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Veteran comic talks about Love at First Bite


Dick Shawn's name keeps cropping up these days. The last time he made a big splash in New York was two years ago, when his one-man show, Dick Shawn is the Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World, played at the Promenade Theatre for 14 weeks. But last fall, he gained millions of new fans with his sparkling appearances on the ill-fated network variety show starring Mary Tyler Moore, which folded after the third week. A commonly heard criticism of the show was: less Mary and more Shawn.

In George Hamilton's recently released film, Love At First Bite, Shawn plays the role of Lieutenant Ferguson, who teams up with a psychiatrist in order to make war on Dracula. Also he recently played the lead in the new Russell Baker/Cy Coleman musical, Home Again. But these are only a few of the highlights of Shawn's career, as I discover in an interview with the 51-year-old comedian at his plush Upper East Side apartment.

The word "comedian," he quickly points out, is not quite accurate. "I think of myself as a comedy character," he explains, relaxing on his couch with a plate of croissants and bacon that his pretty assistant has just brought him. "In Home Again, I played seven characters. … They ran out of money; it just closed out of town. It needs another four or five weeks of work. They plan to bring it back around September."

With his middle-age paunch and full head of tousled grey hair that resembles a bird's nest, Shawn has a definite comedic look about him, but he seldom smiles and never laughs during our long conversation. Still, his answers are both entertaining and revealing.

On Mary Tyler Moore's variety show: "That was a total mistake. They didn't know what they were doing there. I thought she was going to get the best writers and the best producers. But it was totally inadequate. I knew from the very first day that it wasn't going to work. … The whole concept was wrong. Variety isn't Mary's forte. You have to get yourself rolling around on the ground a little bit. She's such a nice, sweet girl that she doesn't come off as a clown."

The basis of all humor, believes Shawn, "is hostility. But it has to be sweet hostility. … I think people become comedians because they poke fun at pretentiousness. They usually come from meager backgrounds, and then they can look up and see the pomposity and the hypocrisy of many human beings. That's why there are no rich comics. A great many of them are Jewish or black — because as a kid they were told they were part of a minority group. They learned to have a sense of humor about themselves: they had to, in order to survive. Humor is their way of getting even with mankind."

Shawn's own background lends credence to his theory. Born Richard Schulefand in the steel town of Lackawanna, New York, he grew up in a family that was hard-hit by the Depression. While serving with the Army following World War II, he ended up in an entertainment troupe. "I was delighted," he recalls, "and when I got out, I decided to pursue it." In the early 1950s, he secured his first professional engagement as a stand-up comic in Bayonne, New Jersey, and was paid $25 a night. Since then, he has never been out of work, and has constantly used only his own material for his solo act — songs as well as sketches.

"I don't really do jokes," he explains. "I do situation characters. Although the thrust of my humor is serious, I have always taken chances. In my club act, for example, I always ended up pretending to die on stage, rather than taking bows. Two guys would come with a stretcher and carry me out."

Among his more memorable performances over the years: the successor to Zero Mostel in Broadway's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the freakishly funny beach bum in the Stanley Kramer film It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and a cavorting Adolph Hitler in Mel Brooks' zany 1968 movie, The Producers.

Still, no project has gained him as much personal satisfaction as The
Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World. After the New
York run, the show played to enthusiastic audiences in San Francisco and
Los Angeles, and earned Shawn awards for both Best Performer and Best
Playwright of the Year.

An Eastsider for the past seven years, he names Elaine's as his favorite local restaurant because "the food is good, and there's a simplicity about the place the attracts me."

Shawn describes himself as "disciplined, but not as disciplined as I should be. Because my work is loose, I'm always adding or changing. Nothing ever stays the same. But comedy is a very rewarding profession. It's nice to know that something that pops into your head can cause a reaction from total strangers who are paying you money to be entertained. I think that's the ultimate."

Probably best-known for The Prod ucers.

Famed jazz pianist returns to New York


The scene was a Boston nightclub in the early 1950s. George Shearing and his quintet were scheduled to play the second set of the evening; the opening act was a piano/bass/drums trio. But as soon as the ............
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