Ronn Lucas...The Interview Part II
Updated: Sep 16, 2019
This interview has been an honor. Ronn is truly one of the greats of the art form. He has headlined six separate times in Las Vegas at five different hotels. He has appeared at the Kennedy Center for President Ronald Reagan, at Ford's Theater for President Bill Clinton and again at Ford's Theater for President George W. Bush. Add to that the London Palladium performance for the Queen of England and you have a performer who has pretty much conquered the summits of the entertainment industry.
Oh, did I mention that Ronn had a five year run of his own show called the Ronn Lucas Show in England? He was also a regular performer on the Match Game and The Smother's Brothers Comedy Hour," plus appearances on, but not limited to Night Court, Silk Stockings and LA Law.
And less I forget we should also mention appearances on David Letterman, Jay Leno, Johnny Carson and triumphant performances on the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
Which is where Part II of the Ronn Lucas interview begins....
Let’s talk about Jerry Lewis.
This is what he said about you. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Now, that is high praise from someone who had a reputation for being a no-nonsense kind of guy. Did you feel validated when he said that?
Yes. Wouldn’t you?
Well, of course. (laughter) I’m interviewing you. I get to ask the questions! (laughter)
Oh, did I forget to tell you I’m recording this. I’m going to be printing this up as an interview with you. (laughs)
Did you like working with Jerry Lewis?
I loved working with Jerry. People used to bash him and talk about how many horrible things he did. I realized early on that he worshiped talent. Anyone who was original, well, even if you weren’t original but had a new spin on something or you did something more skillfully. He loved that. He hated anybody who was a pretender, or didn’t do a job well. And in those cases he really went after them, maybe unjustifiably so. But all the people who worked with him were people he picked and they were great.
I saw an interview with him online recently. Jerry had agreed to do the interview because it was about a movie. But the interviewer wanted go back into Jerry’s history. Well, Jerry just sat there and gave him yes and no answers. Some would think he was being rude, but to me Jerry was saying, “You know what, I’m being very polite to even be here because this is not the purpose of this interview.”
But for you, he was good to work with?
Let me tell you what he did for me. I went to his right-hand person, and said,
“I have this mask routine.”
And he said, “Yeah, Jerry wants you to do it.”
“Well, I would love to do it on Jerry,” I said.
“Oh, he would love that.”
I said, “No, no he wouldn’t.”
Why didn’t you think it would work with Jerry?
I just had done the mask at a function that, thank God didn’t get taped. This was a comedy awards banquet that failed. Charles Bronson wanted to be part of the comedy awards if you can believe that. You know, Mr. Majestic?
George Schlatter, the producer of Laugh-In asked me if I would do the mask routine.
We somehow or other, in our discussions, evolved to using Charles Bronson for the routine. Now understand, every time I had done the routine at a corporate event with someone who was in on the joke, it wasn’t very impressive. The mask always seemed better if it was spontaneous and unexpected.
Anyway, George Schlatter asked me if we should let Bronson in on the joke. So I told him the story that every time I did the routine with someone who was ‘in on it,’ it fell flat. So I said, “I don’t think we should tell him.” So, on the night we did it, I tried to bring Bronson up, and he refused. So I ended up using an agent who was in the audience and finished up the routine. It was awkward. I still got laughs, but I also got snubbed by Charles Bronson.
(Pause) David there was a point to this…where was I going? I shouldn’t do interviews in the morning until I had my third cup of coffee.
I don’t know where you were going …now I can’t even remember what I asked you. (laughter)
Well good at least it’s both of us. Do you want a cup of coffee? (laughter)
Oh, Jerry Lewis! (simultaneously)
Well, with the Bronson experience fresh in my mind I told Jerry’s producer that maybe we should write up some of the material for Jerry to see. I thought it was respectful.
So, I wrote up all these jokes with my writer, and there were some scathing remarks about Jerry and Dean Martin. Jerry read through the whole list and said, “let’s do it.” He didn’t care. He loved it.
You know Ronn, I saw that clip, and I was nervous for you.
You and me both!
I was sitting on the edge of my seat thinking, OMG, how is Jerry going to react to this?
Well, he saw it in advance so now you know not to be nervous. Jerry was perfect. He loved it. He had heard it all before, I couldn’t hurt him with the information. He wanted to see me thrive.
Outside of the standing ovation from the crowd, did you get any other reactions?
Yes, the biggest compliment I got that day was this: I came off stage and there was Richard Belzer and he said, “That is the funniest thing I have ever seen.”
Is it gratifying to see people using the mask now?
One of the things that Joel (Hodgeson) taught me was that I needed to let go of my animosity and look at what was happening.
Well, as Joel said, no one is actually doing my routine. They are doing variations of the mask. For instance, I think what Nina Conti is doing with the mask is ingenious. It’s her style that makes the difference.
I have seen the mask in so many different settings. I used it twice in Las Vegas myself for a man to propose to his wife. That was fun. In Vegas we would record the event and I would hand the recording to the wife for blackmail purposes! (laughter)
You mentioned you had a writer. Do you lean heavily upon writers?
That is where the creative process becomes most fun. I learned that I could either work material in front of an audience and have it progress slowly or I could work in front of a writer and have it progress much, much faster. Not only are they an audience, but they also have input.
So you have brainstorming sessions with your writers. Are you there, in front of the writers with say, Billy?
Absolutely. I’m performing for writers and it is a lot of fun. And, I really learn a lot.
You have been quoted as saying “minimal setup, multiple punch line.” How does that work?
Well, Rita Rudner is the master of this. She never goes to the obvious punch line. She might do a set up, punch line, punch line, punch line, with the obvious one in the middle.
It is really important that you do not do the most obvious thing as a comic. Your goal as a comic is…well, let me put it this way, most old school comics were happy with 4 - 5 laughs a minute. Newer guys started doing 8 – 10. My goal is 10 – 12 per minute.
How do you do that?
The only way is to have as minimal of a setup as possible and then follow that with punch line, punch line, punch line.
Give me an example
Well, the cruise line asked me not to do anything political, so of course, I had to. (laughs)
Good luck with that! (laughter)
You know what? It is working great and no one is offended.
Billy starts flirting with someone in the audience…old school ventriloquism right? He makes a reference to a hickey and then, imitating Bill Clinton says:
Billy: I did not bite that woman.
Ronn: Was that Bill Clinton?
Ronn: Was that political?
Billy: Could be
Ronn: No, no, no, no. We are going to get in trouble. Do you know what happens to political jokes?
Billy: They get elected?
Ok, that’s the obvious one. Material from the past.
Ronn: We live in divisive times Billy.
Billy: Ok, let’s go back in time. George W. eating a pretzel! (He falls off my knee)
Billy: Dick Cheney, my heart! (He falls off my knee)
So, I’m still doing my old material. So I pull him back up again, I let him go and he falls off again.
Ronn: Stop it, you’re acting drunk
Billy: Oh good idea, the Kennedy’s (He falls off my knee. I pull him back up )
Billy: (Mutters incoherently then says:)
Billy: I want to sell that family my scrabble set, I lost all the consonants. I just have vowels. (mutters incoherently and falls off knee)
Now I have just piled up possibly eight punch lines and it has only been 30 or 40 seconds. Meanwhile i say:
Ronn: Who said you could do this?
Billy: The Captain. (Now this gets a laugh)
Ronn: The Captain?
Billy: He’s not American, he doesn’t care.
Now that gets a laugh, a big laugh.
Ronn: But you don’t know the Captain.
Billy: He and I work out together in the gym
Ronn: The gym?
Billy: Should he spend so much time on the rowing machine?
Ronn: You’re making this up. You don’t even know the Captain.
Billy: He showed me his tattoo today. It is in a secret spot
Ronn: We don’t want to know
Billy: He hides it under his watch
Ronn: Why would the captain hide his tattoo?
Billy: I have no clue, it just says four little words. Port left, starboard right.
Now we are almost up to a minute. By this point I have had a least 10 punch lines. It is not the same set up, but the continuation of a set up.
Well, you are developing a situation aren’t you?
Yes. Then I say:
Ronn: Billy you boarded the ship today, you don’t know the Captain you have never even met the guy. What’s his first name?
Billy: Captain (Everybody on board knows that the Captain always go by first names, Captain Bob, Captain Joe, whatever)
Ronn: What’s his last name?
Billy: Why are you persecuting me with this?
Ronn: Because you are perpetrating a fraud. You have never even met the Captain. What’s his last name?
(Now, I’ve got Billy on the spot. I start using my puppetry skills, he looks away, he looks up, he looks down, like people do looking for an answer)
Billy: What’s his last name?
Ronn: Forget it. I don’t want to know. You work on that. Ladies and gentleman…
Billy: I recall...it’s ‘speaking.’
Long pause. Half the audience gets it, half doesn’t. It’s delightful being on stage watching people get it.
Ronn: Did you say “speaking?” (I’m clarifying the word because the ‘sp’ is difficult ventriloquially.)
Billy: Yes. (imitating the Captain) This is your Captain Speaking.
It is like blowing up a balloon and waiting for it to pop. The minute he says, “This is your Captain Speaking,” the balloon pops and the crowd goes crazy. It is such a joy to get that kind of a response from an audience.
As I’m listening to you go through this routine I’m thinking that Billy is such an endearing character to the audience. Is it important for the audience to really like the puppet?
Absolutely. It is important that the audience lends their imagination to the scene and makes him real. People often come up and say, “I can’t believe how real that puppet is.” I say, “You did that. You made him real to yourself, to me and everyone else around you. Thanks for doing that.”
All I’m doing is making enough stars in the sky. The audience connects the dots and makes a sign in the zodiac.
Well, you’ve had an amazing career. What’s the best thing about being successful and what is the worse thing about being successful?
It’s been a roller coaster. I look at what my peers have done. Just look at Jeff. (Dunham) He has worked so hard. He has worked so hard at developing his talent. In addition to that he is phenomenal at marketing. He is in a sweet spot now and is determined to stay there. It takes money, time, people and funding. If you’re making money you are spending it. It is a machine and he has got that down pat. It’s a great package and I think it is terrific.
So let me get back to my question. What’s the best thing about being successful and the worst thing about being successful?
(sighs) I’ve got to think that through…I think …success is like falling in love. Like a euphoric drug. For awhile everything is great. When I was feeling successful it was all the time. When things went wrong, I realized that success was a two edged sword. You start dealing with crazies and whackos. You lose your perspective. You lose touch with your constituency. You can’t walk down the street without being recognized, but you don’t want anyone to bother you. I’m always polite and sometimes I don’t want to be. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Meaning, the people that stand back, look at you and admire you are probably the people you want to talk with. But it is the idiots who come up to you, stick their face in your face and say, “Can I take a selfie?” The fools who rush in…
Are you comfortable in your own skin?
I’m more comfortable now than I have ever been. That’s for sure. There is always more to learn. I think the purpose of life is that we learn. Period. I just keep pushing. I just keep trying to learn. I have had number of health issues over the years that I have had to deal with. But fortunately, I have had excellent help and have overcome most if not all of these conditions through proper treatment.
There was another thing…back in 2010, we got caught up in a Ponzi scheme and lost most of our savings. We were drained. We were embezzled. I have since recovered, but those were difficult times. By the way, the individual who perpetrated this scheme, thanks to my wife, is now in jail.
That’s terrible. Not that he is in jail, but that you were embezzled.
Well, yes and no. As I said, I have recovered, but at the time I was complacently drifting toward early retirement. Now, I’m not retiring any more. Now, I’m writing and creating. In many ways, it is one of the best things that ever happened to me.
When you look back at your career as a ventriloquist, what do you think you have contributed to the art form?
Don’t you think that is a question other people should answer?
Fair enough. Let’s put it this way, what are you most pleased about as a ventriloquist?
I have tried to do a more casual, one on one relationship with the character. It wasn’t always set up and punch. My act is much more about treating the other character as a person. And having an interchange like two buddies talking. An inner familiarity.
I also love reviving old effects, but only to have them serve the story.
Oh, one of the things that I feel I have done is something no one has really noticed. I started using over-sized heads years ago. I started performing fairly early in my career to very large audiences and people simply could not see the ventriloquist figure…especially the mouth. My feeling was that if they couldn’t see my lips, I was going to make sure the audience would see the puppets lips!
Finally, the mask of course is something I’m most proud of.
From an esoteric standpoint, is laughter important to you?
How does that happen?
Let me give you and example. Five days after 9/11, I opened in Las Vegas.
I really had to ponder whether to perform or not. But there was an audience as so many people were grounded in Vegas after the towers came down. So, I decided to move out of my comfort zone and do the show. Each night, I would go out on stage before the performance and say the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce myself. I’m Ronn Lucas. I’m not going to pretend that something horrible has not happened. It happened. Our nation has been under attack.
Recently I did a show at Ford’s Theater for President Bush. In the basement of Ford’s Theater there is a museum of Abraham Lincoln artifacts. On the wall is a phrase attributed to Lincoln. It says, “In times of war it is good to laugh and share a joke. It clears the cobwebs from my brain and better prepares me for the task at hand.”
Folks in that spirit and in the spirit of defiance to those who are trying to hurt us and in support of all those who have been hurt, I humbly dedicate my humor and your laughter. “
Well, I went back stage and out in the audience people started standing, applauding and crying. They had to give themselves permission. I realized that people wanted to laugh. It is powerful. They just needed to find a way to do it. That is what humor can do.
There is something divine in laughter that is clean, wholesome and healthy.
Ronn Lucas 2019
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