He was desperate. I said I'd come down and we could do something together. We had never appeared together before. There was a bowling trophy behind the bar and I asked if I could borrow it. We taped six candles to it and Dennis lit it like Liberace's candelabra and played Moonlight Sonata. Then I went up with my guitar and told an Indian story. For some reason this clicked with the audience. We did ten minutes. We got offstage and the manager of the We Five came up to us. We Five were a group that had a hit song called You Were On My Mind written by Ian and Sylvia Tyson.
They said, "Are you guys musicians?" "Yes." "Comedians?" "Yes." So we went in and performed the Liberace bowling trophy with a couple of stories and walked to the parking lot to drive back to Denver. Two of the nine people in the audience were John Byner and his manager Harry Colomby. They came up to us: "We're replacing Carol Burnett for the summer on CBS. Would you like to be regulars on The John Byner Comedy Hour?" This was all in the same week.
We said, "Yes, but first we have to open for the We Five." So we did that and then we started on the John Byner program and we started appearing at the Comedy Store on a regular basis. It had just opened and then we got all of these shows - David Frost's Madhouse 90 and The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour... In Concert and Midnight Special... all of this stuff out of the Comedy Store. We started getting booked on the road and after that we didn't appear at the Comedy Store as much. By the time we came back Mitzi had taken over. But we were one of the very first acts to do it when Sammy Shore opened the place.
Kliph Nesteroff: Barry Levinson, Rudy DeLuca, Sammy Shore, and Craig T. Nelson - they were the guys - the first four guys at the Comedy Store.
One of my first solo appearances at the Comedy Store - David Brenner was in the audience. He was going to be guest hosting The Tonight Show and he asked me to be one of his guests. It was 1976. He was just a guest host, but this is how big that show was... I got a call the day after my appearance to go to some studio on Gower and meet with Woody Allen. I walked into this giant hangar of a studio. Down at the far end was a couch with Woody Allen and his assistant.
I had a hundred yards to walk. I had a big afro then. I was really skinny with a giant afro. I hadn't cut my hair in seven years. Woody stood up, introduced himself, and said, "Are you busy Monday?" I said, "No." He said, "You'll be hearing from me." That afternoon I got a script for Annie Hall.
But I still had my guitar and my props. So the only time they would call me, Kliph, was when someone canceled. I did thirteen Tonight Shows when somebody canceled. I was the guy who could be there in three hours and not ask to sit on the panel. It was not a smart move as far as my career was concerned, but I was having fun just being on the show. It got me a lot of work in places like Las Vegas and Reno and Lake Tahoe.
I didn't get to sit on the panel with Johnny Carson, but I became a regular at the Sahara in Las Vegas. Johnny was at the Sahara on the weekends doing his stage show in the main room. So I actually got to hang out with him. He would come to my shows and I would come to his. I became friends with him outside of the show, but never got to do The Tonight Show with him!
Kliph Nesteroff: How long did that Burns and Schreiber program last? Was it a summer show?
Gary Mule Deer: Yes, it was a great sketch comedy show with Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber.
Kliph Nesteroff: Mark Warren, the first African-American television director in the union was overseeing it. And I could be mistaken - but I think Lorne Michaels was one of its writers?
Gary Mule Deer: As a matter of fact he was - and I forgot all about that. That's right. Lorne Michaels was one of the writers. I don't remember much about it. I was in another world. Things were moving so fast that I just wasn't paying a lot of attention.
Kliph Nesteroff: You had more experience doing comedy on television than in comedy clubs...
I was a funny musician - and I struggled with that because, although I worked all the time, it was hard for me in the clubs. They wouldn't have great sound systems or proper lighting for what I did. I did half and half, comedy and music. And I was a prop guy too, which was great in some ways and not in others. I got lots of work because of The Improv. I remember getting booked on American Bandstand because of it. I think I was one of the few comedians to appear on that show. Dick Clark saw me at the Improv. Later on I did those shows like An Evening at the Improv and Make Me Laugh.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the difference between The Comedy Store when it opened with Sammy Shore and a few years later under Mitzi Shore?
Gary Mule Deer: It was a lot more laid back when Sammy had it. There were fewer acts so you could go much longer. It wasn't as structured. It was more experimental. Later it became a business. I always noticed that the guys who were sober... and during those years I wasn't... the guys who really paid attention and did their homework - clean and sober - the Lenos, the Lettermans, the Seinfelds, the Shandlings - people like that went on to do really, really well. Letterman and Leno were hired as writers for Jimmie Walker right away. It's interesting that I was a prop and music guy, but not looked down upon. I was the guy Mort Sahl and Richard Pryor would ask to have open for them in the Main Room at the Comedy Store. That was an honor for me.
Kliph Nesteroff: The folk venues you mentioned were the only places around Los Angeles in the late 1960s where new comedians could perform. What an interesting scene of soon-to-be-famous people like Cheech and Chong, Franklyn Ajaye, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor... you guys were playing clubs like P.J.'s and The Ash Grove and The Troubadour and Ledbetter's...
The Ice House in Pasadena was a huge place for all of us. That was one of the main places for everyone. It was half comedy and half music, Steve Martin to Gordon Lightfoot. All of us worked there. We were always out there at the Ice House. They were one of the very first clubs to do that out here.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about Doug Weston's Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard?
Gary Mule Deer: Oh yes, it was a very big deal. The Troubadour was one of the greatest places to play. I played it all throughout the seventies. I opened for David Essex. I opened for the Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton when she attempted a recording career. I went in all the time because Steve Martin, The Dirt Band, and the rest of my friends were always there.
Everyone worked The Troubadour and I hung out there a lot. Steve could be a little freer onstage at The Troubadour than at The Ice House. He went over much better at The Troubadour. Doug Weston had everyone in the industry going there. I worked The Troubadour on New Year's Eve with Tom Waits. We sat in the bar until five in the morning until it got light outside...
I walked out to my car at five in the morning and he walked to his station wagon and crawled into the back and went to bed. He was living in a station wagon. I remember that very well, one of my Troubadour memories.
The Smothers Brothers were playing it all the time. Pat Paulsen was always trying out material. George McKelvey was there and he was an important guy in our scene. He had done some stuff with George Carlin and then later on opened a comedy club in Denver called The Comedy Works.
The Hager Twins were at Ledbetter's and they were hired as regulars on Hee Haw. They were part of that whole scene. Steve, of course, had his banjo and magic act. He was doing that while I was in The Back Porch Majority. The Ledbetter's thing was pretty amazing because I didn't have many options left in Colorado. There was a guy named Bob Turner, who was leaving Denver to join a group called the Greenwood County Singers in Los Angeles. They had a hit called The New Frankie and Johnny Song. They had their offices right next to The Ashgrove on Melrose and that venue later became Budd Friedman's Improv.
I lied and told him I could play bass, so he took me with him. We got to the audition and Van Dyke Parks and his brother ran the group. I stood there at the audition and froze with the bass. They said, "What?" I said, "I really can't play the bass... but I'm funny." They said, "We don't want a comedian. We want a bass player." They said it very sternly. Bob Turner was horrified. He had brought me all the way out. He said, "Wait outside until after we rehearse." I stood on Melrose Avenue in front of the Ash Grove for two hours.
Right place at the right time. I started going down to the Sunset Strip to watch groups like The Doors. That's around the time I became friends with Steve Martin. And we were friends with this fella Michael Johnston, who I had known in Denver. We all got a house together in Palms, a neighborhood close to Ledbetter's. Steve went off with The Dirt Band and I was with these folk groups. It was great training.
Kliph Nesteroff: You say you're a funny musician more than a stand-up comedian, but you have the distinction of being on the first two stand-up shows - Freddie Prinze and Friends on HBO and the pilot of Norm Crosby's Comedy Shop. These were the first programs to just use a whole bunch of stand-ups in a row, which became the template for every stand-up program in the 1980s.
When we did Freddie Prinze and Friends they taped two acts and then stopped to change the tape. They made me go onstage to keep the crowd warm. I made it work, but it wasn't a lot of fun. But out of that special I got a lot of work. I'm glad you know that. I didn't realize I was on the first two stand-up shows.
Kliph Nesteroff: And what was the experience of doing The Comedy Shop like?
Gary Mule Deer: That was very well done because it was run by a comedian - Norm Crosby. He really knew what to do because he made the comedians feel at home. He was a good producer for that kind of a thing. I thought their whole operation was very well done. I remember having some great shows on there and I think everyone else probably enjoyed doing those too.
Kliph Nesteroff: That pilot episode featured you, Henny Youngman, Red Buttons and Skip Stephenson.
It's too bad because he was a great guy and he was good. Johnny Carson liked him because they were both from Nebraska. He was really behind Skip, rooting for him, but Skip was also kind of crazy.
Kliph Nesteroff: You guys both got into drugs in a big way. Rudy DeLuca listed some of the main people around during the first year of The Comedy Store. He named Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze. All of them had enormous cocaine addictions.
Gary Mule Deer: Most of those guys were into cocaine before The Comedy Store. I was definitely already into it. I actually got into cocaine in the sixties. I would hang out with those guys at the Comedy Store, but I didn't hang out with any of them after my set. But I was doing drugs with Freddie Prinze and a bunch of those guys at the club. We hung out during the show, but I don't know where they went later because after my set I would go hang out at The Troubadour. That's where I went - with the musicians.
Kliph Nesteroff: The summer replacement with Dinah Shore was called Dinah and Her New Best Friends. June 1976 with Mike Neun, Michael Preminger, Bruce Kimmel...
He went off to folk clubs in Denver and the Dinah Shore people couldn't track him down. He didn't really like TV. But that was a great show. I wish I had some tape of that thing. I was the only one who got offered my own show out of it. I was offered my own pilot. They knew I liked British humor and I had this connection with David Frost from the show Madhouse 90.
They hired a couple of British writers and they tried everything to help me with my own show. I remember gracefully getting out of it because all I wanted to do was go to Las Vegas and work the lounges. But there was a huge audience at that time when there were only three networks. It was a great time at CBS.
Kliph Nesteroff: Make Me Laugh was another huge show that used a lot of the Comedy Store comedians.
Gary Mule Deer: Yeah, Bruce Baum, Kip Adotta, Garry Shandling... That was the best show for me because it was great for props. I would go into the prop room the night before and I would lay out tables of props not even knowing what I would do with them - just so I would have everything there. I would just run out with a handful of stuff. Make Me Laugh was going to be a network show, but its host, Bobby Van, died of a brain tumor. Then six months later the producer died of the same thing. The show was jinxed completely. We were going to go to NBC, but when Bobby died that all went away. They tried to bring that show back on Comedy Central and it was a disaster. Every time they try to redo Make Me Laugh it is terrible. It's jinxed forever.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were frequently on the panel of The Gong Show...
He was another funny musician. People didn't realize it, but when they went to commercial breaks Chuck Barris grabbed his guitar and jammed with the band. That is why Chuck and I got along so well - because we were both musicians. And he liked props. He loved what I did. He really liked props and he liked my typewriter on my shoulder bit where I tapped on the keys to make it sound like a newsroom and I did this news broadcast. I did the pilot for a series called Good News, Bad News and was cast as the anchor on that, although I didn't get the show.
Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I have the cast list for that pilot here...
Gary Mule Deer: (laughs) You have everything.
Kliph Nesteroff: Betty Thomas, Bob Saget, Will Shriner, Franklyn Ajaye, Ed Bluestone and Rhonda Bates.
Gary Mule Deer: That's right. I think Will and I have forgotten we were even on that show together. We're still best of friends and talk all the time. I don't think either of us even remember that. You've got all this research - it's incredible.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were supposed to be in The Jerk.
Gary Mule Deer: Steve Martin put me in The Jerk. I had a great scene with Rob Reiner in a boardroom, but it was cut. It ended up on the cutting room floor, but I still get paid residuals. I still get my three hundred dollars a year. My ten checks for thirty bucks each. I'm still listed as being in The Jerk and people ask me about it all the time. That's what happened. I didn't really care. We have worked together many times and I was on his television specials and other shows.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about your experience appearing in Annie Hall?
My lines got cut out so you can just see me in the long shot. I heard later that if you have a line that's funnier than what Woody Allen says right before or right after - it gets cut. That's what I heard. But I'm in the shot a lot and you can see me sitting there with my giant afro through that whole scene.
Kliph Nesteroff: Two of the most legendary comedy films of that period and you're cut out of both.
Gary Mule Deer: Yes, and it also happened in Up in Smoke. I'm in the Cheech and Chong movie Up in Smoke for ten seconds as "Freak with Basketball." You see Stacey Keach say, "There's the freak with the basketball!" That's all it is and it's how I'm listed in the credits. My credit on Annie Hall is "Man in Health Food Restaurant."
Kliph Nesteroff: One movie that you're not cut out of is Skatetown USA with this ridiculous cast of people including Flip Wilson, Joe E. Ross, Billy Barty...
Gary Mule Deer: And Vic Dunlop and Dorothy Stratten and Dean Martin's uncle Leonard Barr.
Kliph Nesteroff: It was 1979 - the height of cocaine use in comedy and disco and cinema... and this film sort of fused all three. Maureen McCormick from The Brady Bunch was in the film. She says that Skatetown USA led to her years-long cocaine addiction.
Gary Mule Deer: Yes, absolutely right. Exactly right - it was everywhere. I remember that very well. And there was a lot. She said that? Well, that's absolutely true. That's what happened.
Kliph Nesteroff: There were all these movies with old comedians and new comedians in the late 70s. Skatetown USA, Record City...
Gary Mule Deer: Yes, did you ever see Tilt? Skatetown USA was part of a wave of roller skating movies and Tilt was part of a wave of pinball movies. I played a fertilizer salesman in Tilt and a twelve year old Brooke Shields hustles on the pinball machine. The guy who later became Frank Sinatra's valet was in all of my scenes. That was a movie done for NBC and I did another called Hanging on the Star with Wolfman Jack.
Kliph Nesteroff: Maureen McCormick said Skatetown USA had more cocaine on set than at an actual disco.
Gary Mule Deer: Exactly right. There was a lot.
Kliph Nesteroff: It's amazing how common it was during that era of showbiz.
I'd then go off by myself because I didn't want to be known that way. I'd go snort cocaine. I didn't mix it with anything. I didn't drink when I was using it. I didn't smoke marijuana with it like a lot of guys did either. So because of that... I unfortunately did it for much longer and... it almost killed me! Yeah, it was prevalent. It was everywhere. I bought cocaine in the basement of the Pittsburgh Comedy Club from two officers in uniform. Yes.
Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.
Gary Mule Deer: Yes, definitely. I remember doing that.
Kliph Nesteroff: That's crazy.
Gary Mule Deer: Yes, crazy.
Kliph Nesteroff: You're also in a great little film directed by Gary Weis and starring Richard Lewis called Diary of a Young Comic.
Gary Mule Deer: Oh my gosh, I play myself in that. Yes, I remember doing my evils of dexedrine routine. I think we shot it at the Improv and he's in the front row watching me. It was a pretty good film.
Kliph Nesteroff: You never had to choose between the Comedy Store and the Improv.
Gary Mule Deer: I worked both and nobody seemed to notice! I'm glad you brought that up. I worked both of them and nobody said a word about me doing that. I was hit and run, kind of, because I was always on late at both of them. They liked me as the closer.
Kliph Nesteroff: When did you first meet David Letterman?
Gary Mule Deer: David went onstage in 1975. Usually when a new guy came into the Comedy Store, the guys stood in the back and wouldn't pay attention or would turn their backs or would kind of whisper.
After that he had me. I talked to him and we became very good friends. We did a lot of shows together. David always wanted to be the emcee. He never wanted to be the middle act or the headliner. I was on a lot of his shows. When he went to New York with his first show he asked me to be a writer, but I passed on it.
I still wanted to go out and live my life on the road. I didn't want to be in an office. He was always loyal. He put me on Late Night with David Letterman all the time and The Late Show too. He has been very good about it. There are four or five of us who didn't make a career in TV or film including myself, Dreesen, Altman, Witherspoon, the late George Miller... very loyal to us all.
Kliph Nesteroff: What did you think of the vocal criticism Letterman was making about Leno on-air?
Gary Mule Deer: David was just being David - finally. He's just like that and I don't think Jay is offended by it either. That's my feeling. I think Jay thinks, "That's just David." And David feels, "Ah, it's nice to just be myself." Because I know it's always been on his mind.
David is one of the smartest guys I have ever known in the business. I really respect he and Steve Martin for what they've done with their careers. I've never worked much with Jay. I never did a Tonight Show with Jay, but have done countless shows with Dave and he has been a great friend.
Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about your first Tonight Show?
Gary Mule Deer: I remember that I was not nervous at all. It was a big thrill and everybody back home in Spearfish, South Dakota was excited. David Brenner was the guest host and said, "This is the first time anyone from Spearfish, South Dakota has appeared on the Tonight Show." I went out and I had a great time. In fact, I remember being really comfortable with the whole thing. I came out with my props and my guitar and the typewriter on my shoulder.
That was kind of funny to me:"It wasn't the Tonight Show." Luckily it didn't bother me that much, but it's a story to tell. After I did my first Tonight Show I got a call from Roy Clark saying he wanted to have me on when he guest hosted. Phyllis George and a couple other people asked for me when they did it. Brenner had me return. But The Tonight Show wanted me to do the same thing all the time.
They didn't want me to do new material the way they did with other people. To this day I can't help but think they didn't want me to do that great. That's kind of how I felt about it. They'd say, "Go ahead and do that thing you did last time." I'd say, "Really?" I always wondered about that.
Kliph Nesteroff: David Brenner had a strained relationship with Budd Friedman. You knew them both well.
Gary Mule Deer: I do and I don't know what happened there. I know that with Friedman - we didn't get the money we were supposed to for An Evening at the Improv. You'll hear lots of guys bitch about that and I know that. No matter what they say, we got screwed on that - especially when it went into syndication. They were shown over and over and we never got a penny for any of it. So, I understand with David and Budd... I don't really know what happened with them. I think with Jimmie it had something to do with all the Evening at the Improvs. Guys to this day are still kind of upset with it. Boy, I remember some of mine were shown over and over. It was good publicity for a while, but we never made a dime.
Kliph Nesteroff: That's when the Comedy Boom was real hot. Were you aware of comedy exploding?
I remember a club owner calling me: "We want to have you back... but you know, we're not paying quite the same what we were before..." I said, "Yeah, I know." That's when I changed everything and started working with people like Johnny Mathis. He started putting me on in the middle of the show rather than opening. We did Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and theaters with great sound and video. I did the Grand Ole Opry and I went to the Nashville Network and had a whole other career. I was immediately welcomed into the Nashville Network with Ralph Emery. He was the Johnny Carson of The Nashville Network. I did sixty some shows with him and I was a regular the last two years of Hee Haw. I became almost a country act without missing a beat.
Kliph Nesteroff: I have a vague recollection of watching TNN and every now and then Willie Tyler and Lester appearing.
Gary Mule Deer: Other than the guys on Hee Haw I don't remember a whole lot. These days I'm doing stuff with old rock and rollers. I just finished a gig last week with the old guys from The Doors, KISS, and Chicago. I'm doing the music of Johnny Cash. It was always frustrating to me in the comedy clubs because the sound was never good. I always had a road manager doing sound, lights and sound cues. I am more of an act than just a stand-up or a musician. I had a lot of struggles with sound systems all those years.
Kliph Nesteroff: Let's talk about some of your comedy club contemporaries - Jimmie Walker.
Gary Mule Deer: One of the nicest guys I have ever met in this business. I have so much respect for him. I respected him so much when he hired Dave and Jay to be his writers. He got Jay his manager. He is another guy like David Letterman who never really wanted to be a big star, just was happy being an emcee. Very respectful of other people. I did a lot of shows with Jimmie. I don't see him enough. Here's a guy who had kind of a goofy image from television with his dyn-a-mite thing, whatever, but I think he handled it wonderfully.
Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote a screenplay called the Comedy Marathon Movie. Jimmie Walker was in it.
Gary Mule Deer: Yes, that was a disaster. It was a thing I wrote with another comedian named Ronnie Kenny, when I had just come out of rehab. He was trying to get sober on his own. It blew up in our faces. A disaster. I ended up with the only enemy I've had in my fifty-three years in show business. It just didn't work. The idea was to do a movie about making a comedy movie. We used Louie Anderson, Jimmie Walker, everybody. It's amazing that you even know about that. I wasn't ready. I had just come out of rehab. I was not ready to do anything at all like that. I wasn't prepared at all.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about Gallagher? He was a huge deal then and now he is a bitter guy.
Gary Mule Deer: One of the greatest prop guys and smartest guys I ever saw onstage. At his peak, he was as good as it gets. He was so current with everything he did and I thought he was incredible. He was like Gary Mule Deer and Carrot Top times three. But yes, things just started going the other way, my God. I lost contact with Leo over the years, but I kept hearing things all the time. My God, he had been at the very top. And the thing with his brother... I heard his brother started doing better than he did. He put his brother out there doing the exact same act to make extra money and took a cut of it. His brother ended up doing better than him! And that made him mad and his brother wouldn't quit.
Kliph Nesteroff: He's done a lot of interviews in recent years where he gets very angry...
Gary Mule Deer: He's very angry, yeah.
Kliph Nesteroff: Do you think that's common when a big career doesn't sustain?
Gary Mule Deer: A lot of guys I started with didn't reach the goal they wanted and became embittered. I'm still going because I kept reinventing myself. The guys that are bitter just don't understand what you have to do to keep going.
Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jay Leno in the early days. Do you remember when you first met him?
Gary Mule Deer: Mmm hmm, I do. I remember that Jay always had a plan. Jay just always knew where to be PR wise. If you ever watch Freddie Prinze and Friends, which Jay was on, it is amazing how many shots he got into offstage. He just always knew where to position himself. He did his homework, was very straight, and is very ambitious. Extremely ambitious. And he deserved what he got. I'm amazed that he had so many writers on the show and all the people that submit independently. To have that much material, to me, is amazing. He has had some of the best writers working for him. I think Letterman was always more hands on. He'd show up in the morning and he'd be right there in the morning writing as much stuff as they were. At least for many years. Jay I'm not so sure. I could be wrong.
Kliph Nesteroff: Were you around when the Comedy Store strike was happening? Did it have any affect on you?
Gary Mule Deer: What year was that?
Kliph Nesteroff: 1979.
Gary Mule Deer: I was around but I was on the road more than anyone else. I traveled so I was in and out of the Store all the time. I was on the road more than anyone touring with Gordon Lightfoot and Merle Haggard and Roger Miller. So I remember the strike off and on. I remember Jay Leno always seemed to insert himself into things for his own PR. Jay was very good at that. If something came up he was always at the forefront. He orchestrated his career. He was always doing things like that. But I wasn't there a whole lot. I remember the first meeting and people yelling and screaming at each other.
I would do Harrah's for a weekend with Gordon Lightfoot and make twenty-five hundred dollars. I'd come back and everyone would be excited because somebody performed two Comedy Store main rooms for nothing. To me, that was kind of - I don't know. It was strange to me that nobody was really getting paid. Yes, there were some TV shows we got out of it, but the management was making a fortune. We were doing three or four shows a night and packing the main room with three hundred people a show. So I do remember it, but I also thought these comedians were bringing it on themselves.
I was just in and out of town all the time so it didn't really affect me. I wasn't dependent on the Comedy Store. I was pulling myself further and further away and was doing the road just to maintain my bad cocaine habit. I had to have a figure income all the time. That's why I was out of town more than anyone else. I had to have the big money for cocaine.