What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Conversations

Television Writer and Producer John Bowman

I Tried Not to Do Comedy but I Was Backed into a Corner

Photo by Jake Fabricius.

Photo by Jake Fabricius.

March 5, 2017

John Bowman is an Emmy award winning writer who has been writing and producing comedy for 25 years. He has written for Saturday Night Live, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, In Living Color, Murphy Brown, Frank TV, and Martin, which he created. Before moderating a Smithsonian/Zócalo “What It Means to Be American” discussion in Los Angeles asking “Can Television Bring America Together?” he spoke in the Zócalo green room about avoiding a fistfight with Martin Lawrence, his childhood desire to be a football player, and what he’d want in his obituary.

 
Q: What was the best thing about your time at the Harvard Lampoon?
A:
The best thing was that I met the people who gave me my first jobs. Jim Downey at Saturday Night Live, Tom Gammill and Max Pross on the Garry Shandling show. These people, to this day, are my best friends. It was this incredible bonding experience and then we all came out here during the comedy explosion and we all stayed tight.

Q: Why comedy?
A:
I tried business. I went to Harvard Business School, and I was horrible at it. I worked for PepsiCo. The people there were great people, but I noticed they cared about Pepsi a lot more than I did, and that made them better at it than I was. At the age of 29, I thought, boy, my friends are doing comedy and this may be my only chance to have a normal life. I would be the funniest lawyer or businessman in the room, which doesn’t get you anywhere. So you see, I tried not to do comedy but I was backed into a corner.

Q: What is your greatest extravagance?
A:
I had a syndicated TV show that made me financially secure. My wife and I had five kids, which would be a nightmare if you can’t afford it. We were fortunate, and we decided to have an old-school brood—a big family with a lot of cacophony and we could still send them all to college.

Q: What was the first album you bought?
A:
I got on my bike, went to Ludwig’s Ear in Milwaukee and bought Abbey Road. It’s still one of my favorite albums.

Q: Who’s one person, living or dead, you’d most like to meet?
A:
When I was young I loved Albert Brooks. I thought, wow, I would love to spend half an hour with Albert Brooks. The irony is that five years ago Albert Brooks lived across the street from me and I never went and introduced myself. At some point the business just overwhelms you. Also, Abraham Lincoln.

Q: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A:
A football player—I grew up in Wisconsin.

Q: What would you do if you had one more hour in the day?
A:
I would sleep. I wouldn’t do anything. I would get one extra hour and I would be brighter and happier and more fun to be around. I’d be healthier and richer. This new 25-hour day is a very good idea.

Q: What’s your hidden talent?
A:
A sort of equanimity, which is why I was able to work with people like Martin Lawrence and Candice Bergen. There was nothing they could say or do that could knock me off. Candice wasn’t volatile but she could be icy. Martin was volatile. He challenged me to a fistfight once, in front an audience, and I was able to stay calm. In TV that is a big part of it. You have to be unflappable—no matter what happens, you don’t react. You listen and absorb and think, “What are my options?”

Q: What keeps you up at night?
A:
Donald Trump does keep me up at night. Almost everyone I know feels that way. Every morning you wake up and say, did he do something last night? Andrew Sullivan said it’s like having an abusive parent—you never know when he’s going to go off. It’s a funny, sudden change.

Q: What’s the first line of your obituary?
A:
“He loved his family.” If I want be remembered in any way, it’s as a good dad and a good husband.

*Photo by Jake Fabricius.