Peter Desberg, co-author of Now That’s Funny: Should we be choreographing our leg thing here?
Jeffrey Davis, co-author of Now That’s Funny: Well, I like to do this.
Film Courage: Well, you know…you are each your own person…even though you share sort of one mind for the writing, you are each your own person.
Peter: We do?
Jeffrey: Who says we share the same mind?
Peter: Whose mind are we sharing?
Jeffrey: Neither of ours.
Peter: If I were sharing his mind, you’d see the perforations.
Film Courage: Well, you are your own people for the sake of this interview so you can each do whatever you want. We’ll start with you then Jeffrey. How did you break into television?
Jeffrey: Well…let’s see…a lot of this is going to get cut, right?
Film Courage: Um…I think as long as there are no names that are implicated, I think everything will be okay.
Jeffrey: Oh, okay. Well the way I broke into TV is that my father, my uncle, my first stepmother, my stepfather were all in the industry. So I grew up around it and that meant I knew pretty much knew everybody and not a single one of them gave me a job (at first). Peter laughs at my jokes [Jeffrey nudges Peter].
My first job was delivering call sheets at Paramount, which of course we don’t do anymore because everything is sent by email. Then one of my dad’s writing partners was a guy named Al Levitt (his real name was Al Levitt) he was blacklisted (he and his wife were blacklisted) and they wrote under the name of Tom and Helen August.
And many years later when the blacklist was over and my dad was greylisted which meant you were associated with…yeah I don’t think I’ve told this story before…if you were greylisted you were at some point going to be called before The Committee. But his friends (The Levitt’s) after the blacklist was over, they were working on an (boy this is a long story) they were working on an Aaron Spelling show. It was the period when Love Boat was on (which I later worked on) and Fantasy Island and they wanted to do a show called…I think Aaron had sold a show called Paradise Hotel. And in those days they would give you the pilot script and 6 episodes and then they would decide if they were going to shoot it. They didn’t always shoot the pilot.
So they gave me a script. I had never written television before. I think I tried to write a screenplay in college (not grad school) because I was going to be the Great American Novelist. And I got paid for it, I got in the Writer’s Guild and then ABC decided not to make the show. And that was my first job.
And then I met my writing partner (my long-term writing partner) who I had a lot in common with because her great uncles and her grandfather were The Fleischer Brothers. So Popeye, Betty Boop, Out of the Inkwell and we worked together 12 years and that’s the partnership that Hollywood likes the best is male-female partners. Next they like partners because they are getting two minds for the price of one.
I remember taking a stand-up class and the first day the instructor got up and said “Comedy is a really aggressive art form. And if you can’t take it, get out!”
Film Courage: And so are we today.
Jeffrey: So that’s sort of my background, but I was around it all my life…and boy that was long-winded even by my standards. You can cut around it I’m sure.
Film Courage: Peter for you…joke writer…when did you begin? Or maybe that wasn’t the first thing you did?
Peter: Well, surprisingly I came in from the academic side and started studying the psychology of humor and started doing research in it and then I took some courses in comedy writing, stand up and got more and more immersed. And next thing you know, I was writing joke books. We wrote a few kid joke books, they sold pretty well. And then started writing adult joke books (fun stuff)…not as long or as good as Jeffrey’s story.
Jeffrey: Certainly not as long.
Film Courage: You also balance your career moonlighting as a therapist or a psychologist?
Peter: Well, I started out as a research psychologist, later switched over to (or added) clinical psychology to where…actually here’s another in a series of boring stories since Jeffrey started the tradition. I developed a course called Instructional Humor which was a course for public speakers for how to get their point across and in doing that I watched how nervous students would get when they had to get up and deliver anything is how I got interested in stage fright.
Film Courage: Okay interesting. Is there room for jokes when you are doing clinical research amongst the colleagues? Or that’s where you got your material from?
Peter: Interestingly, stories help people remember things. When I was a professor anything I wanted students to remember I had to come up with a clever or funny example or a clever or funny story to get them to remember the concept. Otherwise…[imitates a bird flying away]. It’s a survival skill. The way the mind works, it remembers stories better than facts.
Jeffrey: That explains so much about history and science for me. Not really. Sorry.
Film Courage: Have either of you tried stand-up? I think I remember you saying that you had?
Jeffrey: Yes. My first writing partner Julie Fleischer had been in…I don’t know…you guys came here too late but the Kentucky Fried Theater was sort of the thing of the moment and they did improv shows which were scripted actually I found out later and then they would do some improv with the audience. And their parents went on and made AIRPLANE later (Zucker, Abraham and Zucker). They were cousins and brothers.
Peter: The Zucker Brothers.
Jeffrey: And she went to work for them and had long been an actress when I met her. She had been an actress and a stand-up and one night she did convince me to go to The Comedy Store and I…it was really bad.
Film Courage: It was a Jan Brady moment?
Jeffrey: People were asking for their money back. It doesn’t get worse than that. I wanted to be an actor when I was in high school. I don’t think I’ve told you this story? I think I was doing Inherit The Wind which you know is the two main characters are based on William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow and the both have to remember these long speeches and I had to memorize the speech from The Bible and I went out halfway through it and the drama teacher said “Maybe not?”
So I think I became a writer…writers are very often people who fail at everything else so that’s been my experience, you know. I did try a lot of other things.
Film Courage: Or maybe they’re comfortable in their whole element though? That’s a whole other topic.
Jeffrey: Despite the fact that I love to be around people, I love being alone in a room and I think you have to have that, too. Peter is much more sociable than I am. He’s good in crowds.
Peter: But I remember taking a stand-up class and the first day the instructor got up and said “Comedy is a really aggressive art form. And if you can’t take it, get out!” Which kind of stuck with me and the couple times I got up there and I tried it I said “Hmmm, harder than it look on TV.” But my wife plays the accordion and we play in a group together and I get to write the songs in genre with accordion plays in an attempt to make them funny. And I get to do all the patter between there which satisfies my need to do that.
Film Courage: Okay, but again you feel comfortable behind a typewriter or a computer is it?
Peter: As we say in Hollywood, I go both ways.
Jeffrey: He’s been waiting all week to say that.
Film Courage: Yes…I’m not sure how to answer that?
Jeffrey: Don’t even try. Take some advice.
CONNECT WITH JEFFREY DAVIS
CONNECT WITH PETER DESBERG
CHECK OUT PETER AND JEFFREY’S BOOK ON AMAZON here.
Now That’s Funny!: The Art and Craft of Writing Comedy
Advertisement – contains affiliate links
GIRL LOST by Filmmaker Robin Bain – tackles the very real issue of underage prostitution as told through the eyes of a wayward teen. Groomed by her own mother to work in the underbelly of Los Angeles, the young girl struggles to survive in this dark world. Stream GIRL LOST on Amazon Prime Video today.
AllCasting.com has created an easy-to-use platform that helps performers build careers in one of the most exciting industries out there. AllCasting.com lets you easily find auditions for the most coveted projects, while also curating educational and news content, guiding both performers and professionals through the entertainment industry.
There are days when New York City seems to open its doors to you and every single piece falls nicely into place supporting the dream that brought you to that big wonderful city. Then there are the other days…the days when those same pieces become ill-fitting sharp-edged shards ganging up against you and any goal you may have. Those are the days when the cruel heartless city itself seems to be conspiring against you. Those are the days you know you’ve been…New YORK’d. It WILL happen to you…