Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe have been close friends and business associates for 38 years. For much of that time they had been part of a comedy management team (with Buddy Morra, Larry Brezner and David Steinberg) that handled, as the saying goes, some of the biggest names in the business. Then the firm broke up. Like the consigliore in “The Godfather,” Rollins and Joffe each became content serving a single client. Rollins, who is 75, is executive producer on “Late Night With David Letterman.” Joffe, who is 61, handles Woody Allen and produces his films (though currently he’s developing a pilot for ABC through Lorimar). Each felt happily free of the chores of guiding anyone else’s career.
Then Rick Reynolds came along.
At 38, Reynolds is in the second incarnation of a career that began in stand-up comedy nearly a decade ago and left him in that no-man’s land of show-biz marginalia--good enough to make a living on the club circuit but not lucky enough or well-positioned enough to get that call up to the majors, meaning a TV sitcom, a movie, a talk show of his own or a concert special on cable. (Reynolds was part of a roster of young comics on HBO and quickly displayed his impolitic penchant for blurting out whatever comes to mind when, third in the lineup, he said, “Is it just me or did the two guys ahead of me really suck?”)
He eventually fell prey to that morbid state of shrinking references that has descended on the stand-up scene--and American comedy in general--like a pestilence, in which comedians and comedy writers are piping out each other’s recycled attitudes and material in a dreary cloud of smutty comedic Muzak. He decided to abandon Los Angeles for San Francisco and write a show that, for better or for worse, reflected his life and mind.
For a while it was worse. When he first opened it as a work-in-progress at San Francisco’s Improv in March and asked for audience input, people were so enraged by what he was attempting--or at least the way he was attempting it--that many stood on their chairs and yelled their displeasure. This was not, of course, quite the reaction he had been hoping for. But clearly he was striking a nerve; he was using his own pain and damage to work under the deadening artifice of standard comedic exchange and touch something deep in his listeners.
Soon he found his balance in a 90-minute show called “Only the Truth Is Funny,” and his audience and critics--and Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe--quickly found him. Originally scheduled to close in July, the show was extended for a six-month run, then a nine-month run, and may well run for as long as the line outside the Improv’s box office continues to stretch along Mason and down the long block of Geary Avenue. Or until Rollins and Joffe break him free for a backer’s showcase in New York in the next few months, the prelude to an Off-Broadway run and a potentially major career.
That he’ll go wherever they send him is beyond question. Reynolds is the first new client they’ve signed in 10 years and has brought them out of virtual semi-retirement. For any comedian to be adopted by Rollins & Joffe is even better than the fate most hope for in graduating from the clubs into the comfy (if often deadening) cul-de-sac of a TV series. They represent the great leap up into comedy’s blue chip nomenclature, the company of the select.
“He’s totally unique,” Joffe said. “He’s not a dirty comedian, which is boring as hell to me. It’s refreshing to see someone with his intelligence who can take the risk of waiting for a laugh, to think things through. It’s been years since I’ve seen someone new who has something to say.”
“He can make you laugh and think,” says Rollins. “There’s weight in his observations. Audiences believe him. He illuminates little corners of things that the audience has felt but never defined. I find him as interesting as reading a good autobiography.”
Onstage, what Reynolds has to say comes to us from a variety of angles and on a variety of levels, but from the outset he’s firmly in theatrical command. He has impeccable timing. At 6 feet 2 and 185 pounds, he has a slender face and a narrow, concentrated gaze. The urgent rhythm of his speech recalls Merle Kessler’s terminally incensed Ian Shoales, though its observational latitude belongs to the literate chumminess of early Jack Paar, as in the line “I strongly believe there is no God; I hope He doesn’t hold it against me.”
And he takes chances. His dirge-like opening begins: “At birth we’re yanked from a warm soft place and thrust into a world we have no way of comprehending. Childhood is a constant state of punishment and confusion. We’re depressed and misunderstood as teen-agers, and frightened and unprepared as we become adults.” This is hardly a stunning curtain-raiser, and when followed by a note on how one-man shows are invariably gimmicks, as well as the disclosure “I do admit to being vain and insecure"--no joke here, yet--we begin to wonder about what fretful, neurotic labyrinth lies in store for us.
“My biggest problem,” he tells us, “is that I’m highly opinionated, which I compensate for by being usually right.” Brash? Indeed. But the line is followed by another, in which he speaks of how things “lurid, embarrassing and painful are less so when we talk about them,” and thereby begins the dynamic with which the show continuously shifts gears: Before his self-absorption becomes too hermetic, he switches to a general observation that’s lucid and often funny. And before his generalities and asides become too vague or questionable, he informs them with his own experience, in which he elevates the memory of ghastly pain to a gruesome, comic height.
Alone among contemporary comedians--and almost anyone else onstage with anything to say on the subject--Reynolds adores his wife. He describes what it feels like to snuggle in bed next to her, feeling warmed as if by solar heat (“And I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet”). “To be in love with the person you love” is one of the imperatives of living a happy life. (The other is satisfaction and fulfillment in your job. That sleep-commute-TV-sleep routine is death in life. “If I weren’t doing this, I’d work in a bookstore, where I could talk all day with guys who smoke clove cigarettes and wear berets.”) And he reminds us of the comic misery of this moment: “Did you ever get in one of those fights when you’re absolutely livid and . . . you discover you’re wrong? But you have this momentum that keeps you going. . . ?”
Listening to Reynolds is like lunching with an intensely convivial, precocious, new-found friend and thoroughly enjoying the funny, philosophic and reflective turns of conversation. But every now and then, in a window behind him, a gargoyle face pops up with a savage leer and disappears in vindictive silence. Can we know the truth? he asks, or do we rationalize it? Are stupidity and happiness incompatible? And wouldn’t it really have been impressive if, when the Pope zipped by in his Popemobile, that bubble he rides in had been filled with water?
Reynolds speaks of the happiness that visits him each day, his quest for fame, his Church of Rick (in which rock ‘n’ roll sounds the doxologies), the odd propensity we have for identifying people by occupation (“If I died, the headline would be ‘Comedian Found in Pool of Blood,’ but if you knew me it’d be ‘Rick Reynolds Found in Pool of Blood.’ I like that”). Suddenly, the memory of an unimaginable pain will pop up like a flashback. For example, when Reynolds’ mother was 21, the family went out to picnic near a lake. Her young husband was tall and virile and strong, and there was absolutely nothing she could do to help him--she simply wasn’t strong enough--when he floundered in the water and drowned.
“Please don’t feel sorry for me,” Reynolds quickly assures us. “I’m the happiest person I know.” And he goes on to make amusing observations on aging, then the tyranny of babies. Then again, a violent image of his first stepdad Len drops in, as he drags Reynolds’ pregnant mother into the house by her hair in front of Reynolds’ boyhood friends (“I couldn’t say anything; I was too embarrassed for my mom. I couldn’t speak to my friends. But the moment quickly passes”).
Somewhere around this time, a bartender in back of the room noisily dropped a bottle and simultaneously plunged a scoop into the ice-sink behind the bar. In one swift unified motion, nearly the entire audience turned and shot him a silent glare of indignation. That’s how much they were locked in to Reynolds’ self-presentation--discourse would be too narrow a word. Reynolds had been a philosophy major in college and they could appreciate the turn of mind that debated the split between rationality and animalism that wrestles for supremacy in human nature. And they could laugh at his line “I envy the 20% of you in here who’re religious--you have the answer to life. You’re wrong, but I admire you.”
But to them, Reynolds wasn’t funny because he knew jokes and one-liners. (Actually, he doesn’t do jokes. A lot of his observations are rooted in distress, as when his white liberal guilt is pricked by the atrocities towards blacks depicted in the movie “Mississippi Burning.” “What can you say to blacks in the audience, ‘Can I buy you some popcorn?’ ”) He was funny because humor was the byproduct of a daily struggle to come to grips with the unmanageable and often ridiculous experience of being alive. The struggle was mortal and unending, and invariably it wrote its own jokes. For example: stepdad No. 2 was a charmer. Liked the kids (Reynolds has a brother and a sister). Kissed Mom in the kitchen. Now we were going to be a real family. As it turned out however, he was an embezzler. When he was caught, convicted and sent up, he knit rust-colored ski masks and sent them to the kids as gifts. Reynolds held one up. It looked like one of those pullover hats medieval knights wore under their helmets.
Reynolds could speak rhapsodically of those few moments before we have to get up and go to work when sleep is so toasty and so sweetly, irresistibly luxuriant (“Do I need breakfast? I don’t need breakfast, I had breakfast yesterday. Ooh-h-h, just 10 minutes more!”). Or remind us of what it feels like on a hot night to move your head to a cool spot on the pillow. What made these observations piquant, or at least notable, was that these moments of respite had been both fought-for and too easily overlooked. Why is it, he wonders, that no matter how happy we seem at any given moment, the smallest gripe can ruin it all (“Your complaint file is always full”). Reynolds’ observations not only recall Oscar Wilde’s note “Simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex,” but they stand up as a caution against our failure to live in the present, to savor, as he puts it, the last cookie in the bag.
Some of this threatens to put your teeth on edge as his address creeps perilously close to proselytizing (and maybe we’ve been too conditioned by TV to being spoken at instead of to), but what redeems it is that Reynolds has the fine artist’s capacity for leading us to think that he’s making his discoveries at precisely the moment we’re there to share them. His earnestness is an answer to the ‘80s, the decade of the snide. And he’s a splendid actor. His darkening face and rock-like Presbyterian sternness form the real payoff at the end of these lines, “I knew Lisa (his wife) had sex before she met me. It didn’t impinge on the relationship. Of course, she didn’t enjoy it .”
The actual incident that provoked the title of the show doesn’t altogether seem that cripplingly funny. Reynolds and his brother were watching a Los Angeles TV newscaster read the nightly news. It was clear that the newscaster was having trouble distinguishing s sounds from th sounds, and equally clear that whoever was writing the news copy was doing his deliberate and diabolical utmost to add to the confusion. Both Reynolds and his brother laughed until their tears rolled and their bodies ached. Then his brother turned to him and said, “Only the truth is funny.”
That may be why Reynolds’ act is so engrossing and sends people out with a lift. There’s a clear if implied distinction between his closing lines “Old age brings wisdom, wonderful wisdom, and a passionate love of life,” and those flatulent oratorical codas we hear from some of the old warhorses like Danny Thomas, who always feel the need to close on a drum roll. Reynolds isn’t a hypocrite; he appears to give us a rare glimpse of someone puzzling things through and revealing the rare emotional backdrop to his conclusions. And what’s true of the comedian is true of us. At heart, great comedy is help for pain.
By the end of the show, we’ve learned so much about Reynolds’ life that offstage there doesn’t seem to be much he can add to it, which is, in fact, the case. What is unusual, however, is that the arresting energy he summons up for performance doesn’t dribble away when he’s off. His manner retains a voluble bounce; his conversation is restless, forthright and speculative.
He showed up the following day for lunch at a tony continental restaurant on Post Street around the corner from the club. He wore an old sports shirt and slacks (he wears a suit onstage) and thick glasses, which obscured somewhat the flickering, narrow gaze of consternation that serves him so well onstage. A stout breeze had raised his hair in a stiff inert clump--he’s had a transplant, which he jokes about in the act; his pale scalp had a wintry glow under the tuft.
“There’s something very bizarre about performing, when you pretend to mean something and the audience believes it,” he said. “I always leave a little room where I don’t know exactly what I’ll say, which knocks me into the reality of the moment, so that the show becomes like telling your favorite story. It’s an act, but it’s not a lie.
“I think it’s a mistake for comedians to think they need four laughs every 30 seconds. That’s one of the reasons I admire Mort Sahl; he can wait, and build. MTV isn’t a causal force in modern comedy, but it’s a symptom of our need for instant gratification.”
Reynolds was born in Wood Village, Ore., 30 miles outside of Portland. He was 6 months old when his father drowned. “He was a big guy, good-looking, with thick black hair. A guy’s guy. He had a tattoo on his upper arm, an anchor. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable talking about these things, like when Len beats up my mother. It wasn’t until I got older that I saw these things were unusual. It bothers me to use them except that they show the evolution of a human being.”
Reynolds describes himself as “a dibbler, a dilettante,” in high school. By the time he left Portland State and for some time after, he’d tried his hand as a rock singer, a disc jockey, and a newspaper columnist, among other things. He’d studied acting and written a play called “The Buffoon.” He was also interested in stand-up, and won a local saloon contest, which afforded him a trip to San Francisco in 1981. He eventually became, as he describes it, “an OK middle act,” but apparently he was good enough to catch the eye of Jeff Sagansky (formerly a senior vice president with NBC, now head of programming at CBS), who called Joel Thurm--then NBC casting head. At a Los Angeles showcase he met NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff, who expressed interest in him. Reynolds hired a manager, and then settled in to a career of trying out for pilots. “I can say without exaggeration that every single pilot I read for was either bad or never produced.”
He decided to fire his management team, quit the television rat race and go back to stand-up. He did reasonably well. “I traveled a lot, became popular, but never really broke big. I was incredibly lackadaisical. I didn’t get an agent--maybe out of fear they wouldn’t want me anymore.” But the nature of stand-up began to change by the late ‘80s as it became less a form of personal address and more of a standardized format characterized by incestuous commercial bloat and the near annihilation of a personal point of view.
“Backstage I’d meet these guys who were well-read, really hip, and they’d go out and do fart jokes. ‘Why?’ I’d ask. ‘Because that’s what people want,’ they’d say.”
Reynolds didn’t want to believe it, and life in Los Angeles was beginning to wear on him. “I liked L.A. at first, the art deco, the cheap food. But there, when you meet a friend and say ‘How ya doin’?’ you get the line about where they’re working or the parts they’re up for. It’s as though you have to prove yourself through your career. It’s a false way to run your life.”
By this time he had met and married his wife, who had graduated from San Francisco State. They decided to buy a house in Petaluma, some 45 minutes outside the city, where Reynolds withdrew for a couple of months to retool his career. “I feel pretentious calling what I do an art form. I know we’re descended from hacks and strip-show emcees and that people aren’t going into comedy now because they have something to say.
“It got to the point where comedy was a job. Not very satisfying. I wanted to be more serious onstage. I loved being on the edge, talking myself into a corner and then trying to find a way out--and sometimes failing. The idea for this work started evolving; working on it was like being cloistered in a cabin. There’s no greater joy than in putting an idea together. I had some epiphanies. To put it in a flowery way, the show was born in itself. I no longer felt handcuffed, or that I was pandering.”
If a great deal of the act is about wanting fame, Reynolds is growing leery about the impending prospect of having the thing he’s coveted. “After Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’ became a best-seller, he said it took him out of the real world forever. What I really want is to be liked. Maybe that’s because my mother didn’t love me.” (In his act, he describes her as a manic depressive and himself as a battered child who’s nonetheless sympathetic towards her--he’d drive her home from electroshock therapy, and she wouldn’t recognize him.) “Now I’m beginning to wonder that if I do get famous people will applaud me just because I’m this famous guy.”
He gazed up in an abstract middle distance, as if contemplating the Meaning Of It All. He looked a very young 38-year-old.
It was Bob Fisher who first turned Rollins & Joffe on to Reynolds. Fisher went to work for rock entrepreneur Bill Graham after graduating from UC Berkeley and now owns his own San Francisco management firm as well as the legendary club the Holy City Zoo. He’s a tall, beefy man with an open, genial face and a perpetual air of bemusement.
“I’ve known Rick since 1981,” he said. “There’s always been something unique in his world view. He has a dark vision, and he’s never hesitated to say what’s on his mind. When he was in L.A. we’d have these long conversations about how horrible it was for him then. I’d hesitate to call it a moral crisis, but he was on the verge of breaking away from comedy altogether, which I thought was a mistake. But comedy was changing. I felt, too, ‘Gee, I wish I didn’t have to do this stuff.’
“When he first did his new show, it was pretty bad. He didn’t know what to say or how to say it. People’d shout at him. This was supposed to be a comedy show.” Fisher chuckled. “But he learned the dynamics of how to present his vision, and it took off.”
At first Fisher thought he’d produce the show himself, but later changed his mind. He’d been working with Joffe on another project and coerced him into visiting San Francisco over Labor Day weekend.
“I kept dropping hints about Rick, and Charlie kept saying, ‘But Bob, I’m not in management anymore.’ Finally I got him to see the show. By intermission, he turned to me and said, ‘You knew this’d happen, didn’t you?’ We walked around Union Square until 2 in the morning. ‘You manage him,’ Charlie’d say. ‘No, you manage him,’ I’d say. Charlie will be great for him. Also, confidentially, I think it’d help Rick to be around an older man, a father figure. This has all been like a fairy tale, where someone makes a decision on the basis of spiritual and human values, and everything turns out OK.”
Joffe was equally concerned about Rollins’ reaction to Reynolds after Rollins had flown in from New York to see the show. But he too was hooked by intermission. The plan for Reynolds now, as Joffe describes it, is this:
“First we’ll showcase him in New York for one night so that we can secure an Off-Broadway theater for a run. He’d probably do better Off-Broadway at this point, and there really isn’t much difference these days--they’re right next to each other. We’ve gotten ICM’s superagent Sam Cohn interested. He’s also the most controlling producer on Broadway. The other person whose talents we’ll use is Leslie Dart, head of the New York office of the publicity firm PMK. The idea is to get Rick known in New York before we begin.
“At first we’ll keep him off TV. There’ve already been feelers from HBO and Showtime, but that won’t come until after we’ve moved him from the New York theater to theater in L.A., and he’s ready to change the body of his work (to coincide with the changes in his life; the Reynolds are expecting a child). Then we’ll do a special. We won’t do network TV. The show wouldn’t stand the commercials and edits. After that, who knows? The remarkable thing about Rick Reynolds is his intelligence. I have no doubt he’ll have a full-bore career. He can write. He can act. He can produce. He can do anything he wants. A lot of managers and agents have been after him. Maybe destiny told him Jack and I would come up to see him.”
There are no financial or contractual commitments either way, incidentally. It seems somehow apropos that Rollins & Joffe work on a handshake. “Woody Allen hasn’t had a written contract with us in 36 years,” Joffe said. “We just say, ‘You work hard at what you do best and we’ll work hard at what we do best, and we’ll all do well.”
At lunch, Reynolds had mentioned a letter he’d received from a woman in Venezuela, who’d visited San Francisco and seen the show. “It said, ‘I know you want to be famous, but if it’s of any consequence to you, I’ll remember your show forever.’ ” He gave a reflective pause. To receive such a letter can only mean that, in a certain fundamental respect, he’s arrived.