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DIVINING COMEDY How a worshiper from way back got gag master Morey Amsterdam to explain laughing matters

My search for Morey Amsterdam began 30 years ago when saw his picture in a magazine ad for a correspondence course called "The Hollywood School of Comedy Writing." Learn to write jokes like the pros.

I was 17, an awkward, self-conscious altar boy, not a hair out of place. I was shy, not very athletic, raised in the protective custody of an Irish Catholic mother and a sober-minded father who wore a suit and a fedora to work every morning. Burly, bead-wielding nuns shielded endangered species like me from the everyday slings of the predator pack.

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Not surprisingly, everybody had me figured for a priest -- everybody but me. I wanted to be a comedian.

I'd already had some success, a few intoxicating laughs pried from tough guys in the school yard with homemade monologues. I dreamed of being like Morey Amsterdam, who played Buddy Sorrell on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Buddy was a comedy writer for "The Alan Brady Show," and every week he spoke for the little man when he mercilessly skewered Alan's dorky, baldheaded brother-in-law, Mel Cooley.

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Buddy: Mel, you know what your problem is?

Mel: What?

Buddy: Your hair didn't fall out. It fell in and clouded your brain.

Everybody has a Mel Cooley in their life. Mine then was our bald, humorless principal, who molded character with a marble fist and was known behind his back as the Cueball. My father's was old man Moonan, the imperious boss of his company. When Morey did his Mel-bashing thing, my father would hoot in surprise, slap his leg, lean forward and laugh so hard he'd have to blow his nose.

And nothing since then has seemed to me so crystal clear: If I could make someone laugh like my father, I could make a fortune in handkerchiefs.

One night I worked up the nerve to show my father the ad for the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. Maybe it was the Morey connection, maybe he simply heard my desperation, maybe it was temporary insanity. But he came up with the $250 enrollment fee, a small fortune in 1963, and suddenly my half-baked teen-age notion of becoming a comedian took on a scary legitimacy.

The course was laid out in a series of 12 books, subdivided into the basic comedic elements: the Exaggeration Element, the Insult Element, the Reverse Element. They were written by someone named Ron Carver, and the very first segment was called "How to Write Jokes." Being an innocent, I found the opening sentence utterly profound: "A joke or gag is the smallest unit of comedy writing."

I read hungrily, then sat at my bedroom desk and scribbled out my first one-liner: "Last night I saw a movie so old Gabby Hayes had acne." Somebody at the Hollywood School -- I always imagined it was Morey himself, undoubtedly the school's dean -- sent me back an encouraging note and a B-minus grade. That was better than I had ever done in chemistry. My heart soared.

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I finished only two volumes of the course before I went off to college, and then never seemed to find time to complete the rest. But by then I was a committed comedian, writing a humor column in the college paper and acting the clown as a campus disc jockey. Fresh out of college with a journalism degree, I brashly told a managing editor at a job interview that my goal was to write comedy. He became frightened. "There is no room in newspapers," he trembled gravely, "for comedy."

There also was no room for me at his paper. And with a family on the way, I reluctantly realized I had better get serious. Thus did my alternate career as a sober-minded newspaper reporter begin. But even as fortune and deadlines led me from city to city, time zone to time zone, decade to decade, I whittled out my niche as one of those comedians without portfolio: the office banjo player, the monologist at every going-away party, the lunch-table gagster, the person most likely to show up at a stuffed-shirt event wearing a gorilla suit.

And wherever I went, I faithfully bore the baggage of those dozen slim, spiral-bound books. I revered them like Holy Scripture, removing them occasionally from their box just to hold them and think of Buddy Sorrell. And to wonder when I would really get serious about being funny.

Why did Burton search for the Nile? Why did Amundsen trek t the South Pole? Why did McGuire seek Amsterdam? The answer is simple: It was their destiny. Plus, somebody else paid the way.

For years I nursed the dream of going out to Hollywood and divining comedic truth from my mythical dean, Morey Amsterdam. I longed to understand the cosmic mysteries of comedy: Why is funny funny? How does one become funny? Am I funny enough? Somewhere in those Hollywood Hills I knew I could find the answers.

My role model is the Beatles, who went out to the Himalayas and asked the maharishi for the words to some good songs. They came back with wisdom and lots more hair. Given the rapid spread of my bald spot, I figured the extra hair would be a nice bonus.

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In an inspiring moment of journalistic courage, the editor of our Existential section gives the OK for my quest -- although there is a very minor flap later. "I thought you were just gonna make a few phone calls," he gasps as he looks up from my expense statement. Naturally, I laugh, for the boss is coming right out of Lesson 14: the Misunderstanding Element.

Anyway, the first thing I do is confirm that Morey, now 85, is still well and residing in good humor in Beverly Hills. I track him down by phone, and in a cloying blurtation of hero worship, beg for an audience. His thrilling response is brief, but rich with that familiar, sarcastic Buddy Sorrell chuckle: "Sure. Why not."

I grab the next flight to Los Angeles and sit beside a glib sportswriter heading for the coast to cover a baseball game. He spends five wired hours alternating a wearying barrage of one-liners with chapters from a tragic story that many fringe comedians know all too well: Neither his boss nor his wife thinks he is the least bit funny.

In Los Angeles I check the phone book but find no listing for the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. Hmm. Unlisted perhaps? To guard against a daily flood of unsolicited bad jokes?

With time to kill before the next day's interview with Morey, I drive up through the Hollywood Hills, north of Los Angeles, to the Laurel Canyon home of a friend, Bob Ward. Once an acclaimed intellectual novelist from Baltimore, he'd tired of being poor and defected to Hollywood nine years earlier to write TV scripts. In spite of his literary pedigree, Ward is one of those truly manic comic geniuses who is always loud, always outrageous, always on. His wife, Celeste, is out when I arrive, and he's just put his 3-year-old son Robbie to bed. He comes down the stairs wearing a pair of those goofy fake eyeglasses, where the plastic eyeballs, attached to slinky springs, dangle grossly at cheek level.

The perfect guy to help me prepare for Morey Amsterdam.

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Ward piles some cold spinach linguine onto a plate and stands in the middle of the kitchen, shoveling it in while I wax on about the Hollywood School, Dean Amsterdam, and comedy theory.

He interrupts with a story about how he and a friend had once spent an evening reading aloud from Henri Bergson, the Proust-era French philosopher of time and memory, who'd also written a theory of comedy. "It was so dry," he laughs, spitting bits of pasta. "There was this one line where Bergson says 'Now, you may laugh at a hat . . .' We kept repeating that line all night long and laughing hysterically at it. It just seemed so absurd."

The more I thought about it, the more the unlisted number began to make sense.

"I tried stand-up in New York years ago," Ward says. "The first time I did it, I was a hit. The second time I got cocky and did it off the top of my head and I got killed."

Later, a man he considered his mentor pulled him aside. "Bob," he scolded, "you're just an existential clown." Guilt-ridden, he spent a year writing a dour, socialistic novel, but even so, found he couldn't keep the human element out of it.

"You need a sense of your own comedy," he tells me. "To me comedy and sadness are the same thing, one bleeds into the other. The very same thing that could be funny one minute could be sad the next. Hollywood wants movies to be all funny or all serious, but what was the No. 1 movie last week? 'Four Weddings and a Funeral.' It's just like real life; it has both comedy and sadness. I mean, you and I are laughing one day and the next day someone dies. It doesn't mean the comedy wasn't real or the sadness wasn't real. Both are real."

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Which is why, he says, he has shied away from writing for sitcoms, and has stuck with writing and producing gritty, real-life dramas like "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice."

"On comedy shows you've got to keep coming up with gags," he says. "It's a gag every minute. After a while it gets monotonous."

But gags, I protest, are what Morey and the Hollywood School hold out as the essence of life. He shrugs and writes me a list of comedy-writer friends to interview. I notice, then, he is favoring his back. He winces and says he pulled a muscle, and had tried explaining to his son that he couldn't give him a piggy-back ride.

"He gives me this sad, knowing look," says Ward, "and he says, 'Daddy, I'm so sorry your back hurts. But . . . it's time to play fire engine!' "

I head back to my hotel, Ward's pained laughter rattling my brain. That and the curious echo of "Remember, you may laugh at a hat . . ."

The next day I drive up above Sunset Boulevard into the older Truesdale Estates section of Beverly Hills. About three-quarters of the way up a steep hill, in a neighborhood lined with impossibly tall palm trees and incredibly posh dream houses, I find Morey's place, a rambling, one-story structure spread over an acre and a half.

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A woman in a crisp white uniform answers the door and I step into a bright, airy foyer tastefully appointed -- as is the entire house -- in the art and architecture of the Chinese Modern flavor.

I can see clear through to the large swimming pool out back, and, in a room just to the left, note a massive pool table. The woman shows me down a window-lined corridor to a cool, dark family room, adorned with paintings and rich wood paneling. The far wall is mostly glass, and the way the house is perched on the hillside, resplendent with lovely gardens, you can see practically to Tijuana. I am drawn to an adjacent wall, lined with bookshelves. The first volume that catches my eye is "Curly, The Improbable Stooge."

On a shelf I note three photographs. One of Pat and Richard Nixon, one of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, each inscribed to Morey and Kay, his wife of 52 years, with warm wishes. The third shows Morey in the company of a familiar man I can't immediately place. Then, from behind me I hear the shuffle of feet. I turn and see a thin, slow-moving, slightly built, very short man wearing glasses, a red flannel shirt, jeans and slippers without socks.

"You know who that is?" says Morey Amsterdam, shaking my hand and taking note of my interest in the third photo. "I'm in Vancouver playing a show and I get a call at my hotel. The voice at the other end says, 'Morey? Phillip.' "

He says this, affecting a comic British accent.

"I say, 'Phillip who?' He says, 'Prince Phillip!' I say, 'Oh, I thought it was the Phillip from Milk-of-Magnesia.' "

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I laugh hysterically. It's the dalai lama. The pope. The guru on the mountaintop. Sure his 85-year-old hair has a suspicious auburn tint, but it's the Dean and I'm in his house. He smiles warmly, sensing a very easy audience. The show has just begun.

Several years ago the Saturday Review carried a piece in which famous comedians -- Jack Benny and Fred Allen among them -- named Morey Amsterdam as the leading authority on comedy in America. Though he says he was never the funny kid at school or even around the house -- in fact, was raised by his concert-master father to be a serious, classical cello player -- he went on to write jokes for just about everybody: Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Fanny Brice, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Red Buttons, Norm Crosby. He's supplied five presidents with image-enhancing wit: Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

He also discovered stars like Art Carney, Vic Damone and Mel Torme on his radio and television show in the '40s. Even before those five popular years with "The Dick Van Dyke Show," from 1961-1966, his star was enshrined on Hollywood's legendary Walk of Fame. What else from the only writer ever trusted by the legendary humorist Will Rogers to punch up his material?

"Here, I'll show you an interesting picture," he says, leading me into a small film-editing office off the family room. On the wall is a color photograph of perhaps 15 men in tuxedos, taken at a birthday party for Danny Thomas. It's a breathtaking who's who of early '60s, Friars Club-style comedy. Along with Morey are Don Rickles, Milton Berle, Bob Newhart, Bob Hope, Art Linkletter, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Steve Lawrence, Red Buttons, Danny Thomas and George Burns. "George calls me in the hospital last year," says Morey. "I had a blood clot on my leg. He says, 'What the hell you doin' in the hospital?' I said, 'I'll tell you, George, there was a man who was very, very sick and he couldn't make it, so I'm filling in for him.' "

Each time Morey cracks wise it's impossible not to hear Buddy Sorrell or see Mel Cooley come through the door. Instead, Morey heads back to the family room and takes a seat behind a desk where he has written gags every day for the 33 years he's lived here.

"I tell people I'm the happiest fella I've ever met," he says. "I look at the world through joke-colored glasses. My wife was asked how she would describe me and said, 'He looks at an angel food cake and sees a pretzel.' "

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Sitting opposite him, I have eased out the first volume from my dozen Hollywood School of Comedy Writing books. I start to babble something about it, but he's already far away.

"I just wrote the craziest joke," he says. "A magician in a theater says I need a little help from somebody in the audience. Some idiot puts his hand up and the magician says pick up this 2-by-4 and hit me over the head as hard as you can. The guy says, I can't do that, I'll knock your brains out. Please, he says, I'm the magician, I know the trick. Just do what I tell you. The guy picks up the 2-by-4 and whacks him on the head and knocks him unconscious. He's in a coma for seven months. He wakes up one morning, he looks around and he goes 'ta da!' "

He didn't get that from his father, who, as head of the San Francisco Symphony and Chicago Opera Company, was the serious parent, regularly bringing home to dinner musical greats like Pablo Casals and Enrico Caruso. No, it was his mother, says Morey, who gave him his sense of humor.

"One day when I was about 10, the phone rang," he says. "It was the butcher. Now, my father used to like brains and eggs for breakfast. My mother says to the butcher, 'You got any brains?' And she started to laugh. She said, 'I mean have you got any brains at all?' Finally she hung up the phone and the two of us sat there and laughed at each other. We just laughed. She was always saying something funny."

As is he.

"My attitude is good," says the Dean. "I never say anything bad about anybody. I think it's a waste of time. One day on the Van Dyke show, we were all sitting around having lunch. Everybody you'd mention I'd say, 'Gee, what a great guy,' or 'What a funny guy.' Finally Carl Reiner looked at me said, 'For Pete's sake, isn't there somebody you don't like?' I said, 'Not that I can think of.' He says, 'What about Hitler?' 'Well,' I says, 'he wasn't one of my favorites, but you got to admit he was the best in his line. He was the worst son-of-a-bitch who ever lived.' "

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The mention of Hitler seems like a good time to bring up Ward's theory about sadness and comedy being linked. But Morey frowns at me, as if I might not actually be funny after all.

"Oh, that's a lot of crap."

"But," I stammer, "what about the idea that all great comedians had a rotten childhood? That all comedians are desperate of heart?" Impatiently, he taps the blotter on his desk. "That's ridiculous. People who say that read it someplace. I think it probably makes 'em sound like philosophers. All of a sudden a comic becomes a philosopher."

No, he says, it was Bob Hope who set him straight on what he really was.

"The first act I did was in 1929 at the Stratford Theater in Chicago," he says. "I wore a crazy outfit with big shoes. It was a security blanket. When you came out with a crazy outfit, you got a laugh. But Bob Hope said to me, 'You're a funny kid. You don't need all that crap. Get rid of the outfit.' "

He did. No props now, no tortured philosophy, just his very quick comic mind. A lesson, he says, that today's comedians haven't learned.

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"I ask the young comics why they use dirty material," he says, shaking his head. "They say shock value. I say you're out of your mind. Your material sounds like it was written on the back of a fence. It's a security blanket. They get stuck, they use a dirty word. I tell them your audience becomes moronic the same as you are. You want an education? Look at Laurel and Hardy. Look at Harold Lloyd. Look at Chaplin. They made people laugh just with love."

I frown, momentarily confused. For in my reading of the 12 books from the Hollywood School, this is the first I have ever heard of the Love Element.

Five miles away, on the second floor of the massive CBS television complex in Hollywood, another funny man in flannel shirt and jeans stares at me across a desk. But Dennis Miller, the cerebral edge-meister who made a name for himself as the caustic newsman on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," is clearly a man of irony, not love.

"Did you see the sign on the door?" he chuckles when I bring up the name Morey Amsterdam. He walks me back to the entrance and points out the name he had installed there.

Alan Brady.

I retake my seat wondering if this is blasphemy or reverence. Or, knowing Miller's caustic style, both.

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Ward has sent me here. He is pals with a guy named Kevin Rooney, a former stand-up comic who is head writer for Miller's brand-new HBO show, "Dennis Miller Live." He, in turn, got me in to see Miller who, after "SNL," tried a late-night talk show, but it died. In the past two years he's grown a beard and honed his irreverent attitude.

"How is this show going to be different?" he grinned to the audience in the opening monologue of his first show for HBO. "Let me count the f--- ways."

Now, he resettles himself behind his desk and listens as I grope painfully for the meaning of comedy. He can't believe my first question.

"Why is somebody funny?" he grimaces. "I mean why is somebody blond? Why is Joe Montana a genius quarterback?"

I rally with a probing question about the f-word approach to comedy that Morey so vehemently dislikes. He half laughs.

"Comedy is an 'I'll-take-you-there art,' " he says. "I like it when somebody grabs me and leads me along for an hour by the scruff of my neck."

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He means it literally. A dozen years ago in his early days as a stand-up comedian in New York, when he held a day job as a rental-car clerk, he had to play a comedy club at 4:30 one #F morning. The entire audience consisted of a lone guy at a front table. The sadistic club owner insisted Miller go on anyway, and kept peeking through the door from the adjacent barroom to make sure he was on stage.

"Halfway through the act I said to myself, 'I can't do this anymore,' " Miller says. "So I get the guy to go along with me, and I get a butter knife and I put it to his throat. I drag him out into the bar and I shout, 'Don't anybody move or I'll kill the audience.' " He then prodded the man into a cab at knife point and the two of them rode off, laughing like crazy.

"I think you're kind of an animal up there," he says. "It's very primal. I mean, I was a shy boy. I was like everykid. And it's very liberating up there. I'm sort of a wise ass-up there, but a wise-ass who looks like he's in control of being a wise-ass. A quirk of my mind allows me to mix up arcane references with colorful language and some sort of angry, cathartic point of view. And the blend works for our time."

He catches himself. "No, it doesn't work across the board, but when people pull up to my pump, they know what octane it's gonna be," he says. "I mean it's comedy. How dare they tell me I can't say f-- in my act. If somebody gets hung up on that . . . I mean, it's Morey Amsterdam. He's a sweet guy, I've met him. But, in all aspects, our culture has taken its tuxedos off."

Much later, at Hollywood's most famous landmark of humor, the Improv comedy club, Kevin Rooney, bald enough for Miller to refer to him as Remulak -- after the home planet of the hairless Coneheads -- listens to my Hollywood School dream and smiles.

"You know the joke about comedy writers," he says, "is that you take all the dropouts from high school and they're making a quarter-million a year out here, because they're too dumb to get a regular job."

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He has paid his dues with a decade working the stand-up comedy-club circuit, and now, at 43, is regarded as one of the funniest behind-the-scenes comic minds in Hollywood. Still, the guy he envies is a plumber friend in Saratoga Springs, a very funny guy, he says, with a family and a regular circle of steady friends. Roons, as he is known to everyone out here, dreams of breaking free of the Hollywood grind someday, buying a farm in New England or taking an extended trip to Ireland and a crack at some serious writing.

"Because you realize you're just a joker, the court jester, the guy with bells on," he says. "It's a classic thing to be tortured about, that you're not doing something important. It doesn't have the gravitas of the guy who is trying to find a cure for cancer or someone who wins the war."

He takes a hit from a Marlboro Light and sighs one of those who's-he-kidding sighs.

"Of course, you'd end up going to a local pub in Ireland and hanging out and when it came time to talk about something, the conversation would get to be goofy and after awhile someone would say 'Hey, you're pretty funny.' And you'd be known as the funny guy."

The curse of comedy.

"I suppose comedy writing is a good thing," he says. "You don't hurt anybody. I'm not creating anything that has a poisonous byproduct. It's just like at the end of that Woody Allen movie where the aliens confront Woody and tell him 'You want to help mankind? Write funnier jokes.' "

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The next day at a Sunset Strip restaurant called the Source, I have lunch with Greg Dean, who runs a school for stand-up comedians. A veteran of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clown college as well as the comedy-club circuit, he describes himself as a comedy clinician. In the next two hours I begin to realize the wisdom of E. B. White when he suggested dissecting humor was like dissecting a frog: complete goosh.

"My basic piece of theory," he begins, "is that all comedy happens in the human mind."

"Ah," I nod.

"Information comes in, we do something with it, we kick it back out as a joke."

"Ah," I nod.

"I'm saying all jokes shatter some assumption. There's people's expected assumption and people's unexpected assumption. The unexpected assumption leads you to the punch line. They get the second story, which is more of a reinterpretation, and they realize their initial interpretation was shattered."

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"Ah," I nod.

"You know what happens then?"

"Ah," I nod, but catch myself. I shake my head. "Uh . . ."

"Then people laugh."

"Ah," I nod, sensing the peanut at last. "And they laugh because . . ."

He looks puzzled.

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"I have no idea."

I stop nodding.

"Now we're dealing with a why question and I don't care why," he says.

"You don't care why?"

" 'Why' leads you into psychology," he says. "If there's a 'why,' it's a playful way of dealing with negativity or pain. That's the probable 'why.' It doesn't interest me."

"Ah," I nod, signaling urgently for the check.

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And so I drive, at last, to 922 N. Vine, the address printed on my dozen books from the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. I have fantasized for years about what the campus must look like. Would there be a huge portico that emits laughs when you drive through? Is the school football team called the Comedians?

My first misgivings occur as I drive past the two-story building at 922 N. Vine. It bears a large sign that says Sales Boosters Inc. Is this some subtle in-joke? I don't get it.

Then, on one corner, I notice a tiny taco shack. And on the other, a small kiosk where one can have car seats reupholstered with the kind of exotic patterns favored by people who have let their Thorazine run out.

Overall, the neighborhood bears the look of one of those pictures that hang in urban-renewal agencies, showing an area just before the dynamite is touched off: A gray, aging school building shored up like a fortress, tire stores, gas stations, mini-marts. A boulevard of bad burritos.

With a desperate feeling, I park and go inside. A directory by an elevator lists several small businesses, none of them even RTC remotely suggestive of comedy.

I knock on a locked glass door on the first floor where two women who work for a Los Angeles housing agency regard me suspiciously. I shout through the glass that I am looking for the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. I try to look like an advanced comedy student and not a serial killer. I realize too late that from a distance it might not be easy to distinguish one from the other. When one of the women reaches for a telephone I decide, on a whim, to explore other parts of the city.

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Morey is telling me how comedy nearly got him killed. He's in New York City, it's late, after a show, when a guy with a gun comes along and says, "Stick 'em up."

"I says, 'What do you mean stick 'em up?' He says, 'Gimme your money or I'll blow your brains out. And I say, 'Start shooting.' I said, 'In New York you can live without brains, but you've got to have money.' "

The guy starts laughing. He says, "You're Morey Amsterdam. I can't rob you. You're my wife's favorite comic. She'd kill me."

Ta da!

"I think you'll find that the character Morey played on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" still exists," says J. J. Wall, an ex-stand-up now writing and producing for "The John Larroquette Show." "There is still somebody you need to just put jokes in. Forget the story, forget everything else. You need a joke guy."

At the same time he looks skeptical when I mention the Hollywood school. "I think you can teach somebody how to draw but you can't teach somebody how to be an artist. There has to be some kind of inner spark for it."

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Finally, I hand Morey the dog-eared, cherished Volume 1 from the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. I tell him I've considered him the Dean ever since I saw his picture in that ad. I tell him how I've studied his theories and used him as a role model.

He looks at the book, flips through a few pages, shakes his head.

"I haven't the faintest remembrance of this," he says.

I swallow hard. My eyes get very large.

"No, I never saw this before."

I feel lightheaded.

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"Did you ever see my cookbook?" he says cheerfully. "It's called 'Betty Cooker's Crock Book.' Do you have one? I'll give you one."

I mumble something.

"It's got 300 recipes and 300 drunk jokes. I don't drink. Never drank or smoked in my life. I'm a soda pop guy." He hands back my spiral bound booklet. "I never saw this before."

My father picks up the phone.

"Dad, remember that Hollywood Comedy School thing you signed me up for years ago?"

"Yeah."

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"And you remember Morey Amsterdam?"

"Dick Van Dyke Show."

"And you remember how Morey's picture was in that ad?"

"What ad?"

"For the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing."

"His picture was in the ad?"

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"You don't remember that?"

"I remember Morey Amsterdam."

"But not the ad?"

"There was an ad?"

The Dean was saying goodbye. "You want advice? First of all, find out if you have a sense of humor," he says. "Ask your friends. I think they'll tell you you've got a good sense of humor. You laugh at hello."

And, of course, I laugh.

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"But," he cautions, "it doesn't necessarily make you a comedian. It's an unexplainable thing. You can't just put your finger on it and say this is it, this is the correct way."

His father-in-law once built him a small box that looked like a little organ grinder. On "The Morey Amsterdam Show" from 1947 to 1950, he had people in the audience call out names, items, dates. He'd write each on a piece of paper and slide it into the top of the box. He'd turn the handle and out would come a joke, which he would read and the audience would laugh hysterically.

For years after, he got letters from people asking, "Where can I buy one of those joke boxes? It would be great at a party."

I am recalling this little story as I fly home, much less certain now than when I arrived. That ad. Ward's sadness thing. Rooney's plumber friend. Dennis Miller's butter knife. Morey's memory. Morey's hair. My memory. My hair. My old man's memory. My old man.

I look down at the stack of books from the Hollywood School of Comedy Writing. And all at once they don't seem quite as weighty. And I hear the Dean's parting words:

"I keep telling people," he says, "there is no joke box."

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PATRICK A. MCGUIRE is a feature writer for The Sun.

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