The Blog

A Very Special Relationship

Tony Blair comes to Washington and brings down the house.

12:00 AM, Jul 21, 2003 • By LARRY MILLER
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A LOT OF PERFORMERS disagree with me on this, but I hate it when audiences whoop to show their pleasure. Before the taping of an HBO special years ago, the producer walked out to whip the audience into a frenzy, which he thought was a good thing for a comedy show. "Are you going to get crazy tonight?!" he screamed. Each time they responded, he said it wasn't crazy enough, and that they had to get wilder and wilder, and actually had them practice howling. I watched from the wings, and when he walked off, he winked at me and said, "Ready?" And I told him not to start just yet.

I took the microphone and walked onstage. The people dutifully started screaming like torture victims, but I quieted them down and said, "Please ignore everything the nice man behind the curtain just said. The poor thing wandered in off the street and doesn't even work here. We're going to give him a hot meal and send him to a decent motel. Tomorrow he will no doubt be the head of a major studio. But you don't need to whoop anymore. If something is funny tonight, please laugh, but don't bark. It will just annoy both of us. If something strikes you as especially funny, maybe you'll want to clap, but, on the whole, pretend you're an audience from fifty years ago. I'll do my best, and then we'll all get a drink."

To me, when people whoop it means they aren't listening, and I like people who listen. Incidentally, the crowd was wonderful that night, and I think I was pretty good, too. But never mind me, I hate whooping no matter who's onstage.

Once people are willing to whoop, they're just a baby step away from shouting advice, and that's way worse. I believe I witnessed one of the dumbest things ever yelled by an audience member in history, and I've seen some pretty good ones. In this case I was a member of the audience, too, back in my salad days. (By the way, how long do one's "salad days" last? Am I in my main course days? Are there dessert days? If so, when do they start? I hope I make it to my brandy and coffee days, or perhaps even the oh-come-on-just-one-more-quick-one-as-long-as-we've-got-the-sitter days.)

So here's the dumbest thing I've ever heard said by an audient (what my friends and I used to call one, single audience member): It was somewhere in the mid-'80s. Linda Ronstadt had just done the movie "Pirates of Penzance" and embraced a completely different and new style. She was touring in concert halls doing the classic love songs of the American songbook from the '30s and '40s, using the great Nelson Riddle arrangements and accompanied by a full symphony orchestra in white dinner jackets. She was always a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, but I remember reading that she had taken voice lessons to expand her range and craft. The tour was getting a ton of well-deserved publicity wherever it went, and was an emblem of elegance in a world that seemed to be more vulgar everyday.

A comic friend of mine was opening for her, and I knew his manager, and they gave me two tickets to the Saturday night show. To accompany me I tapped one of the dozens of spectacular porn-star girlfriends I had in those days, all of whom waited breathlessly in line for their chance, each hoping against hope that she would be the lucky one I called next. (Yes, yes, I know, of course that's not true, but if that's how I choose to remember my early dating life, what is it your business to say no? Go make up your own myths.)

Anyway, I had a date, and we both got all dolled up. It was at a big outdoor bowl-type-place, and thousands of other nicely dressed folks were stretched up the grassy hill on blankets with champagne and fluted glasses. My friend did his set, a good one, and then it was time for Linda's show. This was a very special performance, too, because Nelson Riddle himself was conducting. The lights went down, and the violins burst into a lush score, which, coincidentally, was exactly what I was planning later. And through the cascading strings, down came Linda to the stage in a slow, 50-foot descent, perched gorgeously on a glittering crescent moon. She was wearing a breathtaking gown with long, white gloves, and covered in diamonds.

The moon stopped gently just above the stage, and she gracefully alighted, nodded her greetings, and glided to the microphone. The orchestra paused dramatically. She took a breath, closed her eyes, stretched out her hands . . .

And from the middle of the audience, some guy screamed, "Rock and Roll, Linda!"

I've quoted the great Bud Abbott before on this sort of thing: "How dumb can one get?" Everyone turned to see who the Fulbright scholar was. The parking guys craned their necks. I think even Nelson Riddle turned around. Then, in case any of us thought the whole thing had been an auditory hallucination from a past indiscretion (okay, that was just me), the same bonehead screamed, "Woooooo! Yeah!"