At 6 a.m. last Saturday, looking for laughs, Robert Orben snapped off his alarm clock -- "I never move it from 6, I think it's rusted there" -- scrambled into his blue terrycloth bathrobe, grabbed the newspaper, a cup of coffee, a legal pad, a ball -point pen, and sat down on his couch overlooking all of Washington through the floor-to-ceiling window of his Arlington apartment.
He read for two hours, taking notes, a routine he's followed for 33 years of writing 44 books of jokes, jokes for Red Skelton, Jack Parr, Dick Gregory, jokes for three four-page letters a month, jokes customtailored for politicians -- Orben was a special assistant to President Ford -- and for businessmen who pay $1,500 for five minutes of boffolas.
He hoped to write 25 jokes by 11. But it was slim pickings -- headlines such as "Second JFK Gunman, Experts Say," for instance. Orben doesn't write jokes about unmitigatd tragedy, offering the maxim: "If somebody falls down, it's funny. If they don't get up, it's not funny."
Nothing, that morning, was making a noise like a joke, to use another old comedy-writing phrase. There wasn't even good Cleveland material, but then, he'd written a lot of Cleveland jokes lately, Cleveland being the new "joke city," after Buffalo's shift to a milder winter last year. "Frankly, I didn't know Cleveland was in trouble until I asked the treasurer for change for a twenty -- any he had to send out for it."
Orben chewed his lip with the ferocity that makes him a regular Chap Stick customer. Between his baldness on top and his crewcut on the sides he didn't have much hair left to fall out. When he was younger, he'd work all day and all night till he got those 25 jokes. But at 51, making a living he only describes as "comfortable," and the renter of one of the finest views in Washington, he takes it a little easier. But not much.
("Middle age is when your brain says: 'Go! Go! Go!' -- while the rest of you is saying 'No! No! No'" as he put it in book No. 43, "The Encycolpedia of One-Liner Comedy," which contaings 2,000 more sizzlers.)
What he needed was the kind of subject that he can do line after line, like test-tube babies:
"I don't know what's happening to this world. Yesterday I heard a test tube singing: Yes, Sir, That's My Baby."
"I dunno, somehow I never expected conception to be a spectator sport."
"I wonder if test tubes ever have headaches?"
"Thday we have come together ot discuss one of the most difficult, one of the most complex and one of the most controversial questions of our time: Do test tubes need foreplay?"
Bang, bang, bang, like the day in California that he write 101 jokes. Of course, he's written so many jokes before and since that he can't remember any of them.
Anyhow, he kept drinking coffee and staring at the Potomac (he also thinks well in the shower) until he remembered the newspaper story about status jeans, $40 dungarees.
The synapses started firing, the same routine ever started firing, the book of patter for magicians when he was 18, in New York.
"You finda situation that's intrinsically funny," Orben will explain. "You figure out what's funny about it, then you do the construction of the joke."
I.e.: Status jeans themselves are funny, the hip and the hick coming together. "If you've never seen status jeans, picture what would happen if Paris made Plains its sister city." And how tight they are! By now he was really humming, a line about tight jeans being a "do-ti-yourself vasectomy," jeans so tight that "sitting down in them automatically qualifies you for the Vienna Boys Choir."
And he didn't even have to use the good-news-bad-news formula, the show-me-and-I'll show-you bit, or any of the favorite names, Anita Bryant, Howard Cosell, Billy Carter, though Billy Carter is going out of joke writing favor, these days.
Now, a few days later, Orben has had another good day and he can relax and talk about life on humor's assembly line.
"I've never enjoyed the writing process, just the finished product," he says from a giant wicker Huey-Newton chair. His hans fly, he sports a bright, tense, shy grin and eyes that look like he's sifting the conversation for angles, racing ahead to punch lines.
"I get unhappy with the ongoing tension. There's no assurance I'll be able to write funny tomorrow.
"The secret of writing comedy is to know where it's all going, then get ahead of it. Now I'm afraid that the parade will take a 90-degree turn and I'll go straight.
"I'll go straight.
"In 1945, when I started, it was all girl friend jokes. So ugly that. Drove so bad. Her cooking. In the '50s, humor became much more perceptive. Then it turned to social comment. Mort Sahl was the spearhead, very biting and acerbic. Until '76 or '77, it was all the humor of conflict. The idea in sitcoms was to get everyboody screaming at each othe as quickly as possible. Now, Steve Martin is ushering in the humor of the next 10 years -- good-naturd zanniness. A few years ago I took time off and tried to write gentle humor, but it was very, very difficult."
Then again, he gave President Ford material that won laughs by being more self-deprecating than cutting.
"It is a great pleasure -- and a great honor -- to be at Yale Law School's Sesquicentennial Convocation. And I defy anyone to say that and chew gum at the same time," said Ford in New Haven in 1975.
Orben is accustomed to the wielding of power, however. His lines get repeated by everyone from Paul Harvey, the most listened-to man in redio, to "a monsignor in New Jersey who uses my stuff to relax people going on their first retreats." In Los Angeles, where he worked for seven years for Skelton before coming to Washington in 1974 at Ford's behest, his peers in the mines of one-liners and sitcoms command "between $75,000 and $100,000 a year," he says, refusing to say which side of those figures his own income falls on.
"I don't mean to blow my own horn," he says. "but between Johnny Carson's monologues, the political cartoonists such as Herblock and Oliphant, and me, if we all decide what the hot subject is in the country, that's what it is."
He sells only 10,000 newsletters a month, "but as soon as people open them, those jokes are getting repeated and repeated."
And after 33 years, he says that when it comes to custom-tailoring routines, "I write sure-fire jokes, demand-laugh jokes. A nightclub would be tougher because there the audience is daring you to make them laugh, but my clients are businessmen, mostly, and people want to be entertained by them rather than bored by a speech. Even if they miss, I set them up with savers for all the things that go wrong, and they always go wrong,"
When the microphone keeps dropping down: "Does anybody have any Vitamin E?"
When you garble wording: "And now, I'd like to repeat that in the original English."
When someone near you sneezes: "Bless you. I knew my jokes were old, but I didn't know they were dusty."
Orben can guarantee to make anybody funny but himself, that is. There's always the terrible thought that some day he'll sit there all morning in his bathrobe, swilling down the coffee, reading and rereading the papers, the magazines, and nothing will come, no test-tubes, no status jeans, not even his favorite inflation jokes ("I was three days late in getting back from Europe. The hotel made me wait until my dollars cleared") or post office jokes ("Redundancy is singing 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' in a post office").
"I thought I'd run out back in the '60s one time," Orben recalls, smiling with wonder at the desperation he remembers. "There was nothing. Just nothing. Then Liz Taylor left Eddie Fisher for Richard Burton, and, ohhhh, it was a field day for every comedy writer in the country."