When I went there, and most likely still, the University of Toronto was divided into several colleges, the one I attended being University College. That sounds redundant to me – university college. Though this is not totally unexpected in a city that has a street called Avenue Road.
Every year, University College staged their traditional revue, the “U.C. (University College) Follies.” My older brother was in it when he went there, and I wanted to be in it too. That seems to be the way that works. At least, in my family.
I don’t know what happened the first year, they may have skipped it for some reason, or I just didn’t notice. But during my second year, I decided to try out for the show. It was scary, but within my comfort zone, unlike trying out for the weightlifting team, which I took a pass on entirely. I had performed in shows at camp, and had always been well received. How different could this be? From a show standpoint, university was just camp without the lake.
I showed up for the audition. I knew nobody there. I learned that a pre-med student had written the songs. The sketches had been written by a Liberal Arts student. His name was Lorne Michaels. Well, actually it wasn’t. His name was Lorne Lipowitz. But trust me, it’s the same guy.
Unable to bring the written material to life, I ultimately failed the audition. I did, however, leave an indelible impression, tapping into my nervous energy to get big laughs from not getting any laughs at all. I was rejected for the show. But I was not forgotten.
The script was short, and Lorne was desperate for material. He called my brother, whom Lorne did not know beyond the fact that my brother had been a huge hit in an earlier edition of the “Follies”, and he asked him if he had any sketches that might be appropriate for the show.
As luck would have it, my brother had been collaborating with a man named Bernie Orenstein, who, at the time, managed the Seaway Hotel, but would later enjoy a successful writing and producing career in Hollywood. My brother told Lorne that he and Bernie had recently written a “blind date” sketch, and he would be happy to let Lorne use it. On one condition:
“You have to put my brother in the show.”
Remembering I was funny, just not with his material, Lorne readily agreed. And so, along with a self-written monologue, I performed the “blind date” sketch in “U.C. Follies – 1965.”
The response was…well, I did pretty good.
The “blind date” sketch involved a series of phone calls, chronicling a nerdy guy ‘s misguided efforts to procure himself a date. I no longer remember the details, but I recall one line, where the guy inadvertently calls up a nun, and before hanging up, he desperately inquires,
“Sister…do you have a sister?”
Another highlight of the routine involves the guy having received a prospective date’s phone number an indeterminately long time ago. Mustering the courage to call her, the guy takes out his wallet, extracts a small slip of paper from it, he unfolds the paper, stares at it moment, and then he blows on it, raising a huge cloud of what is presumably dust.
That’s the funny part, the dust indicating that the slip of paper has been in his wallet for quite some time.
To simulate dust, the prop people – who, for this assignment, were two girls – loaded the slip of paper with moundette of baby powder. I blew on it, the “dust” rose up from the paper – big laugh.
U.C. Follies ran for three nights. And every night before going on, I would double-check to make sure they’d remembered the powder. This is “Preparation 101”, a trapeze artist examining his ropes. This is important. You blow on a slip of paper with no powder on it – there is no “dust”, and no laugh. The powder has to be there.
On our third and last performance, the prop girls, told me that I did not check the baby powder. I, understandably, asked why. The girls assured me the powder was in place, there was no need for me to bother.
What followed was an extended interaction, wherein I insisted on seeing the baby powder for myself, and the prop girls insisted I didn’t need to. Why did I have to look, they complained. Didn’t I trust them? I assured the girls that I did, but I still needed to check. In the end, though not before things got pretty unpleasant, I prevailed.
When I unfolded the slip of paper, I discovered it contained about four times the appropriate amount of baby powder. It turned out, the prop girls had concocted a “surprise” for me. I would unfold the slip of paper onstage, blow on it, and I would immediately disappear inside a billowing obscuration of baby powder.
The prop girls were very upset. I had “ruined everything”, they complained. It was just a joke. And I was a really bad sport.
The prop girls had not intended to be malicious. I actually think they liked me, their practical joke, a secret show of genuine affection. I felt like an idiot. No wonder I couldn’t get a date. And not just in the sketch.
In retrospect, had I allowed the prank to proceed, I might have risen to occasion by spontaneously “playing the moment.” I might have exploited the “surprise”, with a frozen “take” directed straight to the audience, eventually raising my “pointer” fingers to my eyes, and employing them as windshield wipers for my powder-caked glasses.
Or I could have gone the “unruffled”, Oliver Hardy route, retaining my dignity as I slipped off my glasses, delicately removed the debris from the lenses, and then returned them to position, offering the image of a man sporting spotless glasses over a Kabuki-white face.
Things could have been done. But I went the other way.
Once, at camp, I overheard two girls who, with me, were a team, assigned to writing cheers for some special event, and I‘d snapped at them when they were kidding around.
“Why does he take this so seriously?” one girl angrily inquired.
“Because to him” the other girl explained, “it is.”
To me, it was always serious. If I’d felt differently about it, I’d most likely have had more fun. I might even have done a better job. But that wasn’t me. And it probably isn’t me today.
I still have to check the powder.