Some 76-year-olds do crossword puzzles to keep their minds sharp. Fred Willard writes sketches.
“Every week I try to make it a point to write [one],” he says. “I’ve got about six cardboard boxes full of sketches. Some I look at and say, ‘What was I thinking? This is no good.’ Others I pull out and say, ‘Hey, this is great; let’s do it again.’ But it keeps your mind active.”
Willard hasn’t stopped making people laugh since he teamed up with an acting buddy in 1962 and wound up on The Ed Sullivan Show. He’s been a workhorse in the half-century since, showing up as a guest on dozens of television series and as an itinerant character actor in the movies — most notably for director Christopher Guest. But he’s never left his first love, live sketch comedy, and he’ll be performing a new show with the MoHos (a sketch group he formed 10 years ago with his wife, Mary) next week in both Upland and Burbank.
“That’s always been my favorite thing: sketches,” he says. “Because if the audience doesn’t like something, it’s over in four or five minutes and you go on to something new. With improv or a full length play — you know how you go to a theater and after 10 minutes you say, ‘Oh, I don’t like this thing,’ but you don’t want to get up and leave? At a sketch show, it’s always something new every few minutes.”
Willard was born in the fall of 1939, a seismic entertainment season that saw the releases of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. (He was also born the same month that Germany invaded Poland.) There is an old-school charm about the actor, who grew up in rural Ohio during WWII, who played baseball as a kid and dreamt of the major leagues, who joined the Army in the early '60s, and who started his entertainment aspirations “wanting to be in cowboy movies or detective movies or something.”
As early as grade school, he realized he had a knack for instigating laughs (and getting in trouble). “Looking back, I was a very good kid, very studious and all,” he says. “But I would always come out with a quip — and I was sent to the principal’s office several times.”
When his parents took him to see shows at the Cleveland Play House, he remembers he was “always more interested in how they did it — you know, what the actors were doing and how they did it — rather than just sitting back and enjoying the show.” Comedy first took over his young mind in the form of bandleader Spike Jones and the City Slickers. “That’s the first sketch type of comedy I saw,” he says. Over at The Roxy in Cleveland, young Willard soaked up old vaudeville and burlesque sketches. “I can still remember some of the jokes — all these double entendres. That influenced me a lot.”
He played baseball all the way through his stint in the army, but says he was “mediocre.” He continues: “Then I thought maybe I’d like to be a disc jockey, because I loved old ’50s music, and I thought it would be great to play different versions of the same song. Then I said, no, maybe I’ll be an actor. That sounded easy.”
After his Army tour he moved to New York and enrolled in an acting school called the Showcase Theater. “I chose it because every 10 weeks they did a show and invited people,” he says. “That’s the best training you can get. If you’re not doing something right, you can feel it on stage, and if it isn’t going well, the audience will tell you. A teacher can teach you sense memory and this and that, but until you get in front of an audience you don’t really feel it.”
He formed a comedy duo with his classmate Vic Greco, which got him on television, and then he did a year’s training at Second City in Chicago (alongside David Steinberg and Robert Klein). This was still a decade before sketch comedians could hope for a call from Saturday Night Live or SCTV (though he would eventually host the former and appear on the latter), so Willard headed back to New York and put his skills to use in Greenwich Village coffeehouses — performing one-act plays and Tennessee Williams scenes. As always, laughter was his favorite compliment.
“Comedy is harder, because if there’s no laughs, it’s pretty bad,” he says. “But drama, if there’s no reaction you can say, ‘Well, it’s not their cup of tea. Maybe it’s too heavy for the audience.’ And there are different types of performers, so one person will say, ‘He’s a terrible actor,’ and the other person will say, ‘Oh no, he’s a genius.’ But comedy … you want to hear those laughs.”
Around that time he joined a sketch group called the Ace Trucking Company, who bounced from coffee house stages to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. He was soon cast in the Norman Lear talk show parody Fernwood Tonight (opposite Martin Mull), and from there his long TV career bloomed, spanning from Laverne & Shirley to Modern Family. That would have been a perfectly respectable career, but along came Christopher Guest, who turned Willard into a cult comic hero.
The Guest projects, Willard says, have meant “just about everything.”
After a small role as an army colonel in the seminal mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, Willard reunited with Guest and his informal improv troupe — which includes Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy — on the now-classic Waiting for Guffman. His daffy everyman persona was exquisitely at home in Guffman’s world of lovable losers who fancy themselves thespians in a podunk Missouri town.
“It took a while for [Guffman] to come out,” Willard says, “and suddenly it caught on and was kind of a cult thing. It didn’t make much money, but everyone in the business knew it and I got offers to do things. Holly Hunter called me to do When Billie Beat Bobby. I said, ‘There’s a lot of people who can do a better Howard Cosell than me.’ ‘No, no. We want you to do it.’ ‘OK.’ And I got a lot of good reviews that I didn’t really deserve.”
Willard made an even bigger impression in Guest’s follow-up, Best in Show, as a dunderheaded announcer at the story’s central dog show. “That really did wonderful things,” he says. “That’s what people remember me mostly by. That and Wizards of Waverly Place.”
Guest has brought Willard back for every project since, including the upcoming Netflix film Mascots, which sounds like it has a premise perfectly crafted for a Christopher Guest mockumentary. “I play an ex-mascot who’s now coaching a newer mascot,” Willard says. “It culminates in a competition for the best mascot performance.”
One of the reasons Willard loves doing these mockumentaries is because, of all his film and TV work, they feel the closest to sketch comedy. “They tell you what your character is and what the plot is, and then you can kind of make it your own,” he says. “So it’s mostly your own jokes. [Guest] very seldom gives you a joke — maybe in each film he’ll give you one line. Sketch is doing your own thing, the way you want it to do. And if it fails, it’s your fault.”
It’s the risk of failure and the sound of laughter that have kept him writing and performing sketches on stage, now with his group the MoHos. “We started in a little theater in North Hollywood, which is ‘NoHo,’” he says of their origins. “We didn’t know what to call the group, and it was just before Christmas, and someone said ‘We’ll call it the MoHos.’ So we did, and it just stuck. It sounds vaguely foreign too, or Hawaiian.”
The group is a rotating crew of 50–60 people, a mix of veteran and rookie writers and performers as young as 20, and serves as a kind of workshop. “People bring in sketches, monologues, and everyone enjoys it, and everyone makes some comments and suggestions for rewrites,” Willard explains. “And then every once in a while we like to put on a show using the best of the stuff.”
Voodoo Doughnuts is the latest such showcase, which the MoHos will put on at the Grove Theater in Upland on Sunday, May 22 (partly as a cancer-fighting fundraiser for the Farrah Fawcett Foundation), and then on Thursday, May 26 at the L.A. Connection Comedy Theater in Burbank. (The former venue’s family-friendly environment necessitates a “PG-rated” show, while the latter will dip into the group’s R-rated sketches.)
Willard has the unique vantage point of having observed and participated in sketch comedy for more than 50 years, but he says he doesn’t see a huge difference in what was funny then and what’s funny now. He boils what has always worked down to topical references, blue humor (used judiciously), and awkward, relatable character situations. “Comedy is comedy,” he says.
These days, he’s as liable to be found laughing at old Henny Youngman gags as he is Key and Peele (“they’re in the perfect spot—they can use racial humor and do a lot of things that other groups can’t—and they make fun of themselves”) and The Birthday Boys. He and his wife have also just gotten into King of Queens.
Willard is happy to see the recent explosion of popularity in sketch and improv comedy, as evidenced in the abundance of live shows, podcasts, and series both online and on numerous TV networks. “It is more popular than ever, and it’s great,” he says. “Improv still kind of frightens me, but I think the reason it’s so popular is because the actors don’t have to memorize anything, and the audience feels like they’re part of the act.”
“I’ll tell ya,” he reflects, “when I started out there were six, seven venues across the country where you could see the type of act I was in. Now every city you go in, you look in the paper, there’s three or four improv clubs and comedy clubs and stand-up clubs. All these shows. It’s really wonderful. I think everyone has an audience. There’s room for everybody.”
Fred Willard's MoHos | The Grove Theatre, 276 E. Ninth St., Upland; Sun., May 22, 7 p.m.; grovetheatre.com. L.A. Connection Comedy Theatre, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Thu., May 26; laconnectioncomedy.com.