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Robert Orben interviewed about his gag books p2

Robert Orben self-publishes his first book in 1946...

READERSVOICE.COM: Have you read many biographies of comedians?

ROBERT ORBEN: Oh yes. I have. Many of those. Groucho Marx.

I wrote for Red Skelton for six years and Arthur Marx wrote a book about Red and I certainly.. (read that) and other books on comedians, yes.

The Woody Allen books…I’m looking here at some of the things I’ve got on my shelf that I know I’ve read.

Uh.. books about Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Lenny Bruce…But of current performers I like Ellen Degeneres very much, and obviously Robin Williams.

And there’s so many others. There’s so many wonderful performers.

But it’s changed. What I don’t like about modern humor: One, I don’t like the off color aspect of it. It has gone too far. Too far.

There’s nothing I haven’t heard but I don’t want to hear it in a theatre or a nightclub so I don’t go to comedy clubs anymore.

And most of the writers my age have the same feeling.

But what changed substantially from when I was very active 30 years ago before I got involved with politics and things of that sort was the fact that in those days an act had a beginning, middle and end.

There was almost a story line and now the comedians have no storyline at all.

In fact some of them don’t even have a beginning.

They come out and say “Where are you from?” When I hear “Where are you from?” I realise they don’t have an act.

And they don’t have a finish. They sometimes finish on a strong joke, sometimes on a weak joke and then they just walk off.

RV: It’s funny you should mention that because the same thing happens in movies and novels. The whole skill of plotting seems like a craft that’s being lost.

RO: That’s very true. Very true…

RV: Did you ever perform magic and comedy?

RO: No, I demonstrated magic in a magic shop, a professional magic shop.

Stuart Robson’s (stage manager for Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld) conjuror’s shop in New York.

But I was never a very good magician and only in the last 25 years have I been doing humor and that in the form of speeches.

I give workshops and speeches on how to use humor in communication.

That’s been a very successful thing with corporations.

Teaching their executives, teaching their salesmen.

And then for recognition events, just arr, rather than have somebody give a corporate speech to the best salesman or for people who’ve done well for the corporation, they would have me as the after dinner speaker, and ostensibly teach them how to use humor but essentially to do a half hour, three quarters of an hour of jokes.

RV: How old were you when you started working in Stuart Robson’s magic shop?

RO: I was, err, well, I can tell you precisely I was 17, 18 years old.

That’s how I got involved in writing humor.

When I went to work in Stuart’s shop, I was 17 years old at that point, a very successful book in magic was something called Smart Talk For Magicians by George McAthy and I looked at that book and I thought well I can do that.

When you’re 17 years old you think you can do everything.

So I went to work and I put out Encyclopedia of Patter and that was essentially the start of the writing.

RV: How did you get that book published?

RO: I err…When you’re 18 years old nobody’s going to pay attention to an 18 year old kid.

So I borrowed money from my mother and I printed it and published it myself and that was kind of interesting.

(I) went out on a limb to do this, and we printed 2000 copies, and sent out a circular to the various magic shops at that time because that would have been the market.

And for about two or three weeks we’d get an order for three copies or one copy or six copies and I’ve got 2000 copies sitting there, and I’m thinking “This is a disaster”.

And then after about three weeks we started to get copies..or rather orders for three dozen, four dozen or a gross, and the 2000 went within the month and that went through something like 20 reprintings, so, uh that started me on the way.

RV: Did you do any other jobs after the magic shop?

RO: No, pretty much the books carried me along and then it dawned on me maybe there was a way to go beyond this and then out of the blue I got an enquiry, essentially.

Dick Gregory, who was just beginning to make a huge name for himself as the first black American comedian that paved the way for Cosby and all the rest back in 1962.

He had used the books. He had written to me, oh, maybe in 1955, and said he was a black comedian working on the South side of Chicago, and he feels if he had special material, he had been using my books, he would be able to move ahead very fast.

And he had seen a very small amount of money.

He had been working in odd jobs in Chicago to keep alive and I wrote back and I said, “Unless you really have a persona, a special approach, all I can do is give you more of the same material that you find in the books so save your money.”

And in 1962 I got a telegram at maybe one o’clock in the morning where we were living and he said, “I’ve found”, essentially “my voice, who I am. And Wednesday there’s going to be a two page article about me in Time Magazine. And you and me are going places, Bob.”

And I still remember the conversation this was like at three o’clock in the morning when I reached him at the Playboy Club, which is where he was working in Chicago, and I said “I’ll tell you what, Mr Gregory, I’ve heard a lot of ‘You and me are going places, Bob’ …I’ll spring for 35 cents, I’ll buy a copy of Time Magazine, and if the two page article is in there I’ll call you back” (laughs).
So the two page article was there, Thursday I flew out to Chicago, Friday we flew back to New York and we signed a contract at that point and I wrote for him for a number of years and I must say he was one of the best employers I’ve ever had.
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-copyright Simon Sandall