Fortunes of a Funnyman

From one-liners to sitcoms, John ) Markus has always lived by his wit.

November/December 2002

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Fortunes of a Funnyman

Chris Callis

The summer after his junior year at Stanford, John Markus was introduced to Bob Hope in a backstage trailer at the Ohio State Fair. But instead of asking Hope to sign an autograph book, Markus handed the comedian a few pages of carefully typed jokes.

“Not now,” Markus remembers Hope saying. Then Hope paused just long enough to write his address in Toluca Lake on an envelope. “Stick this in the mail,” Hope said. “You pay for the stamp.”

Those 20 cents paid off: Hope ended up buying that batch and a second set of the 19-year-old’s one-liners, which included stabs at Watergate and Jackie O, for $500.

Cleverness has long been lucrative for Markus, an Emmy Award-winning writer of such landmark sitcoms as The Cosby Show and The Larry Sanders Show. According to comedian Garry Shandling, a collaborator and close friend, Markus has the insight of a “psychologist and philosopher.” He also has a talent for parlaying that acumen into sitcom-sized chunks of perfectly timed wit.

Markus, ’78, is currently the executive producer and creator of three new television shows being shopped around the networks. One is a comic soap opera about an ultra-wealthy, dysfunctional family that runs a mail-order beef business in Ellsworth, Iowa. Another is an adaptation of The Chateau, a film released this fall about two American brothers who inherit a run-down mansion in the South of France. Markus says his goal is “to bring a documentary, on-location, improvisatory feel to a prime-time sitcom for the first time.” Then there’s the one about people who go in for competitive barbecuing—smoking, not grilling—every weekend. “Seriously,” Markus insists.

“My business card says, ‘Creator,’” he notes. “Talk about a God complex.”

Markus grew up in London, Ohio (population 12,000), where he describes his life as “just like [that of] Tom Sawyer, except I was Jewish.” His father and mother, a Holocaust survivor from Prague, still live in the house where he was raised. His father continues to practice medicine, a career that both of Markus’s brothers pursued. But Markus, always quietly witty, had his mind set on other things.

In high school, he wrote comedy sketches for his Dixieland band to perform between sets. The group hit the lodge meeting circuit (Elks Club, Kiwanis)—large gatherings by the town’s standards. The band, says Markus, was the brightest star in the London, Ohio, entertainment world. Then he started sending some of his jokes to the nationally syndicated columnist Earl Wilson.

“I read in Time that that’s how Woody Allen got his start,” he says. “Most of my jokes were my-town’s-so-small kind of jokes.”

Soon, Wilson began running the quips with a byline, confirming for Markus that the best medicine he could practice was laughter. His father, he says, still hasn’t officially gotten over it.

“I called my dad after six years on The Cosby Show to tell him I was leaving,” Markus says. “He said, ‘It’s not too late to go to pharmacy school.’ At that point, he’d given up on me becoming a doctor, but he was willing to settle for pharmacist.”

At Stanford, Markus majored in English and worked as a columnist for the Stanford Daily. He heard that a comedian by the name of Joan Rivers, who in those days was doing self-effacing stand-up instead of crucifying celebrities, paid writers for their jokes. Rivers couldn’t resist material like this: “I got very excited about our bedroom life when Edgar installed a mirror on the ceiling. Now he shaves in bed.” A lifelong junk-food junkie, Markus would use the $12 Rivers paid per one-liner to buy hot dogs at the old Tresidder bowling alley.

After graduating, Markus worked his way through a string of television writing gigs, including a never-aired game show called Mystery Roast. His first break came in 1982 on an episode of Taxi, which had debuted four years earlier. In 1984, he joined The Cosby Show and quickly advanced to head writer. In addition to an Emmy, his work on the groundbreaking sitcom won him a Peabody and back-to-back Humanitas prizes in 1985 and 1986.

Brickbats have come his way, too. Last year, he created and produced Kristin, a sitcom about a pure-hearted Midwestern woman trying to make a go of it in the dog-eat-dog world of Manhattan. The show starred the Tony Award-winning Broadway actress Kristin Chenoweth. Its debut in June 2001 landed the two a lengthy profile by critic John Lahr in the New Yorker. It also delivered Markus his first real drubbing by television critics, who deemed the show predictable.

He experienced a different kind of disappointment with Lateline, a behind-the-scenes look at a show like Nightline that Saturday Night Live performer and writer Al Franken invited him to help develop. Megyn Price, ’92, starred, and the series gained critical acclaim but few viewers—it was yanked after running in 1998 and 1999. Markus and Franken first became friends in the 1980s in the offices of NBC, where Franken made long-distance calls during SNL’s summer break. They still collaborate.

“John is someone who understands every aspect of what makes a sitcom work,” says Franken. “I basically learned everything I know about running a sitcom because of John.”

The two are currently co-writing a film script about an assimilated Jewish family living in the heart of small-town America. It’s a subject near and dear to Markus.

There is some irony, then, to Markus’s country home on an 850-acre expanse of land two hours north of New York City. He and his wife, the artist Ardith Truhan, live in a house that’s so wired they can control the window shades and heating system from his office in Manhattan. The surrounding forest is a stomping ground for Markus, who likes to fish, ride his recumbent bicycle and clear trails.

The lumberjacking has its particular advantages. It’s not only a break from the more cerebral work by which he’s made a living all these years; according to Markus, it makes him “one of only a handful of Jews who are skilled with a chainsaw.”

Marisa Milanese, ’93, is a writer in San Francisco.

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