If Dick Shawn is remembered today, it's for his supporting parts in two 1960s comedies, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Producers. But little of the individuality that made him a standup star in the first place is evident in those appearances, or indeed any of his film roles. Shawn was an important figure in the postwar comedy renaissance, but has never received the attention he deserves. The two most important books on the subject, Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny and Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians, mention him only in passing, if at all. One reason for the lingering neglect of Shawn may be he was so hard to categorize: if there is any other comedian he resembles, it's Andy Kaufman. Like Kaufman, Shawn did not see standup as comic tells joke followed by audience laughter. While most standups try their hardest to make the audience identify and connect with them, Shawn and Kaufman seemed to take the opposite tack, building an emotional wall between themselves and onlookers. The thing is, Shawn predated by Kaufman a good 20 years.
Born in Buffalo in 1923, Richard Shulefand got out of the army at the end of WWII and was determined to take over show business. Dick Shawn -- as he soon called himself -- was almost conventionally handsome, with piercing eyes and a bushy haircut reminiscent of the much later JFK (the resemblance between the two is kind of uncanny -- Shawn reminds me of JFK much more than Vaughn Meader does). Although he could sing and dance, rather than go into musical theater he made the then-curious decision to become a standup comic, a field dominated by what Mel Brooks called the "Jackie Jackie" school. (Google Kliph Nesteroff's superb historical essay "The Schleppers" for a detailed look at this world). Of course this may have just been a stratagem for an end run to eventually reach Broadway and Hollywood -- Don Rickles, Dick Martin, and Shelley Berman, among others, all began as aspiring actors and only went into comedy when they couldn't get anywhere in straight acting.
By the mid 50's Shawn had established himself in nightclubs. He allegedly came very close to being cast in the title role of the hit Broadway musical Li'l Abner, but was replaced at the last minute.
Shawn shares the bill with stripper Lil St, Cyr -- but at least he got top billing:
By 1959 Shawn was appearing on major TV variety programs. On the popular Dinah Shore Show he did a fascinatingly "inside" routine about show business and a "humble" star named "Mr. Fabulously Fantastic":
While this wasn't the first such standup bit -- Lenny Bruce and Will Jordan can argue forever about who originated the "MCA signs Adolph Hitler" premise -- it was still quite unusual, and even more unusual to see this sort of thing on TV.
Three years later Shawn adapted his dance for a classic rock & roll lampoon:
In 1963 he reworked his "Humble Entertainer" routine again for The Judy Garland Show:
Also on the Garland show was this song from Bye Bye Birdie, "Honestly Sincere" (with that title it should have been Shawn's theme song), where Shawn teaches Jerry Van Dyke how to be a cool cat. (As for whether this number was intended to come off as homoerotic as it does, your guess is as good as mine).
Shawn's career seemed to take something of a wrong turn at this point, or perhaps there is simply a ceiling for a standup who intentionally disconnects from his audience (Shawn's spiritual son Andy Kaufman appeared to run into his own sort of wall -- his last years were mostly things like wrestling women on TV). Also Shawn allegedly had some sort of run-in with Johnny Carson, who blackballed him from The Tonight Show whenever Carson was hosting.
In 1967 Shawn was the guest star in a TV sitcom pilot, a western spoof called Sheriff Who?, in which he played "the fastest interior decorator in the west". As far as I know it has not aired since, and would be forgotten today except that those who saw it in its one and only airing claim it is one of the funniest things ever done. A few years later writer/producer Garry Marshall would rework the material into a pilot called Evil Roy Slade in which Shawn again guest starred, this time as a combination of Roy Rogers and Paladin called "Bing Bell".
In 1977 Shawn appeared an a low budget TV show called Celebrity Cabaret (so obscure it's not even listed on IMDb):
By this point Shawn no longer seems to care if his audience is at ease or not -- you'll notice the occasional uncomfortable laughter; they're never quite sure where he's going to go next. There is always something of a Kaufmanesque vibe about Shawn, as if he is a conceptual artist pretending to be a standup, rather than a standup itself.
In 1985 Shawn was on The Tonight Show with guest host Joan Rivers, doing a funny if somewhat conventional (by Shawn standards) routine about Jews and ethnic stereotypes:
If Shawn had ever had a feud with Johnny Carson it was patched up by the next year when he did The Tonight Show with Johnny:
In the 80s Shawn toured with his stage show The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World, playing colleges and small theaters, giving him the freedom TV and Las Vegas could/would not. On April 17, 1987 Shawn was performing at the University of California at San Diego. He was in the middle of a routine in which he told the audience they were the only survivors of a nuclear war, and authoritatively cried out, "I will be your leader!" Then he fell down, lying on stage unmoving.
For at least a minute -- an eternity in stage time -- the audience assumed it was part of the act. A stage hand appeared and took Shawn's pulse, then asked if a doctor was present. Still, some audience members wondered if it was part of the act, Shawn one-upping Andy Kaufman -- after all, with Dick Shawn, how could you be sure of anything? Only when paramedics arrived did the audience holdouts leave. Dick Shawn had indeed died on stage -- the ultimate troll job.
"I can't work places like Vegas or the Catskills where people are belching. Maybe I belong in colleges. At least if I die, I die in front of intelligent people who know what I'm talking about." -- Dick Shawn
1. David B. Green, "Comedian dies onstage, audience doesn't get it", http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/this-day-in-jewish-history/.premium-1.652210
2. Mark Evanier, "Second Greatest", http://www.newsfromme.com/2011/03/23/second-greatest/