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Looking For Tom Lehrer, Comedy’s Mysterious Genius

On Tom Lehrer, one of the most influential people in comedy who abruptly stepped away from the spotlight:

He began performing internationally in 1959, when the Palace Theatre in London asked him to perform the first two Sundays in May. “In England in 1959, you couldn’t put on a play, [on Sunday] so the theaters were closed,” Robinson recalled. “But you could put on a concert.”

Lehrer filled the 1,400-seat theater both weekends and was a big enough hit that they kept him on through the end of May, after which he booked several more performances throughout England in June and early July.

Yet despite his enormous success, global popularity, and the release of his second album, More Songs by Tom Lehrer that year, it was exactly at this time that Lehrer first told Robinson he wanted to stop performing. Lehrer has told friends and various interviewers that he didn’t enjoy “anonymous affection.” And while his work was widely enjoyed at the time, it was also something of a scandal — the clever songs about math and language were for everyone, but Lehrer’s clear-eyed contemplation of nuclear apocalypse was straightforwardly disturbing.

PUBLISHED: April 9, 2014
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5533 words)

'Heathers': An Oral History

Looking back at the classic 1989 dark comedy. Featuring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, and many questions about why everyone seemed to have a problem with Shannen Doherty:

RYDER Shannen had problems with the swearing. There’s a moment when we’re in the hallway and she’s just shown me the petition, and then she walks away and you can notice that I put my hand through my hair but I stop and look at her. She was supposed to say, “F— me gently with a chain saw.” But she refused to say it.

DOHERTY It could’ve been any of the lines. “Why are you pulling my [pauses] d - - -?” I still have a hard time saying that!

RYDER In her defense, she had come off of, like, Little House on the Prairie. That was how she was raised.

PUBLISHED: April 5, 2014
LENGTH: 15 minutes (3953 words)

An Oral History of 'Ghostbusters'

The making of a comedy classic, first published in Premiere Magazine:

HAROLD RAMIS: We very quickly came up with a model: Dan was the heart of the Ghostbusters, I was the brains, and Bill was the mouth.

I found my character on the front page of an abstract architectural journal. There was a picture of a guy and an article about his work. I didn’t understand a word, but his image was great. He was wearing a retro three-piece tweed suit, wire-rim glasses, and his hair was standing way up. I thought, “That could be my guy.” I took the name Egon from a Hungarian refugee I went to grammar school with, and Spengler was from [noted historian] Oswald Spengler.

PUBLISHED: Feb. 26, 2014
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3562 words)

1% Jokes and Plutocrats In Drag: What I Saw When I Crashed a Wall Street Secret Society

While reporting for The New York Times, Kevin Roose went undercover and snuck into an exclusive annual dinner party for Kappa Beta Phi, Wall Street's Secret Society. [Excerpted from Roose's book, Young Money]:

Bill Mulrow, a top executive at the Blackstone Group (who was later appointed chairman of the New York State Housing Finance Agency), and Emil Henry, a hedge fund manager with Tiger Infrastructure Partners and former assistant secretary of the Treasury, performed a bizarre two-man comedy skit. Mulrow was dressed in raggedy, tie-dye clothes to play the part of a liberal radical, and Henry was playing the part of a wealthy baron. They exchanged lines as if staging a debate between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. (“Bill, look at you! You’re pathetic, you liberal! You need a bath!” Henry shouted. “My God, you callow, insensitive Republican! Don’t you know what we need to do? We need to create jobs,” Mulrow shot back.)

PUBLISHED: Feb. 18, 2014
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2258 words)

The Broken-down Grace of Bill Murray

A look back at the career of a comedy star turned dramatic actor:

Murray rebounded nicely that same year with Caddyshack, which paired him with Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, and Chase. Murray’s investment in Caddyshack was minimal. He simply showed up on set for a film co-written by his brother Brian Doyle-Murray (who also appears in the film) and directed by Ramis, and improvised his entire performance as Carl Spackler, a groundskeeper at a snooty country club engaged in all-out war with a sassy gopher. In the process, he created a slacker hero for the ages, a singularly inspired cross between the perpetually thwarted Wile E. Coyote and Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Murray babbled divine nonsense and emerged the MVP of an all-star comedy dream team, stealing the film from stars at the height of their powers. Caddyshack wasn’t a competition, but Murray won it all the same.

PUBLISHED: Feb. 17, 2014
LENGTH: 34 minutes (8603 words)

Growing Up Clown

The son of a circus clown discovers what's beneath the painted-on smiles:

I remember she’d blink open her eyes and study the image in the mirror: the inverted music notes under her eyes; the triangles above them; the exaggerated, untiring smile bending up into her cheeks. It was a smile that reminded all who chanced upon it that the hilarity would not relent, that the jokes would not stop, that the comedy would not end—for what happens when the comedy ends? What happens when the laughter dries up, and the mouth reverts to its resting state?

PUBLISHED: Jan. 16, 2014
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2497 words)

'What a Sad Business, Being Funny': A Brief History of the Tortured Comedian

From Charlie Chaplin to the pantomime clown Joseph Grimaldi, a look at the link between depression and comedy:

Chaplin had hoped to cultivate the mind of his young wife, which he found “cluttered with pink-ribboned foolishness.” According to Harris, this meant he read long, boring books out loud and rehearsed the tragic roles he harbored secret ambitions to play. Mildred once mistook something he said for a joke and began to laugh, but soon realized her error as he flew into a fury and called her names. When they divorced in 1920, on grounds of mental cruelty, she received $200,000. “It has been said that a comedian is only funny in public,” she complained to the Washington Times. “I believe it. In fact, I know it. Charlie Chaplin, who has made millions laugh, only caused me tears.”

PUBLISHED: Dec. 22, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3537 words)

Jack Handey Is the Envy of Every Comedy Writer in America

Meet the man who created "Deep Thoughts" and "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer"—and who is about to release his first novel, The Stench of Honolulu:

“'A lot of comedy is going the extra step,' Handey continued. 'An unfrozen caveman was funny — but that’s not enough.' Later, he e-mailed me a sheet of sketch ideas he typed up in 1991. The sketch seemed to be a combination of two ideas: 'Too Many Frozen Cavemen,' in which a surplus of frozen Neanderthals drive scientists crazy, and 'Swamp Bastard,' about a Swamp Thing-like creature who keeps stealing everyone’s girlfriends. 'I guess my brain put these things in a blender,' he wrote, 'and out came Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.'"
PUBLISHED: July 15, 2013


What happened when the author re-reported Bob Woodward's book on John Belushi:

"Of all the people I interviewed, SNL writer and current Sen. Al Franken, referencing his late comedy partner Tom Davis, offered the most apt description of Woodward’s one-sided approach to the drug use in Belushi’s story: 'Tom Davis said the best thing about Wired,' Franken told me. 'He said it’s as if someone wrote a book about your college years and called it Puked. And all it was about was who puked, when they puked, what they ate before they puked and what they puked up. No one read Dostoevsky, no one studied math, no one fell in love, and nothing happened but people puking.'"
PUBLISHED: March 12, 2013
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3279 words)