Why you should care
Because sometimes you turn over a rock and find slugs. And sometimes you turn over a rock and find comic genius.
In the 1970s, Andy Kaufman began performing a routine both onstage and off that baffled and enraged audiences. Was it even comedy? What the fuck was this wrestling women nonsense and reading The Great Gatsby aloud? It took more than a decade following his death in 1984 for Kaufman to be widely recognized as an innovative comic genius. There’s no denying his brilliance, but all those postmortem accolades neglected to mention he’d lifted most of his core act directly from Dick Shawn.
Today, Shawn has been sadly forgotten save for two film roles: as Ethel Merman’s dippy beach-bum mama’s boy in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and as LSD in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. But Shawn began performing in nightclubs in the mid-’50s around the same time as Lenny Bruce. Both men shattered the tight-assed suburban mores of the Eisenhower era, and both redefined what could be considered comedy.
Shawn’s act, which over time evolved into a one-man show he called “The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World,” consisted of song-and-dance routines, sketches, pratfalls, impressions and monologues. It sounds like any other variety show of the era. But all his impressions were exactly the same; the sketches sometimes consisted of Shawn doing his laundry or crawling into bed and going to sleep; the dance numbers, if not exactly dazzling, were at least, um, unique; and the pratfalls often came unexpectedly, with no standard comedic payoff.
Audiences would enter the theater to see a stage bare except for a pile of bricks. Come the appointed time, Shawn (not a small man) would emerge from the pile of bricks and get on with the show. During intermission, he would lie on his back center stage, not moving until the second act was set to begin.
Still, it was a popular enough act that Shawn became a talk-show fixture in the ’60s and ’70s, where he usually made a point of insulting the audience, the other guests and the host. During a notorious appearance at a Friars Club roast of Cheech and Chong, Shawn stepped up to the podium and, instead of cracking more dirty jokes or tossing out more insults, vomited pea soup all over himself. Despite all that, he earned roles on Broadway and in films, though no one knew quite what to do with him. In early screen appearances like The Wizard of Baghdad or Wake Me When It’s Over, he was cast as a laid-back hipster. Later, he was reduced to smaller roles in lesser films and silly TV shows, usually playing oddballs of one kind or another.
But to the end Shawn kept returning to his true love — his one-man show, preferring to play to college audiences, explaining they would better understand what he was doing than audiences in Las Vegas or the Catskills.
When Kaufman was diagnosed with lung cancer, people assumed it was more of his shtick, even as he lost his hair and was confined to a wheelchair. Three years after Kaufman died, Shawn one-upped him.
In April 1987, Shawn was doing his “Second Greatest Entertainer” show at the University of California, San Diego, when he dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of a satirical political monologue. Given the nature of his show, the audience laughed and clapped. Worse, as he always did, Shawn had warned stagehands before the show not to come out no matter what happened, because he was never sure himself what he was going to do. It took five minutes before everyone decided it had gone on a bit too long. A stagehand finally rolled Shawn over and called for a doctor. Even after being told to leave the auditorium, the audience stayed put, convinced this was all part of the act. It wasn’t.