From the middle of Saturday Night Live's 1985-86
season until the end of the 1990-91 season, A. Whitney Brown
was a writer and then a featured performer on the famed late night
NBC show. More recently, he has been a reporter/commentator/writer
for Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
SHECKYmagazine.com: In your bio, you list your occupation as humorist and comedy writer. Do you now, or have you ever, considered yourself to be a standup comic?
AWB: I was a stand-up comedian for many years. The reason I don't describe myself as a stand-up at the present time is because stand up is a very demanding profession. You have to be in comic shape to do it. What I mean is, you got to have your chops down. And right now, I perform so seldom that I know I don't have my chops down. A humorist basically is someone who does the same thing as a stand up, but doesn't get as many laughs. That's why I say I'm a humorist. It would take me a month or two of doing shows to really get my timing and wording down, and to be able to remember enough material to handle a crowd for an hour or so.
SHECKYmagazine.com: In your opinion, who are some of the great American humorists? Do you see yourself as carrying on any traditions (in humor, in writing, in entertainment)?
AWB: In my opinion, some of the great American humorists are Mark Twain, obviously, W.C. Fields, S.J. Perelman, Richard Pryor. There's a lot of others, as well. Am I carrying on any traditions? I doubt it. I just feel lucky if I'm able to work at all. I try to bring what I've learned as a street performer, and stand-up to whatever writing I do, and in that sense there's a little tradition being carried on, but maybe that's just passing on experience, I don't know. Mark Twain was broke in his later life, so I guess I'm carrying on that tradition, too.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Your monologues are more storytelling than set-up punchline jokes. Did your style develop over time or were you a storyteller from the beginning?
AWB: I was a juggler first, then a stand up, and my first five minutes were unrelated jokes. Later I learned that to hold an audience's attention for more than 20 minutes or so, your jokes have to at least seem to make some point. So I started trying to find common themes and stories, to put them in context. It's like if you tell a story that has no point, even if it's kinda funny, people will get bored. So I try to make it seem like I have a point to what I'm saying. Usually, however, it's just an illusion. Most of what I say really has no point. On the other hand, I've found that if I make a small effort to provide a meaning or context for what I'm saying, the audience will fill it in for me. They're very accomodating that way. Perhaps because we all seek meaning in everything.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Do you enjoy "set-up punchline" comedians?
AWB: Sure, sometimes. I like all kinds of live entertainment, especially blues music.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Did you go on the road very much as a comic? What would it take to get you on the road again?
AWB: I went on the road for years, as did most of us in the 80's. What would it take to get me out there again? Not much, really. I'd do it for a couple of months if I thought I could make some money at it. Like, say, three grand a week would be enough. But even that's not really out there, at least that's what I'm told.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Can you tell us anything about This Week Has Seven Days?
AWB: It's finished. It's a very fine parody of 20/20 or Dateline, and Fox likes it. The current status depends on how many of Fox's new shows tank this fall. In other words, it looks good right now.
SHECKYmagazine.com: You dedicated your book "The Big Picture" to "Anna Klein and Tom Fleming, two teachers who made a difference." At what point in your life did they influence you?
AWB: I never finished high school. In fact, I only went to the 9th grade, and then I was sent to a reformatory in Michigan for car theft. Those two teachers were there, and together they taught me how to write. I regained communication with them after the book was published. They meant so much to me, I can't really express it. I was just a confused kid headed for prison, and they believed in me, which helped me to believe in myself enough to try something different. Mrs. Klein died a few years ago, and I sobbed like a baby at her funeral. I miss her a lot.
SHECKYmagazine.com: You tell a story about being busted in Texas for drugs, going to jail, learning juggling from a cellmate, and juggling your way to a career in comedy. Drugs and jail indirectly led you to where you are now. What, if anything, would you do differently? Do you even entertain these "What if" kind of questions?
AWB: I do entertain these questions, as do most people who have really screwed up their lives in one way or another. If I had it to do over again, I would try it without the drugs. And, for better or worse, I do have it to do over again, because life is a lot longer than I anticipated it would be.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Early on in your comedy career, was there anybody in particular who championed A. Whitney Brown, the comedian?
AWB: I came up in San Francisco, and early in my career, I think the general opinion was that I didn't have much edge, and wasn't particularly funny. That was a pretty accurate opinion, I think. I don't recall anyone ever saying 'You have something special, kid...' or anything like that, until I got to LA and there was money involved. Then I heard it quite a lot. I think the one person in San Francisco who believed in me was a guy named J.P. Bogage. He was just a friend, who also happened to sell cocaine. He gave me a lot of confidence at that time.
SHECKYmagazine.com: When did you make your first appearance on the Tonight Show? Was it a thrilling experience?
AWB: I think it was 1984, and yes, it was thrilling. It was also somewhat surreal, to look over and see Johnny Carson sitting there. Very strange feeling.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Did you watch Saturday Night Live in the years before you were a cast member?
AWB: Sure, I did watch it sometimes, when I had access to a television.
SHECKYmagazine.com: How did you go from being a writer on Saturday Night Live to a featured performer? Were you immediately comfortable being in front of the camera?
AWB: After a few months as a writer, Herb Sargent and Al Franken asked me to prepare an update piece. Eventually I did do it, and started doing them regularly. I am still to this day not comfortable in front of a camera, and was even less so back then.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Was Saturday Night Live an ideal place to make a living? Do you have any lasting relationships from that gig?
AWB: I have some friends still from that time, but I put a strain on those relationships with a long break after I left. It was tough job, with a lot to learn, and I think it could have been ideal had I not been so busy destroying my life.
SHECKYmagazine.com: What was the biggest difference between working on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show?
AWB: The Daily Show was very easy compared to SNL. The staff at TDS was pretty small, and it's only cable, so there was very little pressure. The one thing that was the same is that I formed a very nice creative partnership with some people I respect. At TDS it was Brian Unger and Liz Winstead.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Looking back at your body of work, do you think your material suffered during the times when "your bad habits caught up with you?"
AWB: Yes, it definitely affected my work. Eventually, I was unable to function in a work environment at all. Even worse, the recovery was so long and difficult it almost ended my working life altogether. Seeing how much of what I loved I had destroyed, it broke my heart, and I couldn't fall in love with work for a very long time. It's a long process, that's all I can say. It was very difficult to discover what made me funny again. It still is, sometimes.
SHECKYmagazine.com: Dennis Miller called you ""the funniest political comedian in America." Politically, which way do you lean and have your politics changed over time?
AWB: I'm a Democrat, and I always will be. I believe in unions, free trade, shorter prison sentences, and high taxes on high incomes, especially estates. I don't see why taxes are lower on money you make with your money than they are on money you make with your sweat. I believe in the decriminalization of drugs, free college education for everyone who can make the grades, the right to keep and carry a gun, and severe penalties for unattended car alarms.
SHECKYmagazine.com: The 2000 campaign for president is warming up. We just read through "How Maple Syrup Elects Our Presidents" (from "The Big Picture," 1991 HarperPerennial) and we'd be ever so honored if you'd give us a brief overview of the candidates.
AWB: It's too early to say much. I'm grateful Dan Quayle is in,
because I love watching him speak. He is an endless source of fascination
to me. I interviewed him in the driveway of a frat house at the Iowa
straw poll, and he looked me right in the eye with the utmost earnestness
and said, "I want you to know one thing - I am ready to be President
of the United States..." This is to some guy he doesn't know
interviewing him in a driveway....
Editor's Note: Since doing this interview, Mr. Quayle has dropped
out of the race to be the Republican Party's nominee for President.
We're sure he'll be sorely missed by Mr. Brown.
||SHECKYmagazine.com HOME||Back to the Top||