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Take my jokes - please.

For 28 years, the serious business of comedy has kept the Emmy-winning Gene Perret writing for TV's top entertainers.

One 5'9" 51-year-old Pennsylvanian will never star in his own TV sitcom or in a feature film, but you'll often see his name heading the writing credits in reruns of the "Carol Burnett Show, "Laugh-In,"Welcome Back, Kotter," "Three's Company," and the "Tim Conway Show." His most notable credits are those shown with recent Bob Hope specials, such as the Christmas show aired last January from the Persian Gulf.

"That was an exhausting trip," says Gene Perret, a principal writer for Hope since 1969. "We flew more than 27,000 miles in just eight days. But that's something that comes with the territory."

Perret and other professional writers know that comedy writing is no easy chore. Success doesn't come overnight. New writers are often discouraged by the long hours, nagging deadlines, and constant pressure from comics and agents to come up with something fresh--and quickly!

Perret speaks from hands-on experience. He's written for a host of famous comedians, including Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, and Bill Cosby. During his five seasons with the "Carol Burnett Show," he won three Emmy awards for his comedy writing.

Perret's career didn't have the typical show-business beginning. He wasn't the classroom clown in high school, nor did he dream of seeing his name in lights on Broadway. Instead, he was a drafting student hired by General Electric in Pennsylvania. Yet it was there that he got his baptism in comedy writing.

One longtime employee was ready to retire, and the company thought it appropriate to send him off with a "roast." Perret agreed to be a speaker and wrote what he thought were some humorous lines. He was right. The audience roared its approval. He was asked to write more jokes for the next retirement party-and the next. Finally, he started to sell his material.

He still remembers the first joke he sold: "It was 28 years ago. I sold it to a Sunday newspaper supplement. I wrote: 'There are no such things as Sunday drivers anymore. They're all Friday drivers still looking for a parking space.'"

Since then he's sold nearly 150,000 jokes. Today he is regarded by many insiders as the nation's leading jokesmith. As a result, he's often asked to speak at conventions and to university classes about modern humor.

One question raised in nearly every audience is "What is a good joke?" Perret replies with a pointed observation: "You can't any more answer that question than you can answer the question 'What is a good price?' A good price for what? In doing comedy, you have to ask, 'A good joke for whom?'"

Perret, however, insists that all good comedy must have a fivefold dimension:

1. It must be relevant"AH comedy must be relevant. People like Erma

Bombeck and Bill Cosby are realistic. They talk about things we can relate to. Every family recognizes itself in 'The Cosby Show.'

"Humor is an attitude. It's a way of looking at life in a beneficial way. The more we practice it, the better we get at it. I feel that any exercise that improves our sense of humor improves our life in general.

"Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, for instance, use current topics for their quips. They're Walter Cronkites with verbal seltzer bottles. They are commentators who serve up a slightly twisted view of the world. They look at the same world we see, but somehow their vision seems a lot sharper."

2. It must fit the person. "Not all jokes will work for all comics. A great joke for Bob Hope might be only a fair joke for Joan Rivers. There has to be a matching of one with the other in order to be successful. In a nutshell it must fit the image of the comic who is saying it.

"For Bob Hope's 80th birthday, Bob sat with President Reagan in a designated box at a theater for a special performance honoring him. When it was Hope's turn to take the stage, he began: 'When I entered the presidential box, there were two chairs. One sai"No. I American"; the other said "Washed-Up Actor." Boy, did we fight over that chair.'"

3. It must relate to the audience. "Comedy writing is tough work, but it's a lot easier if you know where you're heading. If you're working in the wrong direction, it can be a disaster. A colossal joke in Boston may only be a mediocre joke in Philadelphia.

"One client called me for some jokes for an address he would be giving to a psychiatric college. I jumped at the chance. What a mouth-watering assignment, to write jokes about psychiatrists. I eagerly worked all day, polishing off about 40 jokes, and typed them into a neat package.

"The next morning the client called and apologized. It wasn't a 'psychiatric' college; it was a 'chiropractic' college. Not many of the jokes were usable."

4. It should be hidden. Perret recently advised some new comedy writers to "hide the joke" whenever possible. "Get some surprise into the punch line," he says. "Don't let the audience see it coming."

Bob Hope once offered a classic illustration of hiding the joke. Sputnik had been successfully launched, and we had just had another of our rockets fail on launch. Hope went on television and said, "I guess you heard the good news from Cape Canaveral? The United States just launched another submarine."

There was no joke until the very last word, Perret says. That's surprise. It gets the audience wondering: What does he mean, "good news from Cape Canaveral"? I thought we only heard bad news from there lately. It gets the audience involved with the joke.

Another way of hiding the joke is to give the punch line without actually saying it. Perret explains that he and other writers had just done a Bob Hope show at a naval air base. As is the custom, sailors enjoy kidding the cooks. One version of a joke could have been: "The Navy cooks are so bad. When they bake a biscuit, you can use it for an anchor."

That's O.K., but one of the writers hid the punch line by saying the same thing in a roundabout, funnier way:

"A sailor came up to me and asked, 'Do you know the difference between an anchor and a biscuit?'

"I said, 'No.'

"He said, 'Good. Have a biscuit.'"

5. It must be in good taste. Like a growing number of today's professionals, Perret does not pepper his gags with so-called blue material. "It's not just a matter of being prudish," he says. "As a writer I don't like that kind of language. We've earned the right to use realistic language, but it should be saved for those dramatic moments when it means something. In Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable brought the house down when he said, 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.' If he had been co-starring with some of today's stand-up comics, that statement would mean nothing."

That doesn't mean he avoids such controversial subjects as sex altogether, but he treats them in good taste. For example, Phyllis Diller once suffered a minor shoulder injury that required wearing a cast for several weeks. She called Perret just before her opening in Las Vegas; she wanted a gag to explain the reason for the cast. Perret delivered.

When she walked on stage opening night, Phyllis said"If there is someone in the audience who has just bought the new book The Joy of Sex, there's a misprint on page 206."

After the laughter died down, she followed with "It'll break your arm, but it's worth a try."

Perret feels that humor is necessary for our sanity as a people and as a nation. Bob Hope once commented that in nations where freedom is curtailed, humor is also lacking. "It's not that these folks lack a sense of humor," he said. "Like other things it has been suppressed."

Perret shares his fe"America is a nation that loves to laugh. That's good, because laughter is a barometer of our liberty. If we're laughing, it means we're free to laugh."

For those of us who sometimes speak in public, Perret is convinced that a light sprinkling of humor helps an audience to listen better and to remember our messages better and longer: "If a person has a worthy message, he or she should want the listeners to hear it and retain it. If they don't, they don't have a serious message; they have a serious ego problem."

He recoils at those who claim, "My work is too serious to have any fun at it."

"Baloney," Perret says. "The happiest people are those who work hard and enjoy their work. They have fun doing it."

Can anyone be humorous? Perret thinks so. "I've never met a person who went through life without getting a laugh. The mistake I find is that people try to use someone else's humor. They try to tell a joke just like the guy in the office told it.

"My suggestion is to find out what type of personality you have in everyday life and use that. If you're shy, tell jokes about shy people. If you're loud, do stories about loud people. Shy people can be funny. George Gobel is. Loud people can be funny too. Alan King and Don Rickles prove it," he says.

Perret also believes that nearly everyone can write humor if he tries hard enough. "I've seen writers who could sit at a typewriter and turn out funny material almost as quickly as they could type. But that shouldn't discourage those of us who have to work at it. It's the end result that matters. An audience doesn't care whether you had to sweat over the material or not. If it takes you and me longer to be funny, so what?"

Perret claims it's just like athletes. "Some are gifted with tremendous size and strength; others, like Pete Rose, make up for any shortcomings with hustle. Pete Rose will still make it to the Hall of Fame."

Perret thinks humor is so important he has written books on humor, including How to Sen (Your Sense of) Humor--a popular textbook on joke writing. In addition, he publishes Gene Perret's Roundtable--a monthly newsletter for comedy writers,
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Title Annotation:Gene Perret writes for top TV entertainers
Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1988
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