EVERYTHING IS GOING DOWN THE DRAIN:
an interview with Henry Morgan
Reprinted from TV Guide, August 10-16, 1963
QUESTION: Would you care to analyze the current trends in humor? For example, do you think comedy is going down the drain as compared with “the good old days?”
MORGAN: Everything is going down the drain as compared with the good old days. And they weren't so old, at that. For example, the “new comedy hit” on Broadway is a nothing-at-all about a man who fathers a child at the age of 65. This has been a joke since long before the Bible. There's an old guy in there who did even better. Automobiles could do 80 miles an hour in 1904. Icarus had the right idea about flying, but wax was a mistake. The Athenians made slaves of people who didn't know what to do with themselves, while we make citizens out of them. What progress is that? It is alleged that people live longer today. Than when? And most of them aren't people anyway. They're consumers. Comedy has no trends. If it was funny a thousand years ago, it will be funny tomorrow.
QUESTION: Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, etc., are new comics waxing rich on irreverence. You were the first comic to do that back in the Thirties or thereabouts. Would you tell about the troubles you had with sponsors, network vice presidents and that ilk—whoever you told to go to hell in the old days?
MORGAN: I wasn't the first of the irreverent boys. I was the last. The only troubles I've ever had with sponsors or VPs I have now, not then. Now they tell me they're “worried about what I might say.” “They” are more frightened of opinions even than the audience is. The whole aim of broadcasting today is not to instruct, entertain, or edify. The machine is set up merely to be inoffensive. Completely, everlastingly, and suddenly, boringly inoffensive. The mass audience doesn't seem to be able to stomach opinions any more. That is why aired humor is bland and foolish. After opinion goes, the Nation must. The country was built be people who had strong, even violent opinions. Once a country decides to defend the status quo, instead of moving forward, it no longer is viable nor has it anything to give to the rest of the world. When the people at large are jealous of their security and their washing machines, they are headed for moribundity.
QUESTION: What about comics like Mort Sahl as social satirists?
MORGAN: One of the straws in the dank wind is the lack of respect for strong social satirists. Mort Sahl and Berman may be social commentators but not on TV. They have to work in small rooms. If they did their really good, strong routines on TV, the ribbon clerks of the world would boycott sponsors for allowing “Communists” and “radicals” to use the people's air.
QUESTION: How much money did you make in radio humor as compared with now, if you don't mind divulging financial data?
MORGAN: I made an average of $100 a week on a single radio station [WOR, New York] in 1939, 40, and part of 41. I make about the same on I've Got a Secret alone. This is a kind of progress and a kind of knock for broadcasting in general, because what I do now compared with what I did then is idiotic. It's as though I no longer was paid for having opinions—just maintain a simple mind.
QUESTION: What about the theory that comics lash back at society?
MORGAN:I'm not much interested in theories about comics. If they're lashing back at society, I'm sure society doesn't care. Lots of people have had theories about comics or humorists or satirists or funny fellows in general. None of these theorists have ever gotten a laugh. The best working comic writer today is Art Buchwald. Mort Sahl was very amusing until he started preaching. If a good satirist (which means a good teacher) forgets to get laughs, he defeats himself.
QUESTION: What about the theory that comics hate their fathers? I happen to be a hostile individual myself, so any opinions you have along that line will be most welcome.
MORGAN: If comics hate their fathers, they're wasting time. I was a radio announcer when I was 17. After a while, I got to thinking that announcing was ridiculous, so I got a program of my own an started by making fun of announcing, then of radio in general, and so on. What theory can anybody have about that? That I hate my father? As to your being a hostile individual, what about it? Who's interviewing whom?
QUESTION: What about your various feuds with Steve Allen, Milton Berle, etc.?
MORGAN: Feuds? What feuds? There are a few guys in the trade that I don't like and a few who don't like me. What's that got to do with feuds? Feuds are for the poor.
QUESTION: Are you embittered by the success of phonies, the gladhanders, the perpetual smilers?
MORGAN: I am not embittered by the success, as you put it, of the phonies, gladhanders, or perpetual smilers. None of these is ever a success. Many of them make money, if that's what you mean. I'm sorry to tell you that I am not embittered by anything. Nothing at all. Depressed at times, maybe, but the only thing that can really depress me is stupidity.
QUESTION: I remember one of your radio shows in which you had some pretty unflattering things to say about women. This was, I believe, shortly after your divorce. Would you give your views on women?
MORGAN: Women should be very attractive and never taught to read. The trouble with the average woman is that she's a little below average. Since 90% of the people one meets seem to be constantly auditioning to become morons, and since half these people are women, it figures that 90% of them aren't too bright either.
QUESTION: What do you do all day? What is your average day like? How do you relax?
MORGAN: I read all day. I make model cabooses. (They have TV antennae, window boxes with flowers, Venetian blinds, etc. This is true.) I collect chess sets. I collect antique junk, mainly Oriental. What do have to relax from? My average day is spent on the beach not far from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I love to travel, provided I'm going to San Francisco. I can cook well enough, but I don't invent anything. It's not interesting to experiment for one person. Or not to me, anyway. Many of my friends are excellent cooks, so I eat at their houses and pay my way bringing brandy, etc. I have five or six close friends, which, I understand, is somewhat above average. I really believe a close friend is someone who know everything that's wrong with you and doesn't care. The theater takes a lot of my time and I love it dearly. Unfortunately, I leave at the end of the first act if it's bad. People always tell me that something good happened in the second act. Well, the bum should give me some indication of this in the first act or I'll never know. (The bum in this instance is the author.)
QUESTION: How would you describe yourself?
MORGAN: I'm 5'10 ½”, a little soggy, a little flabby, and I mean to take some corrective exercises almost any time now. I weigh 175 on good days before breakfast. Have been 185, but as soon as I hit that, I come back to 175 by starving. I eat too much because I read too much. Reading in the room next to the kitchen is a guarantor of flab. I have all my own teeth and none of anybody else's. A lot of hair, too, beginning to turn gray, but healthy anyway. I smoke four packs of cigarettes a day and drink pretty good. I've been everywhere I ever wanted to go except the Far East and South America. (Don't know how that helps you describe me physically but you write it your way.) I pay $250 for my suits. Off a rack. They are good suits so I buy one or two a year and consider myself to be well-dressed. I have nothing made to order. I am clean looking because I am clean. That's the closest I can come to being attractive. I have a funny-looking head (people often recognize me from behind) but I have nice legs for a boy. I'm paunchy. Will soon have jowls like a bloodhound. I eat just about everything known to man except oysters. I am never ill. I have gas. It is from booze. When I don't drink—no gas. I will die of cancer or a brain hemorrhage, or a heart attack, or from getting run over by a bus. My laundry bill is $45 a month. (Single man.) I live in a small penthouse overlooking the Hudson. I do Double Crostics in bed, When I finish one, I go to sleep. I sleep seven hours.