokes even ended without the blow. I don’t remember the specifics but an example of what we did was, “A guy walks into a doctor’s office and says, Doctor it hurts when I pee, and the doctor says, (joke to come).”
I ran into the studio and gave the pages to Nina the production assistant, then took a deep breath before walking into the rehearsal hall to “bullshit the troops.” I had hardly said two words to the cast and now I had to bullshit them? And what about Arte Johnson? He was several years removed from his glory days on Laugh-In, but to a Canadian kid, he was still a Hollywood star. What would I say to Arte? “What was Alan Sues really like?” Or, “Who was taller, you or Henry Gibson?”
I handled the situation by not saying a word, not one sound. The cast seemed to be perfectly happy ignoring me, making small talk amongst themselves while I sat there smiling like a pleasant young man with brain damage. How long was Stan going to be? Was he the kind of guy who hopped in and out of a shower? Or, God forbid, was he the type who had to luxuriate in the hot spray, lathering every part of his body until it gleamed? From what I could tell, he had one fairly clean testicle. Maybe he could save a few seconds there.
Finally, Stan burst into the room, full of laughs and bluster, hugs all around, a picture of confidence. I was off the hook, Stan was here. I still remember the feeling of relief. And then Stan said, “Okay, let’s find out where the laughs are. Perlove will read the sketch to us.” I remember that feeling too. Like I was in an airplane and the pilot said, “We’ve just reached ten thousand feet. Paul, get out.”
I looked at Stan. He had to be kidding. He wasn’t. This is how they were going to find out where the laughs were? By having the sketch read by a shellshocked mute? Everyone opened their scripts and looked at me. I started to read.
I read everything. Not just dialogue and stage directions, but character names, parentheticals, every cut to, every dissolve to. I think I even read page numbers. I started off reading fast, and picked up the pace from there.
We found out where the laughs were. There weren’t any. The only sound in the room came from me, reading faster and faster, a crazed comedy cantor on speed. I could feel Stan glaring at me. I was destroying his sketch.
I pictured myself standing on a porch in Northern Ontario. “Excuse me ma’am, have you ever thought of doing something with the exterior of your home, something that insulates and never needs painting?” My hands were leaving damp imprints on the table in front of me. And then I came to Arte’s knock-knock joke.
I had a split second to wrestle with the dilemma. It was written, “knock-knock,” but maybe I should read it “k-nick-k-nick?” Stan said to leave it to Arte, the professional. But Arte wasn’t reading it. It wasn’t his voice that was cracking. He wasn’t bathed in flop sweat. I had to try for a laugh, a titter, a clearing of a throat, anything to break the silence that enveloped the room like something from a horror movie.
“K-nick-k-nick,” I read boldly. I waited for a laugh. Nothing. If it was quiet before, I now took us into a new dimension. This was the sound of death. My head hurt. I once read that just before suffering a fatal aneurysm, George Gershwin said he smelled burning rubber. Suddenly the rehearsal hall smelled like a Goodyear Tire plant. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stan make a fist. I knew what he was thinking: “The little schmuck. I told him knock-knock! Not k-nick-k-nick!” And then Arte broke through the hush. “k-nick-k-nick. Funny kid. Maybe I’ll say it that way.”
Then someone giggled. Or maybe it was just a cough. But I had just learned my first show business lesson. You gotta have balls.