SMOTHERS BROTHERS : A FREE FORM INTERVIEW
At the time of this interview (1975) the Smothers brothers were one of the biggest comedy acts in the country. A few years earlier they had had an extremely popular but politically controversial TV show that, through the use of satire, took on Nixon, the Vietnam War and racism. Due to this controversy they were eventually taken off the air and were considered—at least in mid America—pretty hip. Today they are retired and pretty much forgotten but back then, at their peak, they were very big.
In those days I didn’t do interviews so to speak. In other words, I didn’t sit down the night before and draw up a list of questions so when asked allowed the interviewee to pontificate. I had seen this sort of thing with the result being that interviewers pull out some quotes, write their opinion of their subject in a formulaic interview that unless the interviewer is particularly brilliant—which I definitely am not—gives the reader very little insight into the subject. So, when I interviewed, I tried another approach. I brought a tape recorder, turned it on and then proceeded to have a conversation with the person I was interviewing—sometimes talking about myself as much as they talked about themselves in order to draw them out. Then, after transcribing, I would cut a lot of me out and what I had left would often prove both fascinating and extremely revealing about subject I had interviewed. This is not what the Smother’s expected and not getting it found me and it a bit unsettling and that eventually made for a very, very interesting interview. On this one I didn’t need to cut a word.
For reasons mentioned in the interview I was under a great deal of stress. When I’m under stress I usually become even more ‘hyper’ than I usually am which is very ‘hyper.’ So, when I walked into that “night club blue room” where the entertainers rested between shows, my heart was pounding a mile a minute. I had no questions prepared as was my bent. All I had was a tape recorder and a good number of the staff of my newspaper waiting for a miracle I was about to pull out of my hat.
TOMMY AND DICK SMOTHERS
TOMMY AND DICK SMOTHERS AT THE TIME OF THE INTERVIEW
A few days after I did this interview a friend of mine was backstage with Tom and Dick Smothers. The two brothers were at their charming best, sharing drinks and small talk with my friend. Then my friend made the mistake of mentioning my name. The smile on Tommy’s Smother’s face disappeared and, as it was described to me, his nostrils seemed to flair as he spoke. “That man is crazy. If he is your friend, he will destroy you. He will destroy the publication he works for. He will destroy everything that he touches.” Tommy went on a bit longer in that same vane and watching him my friend sat there with her mouth open. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. He was talking about me, someone he had spoken with for about 30 minutes, as if I was his lifelong enemy.
Later, when Tommy was out of the room, my friend turned to Tommy’s brother, Dick Smothers, and asked him what that had been about. Dick just chuckled. He had enjoyed watching Tommy’s outrage.
“Well, you see the son-of-a-bitch (referring to me) caught us and not a lot of people have done that. He got me going and he got Tommy going and he caught us. He got under our skin, and Tommy doesn’t like that. I don’t like it either, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it bothers Tommy. The guy’s a brilliant bordering on genius but just rough around the edges.””
When I heard the story, I just shrugged. It was an appropriate end note to what had been a very tough night. I had been scheduled for only 30 minutes with the two brothers when I needed at least an hour to do a decent interview. What made the pressure even worse was that the publication for which I was doing this interview had planned to use it as their cover story and were actually holding publication back a day for the story. Therefore, as soon as I left the dressing room I’d be driven home where I would spend the night writing the story. The following morning at 8:00 I was scheduled to hand it over for proofing and typesetting so that the paper could go to bed that afternoon. I had interviewed dick a few weeks earlier for a short piece in order to get this, longer, interview.
I hope you never have to work under that kind of pressure. It was incredible. My stomach was in knots that whole day and night. I was incapable of smiling. I was incapable of laughing. I wanted to ask my questions. I wanted my answers and didn’t want any bullshit. In addition, I would have to conduct the interview in a crowded dressing room between shows. I wasn’t looking forward to any of it.
When I got up there Dick Smothers was holding a glass of wine smiling and chatting with his wife Linda and a woman who I’d later learn was Tommy’s girlfriend. They were sitting on one of the room’s two couches and Tommy, looking tense, was on the other couch beside the TV concentrating on a basketball game. Both brothers appeared occupied and not really up for an interview. I felt as if I was intruding. This, added to the crowded room and the limited amount of time I was to have immediately put me on edge.
After I was introduced, Tommy disappeared and Dick told me to sit down on the couch where Tommy had been sitting and then he disappeared. I put my tape recorder on the coffee table and waited and waited. As I felt my precious 30 minutes ticking away the sinking feeling in my stomach began to grow. I saw disaster looming before me.
It was a large dressing room. One end had the bar and the spiral staircase that led to the backstage area. Our end of the room was silent so, in an attempt to break the ice with a joke I turned to Dick’s wife, Linda, and asked her if I had body odor or bad breath. That had be the worst joke that I have ever made. It was so bad it’s an insults to call it a joke. It was pathetic. Linda looked at me as if she thought that I was crazy. And when I added that the two had seemed to split as soon as I got there, she understood the joke, and without much enthusiasm told me that she couldn’t tell if I had body odor, because she was sitting too far away to smell it. I think it was at that moment that I began getting the “fear” and felt that nothing was going to save me.
Another bit of awkward silence, so I tried again asking if she usually accompanied her husband when he did club dates. She answered, no, just Vegas and one or two other places. In fact, she had just gotten in at 9 PM—it was now 10:35—so I told her she should make a point to look around the city while she was in town. She told me she’d like to, but it might prove difficult because Dick had three days of tennis mapped out for them. Finding some footing, I asked when had she and Dick first met. It was while she was in school. He was doing an act, and she went down with a girlfriend to see it, and she met him.
Just then Dick Smothers came into the room. Seeing me talking with his wife, he eyed me suspiciously and joking, told her to “Watch what you say to him.” I told him he didn’t have anything to worry about. I didn’t start interviews until I turned on the tape recorder. He sat next to his wife on a couch and moved the adjacent television around so that he could now watch the basketball game. When he turned up the sound, and I could see him getting into the game, my heart sank. I’d been in the room for ten minutes and had gotten nothing. There was No Tommy, and I could feel the minutes drifting away. ‘Well,” I thought, “if I’m going to get this interview, I’m going to push, and this is the time t push it.” After I turned on the tape recorder I asked Dick in an uncertain voice with a tense expression if he’d like to chat. He gave me a resigned sigh, and the basket ball game a last longing look before turning down the sound and getting up to say to me:
“I don’t know what the hell we’re going to talk about, Joe. I think we covered everything in the world on the phone.” He moved over and sat next to me on the couch. “I think Tommy’s perspective on things would be good. It’s like…” He nodded down to the tape recorder. “Turn it on.”
Dick Smothers did not like being recorded without knowing it. I didn’t have to guess it. His face told me. I smiled
“I’m a villain, right?”
“No, you’re not a villain. It’s just that you get killed doing that.”
He interrupted me. “I believe in the freedom of the press….
I interrupted him “But the power of the punch is something else.”
“You should Interview Larry Flynt. He’s a nice Interviewee.”
“The Pornographer? Why the hell should I interview him?”
“He’s got an interesting perspective on things.”
Tommy came up the stairs that lead from the dressing room to the backstage area and sat on the other couch next to Dick’s wife, Linda. Dick looked down at the recorder.
“Is that thing working?
I leaned down to see if the hubs were turning. They were.
“I hope it is. If it isn’t, I’m out of a job.”
I turned back to Tommy.
“When I was talking to Dick on the telephone a few weeks ago…”
I remembered something that I wanted to say to Dick and I turned back to him.
“God, it sounded as if they got you out of bed and said, ‘Hey, you better do this interview, or else.’ ”
“It was the same thing at my end.”
I turned back to Tommy.
“Dick talked about when you were in high school. That you were very interested in delivery and watched George Gobal.”
“He influenced me, but I used puberty as a comic cornerstone; the awkwardness of puberty. We’ve made changes but basically that’s who the “Smothers Brothers” are.
“How much of you and your relationship is on stage?”
“A great deal of it. You have to stay as close to who you are off stage as you are on.”
Dick interjected. “That’s what Tommy says. You must stay as close to reality as you can, unless you’re an excellent ‘actor’ or the audience will cease to believe us.”
Tommy finished his brother’s thought. “Jimmy Stewart is the same as he is. John Wayne plays different roles, but he always plays the same character. I play the same character. You must be the same character off stage that you are on.”
“When you first went on the stage was there that thought behind it; did you plan to bring your relationship on the stage, or did it happen naturally?
Both brothers answered at the same time.
Tommy added, “We just went for the laughs and I felt the timing. We happen to be blessed with the ability to feel the audience response and tension.”
“When you were very small kids, children; whatever…
Dick interjected again. “We were children when we were kids.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have even suspected that.…Tommy, when you were children, did this comic quality come as a gift. Did you have it even then?”
TOMMY AND DIC SMOTHERERS BEFORE FORMING THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS
“How did it exhibit itself and how did you work on it?
“By being not as smart as the other kids. I used the awkwardness of being an underachiever to express myself as a cut-up. It gave me practice. And then we got to puberty and it got very awkward. That 10, 12, 13, 14 year old trip is very difficult. So, instead of trying to be cool, I used that awkwardness and transcended it. I used it as a comedic tool to make people feel uptight and then I would have control of the situation. For me, it was primarily a social tool. Then, when I got on stage and did a speech for a friend running for class president in 8th or 9th grade, the audience laughed. I had used that same awkwardness and with it I won them over.
“How did that make you feel?”
“I thought it was great because I was manipulating people. It’s a power position. When you manipulate large groups of people; for a performer that’s power. It was an accidental experience. Before that I had always done it one-to-one and I did it because we changed schools a lot, and I was always the new kid.”
“When you got those first laughs on stage were you surprised. Did you see the potential?”
“I was very surprised, but I also saw a range of potential and thought that I’d like to do it for a living. That’s about the time that I saw George Gobal. I saw him and I said, ‘Yea, I’m funny. I think I’ll do that.’”
Dick bent forward to look at my tape recorder. It was sitting on the coffee table.
“Where’s the microphone”.
Then, without asking me, Dick moved the recorder a few inches across the table towards Tommy. He obviously wanted to make sure that it would pick up what Tommy was saying,. I found the gesture interesting. My first thought? “Dick Smothers is a control freak.” I wasn’t worried about the microphone and said as much.
“It’s on the top. It picks up everything.”
“Oh that’s good. Very nice.”
And with that Dick moved the recorder back to its original position.
“So then, we’ll put it back there.”
Then he sat back and I tuned from him to Tommy. I wanted to continue my line of questioning with Tommy, but unfortunately that little stage business of Dick’s had broken my concentration and I couldn’t remember what I had wanted to ask Tommy.
“I’ve lost my train of thought. Your brother made me lose my train of thought.”
Dick had a suggestion. “You can play it back.”
I chuckled and turning to Dick gave him a mock fist to say that he wasn’t helping me. Tommy took pity on me and picked up where I had had left off. “I saw George Gobel and thought, ‘That’s pretty close, I’ll do that.’ ”
“Yes, right. That’s it. OK, I was watching the both of you on stage and I was saying to myself, “How did you have the guts to go out there and for 45 minutes be funny.”
“That’s audacity and primarily to be audacious is what getting up on that stage means. It’s the ultimate of what started years before when I was a kid as an awkward expression.”
Dick interjected. “You don’t go from 0 to 45 minutes. You grow in small increments.
Tommy finished the thought. “It takes a long time to get where we are and we keep refining it.”
“How much of tonight was improvised?”
“About five percent.”
Dick interjected. “Originally it was total. But now we got it down and play around with the thoughts that are already there. You have your key lines.
Again, Tommy finished his thought. “It’s very structured and within that structure there’s a lot of places to play a variation on the same cordial pattern.”
“Is this how it goes. You say something and get a laugh and then all of a sudden something pops into your head?”
“We know where we’re going. If we talk about childhood, we’ll talk about childhood and if we’re working well together, it’ll happen. Then we’ll remember those lines and use them again.”
“It’s just like conversation, then?”
Dick nodded. “It’s exactly like conversation. Sometimes your adlibs dictate the direction. It’s almost like stream of consciousness which you don’t prevent from happening.”
Tommy added. “The audience also dictates where you go. So, if they respond, you follow that line of thought.”
“Has there ever been a moment where the audience didn’t respond and you didn’t have any place to go?”
Sure. There have been many moments like that. We’re professionals. It’s been 19 years we’ve been doing this. And I find this…
DICK—19 Years. I don’t remember that.
DICK—59 Tommy. I was in school.
TOMMY—Well, I was with…
DICK—You were doing card stunts in 58.
TOMMY—I was also singing in a group in 58.
DICK—We also did our first show in 1943
DICK—Actually….but that was a piece of ass. You can’t count that can you.
Everyone in the room laughed.
TOMMY¾But I always count 1958 as our start professionally.
DICK—I always count my start…
DICK—No, on the day that I met my wife, Linda.
Some more laughs.
I didn’t pick this up until much later, but what Tommy and Dick were doing was improvising. In a microcosm this little interchange was exactly the sort of thing they did on stage. Dick would needle Tommy. Tommy would respond and based on what Tommy said, Dick would say something else until one or the other got a laugh. The sibling antagonism that I was observing was the key to how they interacted on stage. I wish I had picked this up at the time so I could have explored it with them. Instead, because of all the pressures I was working under, all I could see was the clock ticking. All I could think was, “please fellas, cut this shit out and start answering my questions.” Tension and worry must have been written all over my face.
I looked at Tommy. “Have you ever wanted to punch your brother in the mouth?”
“Oh, yea. We punch each other occasionally.”
“I mean, when you were children.”
Dick interjected. “Absolutely normal. You have unhealthy siblings if they don’t have a lot of animosity between them”.
“But how did you adjust to that when you got older. I didn’t even want to be near my brothers.”
“It was the same thing with me.”
“But you have to do an act together.”
“That’s how you transcend it. When you don’t want to be around someone you normally split. But Dickie and I had a job to do and had to be together and so we transcended our differences and our relationship grew.”
“Did you cease becoming brothers and become more like partners?”
Dick interjected. “No. You’re always a brother. You’re blood is there. You can tell him to go fuck himself and call him the biggest asshole and the worse names in the world. For a while we worked with a third guy. We naturally called him the same names that we called each other and there was no way he would take that kind of verbal abuse. You can call a brother those names because you both forget about it. It really has no meaning beyond that moment. But the other guy told us, “Wait a minute, I don’t have to take this.” So he didn’t, left and we became successful.”
THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS EARLY IN THEIR CAREERS
Dick had made another joke and everyone in the room laughed; everyone except me. I didn’t want Dick entertaining the room. I wanted him answering my questions. It was driving me up the wall but I kept on pushing my questions. I looked at Tommy.
“Ok, you’re growing up. You start doing your act and BOOM you’re on television being recognized.
“It wasn’t BOOM we’re on television. It took eight years.”
Dick interjected. “Nothing in life is all of a sudden except death.”
This time I spoke to Dick. “Well, children can be all of a sudden, if you know what I mean. Children can come…
“I don’t know if any of my children have come yet.”
This time I laughed along with every one else.
Dick continued. “But it takes a long time. We know what we’re talking about. I know it looks that way, boom—boom, we’ve developed. But that isn’t it. OK, we’re on television.
“That train of thought of mine just parked itself in the station. OK, you’re a commodity now. You are the ‘Smothers Brothers.” People see you on the air and think of you as a commodity called “Dick and Tom Smothers” I turned to Tommy. “Yet you have your own head.” I turned to Dick. “And you have your own head.
Dick made another joke. “I don’t follow your train of thought. What are you talking about?”
“Look, I’ve never met you, but I feel I know you. But I don’t know you.”
“I don’t think of that as Commodity. What I really think of as a commodity is…
“OK, it’s my bad choice of words.
“When you’re on television, you’re here to sell product…”
I knew that I had used the wrong word and that Dick was about to answer a question that I hadn’t meant to ask. I didn’t need this with that clock ticking. So I interrupted him in order to give him the word that I had really meant.
“Is the word persona. Is that he better word. You want persona?
Dick paused and he gave me a look that showed that he did not like to be interrupted, thought it rude and wanted me to know exactly how he felt. His voice was deadly serious.
“Come on., we don’t have all night to play.” After he let that set in he finished answering my question. “We are in the basest sense a commodity. But there is a division, a separation from that. We are there for the television people to make money. We are there for us to expand our career and profit by it. One girl recently told me, ‘How do you feel jacking off every night. On stage you’re jacking off’” Well, if you think of it that way, everybody is jacking off. You’re jacking right now. The guy who sells gas is. So, if you want to bring it down to the basic thing, we’re all commodities. We’re all inter-related in the structure of this country to make this country work. And that’s not a premise.
“I didn’t use commodity in a negative sense.”
“Well, I was saying we’re the ‘Smothers Brothers.”
Tommy interjected. “We are a product. We make big money and we have a lot of people around and support an entourage. If that’s what you’re talking about.”
Dick was still answering the question. “But people don’t think of that. They think of us as Tommy and Dickie Smothers— two brothers. If they like us, they think we’re nice kids. If they don’t like us, they think what we do trivial and without value. Commodity is just a bad choice of words. You’re right, Nothing personal. It’s just…”
“No, no. I agree with you. It was a bad choice of words.
“We’re not a commodity now.”
Tommy interjected. “Right now we’re people. We’re talking to you about what we feel.”
Tommy’s girlfriend got up from the other couch and walking into the bathroom closed the door behind her. As she closed the door Dick raised his voice so she could hear him.
“Lock the door, Lee Ann.”
This must have been an inside joke because everyone on the room except me laughed. Because of this bit of business by Dick, I again lost my concentration and with it the thread of the questioning. I can only attribute this to the pressure. Normally I would have made a joke and just gone onto something else. But, tonight, all I could see was that clock ticking. So, I looked down at the tape recorder and spoke right into the microphone.
“This is Chaos.”
On the other hand Dick was having a good time. “But it’s not Chaos.”
“In my head it sure is.”
Tommy interjected. “It’s only in your head. You’ve got to relax.”
DICK—I’ve never been chaosed.
TOMMY—Dickie we don’t have all the time for those funny words.
TOMMY—Dickie, just talk.
DICK—Ok. What’s next. Where we’re going?
Dick Smothers was doing his act and in the process was playing with my head. I knew it and he knew it. It was a cruel kind of joke and one that night I wasn’t really prepared to enjoy. I wasn’t running that interview any more. He was. And I wanted to let him know that I knew. So, sitting back in my seat I laughed half-heartedly and told him.
“I don’t know. You tell me where we’re going.”
Before Dick could comment someone came up the stairs and Dick introduced him to his wife. As he was getting up to speak to the two, he looked at me.
“Go ahead. Rap with Tommy and see what he says.”
“Yes, I do want to rap with Tommy.”
I made another fist to show my frustration.
“You’re destroying my head, you know.
As Dick, making his way to the bar, crossed in front of the Coffee table he gave me a look. It was suddenly serious.
“Did you used to be a fighter?”
“You keep pretending you’re going to hit me.”
“It’s so I don’t hit you.”
“Well, if you did, I would be the last thing you ever did.”
At the time I didn’t know what to make of this. No one had ever said anything even remotely like this me in an interview. I had on a tape recorder and I was in the process of writing an article that would be read by hundreds of thousands of people. Why would this man want to egg me into a fight, or better yet, need to prove to me that I couldn’t threaten him, for some imaginary threat that he thought that I had given him. It didn’t make any sense to me at the time because, at the time, I don’t know who Dick Smothers was.
As I would later come to understand. Dick was indeed serious. And he was indeed angry and he meant every word he said. This, and not the humorous fellow everyone saw on stage or television was the real Dick Smothers. This is what he meant when he told my friend that I had caught him. The man had a short fuse, and the needling that I saw him give his brother here in this room and on stage as part of their act, was the real thing. In short, Dick Smothers had some real anger issues. Again, I only wish I had realized it at the time and explored it with him. But there was that clock ticking.
I turned to Tommy, but Dick had left me so discombobulated, I not only forgot me line of questioning but couldn’t think of anything to ask.
“God, my head is shot. I don’t know what to ask you. Talk about something interesting for a while.
“You’ve got to come prepared to these things. You’ve got to have an attitude and a point of view.”
“Of me to you?”
“Yea. Of what to pursue.”
“Ok, fine. I really want to learn about comedy.”
I can’t teach someone comedy. Nor can you explain Beethoven’s 5th Symphony except to say how it makes you feel.”
“OK. How about this. You’re on the stage. Hundreds of people are watching you. Isn’t that scary?”
“Well, I don’t know. There’s something a performer does. Dickie does it. I do it. When you first start out, there’s always a lot of fear involved. But then you overcome that fear and learn how to manipulate a group of people. It’s the group response you respond to and it’s very, very easy. When we have time off I get far away from it and I forget what I do. This makes me a little afraid until I get in and do it again. It’s like getting into a swimming pool or going into the ocean. You put your toe in and it’s always positive when you’re all in.”
“Does the positive response of the audience help you. Them saying, “Yes, that’s good.”
“Sure. We feel good when we get response. You see, the audience to me is like a musical instrument we play. If we don’t get a response that means we’re playing our instrument poorly. So the audience to me is a trumpet or a guitar.”
“When I watch you up there, you’re so vulnerable.”
Tommy gave me a slight knowing smile
“That’s my style.”
“Are you that way in person.”
“No, not at all. I can’t be gotten to.” He gave me another knowing smile to tell me that he was talking about me. Then after a thoughtful pause. “But I’m always…I don’t know. I don’t make an objective viewpoint on the way I look personally. But on stage if I look vulnerable it certainly isn’t vulnerable because I know exactly what I’m doing. But I do use the vulnerable side of it because puberty is a vulnerable position.”
“It’s like I’ve always known you and I’m very comfortable watching you on stage. I’m laughing with you and not at you.”
“Well, that’s something you have or you don’t have. I don’t know how we can pursue that on a personal level. That’s something that you can perceive but it’s not something that I can perceive, but I know I get response. If I get response, I’m happy.”
“In person, you’re dealing with people and you may refrain, but on stage does it give you a freedom? Is it like jumping off a cliff and you say, ‘What the hell, go for broke.”
“Right. Being on stage is skydiving. When the singer who comes on before us is finished, and the audience is screaming for more and applauding like crazy, I’m back stage saying, ‘What the hell am I doing.” I’ve got two or three seconds to pull myself together and when they open that curtain I walk out. Then some other skill takes over.”
“Is that tension of ‘I’ve got to pull myself together’ a challenge which makes you want to do it? And then afterwards you feel great for overcoming it and succeeding.”
“No. It’s a job. I can talk to you right now, and they can say I’m on and if I was dressed, I’ll walk down the stairs and walk right on. From a conversation with you to a conversation with the audience.”
“How does it feel when you get off stage?”
“We look at each other and we come up and start looking at the ball game. If we had a bad show we accept the response immediately. And if there has been a bad show we will be antagonistic towards each other. If it’s a single comedian standing up there, that’s kind of hard, because all they can do is blame themselves.”
“When you were on TV did you work off the audience?”
In The late 60s they had one of the most popular shows on TV which was canceled due to it’s controversial content
“Very little. Primarily it was material motivated. The writing was the primary thing.
“How did you feel about that?”
“Well, we started doing parodies of ourselves because the writers would write the Tom and Dick spot as they perceived us to be. Then we would do that spot and we’d be doing an imitation of an imitation. And we’d try to put our individual characteristics into it.”
THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS ON THEIR TV SHOW
When you were very small, and you were dealing with the other kids…God, I’m really nervous. Is Dick really angry?
“You’re on Speed man, relax.”
“No, I’m not. I’m straight.”
“No man, you’re speeded.”
“I’m not. It’s just that I’ve never been this completely inarticulate before. I really believe that Dickie’s down on me.”
“You’re a high dude.” He smiled that knowing smile again and after a pause spoke up again. “Dickie’s very straight. You see, he cuts through. He doesn’t have the tolerance that I have.” Another pause and that smile again. “And that’s what our conflict is on stage. That’s why we’re good as a comedy team. There is a different view of life. He doesn’t like bullshit. He likes to get to the point.”
“But I wasn’t bullshitting.”
“You don’t consider it, but there’s a quicker way to ask what you want to ask. And Dickie’s very tight about that. I’m the only one he tolerates who has a tendency to do the same thing you do which is…”
“Right. Rambling and bull shitting around. He says, ‘What do you want, what do you want me to say, what’s your question?’ I like bullshitting because my style is bullshitting.
“OK, I want to know what makes you tick?”
“There’s nothing that makes me tick. I just happen to be a guy that by chance was thrown into performing and I became good at it. It’s just that simple. Any other questions are ethereal and very hard to answer. About why, and what makes something tick, I don’t know.”
“But there has to be something?”
“All right. I was motivated out of an affliction as an underachiever. I was motivated to compensate. I had a low IQ by all tests. 92. And then I took it again, and I got a 98. Whether IQ tests are valid or not, it had an impression on me. And I was also a poor reader.”
“You think that really messed you up?”
“Oh yes it does. I think people who are doing comedy, or art are performing are generally compensating for some deprivation in childhood.”
“OK. Why is Dickie so direct?”
“Because he’s just that way. He’s a Scorpio. He’s a triple Scorpio.”
“Oh, come on. You really believe that stiff?”
“Hey, I believe what Dickie is. What he is, is what he is. And whether it’s because he’s a man, or a Scorpio, or because he’s born my brother and it’s genetic; all of them are as valid as any other observation. The man is direct. He was born on the same day as Bobby Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy was considered ruthless. He wasn’t really, it’s just that he only gave people two chances. You screw up once; OK. You do it again; you’re out. That’s all. I’m the only one Dickie allows to do it three or four times. It’s because I’m his brother and it’s because I’m very gifted.”
“That’s the truth you’re hearing. You’re hearing some truth and you’re not taking it in.”
“Oh, I am. I am.”
“Then relax, and accept it.”
“I do, but I can’t relax. This is the way I am tonight. You see, I’m on now because that clock is ticking.”
“All right. Take a valium.”
“Oh man, I have to take them to go to sleep.”
“Oh, you’ve got to if you’re taking the amount of speed you’re taking.”
“I’m not taking anything. Listen, this is me. Now I’m on. You were on out there, now I’m skydiving. I’ve got to come up the right questions.”
“You’ve been on since you came up here.”
“Listen, man. I’ve been on since the last ten minutes of your show. It’s been like, ‘Oh god, what am I going to ask.’ ”
“Now, all you’ve got to do is listen and lay in some key questions and you’ll generally get what you need.”
“But you see, I like, as you say, to bullshit around. Go here. Go there and see what happens. I like to come in without any crutches and skydive. I like conversation. I don’t like to sit around and ask questions that I’ve prepared last night. There’s no risk in that and it’s boring. The questions have to arise out of what’s being said.”
“When you listen to this tape you’ll notice how much you talk.”
“You don’t think I know that.”
“A succinct question is worth a lot of explaining a question.”
“But you see, I’m not into questions. I’m into answers.”
“You’ve got some good stuff here. I feel all performers have inflictions they compensate for by being…”
“I know, we’re all crazy.”
“Well, some of us are more crazy than others.”
I laughed at his jib.
“Maybe you’re right.”
Tommy continued. “But performers get a chance to work it off on stage and get the approval that they need to compensate for a lack of approval in real life.”
“You really believe that’s good.”
“Yes I do.”
“With me, I like to do something well, and that tells me I’m good. That’s how I get my approval.”
“Well, you’re not as well adjusted as I am. You can either get better at your art or you can get more and more fucked up.”
“I don’t believe that you should work it out in your art.”
“Well, start working it out in your art and you’ll find you’ll be a better person in life.”
“You do that and it becomes self indulgent and…”
“No it doesn’t. It’s a way of what we call coping.”
“Art is discipline. Do you agree with that?”
There was a very long pause as Tommy gave me a very penetrating stare. Then he looked me straight in the eye.
“You’re doing a thing with me, aren’t you?
“No, I’m not. That’s what I believe.”
“I know you do, but you’re very intense about it. Just relax”
“Here we are, folks; group therapy.”
Tommy gave me a big smile and raised his eyebrows knowingly.
“I’m into gestalt and I’m into a lot of things.”
“Because I’ve always wanted to be a better person.”
“What is a better person?”
“That’s what I heard, but who knows what makes a better person.”
“If you read Eastern philosophy or see good people. They’re generally better listeners and take gems of thought that come to them.”
“Well, if you have nothing but listeners, that can be awfully boring, don’t you think?”
“Have you ever heard of Sufi Yoga. Sufis are people who don’t talk.”
The room was emptying and, noticing the singer who performed before his act heading down the circular staircase, Tommy yelled to him.
“Are you going on?” He received an affirmative and turning to me
“We got a lot of stuff here, man. A lot of good things have been said.”
“One more question.”
Once again I had lost my train of thought and I was struggling to remember what I had wanted to ask him. There was a pause. Tommy smiled.
“You don’t have the question.”
“I do. I’m stream of conscious. I’m backtracking. OK. I got it.”
“Stream of consciousness.”
“Right. Discipline. I don’t understand what you’re talking about when you say you work it out on stage. To me that’s like pouring salt on an open wound. You get too much into you. It’s like drinking salt water when you’re thirsty. It only makes you more thirsty. You’re feeding the problem instead of finding a remedy.”
“You see Dickie and I are on ego trips in as far as we’re compensating for whatever it is we’re compensating for. I’m compensating more than Dickie and I get more out of performing than Dickie does because I have more problems.”
“Is that the vulnerability I got when I watch you perform?”
“That’s probably it. So I have a tendency to get up there and fuck around. That’s OK. However you work it out, whether you go to a shrink, or you go….
“You’re scaring me.”
“Why am I scaring you?”
“Because this is heavy shit.”
“It’s not really heavy.”
“Oh, I think so.”
Tommy gave me his last smile of the evening. It was a long measured one
“You bring it out of me. I’m more concerned about you then you should be about me.”
I was chucking.
“Then give me a good interview.”
“I’m trying, man.”
Tommy was told that he had to get ready and standing up I officially ended the interview and prepared to leave. Tommy shook my hand.
“Go home. Relax. Light up a joint, and listen to the tape.
“Oh, I will, but without the joint. When I’m home, I don’t have all this distraction and I can concentrate.”
“Then you should make everywhere your home.”
“A nice sentiment”