Willard receives Comedy Legend Award
Fred Willard had an interesting analogy for the power of comedy Saturday evening before he was presented with the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend Award.
“I (heard) this thing about comedy the other day,” Willard told the crowd at the Johnny Carson Theatre. “If you’ve seen movies where someone is trapped under an ice-covered lake and they’re swimming — that’s what life is like. You’re trapped under ice and suddenly you see a hole — and you come up and you see the sky. That’s comedy. That’s what a night like (this) can do because everybody is fighting a battle.”
Willard was presented with the comedy legend award Saturday evening on the final night of the ninth annual Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk. He joins an elite list of comedians and comic actors in receiving the award, which is given each year at the festival to an individual who has left his or her own mark on the comedy world. Past award recipients have been Dick Cavett, David Steinberg, Stephen Wright, Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner, Jimmie Walker, Bill Dana and Kevin Pollak.
On Saturday night, Willard was presented the award by Dirk Petersen, vice president and general manager of Nucor Steel, which is the festival’s presenting sponsor. Willard also was interviewed on stage by Eddie Brill, the festival’s artistic director, after a video presentation highlighting Willard’s career was shown.
Willard’s career in comedy and entertainment spans more than half a century. He began his career in the early 1960s doing a duo act with Vic Greco. The pair performed at colleges and comedy clubs and also performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Later, Willard and his improvisational comedy group, Ace Trucking Company, performed more than 50 times on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and on “This Is Tom Jones.” Willard also appeared in approximately 100 sketches on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Willard credited several comedians as being inspirations, including Henny Youngman.
“Henny Youngman would have a mother-in-law joke,” Willard said. “(He said that) mixed emotions is watching your mother-in-law drive your Cadillac over a cliff. OK, I get it — you hate your mother-in-law, and you love your new Cadillac.”
Willard also spoke of Jackie Mason’s style of comedy and relayed a story about one of Mason’s jokes to the crowd.
“He did a routine about the difference between Jews and Gentiles eating in a restaurant,” Willard said. “It does more to break down the barriers than anything because you could laugh at the Jews and you could laugh at the Gentiles. The joke is that the Gentiles come in, order, eat, have their coffee and leave. The Jews are still saying, ‘The air conditioning — I got to move over here, I’m too close.’ ”
Willard also spoke of Rodney Dangerfield.
“He was the only comic I know where other comics would be out around the room and trade Rodney Dangerfield jokes,” Willard said of Dangerfield.
Later in the 1960s, Willard spent a year working with the Second City comedy troupe before co-founding the Ace Trucking Company.
“It was a wonderful year,” Willard said of his time with Second City. “I was there with David Steinberg and Robert Klein. I’m still friendly with them, and they’re two of my favorite comedians. It was a great year — one year — where you could have something happen to you during the day, come in at night and say, ‘I had a great idea (for a sketch) — you be a cop, you be someone else and you be a nurse’ and put it up on stage. It was a wonderful year.”
His work with the Ace Trucking Company propelled him to even more success.
“Someone came over to me and said, ‘We’re starting a comedy sketch group. Would you like to be in it?’ and I said ‘Sure,’ ” Willard said. “We started working at a club in (Greenwich) Village, and we caught on very quickly — and before you know it, we were on ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”
During that time frame in the late 1960s and 1970s, Willard also appeared on several talk shows, including “The Dick Cavett Show” and The Merv Griffin Show.”
“Part of our act was improvisation,” Willard said. “We played at colleges. We did requests for pet peeves. You never knew what would come out, and we’d turn it into a sketch.”
Willard also was a part of the hit NBC series “Real People.” In recent years, he has appeared on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Stargate SG-1” and a recurring role on “Modern Family.” He received Primetime Emmy nominations for his roles on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Modern Family.”
Willard, who was in Norfolk with his wife, Mary, isn’t slowing down. Just before arriving for the comedy festival, he was in Chicago to do some filming for his role in a new movie.