Continuing with the life of the neglected counterculture comedian as explored in the article The Forgrotten Murray Roman, we present a transcript of the interview done with Mason Williams for that piece. Williams was a folk musician during the genre's height in the early nineteen sixties. He became friendly with The Smothers Brothers through those circles and was the first writer brought on board by Tom Smothers when the Comedy Hour hit the air. Williams is best remembered today for his colossal instrumental hit, Classical Gas.
Mason Williams: Well, let's see. I heard about Murray back in 1961. I was playing a club in Denver called The Exodus. People were talking about the new comedians that were coming out of the folk scene. Murray may have been more like a stand-up comedian out on the East Coast that was starting to play these clubs. And that's when I first heard about him, but I didn't really hook up with him until The Smothers Brothers [Comedy Hour]. He was probably hired in the summer of '68, for the summer show. Tommy was impressed with the comedy album that he had made... I can't remember what it was called.
Kliph Nesteroff: You Can't Beat People Up and Have Them Say I Love You.
MW: Right. So, anyway, Tommy's whole thing was to hire ten new writers, and sort of break them into sort of becoming writers on that summer show. Steve Martin was part of that. I talked Tommy into hiring Steve. And Bob Einstein and... I don't know if you have that whole list.
KN: I have the list.
MW: When Murray came aboard, different people were good at different strengths. Murray was great on his feet... as an actor and improviser and also coming up with lines in sketches. We would try people at different things. Murray wasn't so strong at writing conceptual ideas as he was at the acting part. But he had a great sense of what worked and was good at coming up with lines. He wasn't so good at conceiving pieces. John Hartford was kind of the same way. He wrote little funny songs but it didn't translate into sketches. And The Smothers Brothers were after oddball things. So Murray was valuable but I always thought of Murray as being down on the stage, y'know. He would punch up a script with funny jokes but he wasn't so much involved with the concept of sketches. I worked with him on... there's a piece called Honey, I wrote, based on [the song], I thought Honey was so stupid. When I was living back in Oklahoma, they used to have it so you could go see the house of Jesse James or Frank James or these outlaws. And what if we took that song and put it in one of these houses and, anyway, I remember saying, here's the structure of the piece. Allan Blye and I laid out the structure and just said, okay, Murray, how about the dialogue that people say before they come in, and what they say in the room, and after the room, so that's the way... as head writer you would... get him to flush out the dialogue.
KN: So, is that something that was sort of discovered over time? Murray is not a guy that can sit down and write a script so we're going to ask him to punch things up?
MW: Yeah, you just basically realize where people's strengths are. But John Hartford, we thought he would write funny sketches, but it turned out that he was the guy who was really good at playing with Glen Campbell and had good onscreen appearances. And Bob Einstein was good at both but Bob was also good on his feet and had that acting potential. Steve Martin. Carl Gottlieb. So we did have people who were good on their feet and conceptual. I didn't participate in sketches. I was purely a scriptwriter.
KN: Tom and Steve told me that Murray never sat down and wrote.
MW: Yeah, he didn't really turn in sketches. And you could talk to Allan Blye about it.
KN: Yeah, I'd like to. Do you have contact info for Allan Blye?
MW: Yeah, let me, I'll give Allan your phone number and he'll call you. Bob [Einstein] and Murray worked a lot together. Allan and I were head writers for much of the show. You can ask Allan about it. Tom and Dick were, of course, best at writing their own pieces. Murray was always great at being an actor, a comedic actor.
KN: When you first came across him, when you were performing in Colorado, did you see him do...
MW: No I just heard about it. People were just saying, 'Ah, there's this new comedian Murray Roman. Really funny.' But I do remember somebody at The Exodus talking about him. His name was getting around; he was already on his way.
KN: During that period, when he was in Aspen or wherever, his act and his persona during the early sixties was completely different than what it was by the time he joined The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Between that time and when the counterculture sort of came to the forefront he had turned hippie, as it were, and his act and persona turned counterculture, more political and more about drugs. Whereas when he was performing stand-up in Colorado during that period he was doing all jokes about skiing.
MW: Kinda like George Carlin. George Carlin did a big, big switch from the hippy dippy weatherman to George Carlin. And it was kind of the same thing. Once you realized that people were interested in the sorta dark side... not dark side... but this other side of comedy. I used to sit and talk to Murray and pitch ideas just for him. For his act. I don't know if he ever did this or not, but I remember talking to him about the Catholic Church and gays and how the clothes they wore sure looked gay. And he said 'Oh, I'm going to make a comedy bit out of that!' I don't know if he ever did. We were generating so many ideas that you'd just lay it on them. We were all interested in furthering each other's careers. Everyone got such a kick out of his act. I think that album really did well for him. Here's a story you may not realize, you may want to get this in there. The Dating Game. The Dating Game was doing, they had, kind of, burned out of celebrities to invite on to the show. So they started casting about for different people and one of the thoughts they had was 'How about the writers on The Smothers Brothers Show?' They might have gone to Laugh-in too. So, I remember we all got together and said, 'Y'know, they pay us a thousand bucks every time we go on the show, so let's make sure that we don't come across as being a good date or attractive.' So [that way] they'd keep having us back. I remember I was on three different times. So all us writers said whatever you do make yourself come across as being a nerd. And Murray was able to go seven times. And, that seventh woman, he ended up marrying her. So that is where they met.
KN: Now is this the same woman that both Tommy and Steve refer to as the most beautiful woman they'd ever seen?
MW: Not sure if that's who they're talking about.
KN: They remembered more about Murray's wife than they did about Murray.
MW: (laughs) It could have been, yeah. I do remember the irony was, he was able to make himself unattractive seven times but that seventh time that he was picked he was so dumbfounded by her - he got married. I think that's the story.
KN: I'd like to track that footage down.
MW: Yeah, that'd be fun to find that and Allan Blye may know something about that and you could go back to Bob Einstein or Steve and ask them about that.
KN: I've seen a short clip of Steve on The Dating Game so it must have been from that.
MW: I see one of me once in a while where Paul Lynde is the moderator... I don't know why.
KN: Guest host or something.
MW: Something like that. My girlfriend, Susan Chalfin, worked there... she became my girlfriend for a couple years. So, The Dating Game was... quite the force... Chuck Barris, right?
KN: Yeah, he created it.
MW: She was the talent coordinator. I never told her what we did. I find it ironic that Murray married his girl. I don't know what kind of manager or agent he had but the truth is, Tommy was very good about hiring talented friends to be on the show. Like when the show first started he tried Julie [inaudible], he tried Hamilton Camp, Pat Paulsen. If they had this star power or connected or whatever he kept them.
KN: What was that name you gave? Hamilton?
MW: Hamilton Camp. Yeah, he just passed away a couple years ago. He was a little shorter guy; he was part of a folk duo called Gibson and Camp. Bob Gibson and...
KN: Oh, okay, I actually have a record by them.
KN: They were on early Elektra.
MW: Yeah! He was good at acting. Because of my connections to folk music, anybody from that world that came in, I kind of kept them under my wing.
KN: Well, the more I work on this article about Murray Roman, the more I think I should just expand it into a book about the writers of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
MW: Yeah, it was quite a group.
KN: Unbelievable amount of talent and just in that last season, all those people that were writing for the very first time and everything they went onto, just unbelievable.
MW: Yeah, like Steve. I just talked to a guy who is doing a book about stand-up comedians. Y'know, Tommy and I were roommates at the time, so we talked about this a lot. Even to this day he'll call me and say 'what do you think about this.' So, everybody that was going to be hired for the show, I reviewed it. We looked at a tape and went to see them in the club and read their stuff. One of the things I did that was really neat was I played at The Ice House in Pasadena and one of my friends was the lighting guy. On nights off, this is before [The Smothers Brothers] Comedy Hour started, sixty-four or five, I would go out to The Ice House and sit in the light booth and watch the acts. Sometimes go out three or four times a week and see the same act over and over and over. And after you get passed the part you laugh at, you start to look at the mechanics of what [the comedian] is doing. The reason I hired Steve was because he wasn't just stringing a bunch of jokes together between songs but he was really working on a comedic persona. So, that was really a great experience for me, to just watch act after act after act.
KN: You get to see... how the magic trick... kind of works.
MW: Yeah. You start to realize, some people, have a comedic mind. I don't remember seeing Murray there... I might have.
KN: Did you ever see Murray do stand-up after you had met him?
MW: I probably did. Probably at The Troubadour. But, y'know, we were all... I certainly saw him perform on TV.
KN: Are you familiar with the path he took after the show went off the air?
MW: No, not that much. I left Hollywood, I just thought it was weird. Of course I actually didn't write that much, I wrote about half of the third season. And then I moved off to attend to my own career - doing concerts and that kind of thing. I got that weird credit [on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour] "And Sometimes Mason Williams." The great thing was I was going across the country doing concerts, meeting all kinds of people, so I was getting info from outside the inner circle. In Iowa, here's what they're saying and I was kind of like a reporter [for the show]. I was really aware of the ideas that were going on. After the show got cancelled we were all concerned with our own shows and our own bands and our own projects and our own gigs. Of course, this was before the time of VHS or... so we couldn't really track each other.
KN: One of the reasons I wanted to write an article about Murray is, he's one of the few guys that, if you go on the internet and Google his name, you get very little information.
MW: Uh, yeah, he was doing a lot of things but, I don't know... I talked to his daughter... she was just looking for things about him. Have you talked to her?
KN: I have her e-mail but I haven't talked to her yet.
MW: You should definitely talk to her. She might know what he did after...
KN: I've got a pretty clear picture about what he did after, I mean, he died young.
MW: I would think so, yeah.
KN: He died in a car accident in 1973.
MW: That's right.
KN: Up until that point he was doing a lot of gigs with rock groups and...
MW: He was a very extroverted personality. Anyway, I thought Murray was great and certainly a different ingredient. That's what makes a good variety show, if you don't have eight people who are the same.
KN: I find the three seasons of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to be a metaphor for what was happening in America at the time because the writers you had on the first season were sort of the old guard in comedy writing.
MW: Right. [Ernest] Chambers didn't want to hire me. But Tommy said absolutely. These are our writers. They just put me in Allan Blye's office. It was really, they thought of you as, oh, you're not gonna last. But Tommy was great. He was willing to try oddballs. You're right, the first... the summer show was after the second season. And that's where Tommy was really trying to create new writers. One of the great things that Tommy used to always say was, "I want to create writers, not bits, not pieces, not sketches. I want somebody who is a source. We're going to bring in all these guys for the Glen Campbell summer show and we're going to create a bunch of new writers." Several people went through there. The guy who was on M*A*S*H. Famous actor. One of the guys...
KN: Jamie Farr?
KN: Alan Alda?
KN: The guy who played Radar?
KN: Obviously not Henry Morgan.
MW: No. I can't remember his name. Anyway, Tommy tried him as a writer. But he was a little like Murray, a little too energized, he couldn't sit down. But I gotta say, Tommy was the guy who said, "Let's create new talent!" And Murray was part of that. There was a whole thing like that going on, I wish it was still like that now. Warner Brothers [Records] was saying let's create ten new artists each year. I got picked because of the show. I was there and Van Dyke Parks and Jimi Hendrix... there were all kinds of people. But it seems like people were really interested in creating new talent.
KN: Nobody wants to take that risk anymore.
MW: Yeah, they... I'm not sure what that is. We used to say that a lot of us writers go from disaster to disaster.
KN: Well, I can't imagine a network today hiring writers... Rob Reiner who was twenty years old, Steve Martin who was twenty-three or...
MW: Uh, yeah. That's Tommy. Because I doubt the network would've hired them. He gave them a shot. It always boiled down to one of the things that Tommy had that was unusual... he insisted on creative control. So they weren't telling him what to do. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour showed that there was an audience for this kind of material. It just wasn't at nine o'clock at night. It was at eleven-thirty. [It is] is really what created Saturday Night Live. They showed the network that there were a lot of people who watched this kind of humor, and if we just showed it after all the church people went to bed... there were only three networks so everyone was aware of what you were doing. Today, things are so fragmented. Now, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, they're really playing with their fraction - the people who are into it. They're not out there in the mainstream sense like we were in those days.
KN: Although, Stephen Colbert did have the chance to perform to the president's face.
MW: Oh, yeah, he's breaking that barrier. See that's really... we used to talk about this all the time on the show... the way you compromise revolution is by collusion. You either include them in the fix and they get watered down or you just put them over... everybody who is a protestor these days is behind a five block long fence. I remember going to huge events and there'd be one cop at the door. I went to the Grammys in 2004 or something and there was so much security, man they could make a show out of it called Celebrity Prison Shake Down. Every time you changed buildings you went through these security barriers.
KN: A few months back I wrote an article about the Oscar streaker and...
MW: Oh, yeah, with David Niven and he had that great line about the shortcomings.
KN: When that happened he wasn't arrested afterwards, he was provided with clothes by the Oscars and shuffled backstage for a press conference. I can't imagine that happening today.
MW: You got the impression that it was orchestrated.
KN: There were a lot of rumors that it was staged for publicity and that Niven had planned this line in advance and stuff. But I did a big investigation and it turns out it wasn't planned [by the Oscars]. The guy who did it was a gay activist and artist who had appeared in the bluff previously to protest public nudity laws. He was actually murdered later on in a San Francisco sex shop.
KN: The [streaking] stunt actually gave him a lot of credibility in art circles and he was one of the first curators of a gay art gallery in North America and...
MW: Yeah, the whole gay thing... Tommy and I used to talk about that. The original gays were sort of like... eccentric uncles. Like Richard Deacon. That was their first role.
KN: Ah, I love Richard Deacon.
MW: He was great. And Paul Lynde came across as one of those people who... were... certainly included in that but they were never openly gay.
KN: The funny thing is that so many of them were accepted in Middle America as great stars, Liberace, Paul Lynde, without ever referencing the sexuality. People in the know were in the know but Middle America - Liberace could be on Lawrence Welk and nobody knew the difference.
MW: Sure. Now, Liberace was one of our greatest guests. He was a true pro. And there was... what's his name? The FBI guy.
KN: J. Edgar Hoover.
MW: J. Edgar Hoover. There was that weird thing where people were gay but so afraid to be thought of as gay that they were out to get gays.
KN: That still seems to be the case in a lot of circles, you find, constantly, right wing politicians resigning in shame after cracking down with all of these horrible anti-gay laws or statements and then coming out and saying that they've been sleeping with a man for the past twenty years.
MW: Yeah, it's like they have to over compensate by being cruel. I do remember the censors were so goofy back then. They didn't like the fact that The Smothers Brothers had moustaches. And for Tom and Dick's twenty-fifth anniversary special we wanted to have them dance together just because it was a celebration. No, no, no, you can't do that. It was all really just [the censors] trying to show that they were in power.
KN: I've encountered that problem with an editor or a produce, where they will always have to change something. It doesn't matter what it is. They just need to change something.
MW: I ran into producers, who really didn't want to be left out, they wanted to see themselves in the article. There was an old saying on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, you have to have a union guy to lift a chair or change a light bulb, but anybody can fuck with the script.
KN: I was going to ask you about one more guy. Bob Einstein mentioned him in a hilarious anecdote but insisted it be off the record. In the third season you had an old guy writing named Cy Howard.
MW: Right, right. I do remember that name. Y'know, if I remember this correctly, the real story behind that is that the network wanted somebody from their side in the mix. Somebody who'd be in on the writer meetings. So I believe, that he was somebody Tommy hired because he wouldn't really get in the way. I do remember the network was trying to infiltrate with different people. I remember Cy Howard as being the network guy.
KN: Well, Tommy mentioned that a couple guys were convinced that he was from the CIA.
MW: That could have been too. There is probably a dossier on all of us.