Wednesday, December 17, 2014

An Interview with Dick Gautier - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I mostly know you as a television actor, but you did stand-up all through the 1950s. You were one of the first comedians to play the hungry i...

Dick Gautier: Yes, well, that was my warm-up. I had just gotten out of the navy in San Francisco. I hung around the hungry i in North Beach because it was very cool. Mort Sahl was there. I said, "God, maybe I'll give it a shot." I met Larry Tucker...

Kliph Nesteroff: Larry Tucker who later became Paul Mazursky's writing partner...

Dick Gautier: That's right. At that time Larry Tucker was Mort Sahl's writer. They came up from L.A. and then Mort took off and left Larry behind. Larry became the maitre'd at the hungry i. He liked my performance and I liked him, he was a good guy. He started writing for me. People expected the Mort kind of thing, but I don't do what Mort does. Anyway, I was successful. I was there for about a year.

Kliph Nesteroff: People talk about Shelley Berman and Jonathan Winters at the hungry i, but they weren't there until three or four years after you.

Dick Gautier: Absolutely true. There were people coming up at the Purple Onion across the way like the Smothers Brothers and Phyllis Diller. A lot of us were coming up at the same time and shared the same kind of background, struggling with offbeat comedy and not the usual fare.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mort Sahl was the first comedian to play the hungry i.

Dick Gautier: Yes, he was.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you the second? 

Dick Gautier: I believe I was the second. I say that, but someone else could argue. I've always understood that I was the second. Stan Wilson was the guy who was working there, a Black folk singer. He was very good. Everyone told Enrico Banducci, the owner of the Hungry i, "Don't bring in a comic. It's not a comic's room. It's terrible for comics." He said, "Screw you, I'm going to put on this guy Mort Sahl." In the beginning he did not do too well, as I recall. But people finally understood where he was coming from and what he was doing and then, of course, he became a sensational draw. A smash.

Kliph Nesteroff: In what capacity were you hanging out before you decided to go up?

Dick Gautier: I was a sailor who had just gotten discharged. I did a lot of comedy and singing in the navy, but I was looking at what I was going to do in my life. I felt comfortable there and said to Enrico, "Let me audition." I got that job and that was really it. When Mort left for New York, I moved in. My material couldn't touch Mort's, of course, but Larry Tucker and I tried to do different stuff. I did mostly satirical things. I do an awful lot of different voices and dialects. I would do a whole Ingmar Bergman movie with a guy playing chess with death. It was good. It wasn't Copa stuff. It wasn't Jan Murray - not that Jan Murray wasn't great - but it wasn't that kind of comedy.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were playing the hungry i around 1955-1956 it wasn't really well known. But by 1959 when you were playing it with the Kingston Trio it was famous. What was the difference by 1959?

Dick Gautier: I got more respect. In 1956 when I said, "I'm at the hungry i," they went, "uh huh." Later when I said, 'I'm at the hungry i," they went, "Whoa!" That was the difference - the awareness factor. Mort mentioned it and suddenly there was gravitas attributed to the hungry i.

Kliph Nesteroff: A a lot of people recorded comedy records at the hungry i. You never did.

Dick Gautier: I never did. I couldn't do it because I'm much too visual. I was basically an actor, which I didn't know. I would take on the persona of different characters and do the way they walk. It wouldn't work on an album. I did The Horace Heidt Show when I was in the navy. He had a big talent show on the radio and he put on a [lip synch] record act. I'm not kidding - a record act! I sat there and said, "What a schmuck!" At home they heard Spike Jones and a lot of people laughing. I mean, it was ridiculous. Thinking about that I said, "Nah, I can't do a comedy record." I would have to write a special album, so I didn't get into that race. I left it for people who were more verbal like a Bob Newhart.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned you weren't a Jan Murray style comic... you were familiar with Mort Sahl... were you conscious at that time there was a new style in comedy emerging?

Dick Gautier: No, I just knew what I liked. I knew what made me laugh. I wonder if I had seen Jonathan Winters... I don't know if I had seen him or not. I don't remember. But I know I just did what I thought was funny. I did not think this was a new kind of comedy. It just happens. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you and Mort friends?

Dick Gautier: No, not really. I hung out with him with Larry, but when he went to New York he was gone and I took over. We were never close friends, no.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did Larry Tucker ever do an act with you?

Dick Gautier: We never did that. I did an act when I was sixteen with a guy named Mark Marcus who was the saxophone player in a band that I sang with. That was teenage stuff. We did a show on Channel 5 called TeleTeen Reporter. I called it Toiletry Reporter. A guy named Al Bertram, a producer in LA, started that show. We were on television when we were sixteen years old - pretty amazing actually.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did stand-up in New York at a place well-known in comedy circles... Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield and others used it as a testing ground - a place called The Duplex.

Dick Gautier: That's right. In fact, the first night Woody ever performed was when I was at the Duplex. The manager came up to me and said, "Dick, would you mind giving up your second show tonight to a writer? He's going to be trying out some stand-up material." I said, "I don't mind." And that was Woody Allen. When I actually met Woody it was many years later. I was up for a part in Annie Hall. Someone said you never know with Woody - he might like you, he might hate you, he might give you two minutes or a half hour. He's unpredictable.

I went in and said, "You know we have a good, mutual friend." Woody asked, "Who's that?" I said, "Irvin Arthur." He said, "Irvin Arthur, my old agent in New York?" I said, "Yes, he was my agent in New York too when I was doing stand-up." We had a nice chat and all that. I got back home and my agent said, "He wants you to do the movie." But the problem was there was no guarantee of billing or money or anything, so I passed. One person I used to go see perform at the Duplex was Marc London, who used to write for Laugh-In. He and Pat McCormick teamed up together.  Pat McCormick worked clubs for a while and he was one of the funniest men I ever met in my life.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had a surreal sense of humor.

Dick Gautier: I guess you could call it that. One day we were talking about the worst jobs we ever had. I said, "Okay, Pat, what was the worst job you ever had?" He said, "I was a butt rouger in a baboon mortuary." I don't know if you would call that surreal. Nuts - is what it is. He was a graduate of Yale and really brilliant. Yeah, he was incredible. I loved him.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Duplex was small and intimate...

Dick Gautier: Very small. Everyone was trying to do the hungry i and be a hip little room where everyone would go. I worked the Brown Bear Cafe, the Number One Fifth Avenue, the Blue Angel. A lot of little dinky places like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: July 1956 - you played the Blue Angel with Joey Carter, Laurie Powell, Bart Howard, Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Lyons.

Dick Gautier: That was great. I loved it. Everyone called it "the coffin" because it was long, narrow and lined in velvet. But the people came and they were very intelligent. We never got out-of-towners because they didn't know from this shit. The Blue Angel was very good to me. In fact, it's how I got Bye Bye Birdie. Margaret Whiting was headlining and I was going to open for her - which I did. During the run Gower Champion, the director, and Charles Strouse, who wrote the music, came to see Margaret Whiting. They saw me and evidently made a note that they wanted to see me again. 

I got a call from my agent, "They want to see you when you get back in town." They asked me to read for this thing. I was a little put off because I didn't like rock and roll. Not at that point. I said, "I don't think it's for me. I like Jerome Kern and George Gershwin." They said, "Will you at least come in and audition?" I went in and they said, "Would you sing an Elvis song?" I said, "I don't know any Elvis songs." So they just played some blues and I ad-libbed and I guess they liked it. Couple months later they called. I said to Charlie, "It's not for me. I feel very inhibited and very intimidated by this whole Elvis thing because it's not me." He said, "It's a satire." Then I went, "Ohhhhh." When he said that, then I got it. Suddenly it was okay. I got the part, got a Tony nomination, and my career was in a whole different place. I didn't work nightclubs anymore.