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GENE PERRET

In 1833, when British actor Edmund Kean was near death, a friend came to comfort him. “How are you doing?” he asked. Kean’s famous reply was: “Dying is easy; comedy is difficult.”

Gene Perret can relate well to that anecdote. He’s been working hard at comedy all his life. Perret is a renowned comedy writer and has several Emmys to attest to the fact. His credits include The Carol Burnett Show, Laugh-In, Welcome Back Kotter, Three’s Company, and thirty years of writing for comic legend Bob Hope. He has perfected the science of comedy to the point that he has written several “how to” books – “Comedy Writing Step by Step,” “Jokes & How to Deliver Them,” and most recently, “Talk About Hope,” anecdotes about his experiences as a writer for Bob Hope.

In the 1960’s, Perret was a scientist working for General Electric in his hometown, Philadelphia. It was at GE that he began perfecting his talent – not in the science of electronics, but in the science of comedy.

E2I was working in electrical engineering, “ he relates. “Comedy was a hobby. My supervisor was retiring and they asked me to MC his party. So I did and it went over well. Then they asked me to MC for another guy and pretty soon I became like the toastmaster general of General Electric. Anytime they had a party I was expected to do eight minutes of comedy. That was my apprenticeship.”

Someone in the company knew a stand-up comic named Mickey Shaughnessy. Gene sent him a few of his jokes. That contact led him to an introduction to others. And he soon began writing one-liners for several comedians - Slappy White, Phyllis Diller, Bill Cosby. Sometimes he’d get paid $5 a joke. Sometimes he got a small percentage of what the comic made on a show. It was a nice “side job.” But he still worked all day=2 0at GE, doing his joke writing at night.

When Phyllis Diller got her own television show in 1968, Gene moved to Los Angeles, finally going from a full time GE engineer to a full time Hollywood comedy writer.

Over the years he worked on comedy variety shows with Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, and others, and when “variety” seemed to be dying out in the late ‘70’s, he moved on to writing “sit-coms.” As he recounts his career, his proudest, perhaps most enjoyable years have been with Bob Hope. He not only wrote for Hope’s specials and Academy Award shows, but traveled with him as he entertained troops in Beirut and the Persian Gulf, aboard aircraft carriers and battleships, with Hope telling his jokes before kings, queens, and presidents.

Coming up with a good joke, Gene explained, is about numbers. Bob Hope for instance had 10 writers working for him. They would each be given 15 topics to write about and wrote 30 jokes per topic. Hope would then have 4500 jokes to choose from and pick the best 50 for a show.

As Gene Perret describes comedy writing, it indeed seems like a science one can study and learn. First, choose a topic to write about, he says. Then analyze it. Find out things related to the topic. And finally, write the jokes. And rewrite the jokes.

Even Perret has been surprised at the name he has made for himself as a comedy expert. He tells thi s story - Henny Youngman, the comedian famous for his endless repertoire of one liners, called him a few years back. “I’ve got to give a talk at some college on comedy,” he told Gene. “I understand you’re the expert. Where can I get your book?”

Great comedians, like Bob Hope, have a gift for making jokes seem spontaneous, often ad-libbed. But great comedians know a good joke isn’t often spontaneous. More often it is “engineered” by a hard working professional joke writer like Gene Perret.