By Wolynski © 2010
It was Halloween 1974 and I was barely out of my teens.
The Madhouse Company was new to Manhattan. We were performing our "Wild Stunt Show," written by Ken Campbell, just round the corner from the Improv. We befriended the flamboyant owner, Budd Friedman, and many of the comics.
One day Budd approached us with an offer of a gig. Charles Jourdan shoes were throwing a huge promotional party and needed entertainment in between the sets of the Mercer (son of Duke) Ellington Orchestra. Budd suggested Andy Kaufman and us.
The Madhouse believed the show started as soon as you walked through the door. As part of the pre-show, I was The Laughing Machine. I stood in a booth built by a cast mate, Marcel Steiner, who had created stuff for circuses and carnivals and his work was exquisite. It had a big mouth on top, a window and slots for putting in money for different kinds of laughs: a sunny smile for a penny, a cackle for a nickel, The Candidate’s Vote Winner for a dime as I shook hands and heartily slapped on the shoulder, and the Madhouse Special for a quarter where I laughed so hard I fell out of the booth. That really started people laughing.
The booth was put in the foyer of the swank upper East Side townhouse Charles Jourdan had rented for the night, which he had decorated as a haunted mansion by a film crew. Get the people laughing as they come in.
We had never done parties, but the money was good. On the night, I stood in my beautiful booth and watched people arrive. The Rockefellers and Vanderbilts were announced, and sailed right past me, with their noses in the air, giving me a look of utter disgust as if they had smelled something bad. Nobody was in the least bit interested in the Laughing Machine. Just as I was thinking this was going to be a long evening, a lone figure materialized in front of me and said in a faint voice "Umm… what is this?"
It was Andy Warhol. I explained the different laughs and pointed to the slots. Warhol examined the booth and the menu very carefully - he recognized the genuine carnival art. Then he dug into his pocket and took out change and spread it out on the palm of his hand. Very gingerly he inserted a penny and I gave him a sunny smile. He went back to his change, found a nickel and I gave him a cackle. Now this usually got people laughing, but Warhol just stared at me. He searched for a dime, inserted it, and suddenly I was shaking his hand and slapping him heartily on the shoulder. He looked alarmed - Warhol did not like to be touched. I was quite convinced he wouldn’t move on to the Madhouse Special, but Warhol gamely pressed on. Very apprehensively he inserted a quarter and covered his cheeks with his hands. I laughed so hard I fell out of the booth and rolled around at his feet. Warhol eyed me with great curiosity, but no expression. After I was back in the booth, he thanked me and disappeared to mingle with the glitterati.
When it was time to do our show upstairs, nobody paid us any attention. Woody Allen stood by the stage with his back turned to us, deep in conversation with some rich socialites. Of course, these people didn’t need a show, because they were the show. We were totally superfluous. Andy Kaufman didn’t do any better -- nobody was interested. Andy was in the middle of his Elvis, when suddenly everyone rushed to the other side of the room. Andy looked up and saw people’s backs retreating. Salvador Dali had just made a grand entrance on the staircase, surrounded by four gorgeous women, each with a rose in her mouth. The guests trampled over Woody Allen and Andy Warhol to get to Dali. It’s as if God himself had arrived.
Dali didn’t stay long and as I saw him descend the staircase, I ran towards the little elevator to get to the laughing booth. If one icon of 20th century art partook, why not another? I arrived in my booth and Dali was only half way down the stairs, surrounded by adoring throngs, all wanting a piece of him. Finally he reached the bottom, saw my booth and made a beeline for me, dragging an expensively preserved middle-aged woman with him.
Dali planted himself firmly in front of me and said "Madmoiselle!" He launched into a very long, important and animated speech in French aimed directly at me. I was mesmerized. I examined the famous face and the moustache and the eyes boring into me, wondering when he would reach for some change. What was so important he had to tell me? I understood not a word, but enjoyed every minute, especially when he jabbed his fingers into the air. Suddenly he finished and said "Now pleeze translate to zis woman." He pointed at his companion and left. Damn, he thought I was a translator’s booth. It had a mouth on top, what else could it be? This made me laugh without money.
Everyone looked at me expectantly. What did the great master say?
"Damned if I know, but if anyone has a quarter, I’ll do the Madhouse Special."
Meanwhile, Budd Friedman had been working the party. He gathered up some society figures and told us and Andy Kaufman to get to the Improv. It was 4am when we got there, the place was closing, but Budd ordered it open for New York’s finest socialites. All the comics had gone home, so Budd ordered us and Andy to perform again. We protested as we had already bombed in front of these people.
"So you'll bomb again, now get the fuck on the stage."
So we all bombed again.
Wolynski is a photographer and former comic who lives in Las Vegas.