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ALAN KING interviewed by Chet Cooper

Two pictures of Alan King gesturing with handsAs a child Alan King's son wrote in school, "Everybody likes my father, they laugh at him, and he sleeps a lot." Everybody, includes quite an extensive list of personalities in King's recently published memoirs, Name Dropping: The Life and Lies of Alan King. Among those laughing with and at Alan are the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, John Wayne, George Burns, Lawrence Oliver, Harry Belafonte, John Kennedy, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal and many more. About his life story, King remarks,"Some of these stories may be lies. But I've told them for so long that I don't remember what is true and not true. The fact that a lot of people in this book are dead makes it easier for me to talk about them." Growing up on the Lower East Sid of New York during the depression gave Alan a hard edge that he never lost. He was referred to as "America's angry young man." King's celebrity life was built upon comedy routines inspired by Jack Benny, which began in the Catskill Mountains and were later perfected on Broadway, in Las Vegas, Hollywood and most importantly he says, "at parties where I had no right to be." He's never been afraid of his audience. At a Black Freedom rally after the first lunch counter sit-in he joked, "Why is everybody carrying on about Woolworth's? Have you ever eaten at the lunch counter at Woolworth's? If you wanted to sit in the Colony Club, I could understand it." After being introduced to the Queen of England she remarked, "How do you do, Mr. King?" Alan responded, "How do you do, Mrs. Queen?" She reportedly was not amused. Whether on stage, television or in film, King has continually provided his audiences with comic relief for over fifty years. He says, "These days, everybody keeps telling me I should slow down and smell the roses, and its nowhere near as pleasurable as getting laughs. You only live once (except Shirley MacLaine), but if you work it right, once is enough."

Alan King is spreading his fearless brand of comedy to a new crowd with a program called Laugh Well, which attempts to harness the healing qualities of laughter for hospital patients who are trying to overcome their own fears. It's a technique Alan King found helpful himself while he was in the hospital for treatment of jaw cancer five years ago. We recently caught up with Alan and talked to him about his life, comedy, and recovery.

Chet Cooper: How did Laugh Well get started?

Alan King: I received a letter from a woman named Alma Phipps, who had survived two life threatening experiences at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. She wanted to give something back. I was amused in a sense because she wanted me to do a benefit at Mt. Sinai for the patients and staff. Well, as you know, I coproduce the Toyota Comedy Festival and twice a year we meet with the board of Toyota and go over what we can do as a public service. Every year we do something of a charitable nature. I was thinking about this and on the Anatomy of an Illness, by Norman Cousins, where he claims to cure himself by watching the Marx Brothers which I believe might be a little extreme. I don't know if comedy heals, but I know it makes you feel better, which is pretty good. All of the Toyota dealers in the metropolitan area, generally are involved in a local charity and I found out about 75 percent of them are hospitals. It seems all of the little towns have a local hospital. So I came up with this idea and called it Laugh Well, where we would go to children's hospitals and bring entertainment to homes for the aging on an ongoing basis. So we set up a plan and [Toyota] gave us funds. Last year we entertained in one way or another over 100,000 bed patients. The year before I did a concert at the Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn. With satellite we ended up reaching about a hundred hospitals around the country and had it piped into each patient's room . What we do now is take each hospital and we bring in three or four acts; most hospitals have an auditorium of some size and they do a show. The ambulatory patients come in, the nurses come in and its kind of a morale booster. For the people who can't come into the auditorium we put their television on in their room and they watch the show on video. Funds are a major, major problem for many hospitals so they are always having ongoing fund-raisers and when they have dinners we supply the entertainment. We send entertainment to Children's Hospital when they have Cancer Survivor's Day. We give them something to enhance their afternoon. When [hospitals] distribute magazines and books we add tapes of comedians so [patients] can get a laugh.

CC: Have there been any amusing incidents while putting Laugh Well together?

AK: We had one comedian out on Long Island, 22 years old and twenty-two years ago he was born there and the same doctor who delivered him was still there (laughs...). I had one incident where I was working and I kept hearing a beep, beep, beep. I went backstage and asked the stage manager, "Would someone turn that damn noise off' and later I found out it turned out to be some guy's IV going off who was watching the show (laughs...).

CC: Are you a regular part of these acts yourself?

Alan King doing comedy routine.AK: During the year I do about three or four performances, but I am not the in house emcee. We use all the guys and girls around the office. They really enjoy it as much as the patients. Almost unanimously I get a call back [from a comedian] during the week saying, "I had the best time there.' It's a different experience for them. I'm sure every comedian shapes their material to the affair, being in a hospital. A lot of young comedians come out and go,"How are you doing?" You don't ask that in a hospital. We've found very humorous doctors who make a career out of lecturing. That seems to get a great reaction. So we have a few of those we send out.

CC: Did you use comedy during your recovery?

AK: When I was a kid, I used to send away for those ventriloquist kits on the back of comic books. With my jaw being wired shut I started using this method of ventriloquism and one day the phone rang and it was a surgeon friend of mine checking up on me. He said, "May I speak to Alan King?" I said, "Do, I got news for you. You are speaking to Alan King." He said "Why, that's remarkable." I said, " You think that's remarkable. I'm talking to you while drinking a coke." (laughs…) My jaw has healed and in fact it's stronger. I'm almost 69 years old and all things being equal, considering the life I have led, I am in pretty good shape.

 

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