What was your reaction when you were notified that you being honored with this year's Mark Twain prize for American humor?
I was obviously surprised, pleased to be in the company of the previous recipients, Richard Pryor, being the first one who I think was the most appropriate choice for the first Mark Twain Award and Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters.... it's quite distinguished company.
Where did the "button-down mind" come from?
I would like to take credit for it, but unfortunately, I can't. The first album dealt with what you might call "Madison Avenue" topics.... things like a press agent for Abe Lincoln, the marketing of the Wright Brothers, or Abner Doubleday and the marketing of baseball and how ludicrous a game it is when you look at its structure. The term actually came from the people at Warner Bros. who felt since it dealt with some part of Madison Avenue subjects, the uniform of the day [for] Madison Avenue at that time, in 1960, was the button-down collar shirt and so they termed it.
In these changing times of business opportunities, do you ever miss accounting? Are/Were you really a Certified Public Accountant?
I was never a Certified Public Accountant... I just had a degree in accounting. The reason I was never a Certified Public Accountant was because it would require passing a test, which I would not have been able to do. Probably the best advice I ever got in my life was from the head of the accounting department, Mr. Hutchinson, I believe at the Glidden Company in Chicago and he told me "you really aren't cut out for accounting."
Who were your early comedy influences?
I think I was influenced by every comedian I ever saw work. That's the only way you learn how to do it. Certainly, Jack Benny who was, I think, without a doubt, the bravest comedian I have ever seen work. He wasn't afraid of silence. He would take as long as it took to tell the story, knowing that in the end, it would pay off. I was also influenced by writers like Robert Benchley, H. Allen Smith, James Thurber, Max Schulman.
Your routines are pretty clean-cut, did you make a conscious decision early in your career not to use "foul" language? Did you ever regret or reconsider that decision?
Yes, it was a decision to work, as they call it "clean." There are some other comedians, Jerry Seinfeld comes to mind, Stephen Wright... I just prefer to work that way. I have no problem with comedians who don't work that way. There was a temptation in the early 70s to maybe reconsider the way I was working. Thankfully, I decided against it and feel very comfortable with that decision.
How do you explain or have you ever thought about the longevity of your work?
Considering when I started out in 1960, I thought it might possibly last a couple of years, maybe 3 or 4. I certainly never expected it to last 42 as it has and I take great satisfaction in that longevity.
How much of your work over the years has been extemporaneous? Do you prefer to work from a script or extemporaneously?
I think every new routine that I have ever written and performed probably occurred extemporaneously. Then after you have fleshed it out and tried it out in front of a number of audiences and it works, then you put it down on paper. When I was doing a radio program with my friend Ed Gallagher in Chicago, we worked almost entirely extemporaneously.
What kind of advice or suggestions would you give to aspiring young comedians today?
The best advice I was probably given and the best advice I could give someone who is trying to get into the comedy field is to take advantage of every opportunity you have to work to hone your skills. I think everyone probably starts out sounding like someone else, but gradually you develop your own, what we call "sound". It's often possible when watching the improv shows or Comedy Store shows you can discern who influenced this or that comedian, but eventually, you can't be derivative, you have to develop your own, as I said before, "sound."
Where do you seek new challenges? You've done stand-up, television, movies, voice-overs.... What's next?
Continuing to do stand-up and it's always a challenge because the audiences differ and the environments in which you work very often differ. The only thing I have never done, I suppose, as a performer is a Broadway play and I'm not sure I have the discipline necessary to do a Broadway play. I know it holds a fascination for certain actors who attain success in either movies or television, but find themselves inevitably drawn back to the Broadway stage, however, it's not something that I missed because I never really ever did it.
Has the advent of the cell phone prompted any ideas for revising, updating, or creating new routines? Or are people just funny enough doing what they do with cell phones?
With the advent of cell phones, especially with the very small microphone that attach to the cell phone itself, it's getting harder and harder I find, to differentiate between schizophrenics and people talking on a cell phone. It still brings me up short to walk by somebody who appears to be talking to themselves or hearing voices, yet are actually talking on a cell phone.