Playboy Laughs Author Patty Farmer Talks Comedy History
Without Playboy Clubs, comedy would have been very different today. Playboy Laughs! author Patty Farmer tells us why.
Playboy is legendary. The magazine transformed publishing, changed mores and challenged social and sexual boundaries. And it did it with a Mad Men flair and a sexy foldout.
Author Patty Farmer folds the legacy back in her new book Playboy Laughs! by focusing on the comedy, comedians, and cartoons of Playboy. Hugh Hefner transformed live comedy by starting an international circuit for standups with his Playboy Clubs. Hef stole comic artists from MAD magazine for one called Trump. His TV shows, Playboy Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, broke funny new voices as well as racial barriers in the pre-Civil Rights days of segregated entertainment, and glass ceilings contemporarily with the feminist movement.
Even the foreword is historic. Bill Marx, the son of Harpo and a musician who played the club and hung around when he wasn’t playing, remembers the clubs as a melting pot of talent that spurred the evolution of American comedy. Playboy Laughs! is the follow-up to her 2015 book, Playboy Swings, which focused on musicians. Her next follow-up will focus on the writers.
Budding cartoonist Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine in 1953. They quickly illustrated illustrious talents like Al Jaffee, Gahan Wilson, Jack Cole, Shel Silverstein, Vaughn Shoemaker, Harvey Kurtzman (who helped create Mad Magazine), Will Elder, Frank Frazetta, Russ Heath, Alan “Yossarian” Shenkar, Erich Sokol, pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, Robert “Buck” Brown and Elmer Simms Campbell, LeRoy Neiman, Jack Cole, and Arnold Roth.
The first Playboy Club opened up in Chicago on Feb 29th, 1960, and soon expanded to Miami, New Orleans, New York City and London. The book hits on every famous comedian to hit a Playboy stage or the magazine and whether they could hit on the Bunnies. Joan Rivers, George Carlin, Professor Irwin Corey, David Brenner, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Joe E. Lewis, Jackie Gayle, Olivia De Berandinis, Rich Little and Phyllis Diller all hit the stages.
Patty Farmer, who also wrote The Persian Room Presents about the early days of New York City nightlife, and Starring The Plaza spoke with Den of Geek about the funny side of Playboy.
Den of Geek: I loved the book. So what’s a nice girl like you doing in a nice place like The Playboy Club?
Patty Farmer: It’s a place I never thought I’d go. Just from writing some of the other things I wrote. I always do oral histories. People kept telling me, people you wouldn’t think like Leslie Gore and Dianne Carroll, they would talk about “when I was at the Playboy Club.” Joan Rivers was the final push. She was telling me about starting at with her trio at the Playboy Club.
I started peeling back that onion and found that all these great performers, mainly comedians, musicians, other kinds of people, worked these clubs. 42 clubs provided this circuit that was not available up until the Playboy Clubs, and there was also this bridge from the nightclubs of the 1950s to the comedy clubs of the 70, the Improv and other comedy clubs. It was interesting to me and nobody else had written about it. They wrote about Hugh Hefner, and the girls next door, and the mansion and everything else, but nobody had written about the entertainers. And there is just so much there.
You talked with people who go all the way back to Vaudeville. Playboy isn’t normally touted as feminist but tell us about women and the glass ceiling at the club and magazine.
Hef’s got a bad rep with the feminists. They love putting Hef down as a male chauvinist pig but he had female managers, editors, and top execs. He put his daughter in charge of the magazine when he wanted to retire in the ’80s. Hef has always been there for women even in the magazine. He promoted issues that weren’t so popular at the time, like pro-choice, he wrote about giving women access to the pill, which was new in the ’60s. He’s always been an advocate for women.
He was also an advocate for Civil Rights. His clubs were integrated. Tell me what surprised you about those.
He opened the clubs in 1960, but he had the TV show in 1959. I really think Hugh Hefner is one of the most colorblind people you’d ever meet. He, over and over, hired the best talent. As the great comedian Dick Gregory said, he didn’t care if you were black, white, or purple, if you could sing a song or tell a joke or swing an instrument. With the TV show, he integrated. This was all pre-1964 Civil Rights Act. He had Nat King Cole on, sitting down talking to a white woman, and the phones just exploded. Networks threatened to pull the show. Sponsors threatened to pull their advertising because he had done that. He was shocked that people would be so small-minded.
He was constantly shocked. When he opened the clubs in 1960, he had Dick Gregory, a great, young black comedian. He went on in front of an all-white audience and even the audience was shocked. Not only were they white, they were a bunch of meatpackers from Alabama. But once Dick went into his routine they wouldn’t let him off. The head of the club actually went up to the Playboy Mansion to get Hugh Hefner and said ‘you have to come over to the club because history is being made.’ By the time they got back, Gregory had been onstage for three hours. Comedians are a bunch of hams. You give then a stage and an audience and nobody’s telling them to get off and they’ll stay on forever. But the audience really loved him.
He courted other kinds of controversy. The first comedian on the TV show was Lenny Bruce, the sick and twisted comic who changed my life.
He was in a group that was labeled “sick” comedy, and I find it very interesting that Bob Newhart was included in that group. Lenny Bruce, yes. Mort Sahl, yes. Shelly Berman, okay.
Those telephones, they were very phallic.
Lenny was the very first comedian. He was a friend of Hugh Hefner. Hef liked his take on life and loved his comedy. Bruce was bringing in political subjects and, away before Jerry Seinfeld, did every day occurrences, making a routine out of his tattoo, and how his aunt reacted to seeing his tattoo. A Jewish boy who could never be buried in the family cemetery because you can’t deface your body, which was just brilliant.
Hef loved him and put him in the clubs. He took him out of the clubs when Lenny went over the top and started making a lot of enemies, mainly the police. They threatened to close down clubs where Lenny performed. Hef went on to support him in other ways. He helped financially and legally. Hef is first amendment all the way, free speech. He sent attorneys around the country to defend Lenny. But you couldn’t protect Lenny from himself. We lost him way too young, what was he 42? But Hef tried his best.
But people like Richard Pryor, who started out clean cut and collegiate, and George Carlin with a tie and short hair and a sweater. He was playing the Playboy Clubs, and then he got into the seven words you couldn’t say on TV. Hef had to tell him, ‘George I love you like a brother. I will go and watch you wherever you are when I’m in town, but you can’t play at my clubs anymore.’ Because, believe it or not, the Playboy Clubs were very clean. You had to stick to innuendo, maybe, but no cursing, you had to dress up. You had to be very respectful. Hef ran a club that he wanted the martini culture set to be able to come to during the day but he wanted the guys to be able to bring their wives and girlfriends at night, be well-entertained, but not be embarrassed by anything.
People ask me all the time, who played the Playboy Clubs? But it’s easier to name who didn’t play there. You had up-and-comers, you had Redd Foxx. You had Jimmy Walker. Even Seinfeld and Steve Martin and Billy Crystal, all these people, at one time or another, started out at the Playboy Club. Joan Rivers stayed there. She started out as part of a trio, came back as a standup comedian. You had comedians that were starting out that needed a paycheck and needed an audience to comedians that were firmly established like Don Rickles and Shecky Green and Rich Little. They came back because it was fun and it was cool and it was sophisticated to be at the clubs. They even went to the clubs when they weren’t performing. It was that much a cool place to hang out at.
You said they were clean. The comedians said they weren’t allowed to date the Bunnies. Were the ones who said that just the ones who didn’t get lucky, because other ones said they did?
I think everyone knew they weren’t supposed to date the Bunnies. The Bunnies knew that also. I think that made it more exciting, going where they weren’t supposed to go. I think in the book I put a Rich Little story about him dating a bunny. Lou Alexander was given a trophy for working his way through the Chicago Hutch by the Bunnies themselves. One of them happened to be the boss’s girlfriend, so he got in trouble. It was a rule that was put into place not to be ridiculous, but Hefner constantly had the government looking to shut him down. He had the Catholic Church looking to shut him down. This sound silly nowadays, but in Chicago in the 1960s, the church held a lot of sway. They put these rules in so they could never be attacked for prostitution going on. They could say they had a rule in place. There was a business thought behind that rule.
You talked about the control of the Catholic Church. I’m the “gangster geek” here at Den of Geek. Almost all clubs have some kind of mob influence. How did Playboy get around that?
The two main clubs were in Chicago and New York, but if you owned a nightclub in almost any city in the U.S. at that time the mob was there in some form or another. Hef did have members of a certain family sit down in his office and say they really thought they should do some business together. Hef, in his laidback manner, said “I have the eyes of the Catholic Church and federal and local government constantly on me. Do you really think I’m the right partner to be in business with?” Even though they were mobsters, they were smart enough to realize it wasn’t anything they wanted to push because they were trying to stay out of trouble themselves.
Do you think Hefner wore a robe to the mob sit down?
He did not. This was still in the days when he put his pants on to go to the office. He started that early on. He was very comfortable in pajamas. When I was writing Playboy Swings, one of the editors told me Hef had some kind of film put over the windows so you would never know if it was day or night. When people asked about that he said “I don’t want my editors influenced by rays of sunshine or dead of night. You should just have a free mind and the time clock should not matter to you.” That was Hef. He would sometimes sleep through the day and edit through the night. He had his own way of doing things.
You say he worked through the night. He was also very hands on when working with the cartoonists. He had his own comic book that came out in 1951.
Well, Hef was a micromanager in every aspect of the Playboy Empire but, specifically with the cartoonists, he was very attuned to the cartoons because at one time he thought he could make a living being a cartoonist. From the early days, cartoons was how he kept a diary, that how he journaled. He would make a journal doing mundane things like “Hef meeting a girl.” He even came up with a pseudonym for himself. He called himself “Hep Hef.” He thought he was good. He submitted his cartoons around Chicago, without much luck at all. As you said, in 1951 he came out with a full 74 page comic called “That toddlin’ town: a rowdy burlesque of Chicago manners and morals.” Without my notes to remember that, I give myself a star.
He really felt that would push him over the top and sell it. But it didn’t. He was good, but he wasn’t good enough to compete with the other comic artists of the day. What a different world it would have been if he was successful. He wouldn’t have started Playboy. Maybe everything happens for a reason.
I love the work of Gahan Wilson-
Oh all of them though. They were all so different. Gahan with his unusual twists. But you had Doug Sneyd, they were almost like artwork. Al Jaffee and Jules Pfeiffer. Shel Silverstein, there’s artwork hanging in museums that’s worth millions of dollars now. Even when he was gaining in popularity and being very sought after, he was hanging at the Playboy offices and draw cartoons, and who could blame him? There were girls parading around all the time and cool people. Everybody came by the Playboy offices when they were in town. There was Frank Sinatra or any of the comedians they would just come in and flop and hang out. It was pretty cool.
You mentioned Al Jaffee. Can you tell me a little about the magazine “Fold-In?”
The fold-in was for guys really. I don’t think us girls read comic books as much. He was working at Mad magazine and was looking for a hook. He looked at Playboy with their three-page centerfold fold-out. And in a play on words, he made a “fold in” where there was a question and when you folded a certain way, you’d have then answer. It was very popular. He went to Jack Davis, at that time, at Mad magazine, and he said “I have an idea, and you’re going to hate it.” Al did not have any kind of salesman quality. He left it, the head guy loved it. Jaffee said “people are going to be ripping up the magazine. They’re going to rip off the back cover.” Because that’s primarily where the fold-in was. And he loved the idea even more because that means kids would buy two.
They’d buy one to fold and one to keep. I just visited Al a few months ago. He’s 96, still working for Mad magazine, and I got to sit in his studio and watch him work on the latest issue and the fold-in. They do it because they love it. Al certainly doesn’t need the money. At 96 he still cracks himself up with his own jokes and laughs while he’s making the fold-in.
You spoke to both comedians and cartoonists, are they funny in different ways?
Let me give you a quote that one of the girls I interviewed. A singer called Julie Budd said “comedians are peculiar.” And I said “peculiar, what do you mean? Aren’t they a laugh a minute? They’re hysterical. Aren’t they a laugh a minute?” She said “no, comedians are very peculiar.” Julie, from the time she was very young, she was a singing sensation. She was 12 years old when Merv Griffin discovered her, and she would open for all these comedians. She was the opening act for a lot of big comedians. Milton Berle, she was his favorite to open. At the Playboy Club, she opened for Charlie Callas, just a bunch of people. She said sitting down to breakfast with Charlie was really not a laugh a minute. She said they were the total opposite. They were paranoid, and always thinking they would not be funny when they got back on stage. They seemed just normal to me when I would talk to them.
I’ve talked to hundreds for the book, from people you might not have heard of, Howard Beder, to Joan Rivers and Lily Tomlin. They didn’t try to make jokes or laugh. They were pretty straightforward in telling their stories. I’m going to stick with Julia that they were just very peculiar. Whereas the cartoonists, they were hysterical. They reminded me of old kids, teenage boys who got older but never grew up. They were funny, all of them. From what I understand they liked to hang out at the mansion, hang out with Hef, and they enjoyed life.
What was the focus of Trump magazine?
Trump magazine was Hugh Hefner’s idea for a comic magazine. He wanted it to be upscale. Other comics at that time they printed on cheap newspaper. He wanted high quality paper and the best cartoonists he could find. He went to Harvey Kurtzman and get his gang of idiots together to work for Trump. And he raided Mad magazine and took all of them away from the magazine to work for Trump. Needless to say, Bill Gaines was very upset. They set up an office and only came out with two issues. When Hefmer was questioned as to why the magazine went under he said “I gave Harvey an unlimited budget and he surpassed it.” They raided Mad and really had all the best cartoonists.
What will be the third?
The third one is about the writers. It’s going to be called Playboy Thinks and it’s about the editors, the authors, the interviews and the subjects of the interviews.
Was there much difference between the musicians and the comedians?
No there really wasn’t. Again, you only had great talent that I found amazing, played at the Playboy Club. Al Jarreau started as part of a duo. He was Al and Julio when he started out and it was at the Playboy Club that Johnny Carson spotted Al Jarreau and Julio Martinez, and made arrangements for them to be on the Johnny Carson Show [The Tonight Show]. This was in New York. They were scheduled to two weeks after their gig at the New York Playboy Club ended, so Julio, he wanted to see her, his wife lived in L.A., he said I’d go out and see her and I’ll be back in a couple days. Johnny Carson’s people moved the schedule up and they called the agent and said they wanted to have the boys on tomorrow. So Al called Julio in LA, very distraught because Al doesn’t read music, he doesn’t play music. He said he has to get back here. Al said even if I get on a plane now I won’t get there in time. So Al Jarreau went on Johnny Carson solo, walked off to a standing ovation and that night he became out Al Jarreau.
Any of the comedians try and prank you? Call you pretending to be Professor Irwin Corey or something?
Irwin Corey was another one that was too funny. He was so out there that I was weirdly attracted to him. Long after I interviewed him, I’d visit every time I’d visit New York, just like Al [Jaffe]. I had seen him, maybe six weeks before he passed at 102. And I’ll tell you, right up until the end he was clear headed, could discuss books, he was always goofing around. And he was always making passes. At 102.
That was one of the questions I skipped, whether any comedians hit on you. It came after the ‘dating the Bunny’ questions. You were a model, could you have been a Bunny?
No. I’m much too shy. I think that’s why I write. I’m just a geek who likes to talk to people and write their stories. I’m not the outgoing girl, although I did model for three years. I was a full working model. I wasn’t good enough to make it to top model status, but it helped me get through school. I liked it for that but I really was too self-conscious to be a model or be a Bunny, or for sure to be a centerfold. They had the most beautiful girls as centerfolds. As I’m sure you can attest to.
Were there any stories that didn’t make the book because of context or space you regret leaving out?
Good question. No, not really because I started out writing a book on Playboy. It turned out to be such a lengthy tome that my publisher said “You cannot publish 1,200 pages.” So I divided it into what will be a trilogy.
Playboy Laughs! The Comedy, Comedians, and Cartoons of Playboy was published by Beaufort Books on August 3, 2017.
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