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Making a living on one-liners

When Robert (Bob) Orben first went to Hollywood in the late 1960s, the joke-writer - whose famous one-liners have been used by such comedians as Dick Gregory, such politicians as Gerald Ford, and countless business executives, columnists, disc jockeys, toastmasters, and educators - was introduced to his writing compatriots on the Red Skelton Show by a man who said, ''See, I told you he looks like a mutual-funds salesman.''

It's true. With his white shirt, conservative tie, and crew-cut, egg-shaped head, he hardly cuts the figure of the laid-back California comedy writer. ''This is more me than a leisure suit,'' he admits with a smile that rarely strays from his lips. ''It also fits in better with the businessmen and politicians I deal with now.''

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In fact, the conservative look may have brought him to Washington in the first place. He started toward this city as early as 1968, when then-Congressman Jerry Ford was looking for someone to help him with a humorous keynote speech. The congressman's office asked Sen. George Murphy for help, and the senator, checking through the grapevine, found that Mr. Orben was the only ''dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican comedy writer - maybe in all of Hollywood,'' the writer says with a chuckle.

The speech Mr. Orben wrote for Representative Ford in that election year was a memorable - and prophetic - one, ending with this joke:

''He said that he, personally, had no designs on the White House,'' the speechwriter recalls. ''Then he said, 'I love the House of Representatives, despite its long hours. But sometimes - when it's late at night and I'm tired and hungry on that long drive to my home in Alexandria, Virginia - as I go past 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I do seem to hear a little voice within me saying, 'If you lived here, you'd be home now.' ''

Six years later Jerry Ford followed that voice to the White House, taking Mr. Orben with him as speech writer and, eventually, head of the White House Speech Department.

By then the comedy writer had already earned his laurels.

''The rumor was that there was no Bob Orben - that I was a conglomerate of 12 writers who had chosen the unlikely name of Orben,'' he says. The man who, by his own estimate, has written close to 200,000 jokes in his lifetime, speaks in the gentle, slightly pungent style of a Bob Hope.

The jokes started coming out professionally when, as a ''fat, pimply'' kid of 18, he published his first book, ''The Encyclopedia of Patter,'' to help the magicians he dealt with in New York in the ''dirty, dingy magic shop'' where he worked.

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New York born and bred (''I thought the world ended at the Hudson River''), Orben thinks the city made him into a comedy writer: ''There's a perceptiveness and an insight and a drive, a kinetic energy, to New York City that I never realized the benefits of until I went out to do the Skelton show,'' he says.

But he loved his six years in California (''It's a live-for-today, do-the-work-tomorrow life style''). He has also learned in the last eight years to appreciate his unique perspective on Washington, as viewed from his elegant, two-story apartment window across the river in Arlington, Va.

''When you're working over there,'' he says, pointing toward the Capitol, ''everybody looks 10 feet tall. When you're looking at it from over here, everybody looks ant-sized. That's probably a better perspective to look at all this from.''

In fact, he and his wife Jean seem to enjoy going just about everywhere. In a back room they have a map of the world ''with little red pins marking everywhere we've been, and we're not going to stop until the map is solid red,'' he says with a grin.

Traveling is a good way for the prolific joke writer to relax - a necessity for a man who writes one or two books a year (number 45 is due out this December), produces a newsletter full of 70 to 80 original jokes twice a month, and spends the bulk of his time making speeches and counseling businessmen, speaking bureaus, and politicians in the uses of humor.

To fill up both paper and people, he writes at least 25 jokes a day, starting at 6 a.m. with a pile of reading matter drawn from major and minor newspapers and roughly 40 magazines, ranging from Time to The Toastmaster. ''If there's a Beaver Falls, Pa., Gazette, I'll get it,'' he says.

Then, around 8 a.m., he sits down with pen and pad and starts to produce the yuks. ''Nothing bubbles up,'' he admits, saying that he may rummage through 300 to 400 jokes mentally before committing the 25 to paper.

If Mr. Orben demands a lot from a joke, it's only because more and more people are demanding a lot from humor. ''There is probably a greater use of humor on the part of the business and political community than in all of show business combined,'' he claims, simply because there are more of them having to make speeches that start with a joke. His customers are many, both through the newsletter and his consulting service, the Comedy Center, run out of Wilmington, Del.

His toughest customers, he says, are women.

''Women have a special problem in doing humor, because overwhelmingly, humor is control. At a point where somebody gets up in front of an audience and does effective humor, they have that audience in their control, and the audience has voluntarily given up control of that point in their lives,'' he says. ''Men are not all that willing to give up control to a woman, unless (her humor) is viciously self-deprecating - a put-down of themselves as intellects and as feminine people.''

But the women's movement could use a good dose of nonattack humor, he says, adding that feminist humor has been ''an incredibly hostile, mean, vicious type of humor.''

What this movement needs, he says, is a ''comedienne who can look at the women's-rights movement with the same perceptive good humor that Dick Gregory used to approach the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s.''

Mr. Orben, who wrote material for the black comedian, starting in 1961, says he first saw Mr. Gregory's work in front of an audience consisting of ''some sort of delegation from Texas, and obviously they didn't agree with what Greg was doing. But the humor was so funny and obviously had enough substance to it [ to make them laugh].

''The magic of humor is that it indicates a certain trust. If two people can laugh together, it indicates a certain acceptance of what the humorist is saying - it's a building of trust,'' he explains. ''And that's what Greg was doing in those magic years. Somewhere, on the plane going back, some of those Texans were saying, 'Hey, he was pretty good, and you know, on that joke about the sit-ins, maybe he's right - maybe it is a little crazy, what we're doing.' ''

Humor is being perceived more and more as just such a healing agent, he says. In fact, he predicts that in the next 20 years it will be taught in the colleges as a separate subject to aid those in ''fields well beyond the traditional ones for humor'' - hospital work, counseling, and management, for example.

''Humor can soothe, heal, build - and destroy,'' he says, adding his concern that so much of the present-day humor concentrates on putting down people and institutions. The put-downs, he says, have had a bad overall effect on politics and business.

''It's easy to write'' this kind of humor, he says. ''It's the other kind - the humor that singes without burning - that's hard,'' says the man with the gentle one-liners.

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