Kliph Nesteroff: You were a teenager when you appeared on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour.
Marshall Brickman: He was one of the founding members. The Tarriers was a little like the Ink Spots in that the personnel kept changing. It was Alan Arkin, Bob Carey and Clarence Cooper. Eric replaced Alan. When I got out of college they asked me to join.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Tarriers brought you into contact with a lot of comedians, that era in which folk singers and comedians always shared the bill. You played the Gate of Horn with Bill Cosby in 1962. It was Cosby's first gig outside Philadelphia.
Marshall Brickman: You're right. The Gate of Horn was the hip place at the time. There was Mister Kelly's, which was more upscale, like a New York supperclub and then The Gate of Horn was more exclusively folk singers and comedians. It was the place to be. They had some kind of arrangement with Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion in Chicago. So we had a friendly relationship where we could go over there and use the hot tub or do whatever you might imagine happens at a Playboy Mansion in 1963.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were at the Gate of Horn the night that Lenny Bruce was arrested.
Marshall Brickman: Oh, yes. He was taken offstage by the cops. I had never seen someone get arrested like that. He was on the bill before or after our gig and I was hanging around. There was a drum set on stage and he picked up a drumstick and started to riff on one of the cymbals, "Did you cum good? Did you cum good? Did you cum good?" Two guys in raincoats escorted him offstage. It was startling.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about being on the same bill as Bill Cosby? He was very young at the time.
Marshall Brickman: He stepped forward like Aphrodite - fully-formed. We were kind of all coming up together. I remember him in the Village. He was playing a little downstairs place on MacDougal Street called Cafe Au Go Go. He was very confident and very funny - and even funnier then because it was new. When he turned so big with too much self-confidence - he changed.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were a musician that transitioned to comedy. This is not an uncommon story. Comedians like Milt Kamen were musicians first...
Marshall Brickman: Oh, sure. Milt Kamen was around the Village a little bit. He was older than us. By older I mean late thirties. I believe he was a french horn player. He played the Bitter End and may even have played the Blue Angel. He was a sweet guy, but always on the fringes. I don't think he ever got to do The Ed Sullivan Show.
Kliph Nesteroff: He did the show Hootenany, which mixed comedians with folk singers. You were on the program with The Tarriers. It's my understanding it was more a cash-in on the folk craze than anything else, since guys like Pete Seeger and other politicos were kept from appearing.
Marshall Brickman: I remember very little about it. What I do remember comes from the clips on YouTube. We were on it once or twice from some place in Florida. They always did it from college campuses. Contrary to what people say about college audiences - they are not astute. They like everything.
They're glad to be anywhere so there was always an audience of ten thousand and an illusion of it going over tremendously. A stuffed animal would have done the same. That's all I remember. We look like we were twelve years old. And I believe you're right, there was a mini-blacklist of not putting on anything that could be construed as controversial. Although we were an interracial group. In some respects, that was some sort of mini-breakthrough for the network.
Kliph Nesteroff: You did a stand-up act yourself around 1965. At the same time you were helping Joan Rivers and Woody Allen develop their stand-up acts.
Marshall Brickman: The act I tried myself, it only took a few months to realize it was not my calling. I don't think I was writing for comedians before. I wrote for Joan Rivers and there was a comedian I was writing for named Jackie Wakefield.
Kliph Nesteroff: Wow, sure.
Marshall Brickman: You've heard of him?
Kliph Nesteroff: He was a Catskills guy.
Marshall Brickman: Yes! He never went on television. He just had his twenty minutes and did his circuit around the Mountains and never had to write anything new. That was the era of guys doing wife jokes and jokes about crab grass.
The act that I wrote for myself... it didn't even come out of the stuff I did with the Tarriers. Every group had a guy who talked while the other guys tuned up. I could tune up faster than the others, so I got to talk. But none of that was I able to use for the stand-up act - so I wrote some original material. I actually got as far as doing The Merv Griffin Show a bunch of times.
Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of The Merv Griffin Show in 1965. Also on the panel were Otto Preminger and Louis Untermeyer, the blacklisted poet.
Marshall Brickman: Wow, how did you find that?
Kliph Nesteroff: Summer 1965 you played the Bitter End with singers Johnny Sea and Laura Sue York. November 1965, you did stand-up at the Bitter End with Rod McKuen and a vocal duo called Settle and Hary.
Marshall Brickman: All those people are dead.
Kliph Nesteroff: When you did stand-up at the Bitter End - was there a political tinge?
Marshall Brickman: No, there was no tinge. It was random and very precious stuff. I didn't know what I was doing. When you're starting out, you do different things. Gradually, by response of audience, it carves away the stuff that doesn't seem to fit. That's what happened with Woody. When he first started at the Bitter End he was the opening act for my group The Tarriers. I would stand in the wings and sort of marvel at the invention. He did premise stuff. "What if Russia launched a missile and it was coming toward New York and Khrushchev had to call Mayor Lindsay?" He then did a phone bit like Bob Newhart. Later he started talking about going to a psychoanalyst and making orgasm jokes and that was very startling to an audience. Very edgy.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you do stand-up elsewhere than the Bitter End?
Marshall Brickman: Yes, there was a little club in the Village called Upstairs at the Downstairs. It was a circular logo. It was a little, tiny cafe that had a capacity of maybe sixty and a little tiny stage. People used to go there to try out material.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were part of a revue at the Upstairs at the Downstairs called Mixed Doubles directed by Rod Warren.
Marshall Brickman: Oh, that's right. I just did stand-up. Maybe the owner was Jan Waldman. It was Jan Waldman's Upstairs at the Downstairs. I had seven minutes and told some jokes. It was terrifying and I was terrible. I don't like to talk about it. I have nothing but respect for people who endure that and manage to make it work.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the other stand-up comedians in that scene. I imagine you met Dick Cavett around that time?
Marshall Brickman: I met Dick because he was a friend of Woody's. He was still working for the Tonight Show. He had a beard the first time I met him. He was a writer for Carson and then he left and wrote an act for himself. He had some good jokes. He had one about a pregnant girl getting married and the wedding party threw puffed rice.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about Mort Sahl? Did you get to see him during that time?
It was the time of Second City. They came to New York and played in the Village. Cosby. There was a guy named Murray Roman. Murray Roman was a hipster type. He was like Lenny Bruce without the genius. He did a comedy album - You Can't Beat People Up and Have Them Say I Love You. He wasn't political so far as I remember, but his presentation was that of a jazzbo hipster.
Then there was Milt Kamen and Woody and Dick. Dick was very clean and Nebraskan. Not impersonal jokes, but not explosive. It was that quality that allowed him to do well on television. It was very moderate.
Kliph Nesteroff: Jonathan Winters.
Marshall Brickman: Another genius. I got to see him somewhere in New York, might have been the Blue Angel. You could learn nothing from these guys. It could not be learned and could not be taught.
Kliph Nesteroff: Before Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl or Jonathan Winters came along you could steal from another comedian, put his material in your act and get away with it. Whereas you couldn't steal from Jonathan Winters or Mort Sahl, it didn't work outside the context.
Marshall Brickman: Some of Mort's stuff - his act was deceptively complicated in the sense he seemed to be rambling and he seemed to be riffing. Either by instinct or design he had a genius for amping up the rhythm and there was a structure to the ten minutes he was doing and it would climax. He had an unerring instinct for a certain kind of drama. The stuff was far from random. Having said that, there are jokes and ideas of his that work totally outside of the act. But for the most part, as you say, the effect of the act - everything is the match of performer and material.
Kliph Nesteroff: How did you come to collaborate with Joan Rivers?
Marshall Brickman: God, how did I? Was I on the Tonight Show yet? If it was 1967 I was on the Tonight Show and... I think Joan Rivers was handled by Rollins and Joffe and that's how I met Joan Molinsky. Her husband Edgar was the booker on The Today Show. I think we met through both being clients of the same office. We wrote a movie together and I wrote stand-up stuff for her. Those were the lean years. The movie was called Hello, Nurse. Not a porno. A comedy. It never made it out of the drawer.
Kliph Nesteroff: You, Joan Rivers and Woody Allen were all working on Allen Funt's Candid Camera. I think that would surprise most people. How did you end up working for Allen Funt?
Marshall Brickman: I applied for it. They were one of the few TV operations out of New York and I wanted to stay here rather than go to California. I went up and interviewed for the job. I wrote a bunch of premises for their little humiliating sketches. This was pseudo-reality TV. I shared an office with Joan Rivers and Fannie Flag. We were the three writers. They were also performers doing the various things on Candid Camera. It was a very crazy operation. Allen Funt was quite a piece of work. There were maybe a dozen editing bays because they shot a lot of film. He had a bunch of editors and he had a camera in the corner of the ceiling where he could punch a button in his office and make sure the editor was working and not having a cigarette.
Kliph Nesteroff: There was a Candid Camera in the Candid Camera office.
Marsahll Brickman: Yes, isn't that sort of Greek or ironic? He also had a lot of TV sets in the wall and a big fish tank. He really liked to spy on things. I lasted about three months, which was the norm for a writer. He had a very volatile personality. But I got my three hundred dollars a week, so I was making my bones in television working for Funt.
Kliph Nesteroff: He was a mogul - having started on radio... Candid Camera lasted for decades in different incarnations.
Marshall Brickman: Yes, Candid Microphone.
Kliph Nesteroff: And presumably it was one of the cheapest shows you could possibly produce for television.
Marshall Brickman: I guess, yeah. It was like the first reality show.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about collaborating with Woody on his stand-up act? Charlie Joffe had something to do with putting you two together.
Marshall Brickman: The Tarriers were a headline act and Woody was an opening act. Woody was coming up pretty quickly and using material quickly. The plan was to give him maximum exposure on television as quickly as possible, so Charlie Joffe got us to collaborate. We would work on jokes. After a couple of hours his housekeeper would bring a plate of tuna fish sandwiches and we'd take a break. I don't even know what we talked about during the break. Together we wrote a lot of his early stand-up act, which he ultimately recorded. When he got a couple of specials on television, he did one for Monsanto, one for Libby's, these one-off variety shows, we wrote those together. And then we started to write movies.
Kliph Nesteroff: There are well trodded anecdotes of Woody bombing and turning his back to the audience and performing to the brick wall.
Marshall Brickman: The Miles Davis approach to comedy. I never saw that.
Kliph Nesteroff: Rollins and Joffe have told stories about sending him out on the road and the audiences didn't go for it.
Marshall Brickman: They looked at him like something had just moved in the wastebasket.
Kliph Nesteroff: Will Jordan and a couple other old timers claim that when Woody would bomb in those circumstances - that he would do other people's material in order to win the audience over.
Marshall Brickman: (laughs) Really? I believe it - but I can't verify it. I believe that he might have done that, sure.
Kliph Nesteroff: One of the specials you wrote for him was called Woody Allen Looks at 1967. They're interesting to look at now. It's early in someone's career and they're doing something that they would not necessarily do later on. The guests included John Byner, Liza Minelli, Aretha Franklin and William F. Buckley.
Marshall Brickman: Is that the one where he asks Buckley what his favorite sandwich was?
Kliph Nesteroff: Yes and two years later there was a very similar special with the same kind of exchange with Billy Graham.
Marshall Brickman: The one with Candy Bergen.
Kliph Nesteroff: And the 5th Dimension.
Marshall Brickman: Yes, we did a silent movie sketch. How on earth did we ever get William F. Buckley to appear? Woody had kind of a checkered response from certain quarters because of the overt sexuality of some of his material. He was certainly a New York Jew and its pretty ballsy of Billy Graham to do it. Maybe he just wanted the exposure.
I was so impressed with the way Woody's mind worked. I would back into premises and ideas logically and he had a way, an instinct, of jumping to some absurd place. One day we were walking down the street and there was a guy coming toward us, a fashion designer. I said, "Isn't that Roland Melendandri?" Woody said, "He's just gone through a very bad divorce." I said, "Didn't he used to have a moustache?" Woody said, "His wife sued for the whole face, but settled for the moustache." It just came out of him. That would happen a lot. He had some facility to jump, almost childlike, from a situation to an absurd conclusion.
Kliph Nesteroff: March 1969 when they were trying to adapt Don't Drink the Water for cinema, it was announced that you were writing the screenplay with Harvey Bullock and Ray Allen.
Marshall Brickman: They came later. I was the head writer for the Carson show and I was out in California we did that four times a year. I did a draft that I guess they didn't like, so they took me off the movie. They put those two guys on it, who the studio felt more comfortable with. It made sense. I had never written a movie before. Well, I had collaborated with Woody on a screenplay that never got out of the box. It was around the time Woody was breaking out in the late sixties.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the unproduced screenplay you did with Woody?
Marshall Brickman: It was about an independent filmmaker trying to get a film made and he has an eccentric girlfriend. It was very unconventional in its structure. A little bit precocious. A little bit rambling. At that time Woody didn't yet have enough clout to get a film company to give him money to direct and act.
Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote a primetime Johnny Carson special called Johnny Carson's Repretory Company - sponsored by Monsanto. It featured George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton. Written by you and David Lloyd... with a sketch called the Sleazy Film Awards.
Marshall Brickman: I wrote a sketch for that that was a take-off on a Tennessee Williams. I started on the Tonight Show in 1967. Dave and I wrote that because we were both his writers and we also did some stuff for his Vegas act. Surely there's records at NBC that I was paid $320 a week to write jokes for Johnny.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were working with Tonight Show writer Walter Kempley at this time?
Marshall Brickman: Walter left. What happened was that Dick [Cavett] was leaving to try his luck at stand-up. He said, "I'm going to be leaving and they'll be auditioning writers." On some good instinct I asked to see the format on which Dick would submit the daily monologue to Johnny on carbon sets. My theory was that if Johnny got stuff submitted on the format he was used to seeing, then he would then hire me. And it worked. He hired me sometime in late spring. I went off to do a little independent movie in South America and came back early in July and ran 106 fever in my first meeting with the writers. I had contracted hepititis while I was down in Peru.
I was out for three months and Carson sent me flowers and a note that said, "Don't worry, we're holding your space." Which I thought was very nice and very elegant. September 1967 - I started on the show. Shortly after that Walter and the producer had a disagreement over something like a thirteen dollar raise for the next cycle. As a writer on the Tonight Show you were hired in four thirteen week cycles and each cycle was renewable. There were no long contracts. Walter, in a fit, called me into his office. I had a typewriter on a rolling typewriter table and I would just roll to a corner somewhere and write my jokes.
Dick used to come in at 2:45 and knockout his monologue. It would be submitted to Johnny with the work of three or four other guys. Eighty percent of the monologue that night would be Dick's. He was quite phenomenal. The head writer had to do all the other stuff - what we called "the five spots." Carnac the Great, Aunt Blabby, and people that came on the show with new inventions and trained dogs. That was the responsibility of the head writer. And I loved it! But it was really like being thrown into the pool. A great tension. A good kind of tension. At 5:30 all the writers would sit at my typewriter and we would go through the guest notes. We would give Carson four or five ad-libs, anticipating the direction the conversation might go.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the relationship like between Carson and the writers?
Marshall Brickman: It was good. He was not a big, cuddly, warm guy. He was very private. He really did come alive when the red light came on the camera. He enjoyed us. The comedy was the thing dearest to his heart. Much more complex a personality than you saw on television. Much broader range of interests. Still, comedy was his major passion. We used to have Monday morning meetings at his apartment. It would be a lot of fun.
Once we were caught playing frisbee. We had done all the guest notes we had done everything at five thirty and we had a frisbee game going in the parking lot. Carson called and wanted to meet us all about some idea. His secretary told him we were all in the parking lot playing frisbee - so he fired us all. He really went into a rage. He said, "You're all fired! Get out!" That night David Lloyd and I were at Sneaky Pete's, a steakhouse. There was Carson and McMahon in a booth having a steak. I sent over chicken soup with our compliments. He came to the bar where we were and, he was going to do it anyway cause Dave had four kids at the time, and rehired us.
Kliph Nesteroff: You left the show to join The Dick Cavett Show around August 1970. What was your role at the Cavett show?
Marshall Brickman: To act as headwriter. There were a couple of other headwriters. Whedon and Axelrod were the names. I think Joss Whedon is his son. I sort of functioned as a headwriter who would sort of edit the jokes. I would also be in on production meetings to design the show. Cavett liked to spend much more time on guests he found interesting than Johnny. Johnny would sort of run them through. I was kind of a utility infielder, problem solver.
Kliph Nesteroff: When you joined the Cavett show, you said you were optimistic that you could use the Cavett temperament and the temperament of the country to change the face of television...
Marshall Brickman: Did I say that?
Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.
He was fighting the Tonight Show and he was on ABC where he had fewer affiliates. He was always struggling to make the Nielsen point that would make the advertisers happy. I would watch his show and then we would have a long conversation on the phone deconstructing the show. I was in a sense working on two shows, but with Dick it was just out of friendship. I got so interested in what he was doing on his show, it was so leading edge, but mild in retrospect. He made an assumption about his audience that was different than what Johnny did about his audience.
Johnny used to like to bring those people on. Buddy Hackett. Nothing wrong with that, but at that time it was part of the establishment and nothing radical. I wasn't very mature and sort of impulsive. I had a talk with Johnny and said, "I can't do it anymore. I've written my last Carnac." He sullenly bought me out of my contract. I could have waited another five weeks, for Christ's sake, or whatever it was. But I really wanted to go over and be on the show which was hot and new. Like a mensch, which I was not, Johnny let me out of my contract. But then he complained about loyalty to the rest of his staff for some months after that. I went over to Dick and changed the face of television.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Marshall Brickman: It only took a couple of hours!
Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about some of the films. When you were writing Sleeper it was conceived to be a completely silent film.
We decided that in the future speech was a privilege. Only certain people were entitled to speak. In our early conversations Sleeper was going to be a movie with an intermission. Talk about arrogance! A three hour movie with an intermission like Exodus? Are we kidding? We soon realized that was absurd.
Kliph Nesteroff: When the film came out you were sued by the bandleader Xavier Cugat. He said the film caused him severe mental and emotional distress.
Marshall Brickman: I remember that vaguely. Why? Was Charo mentioned?
Kliph Nesteroff: Cugat was known for doing little illustrations. In Sleeper there is a throwaway reference where somebody is looking at a painting...
Marshall Brickman: Oh! "It's a Cugat." Like it was Walter Keane. In the future they were revering him as a great artist. Well, he should have known better than to sue. We were in our rights as satirists to shit on his head. Albert Shanker wasn't too happy with us either. He was president of the teacher's union in New York. One scene where Woody is being debriefed about life in America or something, they talk about some terrible devastation and what caused it. "A man named Albert Shanker got ahold of an atomic bomb." Shanker was known for being a very contentious leader of the teacher's union. It was a joke that only people who lived on the Upper West Side would care about. You do that for good luck. You always put something in just for yourself.
Kliph Nesteroff: You had the luxury of devoting your time to the Sleeper screenplay because you received an enormous residual check for appearing on the soundtrack to Deliverance.
Marshall Brickman: That did not hurt. It made the transition less painful. That album went platinum last year. After forty-three years it went platinum.
Kliph Nesteroff: You did that so early in your career and yet it came to help you later on.
Marshall Brickman: I was in therapy back then and my analyst said things don't just come from the sky, you have to work to make things better and make yourself happy. That very week I got a call from my accountant who said, "I have a check on my desk from Warner Brothers for $170,000. What did you do?" I said, "I have no idea." I didn't. Warner Brothers had taken this old banjo album of ours on the Elektra label called New Dimensions and renamed it the soundtrack from Deliverance - which it was not. It sold over a million units. So there.
Kliph Nesteroff: Peter Sellers was going to star in a film you were making but then he died...
Marshall Brickman: Lovesick. I sent him the script and he immediately said yes. He said, "I have to find the voice. That's how I do it. If I can find the voice, I'll do the movie." Not long after I got a cassette in the mail from London with him doing some of the dialogue in this accent and it was just great. Then he died. I know I have that tape somewhere. Everybody is dead from that movie. Dead! Alec Guinness. John Huston. Selma Diamond. Alan King. Is it a curse?
Kliph Nesteroff: The curse of old age.
Marshall Brickman: Ah.
Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned that Sleeper was going to be a three-hour movie with an intermission. I've heard the original cut of Annie Hall was almost three hours long.
Marshall Brickman: I can't remember what was in it. There were two reshoots for the ending. In the end, it barely ran ninety minutes and we thought we'd have to run it with a cartoon to fulfill our contractual obligation. I have the first draft in a closet somewhere. If you're really interested I can dig it up.