How a worshiper from way back got gag master Morey Amsterdam to explain laughing matters

DIVINING COMEDY

June 05, 1994|By Patrick A. McGuire

My search for Morey Amsterdam began 30 years ago when saw his picture in a magazine ad for a correspondence course called "The Hollywood School of Comedy Writing." Learn to write jokes like the pros.

I was 17, an awkward, self-conscious altar boy, not a hair out of place. I was shy, not very athletic, raised in the protective custody of an Irish Catholic mother and a sober-minded father who wore a suit and a fedora to work every morning. Burly, bead-wielding nuns shielded endangered species like me from the everyday slings of the predator pack.

Not surprisingly, everybody had me figured for a priest -- everybody but me. I wanted to be a comedian.

I'd already had some success, a few intoxicating laughs pried from tough guys in the school yard with homemade monologues. I dreamed of being like Morey Amsterdam, who played Buddy Sorrell on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Buddy was a comedy writer for "The Alan Brady Show," and every week he spoke for the little man when he mercilessly skewered Alan's dorky, baldheaded brother-in-law, Mel Cooley.

Buddy: Mel, you know what your problem is?

Mel: What?

Buddy: Your hair didn't fall out. It fell in and clouded your brain.

Everybody has a Mel Cooley in their life. Mine then was our bald, humorless principal, who molded character with a marble fist and was known behind his back as the Cueball. My father's was old man Moonan, the imperious boss of his company. When Morey did his Mel-bashing thing, my father would hoot in surprise, slap his leg, lean forward and laugh so hard he'd have to blow his nose.

And nothing since then has seemed to me so crystal clear: If I could make someone laugh like my father, I could make a fortune in handkerchiefs.

One night I worked up the nerve to show my father the ad for the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. Maybe it was the Morey connection, maybe he simply heard my desperation, maybe it was temporary insanity. But he came up with the $250 enrollment fee, a small fortune in 1963, and suddenly my half-baked teen-age notion of becoming a comedian took on a scary legitimacy.

The course was laid out in a series of 12 books, subdivided into the basic comedic elements: the Exaggeration Element, the Insult Element, the Reverse Element. They were written by someone named Ron Carver, and the very first segment was called "How to Write Jokes." Being an innocent, I found the opening sentence utterly profound: "A joke or gag is the smallest unit of comedy writing."

I read hungrily, then sat at my bedroom desk and scribbled out my first one-liner: "Last night I saw a movie so old Gabby Hayes had acne." Somebody at the Hollywood School -- I always imagined it was Morey himself, undoubtedly the school's dean -- sent me back an encouraging note and a B-minus grade. That was better than I had ever done in chemistry. My heart soared.

I finished only two volumes of the course before I went off to college, and then never seemed to find time to complete the rest. But by then I was a committed comedian, writing a humor column in the college paper and acting the clown as a campus disc jockey. Fresh out of college with a journalism degree, I brashly told a managing editor at a job interview that my goal was to write comedy. He became frightened. "There is no room in newspapers," he trembled gravely, "for comedy."

There also was no room for me at his paper. And with a family on the way, I reluctantly realized I had better get serious. Thus did my alternate career as a sober-minded newspaper reporter begin. But even as fortune and deadlines led me from city to city, time zone to time zone, decade to decade, I whittled out my niche as one of those comedians without portfolio: the office banjo player, the monologist at every going-away party, the lunch-table gagster, the person most likely to show up at a stuffed-shirt event wearing a gorilla suit.

And wherever I went, I faithfully bore the baggage of those dozen slim, spiral-bound books. I revered them like Holy Scripture, removing them occasionally from their box just to hold them and think of Buddy Sorrell. And to wonder when I would really get serious about being funny.

Why did Burton search for the Nile? Why did Amundsen trek t the South Pole? Why did McGuire seek Amsterdam? The answer is simple: It was their destiny. Plus, somebody else paid the way.

For years I nursed the dream of going out to Hollywood and divining comedic truth from my mythical dean, Morey Amsterdam. I longed to understand the cosmic mysteries of comedy: Why is funny funny? How does one become funny? Am I funny enough? Somewhere in those Hollywood Hills I knew I could find the answers.

My role model is the Beatles, who went out to the Himalayas and asked the maharishi for the words to some good songs. They came back with wisdom and lots more hair. Given the rapid spread of my bald spot, I figured the extra hair would be a nice bonus.

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