I’ve interviewed hundreds of celebrities over the years. Virtually all of them work through publicists when promoting a show before we meet or talk on the phone.
But for the first time, I got a direct call last Thursday from a bonafide comedy headliner: Harry Anderson of “Night Court” fame. The name is generic enough that he had to say “Night Court” for me to get that it was him. Since I was in my car, I told him I’d call him back in an hour.
Later that day, we spoke for about 30 minutes. He’s an ultra-pleasant guy with no obvious pretensions or Hollywood ego. (He lives in Asheville, N.C.) And while he shared Thursday nights on NBC with the likes of Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox and Ted Danson, he is no longer in the spotlight to the degree of the those stars. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any deep desire to return to TV on a regular basis. (His last gig was “Dave’s World” from the 1990s.)
Here’s the story I wrote for the AJC print Go Guide next week:
Harry Anderson will always be remembered for his eight-year run as the quirky, compassionate, wise-cracking judge on NBC’s “Must-See TV” comedy “Night Court” from 1984 to 1992.
But he is also a magician who headlined Atlanta’s Punchline Comedy Club in the 1980s.
“He kind of fancied himself the con man,” said Chris DiPetta, manager at the Punchline at the time who runs the club today. “He’d wear a suit with a hand-painted tie and a fedora on his head. He would do magic. Some of it was campy. Some was very slick.”
Nearly three decades later, a 57-year-old Anderson is back at the Punchline June 23 and 24 to do a show he dubs “Wise Guy,” featuring music, stories and (of course) magic tricks.
“I visited the Punchline last month,” said Anderson, who drove in from his home in Asheville, N.C. “I forgot what it looked like. It’s very swank.”
Anderson, the dry jokester, was being sarcastic, of course. The Punchline prides itself on being anti-swank, if that were a word.
“It’s got a saloon feel,” Anderson said, “like there’s illegal gambling probably going on in the back. room. My character Harry the Hat was definitely made to walk a stage like that!”
Anderson lived for a few years in New Orleans, where he owned a magic shop and a comedy club in the French Quarter. But Hurricane Katrina killed his tourist-driven business and he left in 2006 for Asheville.
He continues to venture out to do his “Wise Guy” show a few times a year. “I do Three-card Monte. I do some carnival magic. I do a very odd piece imagining John Merrick, the Elephant Man, as a ventriloquist. I do pieces you might recognize from ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I call it an evening’s entertainment without intermission.”
Anderson said his last real effort to have a regular job on TV was hosting a revised version of “What’s My Line” in 1999 for CBS. But he said the network preferred to put money into a show called “Survivor” instead, signaling a very different world of TV the past decade that ultimately did not include Anderson.
Instead, he now lives quietly in a converted bed and breakfast near downtown Asheville, which he calls a “little progressive enclave not far from Billy Graham Parkway.”
Asked if he gets recognized much, he said not really. The recently deceased “Golden Girl” actress Rue McLanahan and actress Andie McDowell were probably bigger names, he said. ” I don’t perform in town,” he said, “or make myself too obvious. I can’t say I’m well known in Asheville. But I do have a seven-foot polar bear on my front porch. I”m probably better known for that.”
He also creates magic tricks and puzzles: “I make double-headed quarters. Yesterday, I made a batch of puzzles ouf of two-dollar bills.”
And he watches TV almost exclusively off iTunes such as AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” FX’s “Damages” and ABC’s “Better Off Ted.” Why? He hates the logos and promos networks include during a show in the bottom corners of the screen. “It’s beyond annoying,” he said. “It destroys the experience!”
Harry Anderson’s “Wise Guy”
The Punchline Comedy Club
280 Hilderbrand Dr., Atlanta
8 p.m. Wednesday June 23 and 8 p.m. Thursday June 24
www.punchline.com 404-252-LAFF (5233)