Photos courtesy of John Rappaport
I spent a very pleasant masked and socially-distanced couple of hours with the indubitably funny and talented storyteller, writer, producer, and jazz lover, John Rappaport last week. John’s gregarious nature and detailed memories made interviewing him a delight.
John will be part of an esteemed panel of comedy luminaries this Saturday evening on YouTube to reminisce about the extraordinary group of friends who met for Lunch.
Jimmy Steinfeldt: Tell me about the documentary Lunch.
John Rappaport: After MASH wrapped, we moved to a house in Encino and I lived there for a couple of years before I found out my neighbor across the street was Hal Kanter, the legendary comedy writer. He rang my doorbell one day and said, “I’m Hal Kanter, I live across the street and I heard you’re a good writer.” I thanked him for the compliment. He said he was preparing a speech for a Directors Guild event and could I write some jokes and patter with him. I nearly fainted!
Hal was a legend. We wrote together, became friends, and he invited me to his long-standing lunch where he and various comedy writers, producers, and other major celebs met every two weeks for lunch in The Valley. I subsequently brought in Gary Owens and Shelley Berman. These lunches took place in the valley. Eventually, I was invited to join a similar group of great comedy writers and TV and film stars in Los Angeles. These lunches were held at the Friars Club and then moved on to Factors Deli. That’s where I met Monty Hall, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, many other greats,
I also met Hal’s wondrous daughter, Donna who conceived, produced, and directed the wonderful “Lunch” documentary. The rest is show business history and a magnificent, hilarious legacy.
JS: How did you come to be a comedy writer?
JR: I grew up in the Chicago area. In grammar school, I was voted co-class clown with my best friend, Buddy, but I never gave something like comedy writing or performing a thought. I was basically a wise-ass. For our 8th-grade graduation assembly, Buddy and I lip-synced Stan Freberg’s St. George & the Dragonet, which was a takeoff on “Dragnet” and a big hit record. My dad was a great guy, but serious and a successful businessman and I figured I that I’d go into some form of business. My mom was extremely funny.
Musically, at that time I loved Rhythm and Blues, but when I hit high school, I fell in love with jazz…and still am. I graduated high school as the class purveyor of “Best Wisecracks”.
I went to Indiana University where I changed my major from accounting to Radio and TV in my second year. I also hated top forty radio and came up with my first stand-up routine as a pop DJ called Rick Rubbermouth
The IU college FM station, WFIU, had a 70,000-watt signal and played classical or mood music and did the news and it was all copywritten in class by R & TV (now “Media”) students.
Arrogant dude as I was at the time, I said “Jazz is spontaneous and improvised. I will do a jazz show, but I will not read copy.” My jazz show was one hour, five days a week. My theme song was Back Home Again in Indiana. Each day I played a different style of jazz. I was the only one on this station who was allowed to improvise on the air. But I rarely did any comedy…To me, jazz was seriously great. But I was still a wise-ass and did some stand-up comedy and emceeing in college. For my first gig, I worked hard and wrote material about Bloomington (Indiana) and school life…especially the classes. I got a major excellent reaction from the audience.
After graduating Magna Cum Loudly and now hoping to be a star deejay, my first job was as a summer replacement at WWCA in Gary, Indiana. Next up was a job in Rockford, Illinois doing an afternoon pop/no jazz or rock show but, hopefully, much humor. John Randell was my deejay name and that year, on New Year’s Eve, bedecked handsomely in my only suit, I drove to my beloved Chicago for a party. Fine. Until I was heading back to Rockford on the Tri-State Tollway at 3 AM in a major snowstorm to sign on for the vacationing program director’s 7 AM morning show. I got a flat tire and had to change it in the blizzard in my suit. That was it! I decided right then I’m going to L.A. (where I knew absolutely no one) to look for a DJ job.
I was in LA for about a year and I had a job as a TV promotion manager at a major ad agency. Then I got a job as chief and only copywriter at yet another ad agency; very boring. So, I decided I wanted to get serious about funny and took a UCLA nighttime class on comedy writing, where I heard about a weekly comedy workshop. I went and saw some wannabe stand-ups try out material they had written. They were double- threats as mediocre writers and stand-ups. Then an older, heavy-set guy with a big nose got up and he was polished and hysterical.
After class, I introduced myself. He had been an actor many years ago and was now running a collection agency. He was twenty years older than me, but we became great friends right away. His name was Al Molinaro. I also had become friends with Garry Marshall, who was a sports freak and we played basketball together. Garry was set to produce The Odd Couple for ABC and was looking for poker players for the cast. I told Al about this and he auditioned and got the part as Murray The Cop. Later he played Big Al on Happy Days. And we ultimately wrote a movie and three pilots together. I miss him.
JS: How did you meet Gary Owens?
JR: I had a neighbor back home who knew Mel Blanc, whose son, Noel, ran a recording studio and I ended up writing some funny commercials and a ridiculously silly syndicated spy show in a package called “Superfun” It was running on Gary’s show and a lot of it was my stuff. One day I showed up at a recording session and all the great voice people were there, including Gary Owens, who was the best and funniest DJ in L.A. I told Gary about stuff I had written that I’d heard on his show. He asked me if I wanted to do some interviews with him. Of course, I said “yes”. And we went to KMPC radio where, as the straight man he proceeded to interview me on the air, but not as myself. I had told him I was a jazz fan and he surprised me when he casually said, ‘We have here with us today, Buddy Rich.’ I took it from there, live on the air. I improvised, pretending I was Buddy Rich, who was a great drummer that no musician liked. Then we did another. After the interview, Gary said “You are really good. Can you come back and do some more?” After that, I became a regular guest on his great show, but always as someone else. For instance, when the Beatles were in town, I would be The Maharishi, etc. etc. My appearances on his show ended when I got very busy writing and producing, but we remained extremely close friends after that until he passed… I was asked by his wife, to emcee his packed memorial service, which was, of course, a bittersweet honor… One day, Gary had said “You are really talented and I’m going to get you an agent. I have a good friend at William Morris.” And he did. It was Lew Weitzman. Gary took me to meet Lew and he signed me. Just another reason to love Gary.
About two months later, Lew asked me if I had seen “Laugh-In”. I said, “Of course. It’s the funniest show on TV.” It had come on the air that summer and was a total surprise hit. Lew said they were looking to add a few writers for the fall season and wanted to see some sample material. “When do they want it?” I asked. He said, “By tomorrow.” Of course, I had nothing that was Laugh-In type material. So, I stayed up all night writing jokes…in longhand.
Lew submitted them to George Schlatter, the show creator, and producer. George loved them and wanted to meet me…Tomorrow. So, I showed up in a suit and tie like I would for an ad agency meeting. I walk in and meet two guys with beards in jeans and sweatshirts. A week later, Lew called and told me I was on the Laugh-In staff for the upcoming season…Where I remained for four years.
When the show was canceled, I was on the hunt again…this time hoping to land a sitcom gig. So, I wrote a spec “All in The Family” script and Norman Lear took me on as a story editor for that show and his new hit, “Maude”. I followed that the next season with a story editor gig on “The Odd Couple” that featured my buddy, Al Molinaro.
A couple of pilots later, M*A*S*H came up and Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe summoned me to M*A*S*H, as producer and head writer. Needless to say, it was a wondrous four years.
I, of course, loved the writing staff that I brought along. And, of course, the cast was wonderful. Alan was a dream. Everyone knows how brilliant he was on screen. But he was also a wonderful person, a brilliant director, a great writer, and an absolute pleasure to work with, write with and eat with. Not only was the cast brilliant, but they were also a joy to work with. And, to my delight, no actor ever changed a line in a script without first calling the writers. Each one of them brought a special uniqueness to their roles. David Ogden Stiers gave readings of your lines that you would never expect, and they worked!
M*A*S*H almost never got made. It was resisted, at every stage: It was difficult to get the book published, but it turned out to be a best-seller. Nobody wanted to make the film. It was too controversial; fourteen directors turned it down. Going to pilot was a hard sell; nobody wanted to make the TV show. When it finally went into production, it was on the smallest stage on the Fox lot. It was CBS who took the chance and brought in Gene Reynolds who brought in Larry Gelbart and they put together a masterpiece!
You can view the documentary LUNCH. on Vimeo 50% discount code – funnydeal – buy or rent LUNCH. at https://vimeo.com/416056198.
Then join us on YouTube at 7 PM on Saturday evening,
June 20th for the Premieres of THT/tv and The Hollywood Times LIVE for an entertaining panel discussion with the filmmaker, Donna Kanter, cast member John Rappaport, and post-documentary lunch bunchers, Carl Gottlieb and Howard Storm. Scott Palmason hosts.
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