Today’s Guest: Robert Wuhl, comedian, actor, The Hollywood Knights, Cobb, Batman, Blaze, “Arli$$,” “Assume the Position”
Robert Wuhl cracks me up. Always has, always will.
His HBO series, “Arli$$,” about an over-ambitious Hollywood sports agent, was must-see TV in my house for years, and I’ve seen his first movie, Hollywood Knights, hundreds of times. Really, hundreds. If you haven’t seen it, buy it.
In terms of media experience, Wuhl played reporters in Batman and Cobb and a disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam. And when Billy Crystal hosted the Academy Awards in 1990, 1991, and 1992, Wuhl contributed a good many of Crystal’s best lines. This, I’m sure of.
It doesn’t hurt that we share a birthday, October 9th, and we’re both New Jersey natives.
This month, Wuhl returns to HBO with his second “Assume the Position” special. It’s a raucous run through history in which Professor Wuhl takes charge of a class of college students and shares “more stories that made America and the stories that America made up.”
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: What attracts you to history so much?
ROBERT WUHL: Well, I like storytelling. I mean, that’s basically it. I just like storytelling, and that’s all history is is storytelling. Of course, the thing to always remember is you have to keep in mind who’s telling the story. What’s their agenda? What gain do they have? What point of view are they saying? And I just like storytelling, so history lends itself, because it has characters in it.
ANDELMAN: When did you become skeptical of the way history is told?
WUHL: I think by nature I’m just skeptical. You know, not cynical. I don’t like the idea of being cynical, because as (Oscar) Wilde said, “A cynic knows the cost of everything but the worth of nothing.” But I am skeptical. I always want to know who’s telling the story, and I just question. And then, there was a great quote from (Paddy) Chayefsky in “The Americanization of Emily” where he said, “I don’t know what is good or bad or true. I let God worry about the truth. I only want to know the momentary facts of things.” And I think that’s a pretty good line.
ANDELMAN: How much do you read? My sense is that you must read a lot.
WUHL: I do a lot of reading. I read mostly non-fiction, obviously. The Internet is a godsend for research. But I do read; not as much as my wife. My wife reads fiction, and she reads a book a day. She used to work for Simon and Shuster, so she just devours fiction. I read nonfiction.
ANDELMAN: What have you read recently?
WUHL: What did I read recently that’s really good? You know what I just read that was terrific was Katherine Graham’s book, which was wonderful, Personal History. That was a great book. And then I just read a novel by Frank Deford, The Entitled, which was a nice read.
ANDELMAN: What made you want to get in front of a classroom of college kids and talk history? It is one thing, it seems to me, to read history and to study history, but you really put a lot on the line by getting in front of kids who have nothing to lose by challenging and heckling. But you get up there in these specials, and you just turn it on.
WUHL: I thought there was a way to do this. I just thought there was a way to make history more entertaining in front of a classroom. I’m very pro-student. The beauty of Chris Albrecht, the genius of Chris Albrecht, is that when I pitched him the idea, he said, “Okay, the one thing I know about what you’re talking about is that we have to commit to shooting it. You can’t have a script and develop it. It’s like developing a stand-up act. You just have to shoot it.” These things are pretty labor-intensive, so it takes a while, then we workshop it in the classrooms for a couple of months, and then we go and shoot it in New York.
ANDELMAN: The presentation is very stand-up style. I don’t know, I’m just going to ask you: have you done a lot of stand-up?
WUHL: Oh, sure. I started out as stand-up.
ANDELMAN: Yeah, I wasn’t sure about that. And are you doing stand-up now?
WUHL: I don’t do much of it. No. I really don’t do much of it any more. I’ll do some corporate dates, and I do a lot of hosting at charity events. Occasionally, I’ll go and do a stand-up gig but not too often.
ANDELMAN: What can a high school teacher or college history professor learn from stand-up comedy about presenting their material?
WUHL: I don’t know if they can learn anything.
WUHL: You know, I’m fortunate in that I can workshop it out, and I do have a background, and I don’t know if it’s fair to ask any other teachers to do that. That’s not their job. Remember, first and foremost, it is a piece of entertainment. It’s an HBO entertainment special, and it is a comedy special. I would always say to use context. That would be the biggest thing I would say to teachers, explain context of why and how these things happened rather than just giving names, dates, and places, because that means nothing. That, they will memorize for a test and forget the next day. If you put a face on it, understand the characters involved and what their motivations were for doing something, then that would be my only thing to say.
ANDELMAN: Who do you most admire from American history?
WUHL: Probably the common man, probably the working man.
ANDELMAN: Oh, that sounds like a Time magazine answer, Robert. “The Man of the Year is YOU.”
WUHL: It’s true, though. I admire the people who have to, as we say in the show, get through it. The people of power make decisions that affect usually not them, you know, but usually the people who work and live under them, so I really do respect the working man, the working woman, the family guy, the woman who’s keeping a family together in the obstacles of society, whether it be present-day or the past. It’s all present-day family, I mean, no matter when it takes place. History takes place in the present. It doesn’t take place in the past. That’s who I most admire. I mean, there are figures, just like any other kid, sports figures or scientific figures or stuff like that, people who accomplish. Anybody who accomplishes, gets through the workday and does their job, I’m a fan of them, the working men.
ANDELMAN: One of the things you say is that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
WUHL: Right. That came out of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
ANDELMAN: Right. What does that mean, exactly? How would you explain that to someone who didn’t see the show.
WUHL: Well, that’s exactly what I think a lot of history is is that the stories are passed down, and then they become accepted as fact, and then people print them. They take it that way. That’s just the nature, and that one, it was pop culture, of culture. You know, when you get a story long enough, you do believe it, especially when it becomes accepted.
ANDELMAN: Robert, you make a point in both “Assume the Position” specials, the first one from a year ago and this new one: You say that your dad was a Republican, your mom a Democrat, your wife is to the left of Lenin.
ANDELMAN: Now, you’ve been interviewed and gone toe-to-toe with Bill O’Reilly, but is it intentionally difficult to get a fix on your politics?
WUHL: My politics are, I look at each individual issue. I think you have to take everything into consideration. Because my dad was a businessman, he had a family business, so when you do that, your view on how government affects you is different than somebody who doesn’t, and so it just gives you a different point of view. I grew up in the Northeast, in New Jersey, and I went to school down in Texas There you are exposed to a whole different culture and whole different points of view. I think that’s really good. Basically, however, in this country, social issues and stuff like that can change, but you are dealing in a capitalistic system, so the one party is the capitalist party. The other stuff I really don’t think matters a whole hell of lot. Again, social issues, individual issues, yes, but as far as other things, not that much.
ANDELMAN: You made a very strong case for Hedy Lamar’s post-Hollywood accomplishments, so I need to ask you, how will American history look back on Paris Hilton?
WUHL: Oh, God, I don’t even think about Paris Hilton. I’m probably the only person in the world. I think she won’t be remembered, basically. She’ll be a footnote, unless she creates something great. As of right now, I don’t know what the future holds.
ANDELMAN: My buddies will kill me if I let you get away without asking about Newbomb Turk and Hollywood Knights. What do you remember about getting that film made? I don’t know that we’ll ever get a DVD commentary on that, but…
WUHL: There is a commentary on it.
ANDELMAN: Is there really?
WUHL: Yeah, there’s one out. Did I do it, or did Floyd (Mutrux) do it? I think maybe Floyd did it.
ANDELMAN: I’ve had my copy so long I didn’t even know that. If you could tell a story about that movie, what might it be?
ROBERT WUHL: It was my first gig. It came out in 1979. I just got out to L.A., and within about three months, I’m handed the lead in this movie, and within another two months, we’re shooting it. What I remember most about it is the anarchy involved in the shooting of it and a lot of good times and a couple of friends who I still talk to, am still close with to this day. I’m stopped more for Newbomb Turk than anything, I would say, with the exception probably of “Arli$$,” because that was a TV series. But outside of that, including Batman, including Bull Durham, including anything, I’m probably stopped more, I’m sure I’m stopped more for Hollywood Knights.
ANDELMAN: That movie just had such an anti-American Graffiti feel to it, which may have made it that much funnier.
WUHL: Well, the pitch was, I remember, the way they sold it to the studio was “American Graffiti meets Animal House.” And as good as the movie was, the early cuts I thought were even better.
WUHL: Yeah, I thought it was a much better movie before they went to do all the preview screenings and chopped it down and stuff. But, that said, Hollywood Knights also coincided, believe it or not, with the birth of HBO, because when HBO first started, that was one of the movies that they ran over and over and over about 1981. They ran this thing, and people would watch it, and it’s amazing that I’d hear about fathers watching it with their sons, and now those sons have grown up, and now they’re watching it with their kids. So, it’s kind of fun — now.
ANDELMAN: I said in the introduction that I had seen it hundreds of times. I wasn’t kidding. It just cracks me up every time I see it. I love that movie. I don’t know why. It must say something for my level of maturity, I guess, I don’t know. It’s interesting, though, looking at the “Assume the Position” specials and then Hollywood Knights, maybe it’s the wonder of the camera, but you don’t look like you’ve aged 25 years in that time.
WUHL: It’s more than that. It’s 27 years.
WUHL: Well – I have!
ANDELMAN: Fran Drescher, who was in that movie…
WUHL: A lot of good talent in that movie. Floyd was great at picking young talent. That’s Michele Pfeiffer’s first film.
ANDELMAN: Tony Danza was in there.
WUHL: Tony Danza’s first film.
ANDELMAN: Richard Schaal…
WUHL: Dick Schaal did work before, but the talent! Fran’s in it, a guy named P. R. Paul, Gailard Sartain, Stuart Pankin, a lot of good people in that movie.
ANDELMAN: Pankin was great. Fran was on Howard Stern’s radio show recently talking about her interest in running for Congress. Now, unfortunately, she couldn’t name the three branches of government when questioned, and I just wondered, knowing your interest in history, if she would get your vote?
WUHL: I must say, I’m a big believer in loyalty, so probably. I’m a believer in voting for your friends. I think that’s a good thing.
ANDELMAN: Are you very political?
ANDELMAN: You’re not.
WUHL: No. But I believe in voting for your friends in anything, whether it’s the Oscars, the President, your high school buddy running for junior class president. Why not vote for your friends?
ANDELMAN: Another actress who you started with or started with you, Sandra Oh, of course now a very big star on “Grey’s Anatomy” and made a name for herself though first as your secretary on “Arli$$.” She won the Academy Award, of course. How much credit can you take for her success?
WUHL: She did not win.
ANDELMAN: Did she not win?
WUHL: No, no.
ANDELMAN: My apology. She was nominated.
WUHL: No, she wasn’t.
ANDELMAN: She wasn’t even nominated?
ANDELMAN: She deserved it. Anyway, I’m embarrassed. How much credit, nonetheless, can you take for her success?
WUHL: I gave her a job.
ANDELMAN: There you go.
WUHL: I just gave her a job.
ANDELMAN: It all came from there.
WUHL: Well, I had seen her work. I had seen her do a movie called Double Happiness from Toronto, where she’s from, and I thought she was really good in that. The part came down to two actresses. It came down to her and a girl named Lauren Graham.
ANDELMAN: Oh, really?
WUHL: Yes, and either one would have been great. I just took a flyer on Sandra, and I’m not surprised at all at the huge success of both of them.
ANDELMAN: Very different actresses.
WUHL: They’re both terrific. I mean, those are two terrific actresses.
ANDELMAN: So what’s next for you? I know when you did the first “Assume the Position,” there was talk of it becoming a regular thing, but it’s been a year now until the second one. Will it get a regular spot, or….
WUHL: It’s very hard to do. That’s the one thing. These things are pretty labor-intensive between the research, the writing, the editing, the workshopping. But yeah, I enjoy doing them a whole hell of a lot. It’s different. There’s nothing like it. I really love watching the students and working with them, so hopefully it continues.
ANDELMAN: Do you have other things scheduled at this point?
WUHL: There is a film project I’m looking to direct that I’ve been working on for a while called Pick Six, which was about the three ex-frat kids in 2002, I think it was, or 2003, who hacked into the OTB and won the Breeder’s Cup. It’s a funny story about growing up and coming of age, a different type of coming of age story that I really like a lot.
ANDELMAN: Well, Robert, I want to thank you so much for joining us on Mr. Media and, of course, for making me a big hero among my college buddies, who worshiped at the altar of Newbomb Turk and the Pie Wagon.
WUHL: Do you know there was a band named The New Bomb Turks?
ANDELMAN: No, really?
WUHL: They had a rock band for about 15 years — I never met the guys — named The New Bomb Turks.