Veteran Comedy Writer Recounts His Life as Survivor of the Wittiest
Bob Hope once spent the night at the White House. They gave him the Lincoln Room. He had to get up three times during the night to shave, he said. “When I woke up in the morning,” he added, “I freed my writers.”
Hope’s writers have always played the role of hapless eccentrics, toiling like slaves in the sweatshop of the indefatigable comic’s breakneck schedule. After Bing Crosby died in 1977, they even played foils in Hope routines, often suffering the kind of verbal manhandling that Johnny Carson gives the guys in the band.
“Hope is really still a vaudevillian at heart,” says Gene Perret, a member for the past 20 years of the comic’s often-lashed writing crew. “The way he used to insult Crosby? That’s the way he does with us. But we get back at him.”
Perret, a San Marino resident since 1969, has done his share of comedic barge-toting for Hope and others. He participated in, among many others, the 1984 Christmas-in-Beirut trip and last year’s whirlwind round-the-world Christmas tour. Right now, Perret and other writers are in the midst of final preparations for Hope’s first NBC-TV special of the year, which will air Thursday.
The past two decades have given the veteran comedy writer, who has worked for Phyllis Diller, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett as well as for America’s pre-eminent comedian, a sweeping view of the business of making people laugh.
Everything is cyclical, he said. “Ventriloquists and impersonators used to be big. Now it’s stand-up comedians again.”
Perret said he remembers a time when comedy was “practically banned on television.”
“When I first came out to California, there were a dozen comedy variety shows on the air,” he said. “Jim Nabors, Glen Campbell--there were a bunch. By 1975, it was down to one--the ‘Carol Burnett Show.’ ”
But with about 250 comedy clubs in operation in the United States now and an estimated 3,000 comedians making the rounds, the business is on the upswing again, most observers say.
News magazines and television news shows are full of stories about the “comedy boom,” Perret said. “Comedy is the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1980s,” he said. “Ten years ago every kid had a guitar. Today, every kid has six minutes.”
Fertile times or drought, comedy has always brought good times and recognition for Perret. The 51-year-old comedy writer has shared three Emmys for his work on the “Carol Burnett Show,” between 1973 and 1978. He had the distinction of working for both the “favorite all-around male entertainer” and “favorite all-around female entertainer” in 1976, when Burnett and Hope were picked in those categories by the People’s Choice Awards. (They shared their awards with Tony Orlando and Mary Tyler Moore.)
Perret, whose office is in his home, a rambling green house just off Huntington Drive, has now parlayed his writing into a career as an authority on comedy. He has written books, including “How To Write and Sell Your Sense of Humor.” He puts out a monthly newsletter, RT, (for Gene Perret’s Round Table) for people in the comedy business. And he runs the annual Round Table Convention, with seminars and lectures for aspiring comedy writers. The fifth convention was held at the Pasadena Holiday Inn in July.
“My message is that a sense of humor isn’t reserved for Bob Hope or Carol Burnett,” Perret said. “We can all have one and we can all use one.”
Taken to Banquet Circuit
Lately, the message has taken Perret to the banquet circuit, where he promotes comedy as a tool for success and a tension reliever. “When somebody cuts me off on a freeway, instead of laying on the horn, I fantasize about where they might be going in such a hurry,” he said. “I come up with some wild images.”
The banquet circuit is where Perret started out in the early 1960s. The son of a South Philadelphia longshoreman, he attended LaSalle High School in that city and went to work for General Electric as an apprentice draftsman, working his way up to drafting supervisor.
“Comedy was always my hobby,” Perret said. “Once, there was a party for a supervisor, and they asked me if I wanted to emcee. I did a roast for this man, and everybody got a kick out of it.”
Soon, Perret found himself serving as a sort of “Georgie Jessel of GE,” with requests pouring in for his services as a humor writer and deliverer. “After a while, I was doing routines about people I didn’t even know,” he said.
Perret was having the time of his life. “To get an audience laughing, when you’re in control--that’s heady stuff,” he said. “You can get sed to that.”
Bought Some Gags
A journalist friend mentioned his talents to Phyllis Diller, who asked to see some of his material. She bought some of his gags, referred him to Bob Hope and asked him to move to California.
Perret remembers some of the high points in his career. It was he who, at the start of a telecast, provided Diller with an explanation for a body cast she was wearing after an accident. “She came on and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to explain why I’m in this cast and also make a public service announcement,’ ” Perret recalls. “ ‘If there’s anybody in the audience who has bought the book ‘The Joys Of Sex,’ there’s a misprint on page 205.’ ”
Perret declined to become a member of Hope’s “beeper team"--writers who are expected to be on call round-the-clock, whether they’re eating lunch in Beverly Hills or taking the sun in Malibu.
“I told Hope I wouldn’t wear a beeper because I don’t want anything more on my body that might fall off,” said Perret, a short man with a stubbly salt-and-pepper beard and the kind of balding, high-domed pate that chorus girls used to love to smudge with lipstick.
Comedy by Phone
But Perret has gotten used to unexpected long-distance requests from Hope, who still makes about 200 personal appearances a year. “He might be in a town where he’s heard about some minor scandal, like the mayor has bought this garish orange-colored car,” Perret said. “He’ll call and say, ‘Work on it and I’ll call you back in half an hour.’ ”
According to Perret’s daughter Terry, who is collaborating with her father on another humor book, the Perret household does not crackle with witty one-liners. Most of Perret’s dinner table humor, she says, is “goofy,” on the order of: “I’ll take the halibut, just for the halibut.”
But the Perret children--there are four of them, all in their 20s now--have seen their mother mash a lemon meringue pie in father’s face, Perret confesses.
“I used to do this thing where I’d drink hot cocoa, getting a little bit of whipped cream on my nose,” Perret said. “The whole time I’d have this whipped cream on my nose. So when my wife brought out the pie, I got some meringue on my nose. She said, ‘I’m sick of this whipped cream bit,’ and hit me with the pie.”
Perret said he has heard his boss debunked in recent years, but he remains a stalwart admirer of Hope, who turned 85 in May.