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
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