They called him “Brash.” “Off the Wall.” “One-of-a-Kind.” Not words or phrases that get used much anymore but in the 1950s and 60s, that combination of social satire, dance, and pantomime and an unusual but “hip” delivery earned you those labels…provided, of course, you were funny. And Dick Shawn was, more often than not, a minor riot.
Born Richard Schulefand in upstate New York, he grew up in a steel-mining town near Buffalo. Four people in a single room in the back of the family clothing store, selling to mine workers. He wanted out, so he pursued a dream of playing major league baseball. He was good and soon got a contract from the Chicago White Sox. But shortly after, he was drafted into the service and his baseball career ended abruptly.
In the service, he tried out for the USO. He had always been funny and they let him in to entertain the troops. He loved it and decided he might pursue a career in comedy.
After a short time at the U. of Miami on the GI bill, he realized that stand-up was his true calling and left school for New York City. He followed the path. He tried out for anything that came up. He did as many live shows as possible. Then finally, a successful audition for Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” got him booked to compete on the show. He sat down and wrote a slew of material and changed his last name to Shawn, thinking it would be easier to remember. He didn’t win but, over the course of the show, he’d written enough material to have what he felt was “a real act.”
Over the next few years, he worked the nightclub scene feverishly. He got noticed and soon did the Ed Sullivan Show. Ed loved him and called him back seven more times. That attention led to getting key stage roles, including a part replacing Zero Mostel in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” And while he was great on the small screen and the stage, he began to long for the big screen.
He auditioned and got parts in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Producers.”
But the wanderlust got to him and he wanted the immediacy of live comedy. He wrote a one-man show called “The Second Greatest Entertainer in the World,” a weird amalgam of songs, sketches, satire, philosophy and pantomime… a show that pushed the envelope of the day with great force….a strange mix that was part “Waiting for Godot,” part Salvatore Dali and a big part vaudeville. He liked to challenge his audience and the show was different and exciting. It got rave reviews and won a number of awards.
And then, in 1987, while performing it at a college in California, he suddenly fell forward on the stage during a particularly dark bit about the Holocaust. The audience, thinking it was a part of his act, started to yell things, all the while laughing uproariously… until someone finally realized it was real and that he had suffered a fatal heart attack.
But Schulenfand would have liked that. It would have made him chuckle.
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About the Author: Lawrence Dorfman is the bestselling author (Yeah, right) of The Snark Handbook; The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition; The Snark Handbook :Sex Edition; and the forthcoming Snark Handbook: Politics and Government Edition (really good at the whole naming thing, eh?). He honed his snark chops while working in publishing for more than 30 years. Like you really care.