"What happened was a guy named Redd Foxx,” says George Wallace, explaining the pivotal moment when he realized at the age of 6 that he wanted to be a comedian. “Red Skelton, Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Moms Mabley—all those comedians I listened to. I would go back to school and I would tell their jokes. And the kids would laugh, laugh, laugh. And when I see happy people, it makes me happier. That’s what I learned at 6 years old—that everybody should have a great sense of humor.”
Wallace, who holds a spot on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time, has been tickling our funny bones ever since, whether onstage at comedy clubs across the nation, on his long-running 10 p.m. show at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, in his countless appearances on TV shows and in movies, or now on bookshelves, with the release of his new book, Laff It Off!
As Wallace writes in the book, “Some people say that the stress of the ‘real world’ is what stops the laughter from coming.… Does it all have to be so darned serious? Why can’t we find the laughter in our lives? I believe we can.” That lighthearted attitude and laugh-at-all-costs philosophy is what has endeared Wallace to fans since he first broke onto the scene way back in the late ’70s. In fact, talk to Wallace for more than five minutes, and you’ll begin to wonder if he’s even capable of turning off the funny switch.
“Everybody has to pay bills, everybody has relationship issues and other kinds of problems. It’s OK to have those problems, but you gotta get through them either way. So why not laugh through them,” Wallace says. “That’s what I do, through both the good and the bad.” And that’s the message Wallace wants to share—through his book, his stand-up or however—that we can all live life with a little more laughter.
Despite wanting to be a comedian from a very young age, Wallace didn’t head straight for the mic. He went the more traditional route, enrolling at the University of Akron after high school. “I had heard Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers and different comedians of that era saying that they had a lot of fun, but sometimes they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from or where they were going to stay, and I said the hell with that,” Wallace says. “So I chose to go to school and get a degree.” After graduation, he packed his bags for the Big Apple to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian. To make ends meet, he worked as a salesman for an advertising company. “All of the billboards in Times Square, all of the New York City buses, I sold advertising in,” he says. And the secret to his success? The same principles espoused in his book. “A smile is very, very contagious. And that’s what I used to make a sale,” he says. “To become a successful salesperson, go in, shake their hand, look that person in the eye, give that person a great smile, and they’ll smile back. A great salesman, that’s all he does. You walk in with a smile and shake someone’s hand and look them straight in the face, and people will respect you.”
His infectious, gregarious personality is, in fact, what garnered Wallace his big break. One of the clients he was selling to was opening a comedy club and asked Wallace to come perform. When he walked onto the stage that first night, he was decked out in a preacher’s robe and billed himself as the Rev. Dr. George Wallace. Also making his debut that fateful night, notes Wallace, was “little Jerome Seinfeld. We both started on that same night and we’ve been best friends now for 38 years. Can you believe that?” While the pair may seem like unlikely BFFs (they even roomed together for 13 years, and Wallace was the best man at Seinfeld’s wedding), they share a similar wry, observational style of comedy. Witness this Wallace gem, which sounds like it could have come straight out of a Seinfeld episode: “I was on a flight the other day, and the pilot came on the intercom and said, ‘Please don’t leave your seat until the plane comes to a full stop.’ And I’m thinking to myself, what other kind of stop is there?”
Wallace insists we all need to be more conscious of the humor found in everyday occurences like that. “I figure you should enjoy your life no matter what you do,” he says. “There’s a reason to step back and say, Hey, I need to be happy here. I’m alive, I’m living, I’m not hungry. And even if you think you have it bad, somebody has it worse off than you.” The key to happiness, he maintains, is to smile. “You cannot smile without feeling better. You can try. You can even fake it. But you will feel better if you smile. Besides, did you ever notice that worrying about a situation is worse than the situation itself? It’s usually going to be all right in the end, and you’ll see that, well, it wasn’t that bad. And you think, That was a lesson I learned, and I’m happy I don’t have to deal with that anymore.”
In his book Laff It Off! , Wallace writes that children laugh 400 times a day, while adults only manage to squeeze out a chuckle 15 times a day. We’re not sure where Wallace got those numbers, but it’s clear he believes, as the old adage goes, that laughter is the best medicine. “Laughter is healing—it comforts the soul,” he said in a recent interview. To get to laughter sometimes, though, he says, you have to get beyond your fears. And challenge yourself. “Sometimes you have to be taught,” he says. Basically it boils down to being able to enjoy life and make the most of every day, or, to cite an example from his recent appearance on The Tavis Smiley Show, to not keep the good silverware in the attic. “Do what you want to do. Dream it,” he says. “You know, on this road of life, there are a lot of detours and potholes and roadblocks you gotta go around, but you gotta get back on the highway. Pull over at the rest stop, go replenish yourself, but always get back on the highway.”
A lot of Wallace’s pearls of wisdom seem to have a similar transportation theme. (“Most people don’t know what the hell transportation is, but it’s actually the No. 1 industry in the world,” says the man who claims he’d be the president of an airline if he couldn’t be a comedian.) “I love traveling. Getting places. Seeing the world move,” Wallace says. Whenever he speaks to students, in fact, he strongly advises them to travel. “I’ll tell them, ‘When you get out of college, get on an airplane. Go to another country. Enjoy people. Go to parties. Get all that crazy stuff out of your system. Have a good time. Do everything. Charge it to your parents. It’s such a great education to learn how other people live.’ ” Wallace’s thinking is that life is backward. “Old people say, well, I’ve turned 65, I’m going to retire and travel all over the world. And I’m thinking, for what? You’re too damn old. Old people have to be in bed by 6:30 every night. So it’s important for young people to get out to those nightclubs, stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning, meet people from all over the world, do your freaky stuff. I tell them to travel while everything is still working.”
As to when he will retire after what’s already amounted to a long and storied career, Wallace doesn’t see the need. “I can’t retire, because I have a passion for what I do. And when you love what you do, you never really go to work.” Wallace so lives in the moment, he can’t, or won’t, even tell you his age. “People ask me that and I just give them a number: 82, 42, 52,” he says. “They’re never gonna believe how old you are anyway. I lie so much I don’t even know my age.” (He’s a very young 61, if you must know.)
No matter when, or if, Wallace ever steps off the stage, it’s clear he’ll be laughing all the way till the end. “Even death should be funny,” he told an interviewer. “My funeral will be funny. Don’t open the coffin, ’cause I’m going to be naked.”