Actress/comedienne Jo Anne Worley needs no introduction. One of the stars of the classic TV variety show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Worley will be at Welk Resorts in Escondido displaying her comic versatility as she presents her one-woman show Keep Laughin' June 26-30. In our recent chat, she did indeed have me laughing as she talked about her show, her take on what makes something funny, her favorite stars, and Actors and Others For Animals, which remains close to her heart. She's a tremendously joyous lady with terribly strong vibes about people and the biz and proves an overall endearing human being.
Tell me about your one-woman show Keep Laughin'!
I just made copies of my rundown this morning. I have done a nightclub act for low these many years. This is really my nightclub act but much more personal, with some clips and pictures and things like that. My sister saved absolutely everything. I actually started doing this show to honor her. She would write the year, the date and put it in a special folder, so it was easy to chronicle things. I found a letter of acceptance to...when I went out of high school, I went away as an apprentice...I have that letter of them accepting me and how much it was. It was for three months; I think it was $225 for room and board.
Can you imagine how much that would be today?!
Thousands for like two weeks. It's just amazing. And it was the most important thing...she also saved newspapers and had them laminated...the front page...I come from a little town called Lowell, Indiana. The front page of the Lowell Tribune... I was above...it said Lowell girl, Bob Hope's neighbor (she laughs). I have that and I can hold it up and show people. Also I have my prom pictures that I'll put up on the screen; I was engaged when I was a senior in high school. Things like that! The songs that I do throughout, musical comedy songs, certainly ones that I've done...and what I like to do with a song is change it and make it mine, with the exception of...I do "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, that's certainly one of my favorites that I've done.
What about the song you did in the Billy Barnes tribute at Kritzerland recently, the one that he wrote especially for you?
"Inner Child", yes. God love Billy, God love him! Did I do some of the walk-acrosses at Billy's tribute?...(she sings) "What ever happened to the 3D movies...?"
I can't remember. Maybe.
It was so short...and by the way, you know of course that that was Billy (Barnes) playing the piano on Laugh-In!
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I do "Too Long at the Fair" to honor Billy...and also I love props. I'm thinking of how much stuff I want to schlep to Escondido. I have a cardboard standup of Stedman, Oprah Winfrey's guy. (I laugh hard)
Oh my God!
That's right! I don't know, from your 'Oh God', it sounds like I really better bring Stedman. (we both laugh)
Who were your comedy mentors, the ones you absolutely adored?
Jerry Lewis. I loved how he would surprise people, and one of the biggest thrills of my life was actually working with Jerry Lewis on his television series. Before that, when I first came to Hollywood, they were having a contest at Paramount to start a comedy class, that's when he was King of Paramount. Literally thousands auditioned, and about a dozen of us were chosen to be in this class taught by a joke writer who taught at UCLA. Jerry would come in and play a week of takes, bits and sketches and things like that. He held up this big bottle, Jeroboam of champagne and said "The first person to make it in this class is gonna get this champagne". And he gave it to a girl by the name of Caroline Richter. (I laugh)...Exactly! (we both laugh because...Caroline who??) ...And so when he opened on Broadway in Damn Yankees, I happened to be there doing...golly I don't know...Grease...and I got him a big bottle of champagne and took it to his dressing room.
That's great! Who else?
Well certainly Lucille Ball...and Rosalind Russell, and the movie musical ladies like Betty Grable.
What about the newer ones coming up, is there anyone in particular that you're fond of?
Well, there's a little girl called Lily Tomlin. (we laugh)(she pauses)... Yes, Tina Faye. She's just magnificent, isn't she? I'm not aware of what's going on in the stand-up clubs with young people. It's just not on my horizon.
What do you look for in a new talent? What makes them funny? What is not funny in your estimation?
Well, dirty is not funny. I remember when I was coming up, we would work in the clubs to get a piece of material that we would then do on television. You would never waste your time doing dirty material that you couldn't do on television, in a club. Mainly what I look for is ...(she gasps) I think heart. It's hard to describe, but when you see it, you know it.
A lot of people know you exclusively from TV and don't appreciate what a wonderful singer and stage performer you are. Of course, you've played Dolly and Mame, and, as of late, you've done Madame Morrible in Wicked and Mrs. Tottendale in The Drowsy Chaperone. What role would you like to play that you haven't already done?
Well, obviously, I would like to create a wonderful role that has not been done. I'm going to be doing some of the music from Call Me Madame. Is that ready for a revival, do you think?
It's been done here and there, but...you would be great in that.
It's easy for me and I've done it. The time to do that would be in an election year, on Broadway. It's a period piece. I don't think it can be tinkered with and brought up to speed. It's from such a different world. There are full conversations built into the show that people don't have now.
Speaking of creating a role for yourself, what you written anything?
Not a full piece. I write stuff that I do in nightclubs. I find that when I was starting out, people would write things for me...and instead of writing for me, they would write at me, instead of coming from wherever it is I come from. So I like to do my own things... that tickle me. I figure if it tickles me, it will...
like that cardboard cutout of Stedman (she laughs)...
There's no one quite like you. You're an original.
Ohhh...I was at the theatre last night and all the people in the audience were going ...Ooo...ooo! (imitating that infectious cry that she does) That's nice!
What about Actors and Others For Animals, a charity I know that is close to your heart? Is it still as active as ever?
Our main thing is spay and neuter. We are saving animals by not having unwanted animals being born - and killed. As a matter of fact, we have a big fundraiser coming up September 28, which is a Saturday, at the Universal Hilton. It's called Best in Show. We're going to have a dais of about ten or twelve famous people with clips of their animal companions. The audience will vote on the best in show. Fred Willard and Jim Piddock will be making comments like they did in the movie. My friend Lily Tomlin has already committed to it, and Susan Sullivan...
Do you still have dogs of your own?
Yes, I'm looking at my Harmony right now. She's a rescue, a little Yorkshire terrier.She goes everywhere with me, and she is just the best.
What else is out there for you?
In a couple of weeks I'm dong a commencement speech for the graduation at American Music and Drama Academy. What I'm doing for my speech is..I've been asking people that have been in the business...What advice do you wish you had heard when you were first starting out? What would you say?
You have to have your feet on the ground and be prepared to work hard. This pie in the sky attitude of "I'm going to be a big star" is ridiculous!
Yeah. And with Reality TV, people think that's easy!
It's like a drug, you have to want it more than anything else.
More than anything else. I like the feet on the ground thing you mentioned.That's very important. And you not only have to have money to support yourself, but know how to save money. Mae West said once, "Keep a diary and one day, it'll keep you." We all wish we had written things down. Such good advice!