Wednesday 7 December 2016

Tonight's Giant Writer (and Chicken)

When Pat McCormick wasn’t on the screen, he was writing for it. He appeared on the panel of a pile of talk shows: Merv Griffin, Les Crane, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, Virginia Graham—and Johnny Carson. The latter isn’t a surprise as he was a writer on the show. McCormick showed up with Johnny in all kinds of costumes, such as an Easter bunny or a chicken, and once he showed up wearing nothing at all during the streaking craze.

McCormick’s first national appearance may have been on May 5, 1958 when his buddy Jonathan Winters substituted for Jack Paar and handed him a shot at the Tonight show. Ten years later, he was Don Rickles’ sidekick/writer on an ill-fated variety show produced by Godson-Todman. But McCormick started out in show biz as part of a duo with a guy named Al Ruby, later known as Marc London, who wrote for Laugh-In. McCormick told columnist Cleveland Amory in 1977 the two idolised Bob and Ray and bemoaned the fact there were almost no comedy teams any more.

Despite that, McCormick did quite well as a single. I always thought he was pretty funny. So I’ve dug around and found a bunch of newspaper clippings about his career. First up is a feature story from VIEW, one of those TV Magazine supplements. It was published on July 29, 1967.
Comedian Pat McCormick Fled Grey Flannel

You've probably laughed at Pat McCormick more often than you think you have. Not that you could miss him (six-feet-four, 250 pounds) when he is on screen. It's just that Pat is of the breed known as comedian-writer, and that means many of his bright sayings fall lightly from other lips, belonging say to the likes of Jonathan Winters, Danny Kaye, Jack Paar, Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Merv Griffin. And now Soupy Sales for his updated "Hellzapoppin" stage show.
Quite a range of styles, how does he manage it? "If you have the ability to think funny you can apply it to whoever you are working for," Pat said solemnly over a restaurant breakfast. That was Pat the writer talking.
The next inning goes to Pat the performer who attests: "You can do anything for a laugh — even a pants-falling-down routine — if it's in good taste." And Pat did just that on a recent Merv Griffin show. He enjoyed the laugh, feels it keeps him on his toes to get out there himself. "A polite smile isn't enough — you've got to hear noise coming back at you.
He was vague, however about dreams of going it strictly as a comedian, luckily people he writes for urge him to write himself in often enough to keep the wheels whirring and to win an Emmy nomination this year — for the Dick Cavett Special on ABC.
Except for six unfunny years in advertising, Pat has been criss-crossing the writer-performer boundary since he teamed up with classmate Marc London to earn money during his five years at Harvard, four years for the B.A. and one at Law which he found was a mistake. "We played all the houses at Harvard dances, parties. And we went to Wellesly, too.
After college he tried to go straight. Pat had settled into the grey flannel world, Chicago Division, and he was far from happy about it. Then serendipity and Jonathan Winters sidetracked him back to what proved to be the right road. "A mutual friend introduced me to Jonathan. We hit it off right away."
Pat adds that when he's creating comedy for himself, what comes out is in the Jonathan Winters vein cuz that's what comes naturally. But he can also whip up if not all-purpose, at least multi-purpose gags that could be adapted to say Jack Paar or Phyllis Diller. Phyllis, by the way, is an old friend for whom he started doing material back in the Harvard days fifteen or so years ago.
Jonathan wanted me to work on his show," Pat recalls, and that of course gave me a credit. And with a credit he was a cinch to get a New York-based job as writer. Which he did in 1961 — with Jack Paar. He took with him "the one thing that meant Chicago wasn't a total loss — his bride ex-airline stewardess Dionne Cady.
They now have one son, Benjamin, who Pat says also "thinks funny" and seems a sure bet to follow pop, who adds: "I think we're raising him for a carnival. Never saw such a big kid for four years old."
One consolation for Benjamin, by now he must know how to travel. Except for a trip to Expo (because that's where Soupy Sales is currently playing his "Hellzapoppin'"), Poppa McCormick has been summering in New York and Southampton. Comes fall, though, the shuttling between New York and Hollywood begins again.
In the offing, a movie with the interest-piquing title of "How to Be a Bishop Without Being Religious," more gag stuff, and most important, the pilot for a comedy series of his own creation.
Would he, like Carl Reiner, really be writing about himself? No, says Pat. His idea needs a comedy duo like Burns and Schreiber. But he may be at least as generous as his other "employers" and write himself in now and then. Mostly though, he'd like to settle for what Carl Reiner has, one more hyphen to make it read Patrick McCormick, comedian-writer-producer. One way or another, thinking funny seems to breed money.
Another syndicated columnist whose target readership was teenagers interviewed McCormick as well. The “advice for young writers” question was dragged out and McCormick gave some good recommendations. This was published in papers starting January 12, 1968.
Comedy Writer McCormick Looks Like Football Star

At the end of comedy or variety television shows, lists of names roll across the screen. A large portion of them are listed as writers. These are the men whose typewriters turn out the jokes for the comedians and Pat McCormick is one of the best of them.
What a comedy writer should look like hasn't been specified. But, whatever it is, Pat doesn't look like it. He looks more like a professional football player towering six-feet-six inches and packing 240 pounds on his huge frame. "I think some of the comedians take my jokes just because of my size," he quipped. "They're afraid of me."
With all the size, however, Pat and his humor are both gentle. His eyes twinkle as if he's always thinking about something funny. "I didn't start out to be a comedy writer. I don't think anybody does," Pat told us.
"When I was at Harvard I worked up some comedy routines with a friend of mine, but I was studying law. After one year of graduate study, though, I knew that the law wasn't what I wanted.
"I teamed up with my Harvard friend, Marc London, and we worked up a few routines and worked around New York for about a year as comedians. We did pretty well, but then Marc had to leave the act."
Besides making his class-mates laugh and earning a B.A. degree, Pat managed to be one of three men in the History of Harvard who won four varsity letters in track. He was a hurdler.
"When the act split up I decided to give up the comedy business. I went to Chicago and became an advertising salesman and found that a very unfunny business," Pat told us.
It was at this juncture of his life that Pat met Jonathan Winters. The two would meet at a club and begin ad libbing and kidding around, just for the fun of it. Said Jonathan, "If I ever get a big television show I'm going to get you as a writer." "I thought it was just one of those things people say," Pat confessed. "But, later on when Jonathan got a special he remembered and got hold of me.
"In addition he recommended me to Jack Paar and that gave me my first full-time writing job. And, I haven't done anything but write since then. Oh, once in a while I'll get into a skit or something, but I guess I'm a writer more than I'm an entertainer. "There is a lot of satisfaction in it. When you write a joke and it gets a big laugh from the studio audience it gives you a good feeling, no matter how long you've been at it."
What advice does Pat have for aspiring writers. "Write. No matter what you write, keep on writing. Even if you can't sell it keep at it to develop your skill at writing. After I gave up the act I kept at it and I've never regretted it."
Pat's formula must be the right one. He's been head writer on the Danny Kaye Show, written the Lucille Ball-Anthony Newly Special, the Dick Van Dyke Special, the Danny Thomas Block Party, and Zero Mostel Show, the Andy Griffith, Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows.
Pat also has two motion picture scripts to his credit. "The one thing I'd really like to do," he said, "is write a comedy for Broadway. It's one thing I haven't done yet."
The way Pat keeps at his writing it won't be too long before Broadway feels the warmth of his wit.
Let’s jump a few years and read an Associated Press column from October 19, 1977. McCormick would have been familiar to TV viewers from The Gong Show at this point. He seemed positively sane compared to what was going on around him on the show. McCormick voiced commercials for radio and decided to add to his bank roll by producing radio comedy bits as well (a concept killed by programmers and consultants in the ‘80s who wanted radio to be a juke box). For you people who weren’t around back then, “cyclamate” was a sweetener used in diet soft drinks. It was fed to a bunch of rats and suddenly it was declared unsafe by the U.S. government and banned.
Diaper firm wash out

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When last seen, Pat McCormick sat gloomily in a Hollywood bistro. He was bemoaning a great fiscal loss incurred by his investment in a diaper service in Sun City.
He recently was asked how he plans to recoup his loss.
"Well," he said, "I bought into a cyclamate factory.
But the six-foot-six, 250-pound Irishman needn't depend on that for a living. He's a top comedy writer here, with 5 1/2 years on "Tonight," plus credit on a string of comedy specials and movies.
In the last three years, he's also acted in four movies — "The Shaggy DA," Robert Altman's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," Burt Reynolds' "Smoky and the Bandit" and Altman's new "A Wedding."
It now turns out that this mustachioed citizen, once honored as "The World's Tallest Leprechaun," has yet another career going — in radio comedy, a species of entertainment heretofore believed extinct.
He and a partner, Al Barzman, produce and star in a show called "Studio B." It's a series of weird 90-second interviews they've syndicated to radio stations nationally since June 1976.
McCormick, who says 190 stations air the chats, always is the interviewee. It's doubtful any of them ever will make Barbara Walters' list of people in need of interviewing.
For example, one is a hump-dryer in a camel wash. Another is the tiniest man in the world. Another is a worthy Pat calls "the guy who predicts the past."
McCormick, born in Lakewood, Ohio and educated at Harvard, says he and Barzman also will have a sequel soon, "Studio B-2." It features other players in addition to the original cast of two.
It's strange McCormick is loose in radio humor, as he's been a full-time TV writer ever since a pal, comedian Jonathan Winters, wangled him to work on "Tonight" when Jack Parr [sic] was the main event.
Asked for an explanation, he said his for-ears career began six years ago when he and Barzman, who makes commercials, teamed up to do off-the-wall comedy ads touting various products. All were for radio. "We'd go in the back studio and wing 'em," he said, meaning they made it up sans script. "Then it occurred to us, maybe we could do that with a syndicated radio show, just go in and wing it." A non-radio matter: What will McCormick do if that cyclamate factory he invested in fails? He pondered the prospect a minute. "Well," he confidently declared, "I'll probably open a suit shop for tall and portly men in Tokyo..."
Comedy seems to attract tragedy. That’s what happened to Pat McCormick. He died in 2005 but was pretty much gone in 1998. You can read the sad story from that fine TV writer Mark Evanier on his blog.

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