North Beach History: How 1960s Troupe 'The Committee' Influenced American Comedy

North Beach History: How 1960s Troupe 'The Committee' Influenced American Comedy
From left: Dan Barrows, Ruth Silveira and Julie Payne, onstage at 622 Broadway. (Photos: Jerry Wainwright/Courtesy of the Wainwright Family)
By Art Peterson - Published on June 27, 2016.

This is part of a series of history posts from local historian, author and professor Art Peterson, who's given Hoodline permission to reprint some of his writing about North Beach and nearby neighborhoods. They appear in his local history book Why Is That Bridge Orange? and other previously published works.

San Francisco boosters like to claim our city is always on the cutting edge of innovation, citing everything from steam beer to gay marriage. But here's one San Francisco contribution to the Zeitgeist that may have slipped through the cracks: our town’s advancement of contemporary sketch comedy, a genre that became a mainstay of the likes of Saturday Night Live. The year was 1963; the place, 622 Broadway; and the innovators, a group that called themselves The Committee.

They were led by Alan Myerson, who had been a member of Chicago’s  groundbreaking improv group The Second City when he decided to come west  with a young crew of comics. There were five of them—average age: 23—joined by then-emerging San Francisco Renaissance man Scott Beach, who at 32 was the company’s graybeard.

Alan Myerson.

Sam Shaw, the founder and director of the San Francisco Improv Festival, and his partner Jamie Wright are making a film about the group called The Committee: A Secret History of American ComedyShaw says that Myerson came West specifically to create a more politically based improv form, rather than duplicate the observational humor that was the Second City’s forte.

Myerson arrived at the right place at the right time. Making the rounds of the cocktail-party circuit inhabited by the Bay Area intelligentsia, he pitched his project. Prominent psychiatrists and stars of the UC Berkeley faculty became his backers, allowing the newly formed group to take up residence in a 300-seat theater at a former Italian club, The Bocce Ball.

The San Francisco writer Herb Gold, another of the backers, remembers the group's early audiences as a collection of “hangers out, college kids, old beatniks and liberal dentists” (California Living, November 12, 1972). But word soon got out. The edgy comedy The Committee was offering melded perfectly with the mood in early-'60s San Francisco, and soon, there was a line around the block every Saturday night.

The group was soon doing 13 shows a week. The investors were handsomely rewarded, and the actors, who were stockholders in the venture, were in the top 10 percent of actors’ equity earners.

The performers worked hard, rehearsing all day, performing all night and loving it. What the cast members were creating was something akin to jazz, particularly in the 20 minutes of grooving on themes that grew from audience suggestions following an initial hour of semi-prepared skits.

There was a parlor-game quality to these segments that audiences found involving. In one format, the audience would suggest a word and the troupe would pick up on it, each, in turn, introducing a new word with the last letter of the previous one. When an audience member yelled out “Stop!” the drama began, using that word as a starting point.

The actors needed to stay nimble. As the group's shtick demanded they stay pertinent, the newspapers were required reading. The trick was to be ready and informed, but not weighted down by a lot of pre-planning. 

Though politics was very much front-and-center with the group, a revisit to the sketches from that period would provide a time-capsule insight into life in the '60s. There were pieces about encounter groups, wife-swapping, litterbugs and horror movies. Audience members who never quite got the pantomime of the French mine Marcel Marceau could find solace in a performance delivered by a Marceau stand-in, silently portraying pain, fear, love and anguish all with the same expression.

The performances often ended with a group musical, sometimes with a political bent; for instance, an aria drawing on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, with references to insecticides and detergents. At other times, the musical finale would take the form of a mock Italian opera, with everyone dead at the final curtain.

Yet The Committee’s main mission was to afflict the comfortable. In one skit, a governor, a prison chaplain and a prison warden are sympathetically wringing their hands about the fate of a prisoner about to be executed. But when the electric chair goes on the fritz, the trio beat the man to death by hand. 

Some of The Committee's routines—like one featuring two “sportscasters” doing a play-by-play of a battle in the Mekong Delta—were dismissed by critics like Stanley Eichelbaum of the Examiner as “preaching to the choir.” Still, these segments gave the choir fodder to engage in their own preaching. 

The Committee's members were also activists outside the theater. When 1964's anti-Vietnam War rallies took place on the UC Berkeley campus, The Committee was there, along with Joan Baez and Dick Gregory. In 1968, Myerson was arrested for demonstrating at Santa Rita prison. “Jails exist to absolve people of responsibility,” he told the press (“Out of Jail in Time for a Big Celebration,” John Wasserman, San Francisco Chronicle, April 1, 1968).

By the mid-1960s, The Committee had spread its wings, opening a theater on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles (where most of the group's surviving members live today). The group had gigs in venues as disparate as Berlin and Austin, Texas, and even a run in New York, where they demonstrated some entrepreneurial creativity: running up against regulations forbidding them to sell alcohol in a theater in New York, they solved the problem by giving the booze away.

The group also ventured into television, performing on the Flip Wilson Show and many times on the Dick Cavett Show. Before its demise in 1973, it's estimated that The Committee performed live before five million people, including a 1966 “Satirathon” at the Broadway venue in which 3,000 people were admitted in shifts, until the remaining disappointed line-standers had to be sent away at six in the morning.

Larry Hankin of The Committee.

Over its nine-year run, The Committee turned in new directions. Shaw believes that the group took a turn from “civil rights to more drug-oriented material,” which seemed to mirror a change in the direction of society. Two suburban housewives, for instance, were cast into an LSD-inspired dialogue.

But the major change was the group’s adoption of “the long form,” known, for debatable and obscure reasons, as “The Harold.” The Harold was improv without a net. A suggested word from the audience—say, “Cuisinart"—might lead to an unplanned setup involving an incompetent Cuisinart repairman, embarking the players on a 45-minute adventure in commutation and miscommunication.

Done badly, of course, this can be taxing for spectators. But done well, the form allows audiences to see the creative process at work in a way that other art forms do not, Shaw said. 

By 1969, political satire had become difficult to pull off in an increasingly frightening world. It was not easy to make fun of the slaughters in Vietnam and Biafra, and by the 1970s, the group was losing money. The audience was declining, and there was something of a consensus that the improv form had gone stale. In 1973, the group disbanded.

After disbanding, The Committee's members continued to make their mark on the history of American comedy. Carl Gottlieb co-wrote the great American comedy The Jerk. Howard Hesseman created the iconic character Dr. Johnny Fever on the sitcom WKRP in CincinnatiGary Goodrow has had credits in over 50 films, and, perhaps most significantly, a key role in the 1973 production of The National Lampoon’s Lemmings at New York’s Village Gate, where he worked with the then-undiscovered John Belushi and Chevy Chase. Shaw sees that production as having established a direct connection between the revolutionary work of The Committee and the emergence of Saturday Night Live.

From left: Howard Hesseman, Garry Goodrow, Julie Payne, Everett Cornell, Morgan Upton, Ed Greenberg, and Ellsworth Milburn.

An even more direct connection to SNL can be seen in the career of Del Close, the “mad scientist” director of The Committee in the mid-60s. After leaving The Committee, he returned to Chicago; in the years that followed, he became the “house metaphysician” for Saturday Night Live, coaching the likes of Tina Fey, Billy Murray, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert and Gilda Radner.

Even with his later prominence, Close looked back on the San Francisco scene of the '60s as a perfect storm for generating the off-center comedy The Committee was offering. His colleagues recall how he would sit at a table at Enrico’s and comment on the passing scene. “San Francisco,” he would say, “is the only place in the world where certifiable crazies are performing as functioning members of society.”

Sam Shaw and Jamie Wright would like Hoodline readers to help them with their documentary about The Committee. They are looking for relevant anecdotes, recordings and images, as well as leads to folks who have knowledge of those rich comedic days in our city. Backers and producers will not be turned away. You can contact Sam Shaw at samshaw [at] sfimprovfestival [dot] com.

For those who want to check out the state of improv today, circle the dates of September 8th–17th, when the San Francisco Improv Festival will be holding forth at the Eureka Theater (215 Jackson St.)

Art Peterson is the author of “Why Is That Bridge Orange? San Francisco for the Curious,” available at local bookstores and from Amazon.com.