On a Friday morning, Arleen Sorkin is still sleepy and hoarse, an illness of two days drifting out of her body . . . she hopes. Sorkin, one quarter of the comedy quartet High Heeled Women, is the only one who can get genuine T.L.C.--chicken soup and concerned parents and siblings bustling around her in a spacious Oregon Avenue house that she obviously can go home to again and again.
Still, Sorkin, a thin-waisted Goldie-Hawn-blond with sharper edges, is a little upset. It's the first time she's missed a show in five years. "Whoever said the show must go on is a cruel person," she whispers, sinking on a couch. She'd tried to sweat out the virus Tuesday night at Charlie's Georgetown (the troupe appears through tomorrow), but the illness won. "If I don't have a voice, it makes the audience really nervous," she concedes. "When they think you're going to die, it's not that funny."
Funny, of course, is the High Heeled Women's business. They are well-known in New York, which has been home base since Sorkin teamed up with Cassandra Danz, Tracey Berg and Mary Fulham after all had done solo stand-ups at a comedy club, Once Upon a Stove. They've built up a healthy following there, and last year, even ran collectively for mayor against Ed Koch, who graciously said, "May the best entertainer win." And 1983 may signal a breakthrough for the Women, though in an area they would not have suspected a year earlier: They are the "stars" in Linda Sunshine's parodistic "Plain Jane Workout Book," currently a cross-country best-seller.
"Linda was a High Heeled Women fan and wanted to use us as models. We ended up doing most of the jokes for the photographs in the book," Sorkin says. "We got a small piece of the book--Linda's a real shrewd cookie--but we just did a calendar and we got a much better deal. And since most people think that Linda Sunshine is a made-up name, they think we wrote the book. All these publishing companies are calling us, what's our next book going to be? So we're working on a book now, we're authors."
They signed with Bantam. The book will be called "For White Girls Who Have Considered Analysis When Electrolysis Is Enuf," an old High Heeled routine based on Ntzange Shange's book. And Warren D. Light, responsible for the "I Hate New York Book," is a frequent collaborator with the group. "We're all into the book business now," Sorkin says, slightly astounded.
If Sorkin or her parents are at all bemused to suddenly find her both a calendar girl and author, the career in show business--and comedy, in particular--is no surprise. "When I was in the crib or stroller, my mother would always end every conversation with 'Ha Ha Ha,' so I thought that was a natural way to talk to people, you always ended on a laugh.
"And my father loves show business. Ever since he was in the Army and went to the Hollywood canteen . . . from then on, he was hooked. If I blew into a bottle at the table, that meant flute lessons; if I stamped my foot, that meant tap lessons. We had every instrument in the basement--we all took piano lessons, went to dramatic school. By the time I was 13 I rebelled, but all the technique I learned up to 13 helped me when I finally got to New York.
"My mother was always taking me to ballet, my brother to guitar lessons, my other brother to trumpet. I always imagined her with a little chauffeur's hat." And, Sorkin adds, her father is "probably the only dentist in the country that instead of having Time and Newsweek in his waiting room has Backstage, Show Business and Variety. And one whole room, instead of having patients in it, he's got 8-by-10s of me and the girls and my Uncle Bertie." Uncle Bertie? "Well, he always wanted to be an actor and lately we got the idea we were going to get him into commercials."
Sorkin's father also does some writing and once, frustrated that no good scripts were coming his daughter's way, wrote a pilot about a girl trying to land a job in a talent agent's office. "She comes in and the agent asks, 'Can you dance?' And I say, 'Sure I can dance,' " and Sorkin lightly mimics a hoofer. Then the agent says, 'Can you type?' My dad remembered I could do 60 words per minute. 'Sure I can type,' " and she mimics a supersecretary. And then the agent says, 'Can you sing?' and I say, 'Sure I can sing' . . . and just then the phone rings--my dad never thought I could sing too good, and so that I wouldn't have to prove that I could sing, he made the phone ring."
After Deal Junior High and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High--where she was considered something of a cutup--Sorkin went through the familiar dues-paying process, working in Georgetown boutiques and landing bit parts as an actress and dancer in regional and summer stock theater. After graduating from Emerson College in Boston, she gravitated to New York and eventually hooked up with her sisters in stitches.
Two years ago, an NBC official "came to see our show. He liked the group but felt he could use me in some sort of sitcom situation. At the time we had committed ourselves that no matter what it was, we were going to stick together, we wouldn't take any outside opportunites."
Sorkin is sometimes viewed as an updated Goldie Hawn. In fact, Hawn studied with the same Washington dance teacher. "When I was little, Goldie--who'd already made it in 'Laugh-In'--came to dancing school and gave me an autograph. She wrote, 'You're a lovely dancer, Goldie Hawn.' I can't help but be flattered" by the comparisons, though when Sorkin first moved to New York, a well-known agent told her she wasn't "commercially viable" because of her similarity to Hawn.
"The fact is not so much that I look like her, but that I can give that feel or whatever they think is like her. As a result I've done a lot of commercials and it's been terrific for me. The other girls don't work as much in commercials and I think it's because they don't really remind you of anybody. A lot of times when a casting director calls, he'll say he needs a Goldie Hawn type or a Teri Garr type."
Sorkin is currently cast with Louise Lasser in a series of commercials for Friendship Cottage Cheese ("It's very popular--she's the mother, I'm the daughter") and has also done spots for Rollo chocolate candy, Coast soap, Reach toothbrushes and Dac ham. "We all got different candy commercials at the same time--used to say we were the Decay Sisters," she laughs. "But it gave us some money to play with."
Which has been a relief, and has allowed the group to sustain its hopes of scoring as a group in television or on film. It's a hard sell, she admits, but there are built-in advantages. "No one can fire us. No one can pull the money out. We always have a showcase if we want agents to see us for other things. We get to perform what we write. At least we're all constantly working and you cannot believe how many people, really talented people, are constantly not working."
Even though the Women are a full-service comedy team--doing their own writing, directing, producing, choreagraphy, bookings, management--"most network people who come to the show look at it as a horse race--they'll pick a favorite."
Sorkin, for instance, recently landed a spot in John Landis' new comedy film "Trading Places," currently packing them in around the country.
"Actually, I got the part because Landis said I had great breasts. I was on the set and I was going to go over and tell him about High Heeled Women because he's a great comedy director. I went over to shake his hand and I wanted to be very articulate, I wanted to get his attention . . . and before I could go 'Boo,' he said . . ." and Sorkin slips into an astonished whisper, " 'You have great breasts!' And he turned to his associates and says, 'Did you see her breasts? We ought to do something with these breasts.' And that's all they did: it's a close-up of me, focused on my breasts, very degrading. But people think I've got a big part in the movie. I get to say 'Thank you.' Do you consider that a line or a word?"
A line, Sorkin, a line.