“There has always been a mystery, to me, about ad-libbing, that was answered maybe 20 years ago,” he says. “Jonathan Winters is the only man that I know who would walk out and hell’s a poppin’. The only one. I think that the rest of us mortals – 12% on a fantastic night – ad lib. So everything that I do when I’m working comes from the thought of something to writing, whether I’m walking with no pencil, no paper — just walking and thinking and setting the thing in story form. That’s the way I work, in story form, so that I could have a funny idea or an idea that says, look there’s got to be something funny about all this, right?
“I’ll take you all the way back to the time I was playing Greenwich Village — and by the way I don’t care what anybody says, my place was the Gaslight, not the Bitter End. It was the Gaslight. I’m in Manhattan, I’m living there, I’ve gone from $60 a week to $125, and I’ve made my mother very unhappy because I left Temple University, I’ve made my father very unhappy because my father wanted me to play my senior year and maybe go into pro ball.
“I live over the Gaslight in the storage room, and I bathe in the bathroom. I play basketball at Waverly Place, I finish, and I come back and shower. I think, there’s got to be something funny about riding up the subway train, because when I’m riding it, things happen. I know there’s something, but I can’t in storytelling put it together. I write and I talk about what I see on the subway. It doesn’t feel funny, and so the audience also told me that. But I’m still working in a storytelling mode. The trick comes in as I’m talking to someone about New York City, Manhattan, Broadway, off-Broadway. The night clubs (with their) three-drink minimum. Manhattan is very, very expensive.
“The idea comes. I now have the setup for what I’ve been saying about people on the subway train. … This city is very, very expensive. Don’t forget, this is 1963. But New York is also very benevolent. What the city has set up, on the subway trains you pay — and I don’t remember what the price was – and you are entertained because New York City has put a nut in every car. And I would imitate the different acts.
“So that’s what it needed, was what most comedy writers called a set-up, so people would see clearly. In my writing, I will also keep my senses open. Even with what you saw, I was still thinking. I was still working. I was still searching … If I’m John Coltrane and the song is ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ and time, the seconds, everything is ticking, and there’s movement as I speak, it’s the beginning, middle and end — but there’s also a opening, listening to one’s self, that never gives up on a piece. You can’t tell time by what I do. When you don’t see (the flexibility) any more, that means I don’t know anything else about this piece.”