Surely They Jest: Three alumni who always have their wit about them

Surely They Jest: Three alumni who always have their wit about them

Carl Wolfson: Stand Up and Be Funny

By Diane Ballard

People are naturally funny or they aren’t. That’s Carl Wolfson’s opinion, and he should qualify as a pretty good judge. His whole career has been a hoot.

No disrespect intended, though. The 1975 UT Knoxville graduate has made his living doing comedy. He says the world provides so much good material his job is a snap. “When you turn on the TV and hear about a female astronaut who drove 900 miles in Pampers to allegedly smite her rival–how much better does it get? My first line was, ‘What’s her lawyer going to say? If the diapers don’t fit, you must acquit!’ ”

Wolfson estimates he’s done more than 6,000 shows, including television, live performances, and his newest venture–talk radio. “I host the morning show on KPOJ in Portland [Oregon], and it doesn’t take much to amass a huge liberal audience in a ‘green’ state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor since nineteen-eighty-two.” In fact, KPOJ is one of the highest-rated progressive talk stations in the entire country.

“I’m putting in thirteen-hour days to co-produce and host the three-hour show [6 to 9 a.m. local time], but my J-school training from UT has never served me better. We mix humor with serious political discussion and breaking news. Plus, it’s a kick to interview the likes of Alan Greenspan, John Dean, Helen Thomas, and John Edwards.”

After graduating from UT, Wolfson worked in Nashville and moved to Los Angeles in 1979. He earned a master’s at UCLA and blossomed as a standup comic. “There was nothing like the comedy-club circuit in the eighties and early nineties,” he says. “I started at Hollywood’s Comedy Store in nineteen-seventy-nine, which was a magical place: Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, and Rodney Dangerfield performed there almost every night. Before my first paid spot, Steve Martin showed up and did thirty minutes. As I took the stage, half the crowd (including my sister) rushed for his autograph, and no one listened to a word I said.”

But a lot of people have listened over the years as he’s appeared on HBO, Showtime Comedy Club Network, VH-1 Stand-Up Spotlight, An Evening at the Improv, Comic Strip Live, The Joan Rivers Show, Fox Network’s Late Show, and Thicke of the Night.

Wolfson says as he traveled, he always tried to schedule his fall gigs around UT football games. The ardent Vol fan relishes the memory of the 1991 “miracle at South Bend” game when UT defeated Notre Dame 35 to 34 in the shadow of ND’s famous “Touchdown Jesus.” “When Jeremy Lincoln blocked a field goal attempt on the final play, I heard a Notre Dame fan curse ‘Touchdown Jesus’ as ‘Touchdown Judas,'” Wolfson recalls. “Priceless.”

Wolfson still does four or five standup comedy gigs a month, usually at corporate-sponsored events. He’s done shows for Ford Motor Company, Delta Airlines, Citigroup, and DuPont. With corporate crowds and all others, he says he’ll usually try to assess the audience to tailor his routine. “It’s always wise to size up the demographics, but wherever I am–on a cruise ship or in a union hall–I basically have one rule: Have fun. If you have fun, the audience will, too.”

Appropriately–at least for purposes of this article–Wolfson got his comedic start at UT. “I won five dollars in a Clement Hall talent contest with an imitation of Cas Walker,” the late grocer many Knoxvillians recall for his so-bad-they-were-funny television ads.

Wolfson, who grew up in Haddon Township, New Jersey, “loved just about every minute” of his days at UT. He commends the journalism faculty, as well as the late Professor Richard Marius (“He made getting up at seven-fifty for Western Civ a pure joy”) and Professor Emeritus George Spiva, who dished out economics and social commentary.

What’s funny to one person may offend another, and the razor-sharp edge of Wolfson’s humor has sometimes sliced in his own direction. “There was the time I was working for a PR firm in Nashville and produced a comedy slide show for a client’s annual meeting,” he recalls. “The conservative CEO didn’t take kindly to the photo of mating polar bears.”

But he soldiers on, sometimes having to admit the audience can be pretty darn funny too. “A few years ago in Richland, Washington, I was talking about dogs, and a woman in the back yelled that she had a Lab. I said, ‘What kind?’ She said, ‘Meth.'”

But usually the comic gets the last laugh. When a George Bush fan yelled, “You should listen to President Bush like he listens to the country,” Wolfson shot back, “I did. I tapped his phone without a court order!”

Leanne Morgan: Living the Sitcom Life

By Amy Blakely

Leanne Morgan has made a career out of laughing at life. Now the rising-star comic has a chance to share her humor with America on national TV. “I’ve signed a deal with Warner Brothers television to develop a sitcom,” says Morgan (Knoxville ’92), who lives in Knoxville with her husband, Chuck, and their three children–Charlie, 14; Maggie, 11; and Tess, 9. “It’s based on my life, fictionalized, with my kids and my husband. It’s set in Chattanooga. I’m married to an executive, and he travels.”

Morgan will play herself. She said cook/restaurateur/Emmy-award-winning TV per­sonality Paula Deen is interested in playing her mother. “Instead of Everybody Loves Raymond, think Everybody Needs Leanne–although we don’t have a name yet,” Morgan says, describing the show’s premise. “We’re an upper-middle-class family. My husband needs me. My kids need me. My dog needs me. I’m a harried mom. I love my husband and he’s sweet, but not much help.”

Morgan has been working with producers Mike Clements and Tom Werner, who between them have been responsible for hits including Roseanne, That ’70s Show, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Last fall Morgan went to Los Angeles to confer with a writer and visit the various TV studios. “ABC bought it before we got out of the parking lot,” she says.

The next step was for the writer to pen the pilot–which, unfortunately, was held up by the Hollywood writers’ strike. Once the script is written, ABC will review it along with all of the others it purchased to decide which ones they’ll shoot. It’s exciting–and something Morgan has been dreaming about for years.

Morgan started at UT right after high school and then dropped out. She came back and finished a bachelor’s degree in child and family studies in 1992. While at UT, she met her husband.

“When I had my first baby, my husband had a used-mobile-home business in Bean Station,” she says. She wanted to be a stay-at-home mom so “I got to schlepping jewelry,” hosting in-home parties for a popular jewelry company. “I would get up, lay out the jewelry, and talk about my hemorrhoids, breast-feeding, and how I was going to kill my husband for not hearing the baby in the middle of the night,” she says. Women enjoyed her humorous ramblings so much, they began booking parties like mad.

“The company noticed, and they started asking me to speak at regional and national events.”

Morgan’s career was heating up when her second child arrived. “I would nurse my baby in a stall in the Opryland Hotel, then go out and talk. People started telling me I needed to be a comedian.”

By the time the third baby arrived, Morgan’s husband had started working for Clayton Homes Inc., and they were living in Morristown. When she emceed the local Kiwanis Club’s variety show, she met a man in the audience who owned a beer-and-sandwich shop that frequently featured live bands. “He asked me to come down and do an hourlong comedy show,” she says. “Because there’s nothing in Morristown, everyone came to see me.”

Morgan remembers coming up with the shtick for her shows. “I’d be washing dishes and take my hands out of the water and write it down on my son’s kindergarten tablet.” The local newspaper wrote a story about her and, before long, she was booked to do corporate shows.

When the family moved to San Antonio for her husband’s work, Morgan started working at comedy clubs. She saw an ad for a Las Vegas comedy festival and landed a wild-card spot. That performance led Morgan to an appearance on a “Hilarious Housewives” segment of ABC’s The View.

Networking with fellow comedians, she was introduced to Phil Barber, a Knoxville agent. Barber got Morgan on Nick at Nite’s Funniest Mom in America reality series, and he booked her onto the Southern Fried Chicks comedy tour. Morgan toured with Chicks for 3 years–great experience, but a ton of traveling for a busy mom of three.

“I really got to hone my craft, and I got to work beautiful theaters all over America,” she said.

Now settled back in Knoxville, Chuck Morgan continues to work for Clayton Homes, and Leanne Morgan eagerly awaits word on her sitcom venture. “I’ll just have to take it as it comes,” she says, anticipating how the rigors of sitcom life might fit into her real life. “I’m telling my kids, if it gets on TV, I’ll go back and forth between Knoxville and California. If it gets to be a big hit, we’ll move out there.”

Dale Henry: Laughing and Teaching

By Amy Blakely

Dale Henry knew he loved public speaking–and making people laugh. But as the associate dean of professional and graduate studies for Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee, those weren’t his primary duties.

In 1996, after 2 years at Tusculum, he decided to leave the security of his day job and pursue his dream job. “I am not a motivational speaker. I am a humorist,” he says. “It allows me to make people laugh while I teach.”

Today, Henry is the founder and president of Your Best Unlimited Inc., a corporate-training company based in Harriman, Tennessee. Described by some as a cross between Zig Ziglar and Jeff Fox­worthy, Henry speaks to more than 100,000 professionals and executives each year. “I do an average of a hundred-eighty cities a year, and I have spoken to eighty-two of the Fortune 500 companies. Clients also include everyone from Wal-Mart to Harvard, to every fast-food place, grocery store, merchandiser, company, and federal agency you can think of. ”

Henry has a bachelor’s degree (’76) and a master’s degree (’78) in secondary education from UT Knoxville and a doctorate (’91) in adult and continuing education from the University of Southern Mississippi. “UT was the initial step in my quest for success,” Henry says. “UT allowed me to pursue my degree at night and part time–you know, twenty-four–seven.

“I have nothing but great memories,” he says, but quickly falls into a joke. “Well, I really can’t remember that much but hunting for a parking place, standing in line, going to UT football games, and kissing my wife.”

Henry has been featured on a number of television and radio talk shows, from “CNN to Howdy Doody.” He has developed his own video and audio training programs, and he has written two books, The Proverbial Cracker Jack: How to Get Out of the Box and Become the Prize and Ten Cans, Change Belongs to the Openers, a book on change.

The titles of some of his presentations hint at how he uses humor to drive home his messages. There’s “If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren’t We Happy?” and “Ethics–Nobody Needs It . . . Until They Get Caught,” “If Business Is Down–Up Yours!,” and “Herding Worms–How to Manage and Lead Teams.”

Ask him a few questions, and you get a quick dose of Henry-ism.

What’s the worst job you ever had?
“I have never had a bad job. I have done a bad job but never had one.”

What’s the best job you ever had?
“The best job I ever had is the job I will do tomorrow. Any day above ground is a good day. My favorite job is that of grandfather. I love my girls. But being a granddad is the best. My name is Bubba–not Grandpa.”

Who’s the funniest person you know?
“It’s a combination of people–Red Skel­ton; my dad, Alfred Henry; my grandbaby, Kayleigh Payton; my wife, Debra; Sinbad; Bill Cosby; and, of course, myself. If you can’t laugh at yourself you are in big trouble.”

What’s the strangest job you ever had?
“I get on a plane and fly thousands of miles to give people information in a light and entertaining way,” he says, describing his current gig. “Nothing about my job is normal–just like me.

“I have spoken to more than three-million people. Hard to believe people will pay good money to laugh and learn. Who would have ever thunk it.”