When I get out to Los Angeles every year or two, I always try to make time for an extended lunch or dinner with my friend Mark Evanier (read about his amazing career here), so we can catch up and trade stories about show business, politics, and everything else. There’s never a lack of things to talk about, and I always learn something new.
I was out there a few weeks ago, but instead of our usual meal, Mark invited me to dine with the members of Yarmy’s Army, a group of veteran comedians, writers, directors, and producers who have met regularly since 1992, when Don Adams asked them to get together for the benefit of his brother, Dick Yarmy, who was suffering from cancer. They met in the back room of a restaurant every Tuesday for quite awhile and, after Yarmy’s death, continued hanging out once a month. The membership has at various times included many of the funniest oldtimers in town: Harvey Korman, Pat McCormick, Shelley Berman, Don Knotts, Tim Conway, Gary Owens, Dick Van Patten, Ronnie Schell, Howard Morris, and many others.
Through the years, too many of them have died, but the tradition continues, and since Mark is a member, he was allowed to bring me along as a guest, to meet and eat with:
- Chuck McCann, whose local kids’ TV show I watched in the 1960s in New York, still working as a voice actor for more cartoons than I can list;
- Jack Riley, best known as Mr. Carlin on “The Bob Newhart Show”;
- Mike Preminger, comedian who appeared on virtually every daytime and late-night TV talk show, as well as warm-up guy for many sitcoms, including “Welcome Back, Kotter”;
- Budd Friedman, who started the original comedy club, the Improv, in New York before taking the concept to LA, where “An Evening At The Improv” ran for 14 years on A&E;
- Thom Sharp, whose man-on-the-street interviews have appeared in hundreds of commercials;
- Warren Berlinger, who guest-starred on at least a half-dozen “Love American Style” episodes and virtually every sitcom of the 1970s and 1980s;
- Pat Harrington, best known as Schneider, the building superintendent on “One Day At A Time,” and one of the original cast members on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show”;
- Howard Storm, director of dozens of sitcoms, including “Mork & Mindy,” “Rhoda,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
That’s only a third of the roster of guys who sat around telling stories and jokes, toasting friends no longer around, and enjoying each other’s company. There were several highlights of the evening for me.
I asked Budd Friedman to verify a story I’d heard about Lily Tomlin’s very first night at the Improv, when she showed up in a limousine — a remarkable entrance for an unknown, which she was at the time. He explained that she had gone to a Broadway theater, approached a limo driver who was just sitting there while his clients were inside the theater, and paid him five bucks to drive her two blocks to the Improv so she could seem like a big shot and impress the boss. It worked. She caught Budd’s eye and he put her onstage, where she was enough of a hit that he used her regularly after that.
When Thom Sharp learned that I live in St. Louis, he told me a few stories about doing commercials for Southwest Bank and other clients here, explaining that it was much easier to shoot on our streets than in bigger cities because the people weren’t jaded about appearing on camera.
Mike Preminger told me about his years doing audience warm-up for several sitcoms and variety shows, including two that Mark worked on as a writer — “Welcome Back Kotter” (a huge success) and “Pink Lady and Jeff” (a huge bomb). The latter didn’t work because Pink Lady was a singing duo of Japanese women who spoke almost no English. They would do a couple of songs and some sketches with co-star Jeff Altman and whichever guest star had been convinced to join the show that week, but because Pink Lady had trouble overcoming the language barrier (they learned their lines phonetically), each taping took much longer than other TV shows, and it was up to Mike to keep the studio audience entertained between re-takes. He told me it was the hardest he ever worked, and what happened on the stage was often painful to watch, so no one was surprised when NBC yanked it after just six episodes.
I was very happy Mark invited me to join him in the back room of that Chinese restaurant among these comedy veterans, who represented a combined thousand years of showbiz experience or more. Here’s to all of them.