Rediscovering A. Whitney Brown

The title of this post is less an expression of what I’m up to than a call to action, a recommendation to re-evaluate for the admitted few who care. Today marks the 70th birthday of humorist A. Whitney Brown (b. 1952).

If the name makes you blink without comprehension, don’t feel bad. When his book The Big Picture came out in 1991, Brown’s publishers’ marketing department felt the need to remind the public that he was cast member of Saturday Night Live, though he was still on the show at the time:

Brown’s SNL years were 1985 to 1991, a time of relative solidity when the cast included Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, and Dennis Miller. It was Miller who championed Brown, resulting in a regular brief segment on Weekend Update called “The Big Picture”. (Ironic in retrospect, Brown being a progressive and Miller now a neo-con). At the time, I considered Brown’s segments an interesting if not really hilarious experiment. He seemed a bit of a fish out of water on the show, sort of retrograde, too “real” and on the nose. He made topical observations about the reigning politicians of the day (Reagan, Bush, etc) but the material and the manner of presentation seemed safe to me. On top of that, he had a bad habit of grinning and even laughing when he delivered his lines, which seemed a sort of no-no on SNL as far as I was considered, the formative comedians (e.g., Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Michael O’Donoghue) having been noteworthy for their deadpan.

Even then I recognized him as a humorist, as opposed to a comedian, which happens to be how he describes himself. (What’s the difference between a humorist and a comedian? I tend to think of a humorist as being very much about the writing: very precise, heavily-wrought writing. Naturally, the writing is comical and delivered so as to reinforce that, but it is much less about performance, and there is little to no improvising in the moment. Mark Twain and Will Rogers and Robert Benchley were humorists. I should hope you know the names of some comedians). This identity as a humorist was reinforced by that name: A. Whitney Brown. Sounds like an Ivy league WASP, doesn’t it? And he came off that way, with his all-American demeanor, slick hair, and his penchant for stylish menswear, which reminded me of contemporary literary figures and pundits of the time like Tom Wolfe and P.J. O’Rourke.

But I (and probably we) had it all wrong. SNL has a way of cramping the style of almost every comedian who has ever been a cast member. If you were to make a list of the genius comedians who seemed like nobodies on the show and then bloomed like flowers after they left, it would be a long one indeed, encompassing probably most of them. The reason for that is a combination of Lorne Michaels’ tight control on the show’s content, and the nature of television back then, with its strict “standards and practices”. So Brown didn’t really shine there. Though he did political material, it wasn’t dangerous in the way the satire had been on the show in the early days. It was sort of defanged and gentle. It felt kind of “Mark Russell” and “Capitol Steps“.

Sorry, A. Whitney, I know that’s gotta hurt. But the point of this post is that he was in a straightjacket. So here’s a fuller picture.

First, Brown’s stage persona was a character. I have no idea what his family’s economic status was, but as a youth he was put in reform school for stealing a car, and had problems with drugs. By the mid 1970s he had moved from his native small town in Michigan to San Francisco, where he worked as busker, juggling at the waterfront for tourists alongside such fellow future greats as Harry Anderson and The Amazing Jonathan. (How do you like that? It turns out we can include him among the New Vaudevillians!)

In 1977 he won a San Francisco Comedy Competition, and this set him on his path. He did stand-up for years, and his material and his persona are not necessarily what you would expect. Clips on Youtube reveal surprising things like drug humor, and a much more hippie-ish and observational orientation, though all heavily, and I must say IMPRESSIVELY wrought and polished, very smart, thought-provoking, and occasionally downright dazzling. His first Letterman bookings were in 1982. He moved on to Carson in 1984, and then was hired by SNL as a writer and featured performer the following year. In addition to “The Big Picture” he had small parts in sketches. Brown, and the entire writing staff, won an Emmy in 1988. He also co-wrote an episode of Tales of the Crypt called “Collection Completed”, featuring M. Emmet Walsh and Audra Lindley, in 1989.

In 1996 Brown became one of the first cast members of The Daily Show, during the pre-Jon Stewart Craig Kilborn period, leaving the show in 1998. (Though only there a couple of years, he was on nearly 400 episodes, the show being daily and all). When Air America Radio was launched in 2004, he worked there for a time as well (another noble but doomed experiment whose other contributors included Al Franken, Rachel Maddow, Marc Maron, Lizz Winstead, Chuck D., Ron Reagan, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks but somehow not Keith Olbermann).

At some point Brown moved to Texas, where in 2011 he married blues singer/guitar player Carolyn Wonderland, 20 years his junior, in a ceremony conducted by none other than Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. Recent photos reveal a dude who has reverted to hippie type, who seems very happy, and by all appearances has become that most un-showbiz-compatible of things, a complete human being.

I got some good dope (hah! I said “dope”) on Brown’s early life from this interview in Shecky Magazine. (I wrote a couple of pieces for Shecky myself back in the day. One was an obituary of Steve Allen; another was a feature about “comedy reverends”, a brief trend in the alt-comedy scene about 20 years ago.)

For more on variety entertainment, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous