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Robert Orben humor writer p1

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips. You might want to check out previous issues for some more interviews and reading suggestions. For this issue I phoned humorist Robert Orben, who has written 47 books of humor, most recently the Speaker's Handbook of Humor (Merriam-Webster). Robert Orben used to write the monologue for the Red Skelton Show, wrote gags for comedians like Dick Gregory, and flew around in Air Force One with President Gerald R. Ford when he was writing the U.S. president's speeches. Robert Orben's mind is like a bubble gum machine that has churned out thousands of gags since his first book in 1946. So read on...

When Steve Martin wrote a column about his favorite 100 books, number five was a book by gag writer Robert Orben.

“Steve Martin was kind enough in a magazine called the New Yorker, oh, a couple of years ago,” Mr Orben said.

“He had ‘The 100 Best Books I’ve read’. And 19 were gag titles of one sort or another. But one was Patter for Standard Tricks by Robert Orben, because he started as a kid as a magician and used my books and I was always very grateful he was kind enough to put it in.”
Robert Orben published his first gag book at the age of 18 in 1946, when he was working in a New York magic store.

Professional magicians bought gag books to add humor to their acts.
And comedians would go to magic stores to buy props for their stand-up acts, so they’d pick up gag books, too.

When Robert Orben wrote his first gag book, Encyclopedia of Patter, it proved very popular, and he started publishing more books of gags, complete with sketches, ad libs, bits of business and routines.
Titles included Patter Parade, Laugh Package, Sight Bits, and Screamline Comedy.

By the 1950s Orben gag books were ubiquitous in the comedy profession and were probably overused by stand-up comedians.

In addition to his gag and humor books he started publishing a regular newsletter of topical humor.

Also he started writing custom-made gags for comedian Dick Gregory for six years, and wrote for the Jack Paar Show in New York (1962-63), and the Red Skelton Show in Hollywood (1964-70).

Late he moved into politics, and in 1974 he became a speech consultant to Vice President Gerald R. Ford. In August, 1974, he became a speechwriter for President Ford and in January 1976 he was appointed Special Assistant to President Ford and Director of the White House Speechwriting Department. These days he gives speeches on humor for corporate events.

READERSVOICE.COM: I’ve got these old books of yours. I’ve been collecting them.

ROBERT ORBEN: Oh, really? Hold on to them because the first 40, maybe ten years ago an antiquarian book seller got a thousand dollars for 40 of them. Now I have a feeling they would go for far more.

RV: I’ve got Boff Bundle. Crack Comedy.

RO: Oh, yeah, that all goes back to the 1950s, probably.

RV: Yeah that’s right. Ad Libs.

RO: Uh-huh.

RV: And the Joke Tellers Handbook for 1999 Belly Laughs…This one’s ’76.

RO: That’s right. I’ve been around a long time (laughs).

RV: I was wondering how old you were when you started writing comedy.

RO: Well, err, I was 18 when the first book was published. It had the grandiose title of The Encyclopedia of Patter. And that came out in 1946. And I just kept going.

Actually the books gave me sort of a calling card into every other good thing that ever happened to me so err I’ve been very grateful to them.

In fact in the early days the books sold as well if not better in the UK and perhaps in Australia as they did in the United States.

RV: And what would be your five favorite books of all time?

RO: Well, you know, it’s an interesting thing. I had a discussion with my wife after that (initial phone enquiry-ed). I was an omnivorous reader in my teens and as soon as I got involved in writing I switched almost entirely to periodicals.
I used to get five or six different newspapers each day and the news magazines and other magazines because I was writing topical kind humor and I had to keep up on things. There was no time…at one time… I marvel to this day at people who have time to read books.

I’m all for books but at one time in 1962…Is that right..1964 maybe, I was a writer on the Red Skelton Show, a tv show, and was writing the monologue on the show. [See Arthur Marx’s biography Red Skelton]

I was churning out a humor service that came out twice a month that consisted of a few hundred topical jokes; I was doing material for a black activist very popular comedian by the name of Dick Gregory sending him a page of material a day; and I was sending a page of material a day to Senator Barry Goldwater who was then running for president of the United States.

So how I ever found time to even bathe and shave much less read books I don’t know.

But in thinking about it, my favorite books, beyond Winnie the Pooh, were fantasy books of one sort or another. Jules Verne, H.G.Wells. And I certainly read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories from front to back. And something you may not be familiar with. As a teenager I used to love a series called Tom Swift.

To give you an idea how antiquated this is it was probably written in the twenties. Tom Swift and his Electric Runabout. (laughs) But there may have been 35 or 40 of them. Books for young people and Tom Swift was a young inventor always doing creative things.

RV: It rings a bell.

RO: Oh, well, it was very popular. And in fact now I think they’ve resurrected it and they have more up-to-date things to invent other than an electric runabout.

There was a also a series by the author William Seabrook who was involved with all manner of interesting psychical research, unusual things. And I read all of those books. I never read classics. Jane Austen and such. I never had the time, and, until recently, the interest.
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-copyright Simon Sandall.