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The Funnies

Ruth Williamson, Linda Lavin, and Charles Busch talk about what cracks them up. logo

Mario Cantone doing his Cats rant, Carol Burnett doing anything, Julie Halston's "imitation Louis Vuitton handbag" story, the term "garlic knot", Matthew Perry's timing, singing sharp, Fran Lebowitz, Ruth Williamson's "I think he means 'peep'" line in Music Man, Linda Lavin's scream in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Riverdance, Rex Reed hating a movie, mariachi bands, Paul Rudnick's plays, tripping, Charles Busch's "Miriam Passman" character, Libby Gelman-Waxner's reviews, Siegfried and Roy, Catherine O'Hara in Waiting for Guffman, anyone named Verna.


Ruth Williamson

(Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn in The Music Man on Broadway)

I'd have to start with the dames who are no longer with us. I grew up idolizing Eve Arden, Thelma Ritter and Helen Broderick. (Broderick was in a lot of Astaire and Rogers films.) They were each very different, but all very dry with a unique elegance. They exuded such intelligence. I loved Kay Thompson, too, but she was funny without knowing it! At least, I don't think she knew...

In the boys club, Martin Short makes me scream. In our Little Me cast, everyone was funny. Sometimes we'd try to rehearse and not get anything done; we'd just kill ourselves trying to make each other laugh. Poor Rob Marshall! We were like uncontrollable kindergarten children. At the end of the day, my face would truly ache from laughing. Between Marty Short, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Michael McGrath, it was an absolute laugh-fest. With Marty, as long as there's one person watching and he's got one stooge, he's ON! One night, there was an ancient couple in the front row of the audience, sound asleep. Marty actually stopped the show and pointed them out to the cast and the audience. "Look at this!" he screamed. We died!

Let me tell you, Charles Busch has said some of the funniest things I've ever heard in my life. We were walking down a street in Chelsea on our way to a rehearsal for The Green Heart. One of the younger cast members said, "Boy, Chelsea sure has changed from when I moved here two years ago." Then another one said, "Oh yeah? You wouldn't have recognized it when I moved here eight years ago!" Charles looked at me, without missing a beat, and said, "I remember when all this was Dutch farmland." I had to be scraped off the sidewalk!

I'm so glad we're talking about this. Comedy don't get no respect. The business of comedy is very serious. It's such a science--like physics. If there's one tiny element off, it's not funny. The broader the comedy, the more fragile it is, too. It's a very intricate and very specific dance.

It's the hardest thing in the world to do comedy--and it takes balls! But the most delicious thing in the world is to make people laugh. What could be better than that? I've decided that it's a very noble way to spend one's life.


Linda Lavin
(most recently, Marjorie in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife at MTC)

I adore Henny Youngman! I love his line, "Am I too late for the garbage?" and the garbage man says, "No, jump in." That always gets me--that Borscht Belt stuff. In Catskills on Broadway, Mal Z. Lawrence made me fall out of my chair. Lenny Bruce made me laugh, too. He was viscerally, intellectually, and emotionally so funny. His humor contained ideas that I thought only I felt. It wasn't just dirty, which is how he is perceived now. It was very hip!

I adore Elayne Boozler. She was really the first woman of my generation to do a comedy act that did not make fun of herself. She didn't put herself down to get laughs, and that was very important. Even though I find myself loving big, outrageous, bold humor, I have to say that I'm also attracted to very subtle humor. So subtle that I can't think of one example. I hate to tell you that plays like Hedda Gabbler make me laugh--anything that takes itself so seriously. I just always wish they were funnier.


Charles Busch
(Playwright, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife; Actor)

I like low comediennes. From Martha Raye to Judy Canova--the real eye-crossing dames. I also like dirty-mouth gals like Belle Barth. Iris Adrian was in about 450 movies--she always played the toughest of the wisecrackin' chorus girls. She spoke with no "R's" in her words. She was a round little blonde who would say things like, " he still tryin' to strum his harp?" What does that even mean? Nowadays, Megan Mullaly on Will and Grace really cracks me up. It's not that they're giving her funny lines necessarily; she gets laughs out of things that aren't always that funny on paper. Believe me, as a writer, I appreciate that! I like an actress who takes a funny line and says it straight, and when I give her a straight line, makes something funny out of it.

The one thing that is always funny is when somebody's wig falls off. That's the limit for me! When I was a kid, Barbara Heller was on the Dean Martin and Joey Bishop shows. She was a long, stringy, Kay Thompson type. She'd rip her wig off and I would scream. She had absolutely no dignity whatsoever. I refuse to crack up on stage, and I hate it when others do. However, there was one night in Red Scare on Sunset when Julie Halston's wig wasn't glued on right. It kept moving further back and further back... Suddenly, she's looking like she's doing Elizabeth I. I was laughing so hard I was shaking.

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