The troupe, called “Style Without Substance” was made up of an amazing group of actors (at this time they had like 12 people involved) under the artistic direction of Tom Gilpin, who ran acting classes for the theater. He used the idea of a comedy show to get his group stage time, putting on shows during those “between” times when the repertory theater was dark. So they actually got to stage something every few weeks.
I met them and was welcomed by them and they chose one of my sketches for their show. Then another. Before I knew it, I was writing original material for them. Finally at one of the shows, I got to meet Ms. Dukakis, introducing myself and hoping she enjoyed “her show.” What can I say, I’m an idiot in these circumstances.
After the show, she critiqued our comedy revue. It was not the most pleasant experience, especially for an arrogant young comedy writer, many of whom I knew. Her advice extended to the medium of the comedy revue in general. The trouble, she felt, was that the show was just a series of sketches that rose or fell on each individual bit. She said we needed a through-line to carry the momentum of the show.
“Pish-posh,” thought I. “Saturday Night Live” didn't have that. “Laugh-In” didn't have that. Neither did “Sonny & Cher.” A show of comedy skits was just that by its very nature. Nothing you could do about it. Silly, silly woman.
But once expressed, it couldn’t be un-expressed. It certainly wasn’t something I considered consciously. We had a show to do!
Some time later, I’m sitting in at one of the rehearsals (I’m not quite sure why I was there but I loved being included). So we’re goofing around, and the actors start riffing about bad audition experiences, trying to top each other and I’m jumping in and we laughed and laughed. But I wound up taking ideas from that session, and turned it into a sketch about a series of actors auditioning at a local dinner theater. It was funny stuff and I had written characters specifically for the actors in the group. It worked well but as I had written it, it took the form of a series of black out gags. It was here we realized that the bit was flexible enough that we could set up the premise, the opening of the sketch, early in the show and then scatter the other auditions throughout the rest of the evening turning it into a running gag. We’d all certainly seen that before. After the show when on, I was amazed by what we had done. Granted, these running gags weren't a “dynamic through-line,” per se, but it did work enough as one. It gave the show cohesion and momentum which carried you through the revue.
It was simple to set up, with a dark stage and a lone spotlight into which the actor would step and do his bit. We could do as many as we wanted or as few, based on the actual logistics of which actor was up or not and what scene had to be set next.
Dukakis was right. Smart lady. And I like to think I was smart enough to recognize what a savvy piece of advice it was because we always made sure we had a through-line through all future shows.
And she was smart enough to recognize talent when she saw it.
At this time, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” had a mini-tradition of asking the winner of the best supporting actor to host the show after the Oscars. And they asked Ms. Dukakis. Good for her. But then the weirdest thing happened. Tom Gilpin calls me aside after one of our rehearsals and asked me if I wanted to meet with Olympia Dukakis. Sure?
As it turns out, she wanted to go to SNL with some material in hand, stuff she would ask to do. She had been so impressed with our work that she asked Tom and me to come up with some sketches for her that she would present to the show. I was floored. You have to realize that I thought that SNL was the greatest show in the world. I’d watched it from the beginning. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write comedy. It influenced my work through college and the humor magazine. I subscribed to NATIONAL LAMPOON because of it. It was an once-in-a-lifetime chance to present material to comedic Valhalla and I was going to seize it.
In a frenzy, I wrote several sketches for her. Two I remember very well, an Olympia/Michael Dukakis sketch that would have been a natural since Jon Lovitz was scoring big with his impression of the candidate. It was a thing about famous cousins (Patty Duke, Jesus and John the Baptist, etc.). A second was a sketch about the gods on Mt. Olympus (hitting on her Greek heritage) that I was particularly proud of. She saw them. She liked them (even more after a little tweaking). I couldn’t believe my luck! My sketches were going to be presented to SNL! Then my luck became more believable: the Writers Guild went on strike, SNL went dark and she was never asked to host again.
Plus I totally forgot to get her autograph.
Ironically, the Mt. Olympus sketch focused on the Muses threatening to go on strike unless Zeus paid them more for their work, parodying the issues of the time and the ultimate reason for the WGA strike; payment for VHS sales.