As 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 Liex 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 Side 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 at 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. Believe me, I’ve smelled 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. The use of laughter as a medical treatment was inspired by Norman Cousins 1979 book, Anatomy of An Illness, in which Cousins claims to have cured himself of a life threatening degenerative spinal condition. When Cousins was diagnosed, he asked himself “If negative emotions produce negative chemical changes in the body, wouldn’t positive emotions produce positive chemical changes? Is it possible that love, hope, faith, laughter, confidence and the will to live have therapeutic value?” The problem for Cousins was that there is “nothing less funny than being flat on your back with all the bones in your spine and joints hurting,” so he relied on joke books and old movies for laughter, which in his opinion. significantly contributed to his miraculous recovery.
Alan King and Toyota are making it easier for hospital patients to get a prescription for laughter by bringing the comedians from the annual Toyota Comedy Festival directly to the patients with the Laugh Well program. While live performances are the center piece of the program, videotaped performances are also being used to develop Comics on Call for twenty-four-hour access to laughter for hospital patients. Today, Laugh Well brings live comedy into eight New York area hospitals and transmits some comedy events live coast-to-coast. King and Toyota have a goal of developing a national program within the next ten years. Together with Toyota’s dedication to give something back to the communities we
serve and King’s comedic talents this goal of bringing healing laughter into hospital rooms everywhere seems well within reach. We recently caught up with Alan King 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 threaten ing 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 co produce 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 comedians or 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 boost er. For the people who can’t come into the auditorium we put their televisions 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 fundraisers 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 [patient’s] 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 where 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 guys IV going off who was watching the show (laughs…).
CC: Are you a regular part of these acts yourself?
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 being 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: What type of material do you use for your appearances?
AK: I don’t do jokes, I do experiences. I do jokes about my aging and troubles with arthritis but they don’t react because they have more problems than just arthritis. It’s almost like doing shows for the GIS, you do a couple of jokes about the camp and the commanding officer, so we end up doing a couple of jokes about the nurses and the environment and then we get into our acts. That’s what these people really want to see.
CC: Can you relate to the situations these patients are in?
AK: Well yeah, I had cancer of the jaw. I am a recuperating cancer patient myself. It was like an out of body experience when I was diagnosed. There wasn’t any fear, but I was angry as hell.
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, “Doc, 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.
CC: Do you ever feel like smoking at all?
AK: No, but I like to chew on a cigar on the golf course because I used to be a heavy cigar smoker, but NO, NO. You know what I can’t believe is that we live in a country that is trying to keep the environment smoke free, except for Senator Dole who seems to think while he’s in Kentucky that smoking is not addictive. He’s addicted to the tobacco industry’s money. It’s like a reformed drunk. Its very difficult to convince people to do something. People have to experience something to shake them up you know. people who are overweight, people who smoke. I did everything. I must have lost 1,000 pounds in my life. I have always been an athlete and I do miss real physical athletics. I have a bad knee. I can’t do any upper body exercises because of the pressure on my jaw. I do a lot of stretching and I do swim a lot which is good for my legs.
CC: You are only as strong as your weakest link.
AK: That’s right. You never know. Everyone I know has back problems, upper back, lower back and we used to sit around and drink whisky and talk about girls and now we sit around and talk about arthritis and bad backs and whatever hurts.
In his memoirs Alan King recalls a recent experience in the hospital with his father. “When he was eighty, he had to go for prostate surgery, and everybody was worried, it was very scary. Eventually, he was wheeled out of the operating room, and the surgeon said he’d come through very well, but my mother wanted to make sure. ‘I need to go in and see him.’ So they let her into the recovery room and she came out a few minutes later crying. ‘My God’ I said, ‘what happened?’ ‘He’s cursing my brother,’ she said. ‘What?’ ‘He’s cursing my brother Nat. What does he want from my brother Nat? Nat has been dead for forty years.’ So I went in and asked him, ‘What do you want from Mom? Why are you cursing her brother Nat? Nat’s been dead for forty years.’ And my father said, ‘Dead don’t make you better.”
Does Alan’s picture on the cover look like anyone you know? “My whole life, since I’ve been well known, people have been coming up to me and saying I look like their brother or their husband. It still drives me crazy. One night in Las Vegas I was finished with my second show, I had half a load on, and I was running through the crowd with two security guards, on my way up to the hotel room to change. And this woman grabs me by the hand and pulls me into the hall. ‘I gotta tell you something,’ she says. ‘My husband, everywhere we go they say Alan King, Alan King, Alan King.’ Now she starts yelling, ‘Seymour, come over here!’ and here comes this guy with a broken face, weighs about 300 pounds, five-foot-four. And my wife says to the woman, “They do look alike.”
by Mark Gray
Initial story by Jane Wollman Rusoff