We only saw Phyllis Diller live on one occasion. It seems not very long ago she worked a bash in Palm Beach. She was very good. That night, and last night when her death was reported, we thought of Gene Perret. Back in the 1960s we had graduated from the sports department to a general column at The Delaware County Daily Times, a suburban Philadelphia newspaper then located in Chester. A reader named Gene Perret called one day and said he found the column amusing, and asked that we check out his standup comedy routine. He was at the time working as a technical writer for General Electric, and comedy was a sideline. He invited us to see him work at a local Polish American Club, or something like that. The young man’s performance that night was intriguing. His material was funny, but the audience reacted only mildly.
When he asked what we thought of his routine, we were honest. The material was good, we said, but standup work did not seem to be his calling. We added that we could almost hear somebody like Bob Hope telling the same jokes and destroying the house. He told us that in fact he was trying to break into the big time writing jokes for established comedy figures. He had already done stuff for Phyllis Diller. He said he got five bucks a gag.
“That’s my ambition,” he said, “to write for Bob Hope.” He also gave us a short course in gag writing. Gags are different from humorous story telling, the kind of thing Mark Twain, and more recently Dave Barry and Jimmy Breslin specialized in. A gag, he explained, consists of three parts. First there’s a premise, then there’s a setup line, and then you flip the thing and people laugh. It sounded simple, like flipping pancakes, but making it work is more art than science. Most of Phyllis Diller’s and Bob Hope’s jokes were virtually one-liners.
Bob Hope came to Chester at about that time. “We had a great flight into Philadelphia,” he said. “I wanted to fly United. But the stewardess wouldn’t go for it.”
We left the newspaper for magazine work, and it seemed only a few years later (it was actually 1969) that we heard Gene Perret was working for Bob Hope. It was the beginning of a relationship that continued until Hope retired in his mid-90s. For the last 15 years he was the lead writer on Hope’s staff. And along the way Gene Perret became one of the best behind-the-scenes men in TV comedy, writing and producing stuff to divert us from the trials of life. In addition to Phyllis Diller and Bob Hope, his bio lists many of the most famous comedy shows and performers of our time. "Laugh-In," Bill Cosby, "All in the Family," Carol Burnett. The list is long. He won three Emmys.
And he wasn’t always behind the scenes. His success made him a sought-after speaker and we saw him a few times as a guest on the late-night shows. And the man who did not seem terribly funny years before at the Polish American Club made us laugh out loud. He must have gotten a better writer.