INTERVIEW: Tommy Moore, the “Professor Of Fun”

By Al Carlos Hernandez on December 26, 2011

HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris)  – Tommy Moore is an American comedian, clown, and motivational speaker who is well versed in the styles of vaudeville and Catskill comedy. His act is filled with classic jokes, original material, props, costumes, improv, and misguided magic, drawing heavily on audience participation. Billed as “The Professor of Fun,” he has been called the, “man who put the FUN back in Funny.”
On August 10, 2011, Moore published A Ph.D. in Happiness From the Great Comedians that reveals how observations and personal advice from famous comedians, including George Burns, Jay Leno, Harry Anderson and Rosie O’Donnell, helped him cope with the 1986 assault and other issues – from depression and obesity to money struggles.
Moore was born in West Philadelphia. He made a deal with his parents that if he pulled straight A’s he could stay up late and watch TV programs like The Red Skelton Show, The Danny Thomas Show, The Steve Allen Show and more. He would then re-enact them for his classmates the next day at school.
Moore earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Saint Joseph’s University, but while others were reading school books and listening to rock ‘n’ roll, Moore turned to joke books (he now has over 800) and collecting comedy records (last count 1,200 plus) housed in an office that looks ‘like a mini-museum of comedy.’
By the 1970s, Moore was performing in the vein of his comedy idols with clean, family-friendly material. But the comedy landscape was changing, as the country embraced the observational material of Robert Klein and David Brenner, and as George Carlin and David Steinberg popularized introspective and often controversial subjects. It was also in the 1980’s that Moore added journalism to his resumé, writing the bi-weekly column Comedy Corner for eleven years as a staff member of The Out On The Town Entertainment Guide. He interviewed and profiled hundreds of American comedians including George Burns and Harry Anderson. He also wrote comedy book reviews for the Philadelphia Daily News and contributed articles to MAD and Parade magazines. Moore opened for national headliner acts such as Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Dionne Warwick, The Platters, The Coasters, Jay & The Americans, Jackie Vernon, and Pat Paulsen. On TV and radio, he joined Steve Allen, Alan King, Soupy Sales, Joan Rivers, and Robert Goulet.
In the 1990’s Moore was approached by Temple University to teach a course on the health benefits of humor. This resulted in such courses as Laugh Away the Stress, Humor As A Life Skill, Stand-Up Comedy Performance, Comedy From A to Z, The History of American Comedy, and The Comedy Legends, which were among the most popular in the school’s course guide.
Moore’s clean brand of comedy has afforded him the ability to do fundraisers for religious and charitable organizations such as The United Church of Christ, B’Nai Brith, The Knights of Columbus, B’rith Shalom, The Jerry Lewis Telethon, Toys for Tots, The Variety Club, The American Cancer Society, UNICEF, National Tay-Sachs, and The Family Services Division of The Armed Forces.
On April 2, 1986, Moore was the victim of a brutal assault and robbery. He was beaten, bound and gagged, but used his magician’s training to escape the ropes that held him. The attack left him requiring onehundred eighty-six stitches to his head, a broken arm, leg, and several broken fingers. He was placed under twenty-four-hour police guard while hospitalized, since the police believed his assailant had murdered several other victims. The mugger was soon captured and sentenced to life in prison. During Moore’s ordeal, many in the Philadelphia comedy community believed he would never set foot onstage again. By maintaining the attitude of a “trouper,” he set out to quickly prove them wrong. Five days after the assault, in bandages and casts, he took the stage at LaSalle University with the introduction: “Direct from the Emergency Ward – Tommy Moore!” Since then, he has performed more than 2,500 shows, speeches, and seminars. He says the incident has actually strengthened his outlook on life and his faith in God, whom he credits with helping him survive that day.

Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor had an opportunity to connect with Tommy through their mutual friend, comic legend, Elayne Boosler. Thanks Elayne!

AC: Tell us about your family and your early life in Philly – and upbringing that steered you to a life of Comedy?

TM: I come from an Italian/Irish/Jewish neighborhood in Philly. David Brenner was from my neighborhood. So was Dom Irrera. Everybody there was funny. The shop keeper, the mailman, everybody. My father was a great storyteller. He’d tell stories every night at the dinner table. That’s where I got it from. On the way to gigs I’d tell stories and other comics would always say, “You’ve got to write a book!” So finally I did. All my uncles were funny. My Uncle Snazz was so funny that he was banned from funerals. He made you laugh so much you couldn’t mourn. I remember when my mother’s cousin Jimmy died. Jimmy was a life-long gambler. He would gamble on anything. If two raindrops were coming down a window pane, he’d bet on which one would hit bottom first. So we’re at the funeral. Jimmy’s in the box. Little old Italian ladies are mourning. My Uncle Snazz comes in and says, “Hold it! Hold it everybody!” The room is still. He goes over to the coffin, taps on the side and says, “Jimmy, there’s a crap game in the alley.” He waits a few seconds. When Jimmy doesn’t move, he turns to the crowd and says, “Yep, he’s dead!” With a family like that, how can you not turn out to be a comedian?!

AC: What was your first big laugh and when was the moment when you decided to be a performer?

TM: I was five years old and I had an inflatable rocking horse. All my aunts and uncles were there. I got on the horse and they were watching. I figured that if I pulled the plug and let the air out, it would get a laugh. I did. It did. I was hooked! Now, imagine a few years later and I was really sick – 104.5 fever. In bed all weekend and going stir crazy. I begged my parents to let me come downstairs and watch TV. They bundled me up and brought me down. On TV was the wonderful Jimmy Durante. I sat and watched and laughed – and my pain went way. He took my mind off it. I though, “What a wonderful thing to be able to do for people – if I could ever do that, wow!” Now, fast forward a few more years, and we went to see my Uncle Al in the hospital. In those days hospitals were dark and dreary places. You could see the pain on his face. I told a joke, and he laughed. And for a few minutes I saw the pain leave his face. I walked out of the hospital thinking, “I CAN do that!” Since then it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do.

AC: Steve Allen said, “Pain plus time equals humor.” Do you agree? How has pain enhanced your mission to make people happier?

TM: I do agree, and I think comedians want to minimize that time span – like to a nanno-second. That’s why we make jokes. Abe Lincoln said, “I laugh because I must not cry.” I think a true comedian sees the pain and wants to turn it around. As a teen, I was the comedian in the South Philadelphia Talent Workshop. We did hospital shows for police and firefighter wards. It was great training and so rewarding. To this day, every Wednesday afternoon I volunteer as a hospital clown with The Moore Regional Hospital Clowns – a dozen great folks that I’m proud to have trained. It’s wonderful to see people smile and see all their worries and pains go away, at least for a moment. I’ll tell you a story. Once we clowns were beckoned into a hospital room by a woman whose husband, the patient, was there in the bed. She said, “Look honey, look! There are clowns.” He opened his eyes, but barley smiled at our jokes. As we left she thanked us profusely. We said, “You’re welcome, but we really didn’t do that much.” She said, “You don’t understand. This is the first time he has opened his eyes in two months.”

AC: Tell us about your training as an elementary school teacher. Why didn’t you make it your life’s work?

TM: I got my B.S. in elementary education, but just to please my parents. I knew all I ever wanted to be was a comedian. I mean, think about it. It’s the greatest job in the world. You go to a party every night. You make people laugh and have fun. They applaud and compliment you. And then they pay you! Also, there’s no heavy lifting.

AC: How did you get the title “Professor of Fun?”

TM: I guess I finally did use my degree when Temple University asked me to teach a course in Humor as a Life Skill. On the first day of the first course there were twenty-five registrants. The second day there were fifty – with people sitting on the window sills. The third day they moved us to a bigger room because the class had grown to eighty.Then I started teaching a course called Humor to Relieve Stress. And then courses like The History of American Humor, Funny from A to Z, The Legends of Comedy, and Stand-up Comedy Performance. Pretty soon they were calling me, “The Professor of Fun.”

AC: Tell us about your very first stand up gig. The best gig? The worst gig? And what was the gig you always wanted but never booked?

TM: First gig was a Christmas show in a church hall – for free. I had to write all Christmas jokes. It went great, but I realized I couldn’t use those jokes again for a year. So I sent them to MADD Magazine and they turned them into cartoons and sent me a check for $600. I was thrilled. I think that when you do church work, God finds a way to pay you. Best gig comes with a story. I worked the first time at the very posh Caesars Resort Hotels in the Poconos. I thought the show went well, but when I came off stage, none of the staff was there to give me any feedback. The next day I thought I’d stop by the entertainment director’s office and say, “Thank you for the chance to perform here.” Wisely, I also said, “I hope I can come back.” He asked, “Why are you saying that?” I was confused. Had I done something wrong? He said, “Come into my office.” I felt like a kid in the principal’s office. He calls my agent and put us on speaker phone. He says, “Vinnie, I have Tommy Moore here. He just said he hopes he can come back. Why did he say that, Vinnie?” Vinnie says, “Well, I was going to call him later.” The entertainment director said, “Do you want to tell him or should I?” Vinnie says, “You can tell him.” Then Mr. Entertainment Director says, “Okay Vinnie, goodbye,” and hangs up. Now I’m sweating. He says, “Right after the show, the staff and I had a meeting – you’re booked here for the next fifty-two weeks.” I stopped sweating. Been there over 350 times since.

Worst job? Let’s see. Was it the one where my stage was a plank over a swimming pool with people swimming in it? Or the bikers’ picnic where my stage was in front of a row of Port-A-Potties? Or the show where we were told, right before show time, that this audience didn’t speak English? Hard to say. Luckily they were all in those first few years in the business. I’ve since learned to ask questions and, sometimes, “Just Say NO!”

The gig I always wanted? The Ed Sullivan Show! Gone and off the air long before I started performing, but I truly wish there were prime-time variety shows still on TV. I’m talking about the dozens of shows I grew up with: Ed Sullivan, The Hollywood Palace, Steve Allen, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett . . . they were such a joy! There’s a little bit of what was with America’s Got Talent, but there used to be dozens of shows. And what makes AGT different is that it’s not purely for fun. There’s the “seriousness” of being judged. The “seriousness” of making the cut. The “seriousness” of winning or losing. Variety shows were just plain fun back in the day. John Lahr of the N.Y. Times once said, in talking about Vaudeville (the first variety shows), “Vaudeville was all about frivolity! And frivolity is the specie’s refusal to suffer!” That is, in fact, what my act is about. I tell jokes, stories, one-liners, do magic tricks that don’t work, bring out props, costumes, bring audience members on stage, do improv, sing alongs . . . my act is a variety show. If you don’t like what I’m doing right now, wait a minute and I’ll be doing something completely different.

AC: Who are some of the majors you shared a bill with? What were some of the lessons about the entertainment business they taught you?

That’s what the whole book is about. In the roller coaster ride of show business, or life, for that matter. You’ve got to find, and hold onto, happiness. And so I talk about fifty major comedy stars and the “show business” lessons they taught me that translated easily into “real life” lessons.

Jay Leno taught me how to find myself. Jerry Lewis taught me about having faith in things. Milton Berle showed me the way to take a mental vacation. George Burns told me to always do what you love to do. Jack Benny taught me how to savor the little things. Jimmy Durante showed me how to flood myself with happy music. Alan King taught me the importance of being in control. Nipsey Russell taught me how to deal with hate. Joan Rivers gave me great advice about being judgmental. Joey Bishop forced me to risk being myself. David Brenner taught me about the importance of, “Thank You.” Robin Williams taught me the non-importance of money. Don Rickles taught me patience. Shecky Greene showed me how to live in the moment. Sammy Davis Jr. taught me how to surround myself with the things that made me happy. Dick Gregory and Danny Thomas showed me the power of prayer. Morey Amsterdam taught me how to look for the joy in everything. Henny Youngman taught me to just keep going, no matter what. Bob Hope, in a roundabout way, taught me the meaning of life. So many, many more. And they spiced up all these lessons with lots of jokes. It’s really been a PhD in Happiness. And I’m so thrilled with the people who have sent me emails saying the advice in the book has changed their lives. It certainly changed mine.

AC: Tell us about your various writing jobs. How tough is it to be a newspaper columnist? What are the good and bad about being a critic?

TM: Never been a critic. Never want to be. Critics sometimes lean toward critical/negative/cynical. I used to do that in real life and I was always miserable. I learned, the hard way, that what you think about is what you become. So I only thought about/wrote about things that made me happy – things that made me laugh. So the eleven years that I wrote my column Comedy Corner were a breeze, a joy. During the day I was interviewing the greatest comedians in the country. At night I was performing comedy in comedy clubs, casinos, and resort hotels. It was a life filled with laughter. Still is. Of course, I had it easy. Every week I was writing about what I loved. Doing what you love is never hard. Now I really respect the reporters who get sent out on random assignments and have to stare at a blank page and fill it. But I had it easy; I could pick and choose my stories. I only picked the people I loved.

AC: As an interviewer, how hard is it to interview a comic? Don’t they always have their guard up and insist on being funny while not necessarily sincere?

TM: Piece of cake. Comics love to please. They love to entertain. They do all the work for you. And when they know that you’re a comic too, that you “understand,” they have no trouble being real.

AC: Tell us about the first time you did TV. You have done over eighty network appearances – which were the best and worse?

TM: Well, not all the appearance was network. There were many “AM (insert city here) Shows.” Back in the ’80’s, when comedy clubs were super hot and new, every show found a reason to have a guest comic. Especially around Philly. We had over twenty rooms doing comedy nights and Atlantic City had all the casinos. So talk shows would pair up with the superstar comedians at the casinos on a panel with the newbie comedy club guys (like me). The best shows were ones where I got to appear with Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Steve Allen, Jackie Vernon, Soupy Sales, Allan King . . . I’m a terrible name dropper. You should never be a name dropper. You know who told me that? Bob Hope.

My first TV show? I was twenty. An agent (true story) booked me for exposure (translation: free) on a local cable TV show. Now I’m not exaggerating. Here’s how local it was. It was a South Philadelphia cable station that only had one hundred twenty-five subscribers. It was only seen in one hundred twenty-five homes in approximately a ten square block area. I thought, “Nobody’s going to see this!” I was wrong. A singer named Anthony Richards, who was soon to appear at Palumbo’s (then America’s oldest, longest running and one of America’s most famed nightclubs) saw me, and hired me for Palumbo’s as his opening act. At that Palumbo’s appearance, a newspaper reporter named Len Lear was in the audience and began quoting my jokes in his column. My career started. Who knew that from that TV show (that went into one hundred twenty-five homes) I would eventually be opening for Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, The Dovels (all from Philly), as well as Dionne Warwick, Jay & The Americans, The Platters, The Coasters, Robert Goulet and more. Lesson learned! You never know!

AC: You have done a lot of radio work as well. How does your performance change when you only have audio to work with?

TM: Well, the one good thing about radio is that you don’t have to shave. But as quiet a person as I am off-stage, put me in front of a microphone and you can go out for coffee. Actually that happened once. I was appearing at Caesar’s in Atlantic City. I was booked to do the Johnny Holiday Radio Show. The studio was actually on the boardwalk. I was supposed to be on the first half hour with another guest on for the last half hour. I get started and Johnny asks a few questions. At the first commercial break, he confides in me that he’s worried. The second guest should be there by now and I might have to do the last half hour if he’s a no-show. I say, “No problem!” We go back on the air and Johnny says, “Tell us some of your favorite jokes.” As I start a joke, he passes me a note that says, “I’m going to try to find the other guest!” and he LEAVES. I can see him through the window, walking up the boardwalk trying to find this guy. And I keep telling jokes. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, I’m telling jokes to an empty chair! A half hour later he comes back, and says, “I love those jokes!” as if he never left. And no one ever knew.

AC: You also do many corporate motivational gigs. What is that experience all about? What do you try to put across them?

TM: I’ve done lots of them. AT&T, DuPont, IBM, American Express, SONY. I teach them to loosen up, to lighten up, and to find the joy in their jobs. I teach them goal setting, self motivation, how to reduce stress, the power of teamwork, creativity, overcoming obstacles, and being positive. And I do it with lots of humor and lots of audience participation. These programs are so well received. So many times, it’s the first opportunity these people have ever had to see their co-workers laugh! Once I was scheduled to be the last program in a day of company meetings – but the president comes to me and asks if I can go on right after lunch instead. I said, “Fine.” He said, “I’ll tell you why after.” I did the program and they were a little uptight at first, but I got them laughing in about a minute and they were great. After the presentation, the company president called me aside and said, “I can’t tell you how happy I am. Now I’ll tell you why I put you on early. This morning these people got into a big debate. They were at each other’s throats. You walked into an ambush. They were in an angry mood. But I knew the only hope in turning the day around was to get them laughing. You did it. You turned it around. And I can’t thank you enough.” He gave me a bonus.

AC: We understand that you managed a comedy club for a while. Tell me about that experience.

TM: It was the 80’s. The “Golden Age of Comedy Clubs.” A time when dreams came true. A time when people, who all their lives wanted to make others laugh, found a stage to do it, and an industry that would pay them well for it. Comedy clubs were so new, so hot, the word on the street was, “All a nightclub has to do is put a handwritten sign in the window that said ‘COMEDY’  and a crowd would show up.” Well. It wasn’t that easy, but it sure was fun. Our little club was almost totally run by comedians. The doorman was a comedian, the usher was a comedian, the bouncer was a comedian, and the soundman was a comedian. If ever an act didn’t show, we were covered! We paid hundreds of dollars to then-upstart comedians who we would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to today. We had Rosie O’Donnell, Tim Allen, Elaine Boosler, Harry Anderson, Bobby Collins, Dom Irrera, and so many more. And there was the night we were sold out and a car pulled up. Someone got out and asked to buy tickets. We said, “Sorry, but we’re sold out.” He went back to the car with the news and then came back and said, “My friend says that if you find us seats, he’ll do a set for you.” We asked, “Who’s you friend?” He said, “Robin Williams.” We went to the car. It was Robin Williams. We found seats.

AC: Are all comics nuts? Stand up is one of the hardest things in life to do, so why do people do it?

TM: All PEOPLE are nuts. Comics are just free enough to admit it! Why do people do it? Let’s be honest. Lenny Bruce said it, “The definition of this job is: Dig Me!” It’s: look at me. Laugh at me. Applaud me! And next, it’s the fulfilling feeling that maybe you made the world a little happier place. Maybe, sometime in your life, someone made you laugh and made you happy and you want to do that for others. Now, why is it one of the hardest things to do? Because there is rule number one: the audience is the variable. You can tell the same joke to five different people. One will smile. One will chuckle. One will laugh. One won’t get it. And one will be offended by it. When you walk on stage, you never know what kind of people might be out there. It takes guts.

AC: You begin your new book with a very tragic story about you being almost killed. Not that funny. Why?

TM: Not so tragic, really. I survived and I came out stronger. To explain what happened: in 1986 I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I interrupted a robbery. I was hit on the head eight or nine times with a pipe. After seven you stop counting. I found myself tied up, gagged, and locked in a room in a pool of blood and left for dead. I fought my way out of the situation, wound up in the hospital with one hundred eighty-six stitches in my head, a broken arm, a broken leg, and a few broken fingers. I was told I might never stand on stage again. I said, “Wanna bet?!” I was scheduled to do a show five days later at LaSalle University. Never missed a show in my life. Wasn’t going to start now. So, five days later, in head to toe bandages and casts, I did the show. I did hospital jokes. Doctor jokes. The crowd thought the casts were a gimmick. I was back doing what I loved. Why’d I start the book like that? Well, the book is about being happy no matter what! That’s a pretty good “no matter what!!” Plus, I was lucky. All my friends were comedians. They visited my hospital room in a steady stream and kept me laughing. It’s when I really realized, first hand, the healing power of humor.

AC: Who is your all time favorite comic, or at least the top three?

TM: How about the top twelve? Since I gave you a short answer to the last question, you’ll allow me few extra words on this one. In no particular order: Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene, Danny Thomas, Don Rickles, Totie Fields, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Jerry Lewis, Henny Youngman, Lou Marks (of the comedy team of Fisher & Marks), and #12 – anybody who ever had the guts to walk on a stage and try to make people laugh.

AC: What is your favorite performance platform: stand up, TV, Radio, film, and why?

TM: It’s all fun. But the best is “live.” Where the audience is right in front of you. Where you can reach out and touch them. Nothing else like it. You see their faces laughing. You can feel the walls vibrate.

AC: How do you feel about New Media, Twitter, and Facebook? Does this help or hinder your mission in life? And, by the way, what IS your mission in life?

TM: Like any technology, it’s a tool. A great tool for getting the info out there. A great tool for connecting with people. But technology must never replace humanity. Because, bottom line, it’s all about people. And what’s my mission in life? To entertain, inform, uplift, and heal.

AC: What are some of the things you are working on now and what are some things still on your Bucket List that you hope to achieve?

TM: I’ve got a writer in LA working on turning the book into a series of TV specials. As for me? Ask any comedian. The bucket list is always the same – The Next Show.

AC: In the afterward of your book, you reference a certain spirituality. How does your view of spirituality compliment your quest to teach happiness?

TM: In the final chapters I do talk about God. A Universal God. People have different names for God, different religions. But the rules are the same: Love God… Love one another… Do unto others as you would have them do unto you… Forgive and you will be forgiven… Judge not and you will not be judged… Give and you shall receive… Fear not… And be of Good Cheer! Jesus said all that stuff. Those are, kind of, the Cliff Notes for staying on the right path to happiness. A GPS of sorts. God’s Positioning System. George Burns played God in three movies. When I asked Mister Burns for some show business advice, he said, “Get to know the theater manager. Get on his or her good side. The manager can do a lot for you. The manager can overlook some mistakes, forgive others, smooth out some rough spots, run interference, provide help when you need it, and generally make life easier. Follow the manager’s rules. Get on the manager’s good side.” Pretty good advice. Now, as I said, different people have different names for God. I like to call God, “The Manager.” And I’m trying to stay on The Manager’s good side!

AC: In the end, how would you like the world to remember you? What would you like your legacy to be?

TM: He made people laugh! He made people happy!

AC: I have to say that I have read the book twice, taught from it, and love it. I consider it a “must read.” How can people find out more about you and where can they purchase the book?

TM: The book is available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle. Just type Tommy Moore Happiness in the search and you’ll get there. And my website is www.profcomedy.com. That’ll get you to me.

And thank you so much for the interview A.C., it’s been fun. And by the way, I love Paris. I was there to see the great Senor Wences perform at The Crazy Horse in ’79. There’s a whole story about it in the book. He lived to be 103 and performed his entire life. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Edited by Susan Aceves


Comments
Michael O'Keefe August 22, 2012

I’ve been reading about you and came across an audio interview over the internet that I would like to listen to again. Where can I find it? I was interrupted during listening and lost track of the source. Please advise. I look anxiously forward to seeing you live at St. Mark Parish Hall for the Knights of Columbus dinner show in October. Thanks! -Michael

Tommy Moore September 9, 2012

Michael, Thanks for your comment, and your interest . To answer your question, there are two radio interviews on my website. I think the more complete one was done by Nancy Lombardo on Comedy Concepts out of NY.
You can find the link and hear that on the “Tommy’s New Book” page on my website: http://www.profcomedy.com. And please stop by and say hello at the dinner show, I look forward to meeting you. Best Always – Tommy

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