"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: The Joke that Wouldn't Die 2... by Mark Evanier


The Sound of Silence

In his latest column, my friend and former partner Dennis Palumbo discusses the tendency for a writer to hold onto a line and to keep trying to find a place for it. This is absolutely true with most of us who write for a living.

And Dennis's piece reminded me of a joke that Evanier and Palumbo once wrote, managed to get into a script...and then we couldn't get rid of it fast enough. Every writer has a couple of these, too.

It was while we were working on Welcome Back, Kotter. There was an episode in which Vinnie Barbarino (the Travolta character) was making his acting debut. Around 3 AM one morning, a day or two before we taped, Dennis and I found ourselves punchy from lack of sleep and desperate from lack of a funny line for Mr. Woodman, the surly vice-principal. We needed to have him say something, get a laugh and then get out of the scene. We had to come up with it before we could get out of the office and go home.

One of us said, "Let's have Woodman say something about how he used to be a great actor."

The other one of us said, "Yeah...He could say, 'Y'know, Kotter, I used to be a pretty good actor. In college, we did Of Mice and Men.'"

And then in unison, we finished the line: "I played Mice."

We laughed for about six minutes. If you'd been that tired, you would have laughed, too. Then I typed it into the script, we laughed for three more minutes and we finally got the hell out of there. We thought it was the funniest line in the world...and at 3 AM, it was. In fairness to us, the next day the cast and the rest of the staff liked it a lot — enough that it stayed in, all the way through Tuesday afternoon. That was when we did the "dress rehearsal" — the first of two tapings that day — in front of very live audiences.

Mr. Woodman was played by a lovely little man named John Sylvester White. John was very funny on the show but he suffered through moments of pure stage fright. About ten minutes before he had to go before the cameras, he would become convinced that none of his lines would work, that the audience would hate him and that his career was but seconds from total ruination. This never came close to happening but it was often necessary to reassure him that he'd get laughs, that the audience would love him, etc. That afternoon, just before the show was to be performed the first time, Dennis and I wandered onto the set and John, in a state of panic, grabbed us.

He was in full make-up but he still looked pale. "That Mice and Men joke," he said. "Is that really funny?" We promised him the viewers would howl and he took us at our word and went out to do the show. Things went pretty well up until that moment, the moment when Mr. Woodman turned to Gabe Kaplan and said, "Y'know, Kotter. I used to be a pretty good actor. In college, we did Of Mice and Men. I played Mice!"

And then there was silence.

Absolute, dead silence. Not a laugh, not a chuckle, not a snicker. You would hear more noise if you were floating in the orbital path of Mars...and wearing earplugs.

And then because, I guess, he felt he had to say something before his exit and didn't particularly want to take the rap for the Mice joke, Mr. Woodman announced to Mr. Kotter, "Evanier and Palumbo told me that would get a laugh." The audience exploded in hysterics. Maybe the biggest laugh I ever heard on that stage. They didn't know who the hell Evanier and Palumbo were but they knew exactly what had happened.

Needless to say, the line was changed before the final taping...changed to something that the second audience actually laughed at. In-between the two tapings, there was a dinner break and everyone on the crew looked at Dennis and me and shook their heads, though a few were kind enough to say, "Well, I thought it was funny." When we worked on the following week's script, Dennis talked me out of a line I wanted to put in. I wanted Woodman to say, "Y'know, Kotter. I used to be a pretty good actor. In college, we did Of Mice and Men. I played Men!"

Like Dennis said in his article, some of us just don't know when to give up. I still think the Mice line would have killed if we'd aired the show at 3 AM.

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