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They're Cutups From the Same Cloth

At a fund-raiser, longtime comics tell how they discovered they were funny.

April 26, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six guffawing grande dames of comedy gathered on a dais in a ballroom at the Wyndham Bel Age in West Hollywood Tuesday to talk about . . . laughing.

And why laughing matters.

The chortling posse of women with big laughs, big hair and big personalities had barely taken the stage when they had the sold-out crowd of 350 coiffed women and a sprinkling of their "henpecked husbands," as one funny lady put it, snickering into their flan.

"A lot of people came up and asked if the wheelchair was the result of liposuction," said Renee Taylor, a writer, actress, comedian and director, who on this day was confined to a wheelchair because of a broken foot. "This goes no further than this room," she continued, announcing to the luncheon that there was a reporter lurking somewhere in the place. "But for months, in Beverly Hills, I was being stalked by a plastic surgeon."

The guests--many of them cosmetically enhanced, because this is L.A.--pushed back their cups of coffee and howled.

"I have no need for collagen," she quipped. "My lips have been done in chicken fat."

The panel of laughing divas were gathered for a fund-raiser for the Los Angeles Free Clinic, a 34-year-old community service organization that provides 80,000 patient visits annually--without judgment or fee--for medical care, dental care, legal assistance, counseling, HIV and health education, prenatal care as well as job training and placement. The clinic operates two sites, one on Hollywood Boulevard, for adolescents, and another on Beverly Boulevard, for adults.

In addition to Taylor, who served as a co-host and inquisitor, Tuesday's celebrity comedians included Anna Maria Horsford of the TV shows "Amen" and "The Wayans Bros."; Nancy Becker Kennedy, an actress, playwright and composer who was injured in a diving accident at age 20, and whose biography says she was the first wheelchair-bound actor to be a series regular in daytime and nighttime TV; Sally Struthers, most famous for her Gloria role in "All in the Family"; Cindy Williams of "Laverne and Shirley"; and JoAnne Worley of "Laugh-In."

It was a vortex of feisty female energy, loaded onto a really small stage. Taylor had to struggle to get her first question heard: "How did you know you were funny?"

Horsford said she learned the power of laughter at a tender age. Her mother had taught her never, ever to interrupt without saying, "Excuse me." She was playing on the floor at a friend's house when she said to the man of the house, "Excuse me. Do you know you walk like a woman? Do you want me to show you?"

Her mother's hand was poised in the air ready to slap, but then the man . . . laughed. "So I knew, if you are funny, you won't get a spanking!"

JoAnne Worley said she learned the power of laughter when she saw how one well-timed wisecrack could turn something really unpleasant into something funny. One day in her two-room schoolhouse, she walked in on a scary sight: a mean teacher was about to whack an insolent eighth-grader upside the head. The teacher said, "Don't you get smart with me.. . . ."

"Isn't that why we come to school?" asked Worley. "To get smart?"

The teacher laughed, the boy got off scot-free, and she felt "warm and tingly" all over.

Sally Struthers said that when she was in elementary school, her teacher, Mrs. McDonald, sent home her report card with these remarks: "Sally is a good student, but she has to know it is not her responsibility to entertain the class when I am out of the room." Struthers said she used to break her family's giant television, just so they would have to take it apart and she could climb inside the big box and put on a show like the talking heads. "It was inevitable," she said. TV was her destiny.

Cindy Williams said she learned the power of laughter at a tent revival in Texas when she was 6. She won a Bible for perfect attendance. To receive it, she had to walk through a crowd of 1,000 (well, maybe it was only 24, she conceded, but it felt like 1,000). When the pastor handed her the Good Book, he said, "Would you like to say anything, Cynthia?"

She stood still--small, scared.

"No," she replied. "And the whole room laughed. So I just kept trying to win Bibles."

The women talked about their biggest obstacles (that was funny, too). Then a woman in the audience asked if comedians really are the sad, pensive people everyone always says they are.

Yes, they said. They are those sad, pensive people.

Kennedy said that as a woman with a disability, she feels exiled from the emotional life of the community. But, she said, you can make up for it on stage with laughter.

"It's a bonding thing," she said, "as we share our sorrows and laugh about them."

Co-host Taylor concluded:

"I find being a comedian very healing. To hear people laugh goes all the way through me. And I feel better."

She paused.

"So, let's end with a big laugh."

The crowd obliged.

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