The Peculiar Truth about Comedian Dick Shawn
- Comedian Dick Shawn grew up in Lackawanna, NY, an industrial working-class suburb of Buffalo.
- His act was best described as conceptual, not filled with jokes. During his first television appearance in 1954, he called himself “a newer type of comedian — very few laughs but lots of energy.”
- Shawn was known for unusual routines.
- For his one-man show, The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World, he devised a peculiar stage entrance. Audience members filed into the theater and saw nothing onstage but a load of bricks, or sometimes a pile of crumpled newspapers. When the show commenced, Shawn surprised everyone by popping up from the pile after having been hidden there for thirty minutes or more.
- He performed in plays, television shows, and films. He made numerous appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show.
- He was hired for the lead role of Pseudolus in the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum after Zero Mostel left the show.
- His first big film role was in 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
- One of his most memorable movie roles came in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. He portrayed the hippie actor Lorenzo St. DuBois aka LSD who starred as the lead character in the film’s fictitious musical ‘Springtime for Hitler.’
- Throughout the 1970s he made guest appearances on dozens of television sitcoms.
- His last TV performance as a comedian was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in November 1986. He promoted his upcoming gig at the L.A. Amphitheater.
- Five months later, he performed at the University of California at San Diego.
- In the midst of his act, he collapsed — a face plant on the stage. Audience members laughed. They assumed it was a joke. Shawn had been doing a bit about the end of the world, and he was known for physical antics.
- A few minutes passed. No movement from Shawn. Finally, someone walked onstage from the wings to check on him. Then a doctor arrived. The audience was asked to leave.
- Shawn had suffered a major heart attack. He was dead.
- Comedians talk about dying onstage. Dick Shawn actually did.
Dan is the author of over a dozen novels. His latest is Tight Five.