Exclusive Interview with David Misch: Veteran Comedy Writer, Performer & Teacher

David Misch
David Misch

David Misch has been a comic folksinger, stand-up comedian and screenwriter; his credits include the multiple-Emmy-nominated “Mork and Mindy”, the Emmy-losing “Duckman”, the Emmy-ignored “Police Squad!”, the Emmy-engorged “Saturday Night Live”, and the Emmy-ineligible “The Muppets Take Manhattan”. David’s written Funny: The Book and A Beginner’s Guide To Corruption; he blogs for The Huffington Post, and his play “Occupied” is in development at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles.

David has taught comedy at USC, musical satire at UCLA, and spoken at Oxford University, the Smithsonian Institute, University of Sydney (Australia); Yale, 92nd St. Y, Actors Studio, New York Public Library, American Film Institute, Austin Film Festival, Burbank Comedy Festival, Grammy Museum (Los Angeles), Lucasfilm and VIEW Cinema Conference (Torino, Italy).

Next up for David is Jan. 21, a show at L.A.’s American Jewish University, where he’ll reveal “The Greatest Satirical Songs” (Randy Newman, Weird Al, Steve Martin, Amy Schumer, Gilbert & Sullivan, Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny).

What motivated you to become a comedy writer?

I was a big reader as a kid and when I discovered James Thurber there was no going back. Hooked on the hard stuff, I began devouring Benchley and Perelman, which led to the Marx Brothers, which brought me to a double feature of “Duck Soup” and “A Night At The Opera” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The audience laughed so hard you couldn’t hear the movie and I thought if I could make people do that…

After a few years as a stand-up, I realized that I didn’t like being onstage. Due to my incredible, stupendous, never-in-history-equaled humility, I preferred typing adorable little witticisms for other people to say.

What was it like writing for Robin Williams on “Mork & Mindy”?

It was a trip; my first screenwriting job, a #1 show. I remember somewhere around Week 3, our caterers started bringing less Coke and more Champagne. (Also coke.)

Robin was incredible, of course; it doesn’t get better than writing for someone who can make almost anything funny. But as a neophyte, it took me awhile to figure out how to write for someone else.

David Misch on the “Mork & Mindy” set.
David Misch on the “Mork & Mindy” set.

After I turned in my first script, I was called to producer Garry Marshall’s office. Wielding my pages like Thor’s hammer, he announced: “I read what you did, Misch. It’s witty.” “Thank you?” “No. We don’t do wit – we do funny.”

His point was that he didn’t want scripts that made people nod their heads in appreciation of an amusing turn of phrase; he wanted people to make that loud barking noise which resulted in his buying another house.

What stands out about your experience working with Zucker-Abrams-Zucker and Leslie Nielsen on TV’s “Police Squad”?

Well, first, it’s “Police Squad!” With an exclamation point!

Second, it was really exciting working with the guys who made “Airplane!”; they didn’t just do comedy, they understood and studied it.

Third, Leslie’s fart fetish. He carried a fart-noise-making device in his pocket, quickly put in his hand when he greeted anyone. This, Leslie felt, was not just hilarious but always hilarious – he would do it with you even if he’d just done it with five other people. Sweet guy.

I also remember my grand entrance. I’d gone back to New York after “Mork” and when I got a call to fly out immediately, I somehow decided I should dress like A Proper Writer. I arrived in L.A. and was picked up by a limo and brought to my first meeting with the guys; they were judging a bikini contest at the beach and saw me walk across the sand in full business suit drag.

How was your experience as guest writer on “Saturday Night Live”?

Brief but exciting; I was in Michael O’Donoghue’s old office and got to smoke dope in the writer’s room. (Taking a couple deep drags off what turned out to be a Hawaiian hash oil mix, I totally freaked out and was saved by Martin Short, who walked me around Rockefeller Center till I could think straight again.)

I also remember passing a cast member’s office as he was talking on the phone; “I really have to get a blow-job now!” But hey, we’ve all been there, am I right? Hello?

I felt sorry for one of the other writers, who worked the entire year without getting a single sketch on the air. Geez, I wonder whatever happened to Larry David?

Most people will never get to be a special consultant on a Muppets movie, but you served in that capacity on “The Muppets Take Manhattan”. Any special challenges writing for puppets?

You quickly learn to think of them as any other type of character but of course there are restrictions, primarily movement. But not, actually, in emotions; the range of feelings that Jim Henson and Frank Oz were able to wring out of those puppets – and remember, Kermit is essentially a sock with ping-pong ball eyes – was incredible.

David Misch with Kermit.
David Misch with Kermit.

I remember shooting in Central Park. A crowd gathered and they were entranced (especially by the often-dirty banter from Jim and Frank between takes). But the fascinating thing for me was that while there were two very tall, and funny, and famous men standing in front of them – they looked only at Kermit and Piggy.

You’ve written for just about every genre, including TV, movies, theater, and books. Which has been the most fulfilling? The most challenging?

Cocktail napkins; you have to be really concise.

Every time I move from one thing to another I’m filled with fear and dread, and then I fall in love with the new thing.

The big difference between TV and movies is time; what takes years to be produced (if ever) in movies can be written, produced and on TV in a couple weeks.

In the last few years, in addition to talking about comedy wherever they’ll have me, I’ve been writing plays and quickly discovered it’s not just dialogue. Turns out that theater works better when it’s theatrical, so you have to be conscious of writing for a physical space with live people in it. (Well, mostly live – there have been audiences where I wasn’t sure.)

You’ve done a substantial amount of teaching about writing and culture. Do you find that the teaching helps your writing? Other benefits to it besides the pay?

No, the pay’s the main thing. Sometimes I earn up to three figures for a six-week course!

Teaching is great and I learn a lot from my students. But I have to say my greatest joy is showing college kids comedy they’ve never seen (i.e., pretty much anything before 2013). Watching someone hear “Who’s On First” for the first time is priceless. (Although I guess the price is three figures for six weeks.)

Could you share a couple memories of your life as a folk singer and comedian opening for Billy Joel, The Talking Heads, and The Persuasions?

I don’t really have any stories but I do have a life-lesson: the bigger the star, the less likely they’ll interact with the opening act. Although when I opened for Talking Heads they weren’t stars; it was at a folk club, for Christ’s sake. (Anyone still thinking about the fact that I’m Jewish can make that “for Yahweh’s sake.”) And I opened for Joel at a jazz club. So I guess what I learned is that musicians at folk and jazz clubs didn’t like me.

Opening for the Persuasions on New Year’s Eve taught me that someone with a whimsical comic folksinger act shouldn’t open for the Persuasions on New Year’s Eve. I’m not saying the audience didn’t like me – I’m saying they didn’t hear me. In fact, given the level of drunkenness, I’m pretty sure they didn’t see me.

Any upcoming appearances, events or favorite charities you’d like to plug?

The David Misch Home for Aging Screenwriters is currently open for donations; just make your check out to “Cash”.

I have a side-job speaking about comedy in presentations chock-a-block (how come no one says “chock-a-block” anymore?) with clips. Next up is Jan. 21, a show at L.A.’s American Jewish University, where I’ll reveal “The Greatest Satirical Songs” (Randy Newman, Weird Al, Steve Martin, Amy Schumer, Gilbert & Sullivan, Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny). And I’m teaching a course on “The Worlds of Comedy” at UCLA Extension this spring.

I’ve also written two books: “A Beginner’s Guide To Corruption” and “Funny: The Book”, which has been called “The greatest book ever written on comedy” by comedy expert David Misch.

You lecture about how jokes work. How do they work?

Well, the secret of comedy is… wait a minute, are you trying to get me to tell for free?! Wow, I can’t believe I almost fell for that.

One of my theses is that there’s no difference between comedy and any other art form. A great man once said “There is no principle of comedy that doesn’t also apply to drama.” And I agree with me.

All art forms – comedy, drama, painting, music, dance – work using the same basic principles: tension and resolution, pattern recognition, misdirection and surprise. The way they use them is different, of course, but to find out how you have to buy my book, attend my shows, or catch me on the street and hand me money.

You also lecture about the films of Billy Wilder. What makes him such a great director?

He was indeed a great director but I’ve always focused more on his writing (much of which was with his partner I.A.L. Diamond). His dramatic writing was ingenious in what it left out, drawing you in by making motivations mysterious. In comedy, what stands out is his love of the English language – from a guy who spoke German till his mid-twenties. And the idea that “Some Like It Hot” is the funniest movie ever made has some truth in it, in the sense that “Some Like It Hot” is the funniest movie ever made.

How do you feel your Judaism has influenced your work and/or your life?

I’m a secular Jew (that means when I drop a hammer on my foot I yell “Oy vey!” instead of “Jesus Christ!”) so my Jewishness is primarily cultural. But hey, does Jewishness play a role in comedy? What are you, meshuga? An argument could be made that humor itself is Jewish; I believe the original word was “humoroskowitz” but it was shortened at Ellis Island. Still, to quote Fats Waller (born “Wallerowitz”), “One never knows, do one”; maybe I’ll feel differently as time goes on.

Still, to quote Fats Waller (born “Wallerowitz”), “One never knows, do one”; maybe I’ll feel differently as time goes on. A 90-year-old Jew calls his son to his deathbed and says he’s decided to convert. His son can’t believe it: “Why would you convert now?” Man says “Better one of them should die.”

Who are your favorite comedians?

Too tough, but here are the ones I think are the most important, because they changed comedy the most: Richard Pryor, who’s known for being racially and sexually provocative but actually changed comedy from being about jokes to being about people; Woody Allen who, despite what we now know are some questionable morals, personified intelligent comedy, as well as the fictional persona – a great athlete with lots of girlfriends who flunked out of two colleges became a lovelorn intellectual nebbish; and Steve Martin, who challenged audiences with routines that forced them to figure out the funny.

Beyond stand-up: the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, but most of all Buster Keaton, who brought grace, courage and danger to the art of falling.

Any movies, TV shows, books, plays, radio programs, blogs, podcasts, or apps you’d like to recommend that have been especially impactful (and/or entertaining) for you?

Again, Keaton: “The General” for filmmaking, “Sherlock Jr.” for unbelievable inventiveness. And while most people have heard of “Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’”, I think it’s not just funny but one of the most brilliant comedies ever. For TV, I still re-watch “Community” seasons 1½ -3. Books: “Catch-22.” Blogs and podcasts? I’m 67, cut me some slack. But in honor of Leslie Nielson, I do recommend this app.

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