The Forgotten Murray Roman was the name of an article posted a few
weeks ago about a counterculture stand-up comic who is none-too-famous today. Perhaps
the one living person who can tell us the most about Murray Roman is
the man who hired him as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Tom Smothers. Here is the transcript of a conversation I had with Tom a few days ago.
Tom Smothers: You Can't Beat People Up and Have Them Say I Love You? lt's relevant now, isn't it?
Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, it's a very interesting record and I feel that Murray Roman... is a neglected sorta person in comedy history, y'know.
TS: Yeah, I agree. I agree, man. Okay.
KN: He actually released four records in his career, but I guess that one is the most famous.
TS: And that was the best one, isn't it?
KN: Well, I actually haven't heard any of the others - they're quite scarce.
TS: And really old.
KN: So ... where did you first meet Murray Roman and when was the first time you saw him perform?
TS: I saw him perform back in the sixties... nineteen... sixty-one... in Aspen, Colorado and he did ski jokes. Y'know, skiing jokes and cold... snow jokes. And I met him there... and in L.A. later on... in sixty-five and sixty-six, I'd run into him and see him work a little here and there. When we got The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which was nineteen sixty-six... I hired him as a writer on the show... and I always considered... good comedians were always pretty good writers, I always thought. And he was a pretty good writer. Most of his gift was sitting in the writer meetings and throwing one-liners out against the material. That's how he'd find his stuff. He didn't write so well - he talked his writing. We had a couple little pieces where he's on stage on the show... he didn't perform that much on the show... but the reason I hired him was because of that album.
TS: I hung around with him. We kind of lived in the same area, down in the Hollywood Hills, west L.A. And he met a really beautiful blonde girl and, uh, my wife and his wife, we all kinda hung out together at the time... smoked a lot of weed and laughed a lot... and he came up with this album... I think Roy Silver helped him, the manager of [Bill] Cosby for a while.
KN: That's right, the record label Tetragrammaton was Roy Silver, Bill Cosby and...
TS: Ah, yeah, Campbell. Bruce Campbell? No, some other...
KN: I have it written down somewhere.
TS: It was Campbell, Silver and Cosby Management and he was part of that management group. We at the same time had a management group with some people in the business. When that album came out, [Murray] brought it over to me and said, "You gotta listen to this." I think it was the first time I ever heard music used like that. He didn't have to have a punchline. Each routine - observations - what was so stunning was you didn't have to have a get-off line or a punchline or a set-up, you just threw that stuff out and that hot band... I don't know who the band was. Do you remember who the music was on that?
KN: I'm just calling it up on my computer....
TS: I've heard it a couple times, it seems a little dated, y'know, but it was a breakthrough, the concept. He was a guy who always said, and he was a pushy son-of-a-bitch, he was just in your face all the time ... always right up close to you and he'd say, "I love your face! I love your face!" That was his famous greeting. He'd grab you with his hands on both sides of your head and say, "I love your face," and he just had a way of saying it that was really cool.
KN: So, it was CSC Corporation. Bruce Post Campbell, Roy Silver and Bill Cosby.
TS: There you go, that's not bad by memory. That was forty years ago. [Murray] was our resident character. I kept putting two writers together, there were always writer teams on The Smothers Brothers [Comedy Hour], always two writers and if they didn't seem to be connecting they'd switch partners. We moved him around a couple times. That album... came out, what, sixty-eight?
TS: I haven't heard it for at least four years, I have it on vinyl.
KN: Yeah, I have a couple copies of it.
TS: How does it hold up to you, when you hear it?
KN: Oh, I love it, but I like the combination of the music and there's some reverberation with his voice in certain parts and I really dig that.
TS: He sounds a little bit like Lenny Bruce.
KN: He sounds a lot like Lenny Bruce. I want to ask you more about the gig in Aspen. His very first comedy record, which I've never heard, the cover has him lying in the snow with skis on. What do you think this was - this thing that he hit on? He wasn't from Aspen...
TS: No he's not from Aspen, he was from New York or wherever it was.
KN: So what was up with this ski humor?
TS: Well, everybody, Mason Williams, Judy Collins, a whole bunch of us, The Limelighters... Aspen became a little bit of a place you'd go and work for nothing... just about... and do comedy or music and work the season up there. I think he only worked one season up there and of course, when you're there you pick up on what's going on [around you]. So he did a ski album... I don't remember hearing that one but I remember him doing a piece of that on our show one time.
TS: It wasn't particularly great but...
KN: Well, I imagine [the ski humor] was probably before he got into the pot and LSD scene. This was more the straight Murray Roman.
TS: Yeah, the straight Murray Roman. Kind of like the early Bill Cosby or...
KN: Or George Carlin before he grew his hair long.
TS: We all had an epiphany all about the same time. It was about sixty-six, sixty-seven, when the war was escalating, voter registration, all that stuff. Drugs at that time were a way to change the world. It was hopeful. Today's drug use is basically trying to hide. It was very positive back then. I just talked to George Carlin last night. We're seventy, so we're senior citizens, kinda checking on each other's health, "you take your metamusil?" But most of the time I spent with Murray was working on the show. Was it nineteen sixty-nine when he got into an accident?
KN: Actually, far later. It was nineteen seventy-three.
TS: God, it was seventy-three. Huh. Anyway, I happened to be working, my brother and I were working at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. When he got hurt he was in a coma I think for six months or a year. All the writers would go down, and I'd go down to see him and his eyes were open, but it was a Terri Schiavo type coma. He finally went and, I remember, Bill Harrah had a jet, they flew me down for the ceremony and I was one of the speakers... I said [at the funeral] that you didn't decide if he was going to be your friend, he decided who was going to be his friend. It had nothing to do with you. Even if you didn't like him and he liked you, you had to. He would step into your space and you're his friend. "Love your face," no matter. Sometimes it was irritating but it was almost like a puppy. It was just so powerful, you didn't choose him, he chose you, and that was the whole thing about him that was really neat. And to be with him was... sitting around, laughing all the time.
KN: I have a question about the dynamic in the writer's room at the time. Because you had a lot of the young guys that you hired, their first TV writing jobs, like Murray Roman and Bob Einstein and Steve Martin and Mason Williams and Lorenzo Music and Carl Gottlieb, but I wondered what the relationship was between the younger writers [with that] drug culture and political culture with sort of the older comedy writers that you had on staff. The veterans that had, sort have, been around forever like Stan Burns or...
TS: Well, all the guys were pretty young. There were only two or three that were over thirty.
KN: Didn't Pat Paulsen have a couple guys writing for him ... a couple older guys...
TS: Yeah, there were a couple older [writers] and [one of the young writers] thought he was C.I.A.
KN: Cause he had Hal Goldman and Al Gordon writing lines for him - and they both worked for Jack Benny.
TS: They wrote on the Comedy Hour too. But there were a whole lot of people that wrote things for Pat. You know whom you could talk to, to get an insiders... is Mason [Williams] and Carl Gottlieb. Have you talked to them yet?
KN: No, I haven't, I don't even have their contact information.
TS: We can get that for you in our office.
TS: Yeah, so Carl Gottlieb and... I think I have a number for Steve [Martin]. Steve would give an interview. He would be able to tell you more than me. Because I only sat in on big writer's meetings, y'know. But that would be an interesting thing that I wouldn't have seen at all. That dynamic in there. Because he was a really loveable, pushy guy. Mason Williams would have something. We might have Carl Gottlieb and might have Steve Martin's number.
KN: I was going to ask you about Norman Sedawie?
KN: He, um, I'm not sure if he's still alive or not but...
TS: He was a director [on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour].
KN: He eventually left Hollywood... came back to Vancouver... and got himself a gig teaching right wing politicians how to act comfortable in front of the camera.
KN: Which I thought was such a strange switch from what he used to do on your show.
TS: Yeah, well, you know, I saw a lot of friends do a reverse backspin... backflip after 9/11. All of a sudden their brains stopped working. We're as close to fascism as you'll ever see.
KN: It's hard not to see through the transparency ... through the lies these days.
TS: Y'know, you listen to some of these radio shows and Fox News, they don't see anything. But fascists do that.
KN: You can make a lot of money by subscribing to [that philosophy] or propagating it, whether you believe it or not.
TS: (laughs) Yeah, I think sometimes they don't, but it's pretty amazing. They have a "stupid chip" sixteenth of an inch wide in the back of their head. They're really nice about everything else but when you get to that - they sound like Limbaugh or Hannity... if it was like this in Germany... I don't know.
KN: I guess when fascism rises again it won't be in that blatant of a format.
TS: People don't see it. It's here.
KN: What do you think Murray Roman would think about the system of government right now? Would he have switched to the other side after 9/11 or would he still be an in-your-face revolutionary?
TS: He would never switch. He was always a pretty good, passionate liberal. You could tell by ... I love that phrase You Can't Beat People Up and Have Them Say I Love You. That applies to our national policy doesn't it?
KN: Foreign policy, yeah.
TS: We're really gonna win their hearts and minds. Bang! You motherfucker! Get down!
TS: But I love that album, how the music just comes in and all that ... Who wrote the liner notes?
KN: (laughs) I believe it was a man named Tommy Smothers.
TS: Did I write them!?