In 1980 psychologist Peter Grant owned a $750,000 home on Mt. Soledad. He had a thriving practice in La Jolla that brought him more than $200,000 a year. He regularly drew 200 to 300 people to his UCSD extension courses, and he was in great demand on the lecture circuit, where he pulled in $3000 to $4000 for a one-hour speech. And he was reaping royalties from a best-selling book. Three years later Grant had to sell his 1969 Chevy to buy groceries. His is a riches-to-rags story in the not-so-great American tradition. Peter Grant spent every penny he had. He blew a fortune — and he did it all for a laugh.
Peter Grant is the producer of San Diego’s only local comedy TV show. If you’ve seen it, you’re one step closer to understanding why Grant has no money; why he drives a beat-up old Fiat that runs (barely) on three cylinders and was hand-painted with a brush; and why he now splits the rent on a modest condo in La Costa with a friend. Peter Grant’s San Diego, an hour-long show on Channel 6 featuring local amateur comedians, aired only two times in the summer of 1982. It was a distinguished failure, an artistic foozle, and a financial bust. The show, which Channel 8 voted the second worst of the year, cost Grant big money; he paid for some of the most expensive chuckles in the history of humor.
Even if you’ve seen the TV show, however, you’re still no closer to understanding why Grant says he’s still laughing. If you were to read his book, The Risks and Payoffs of Being Alive (Citadel, 1978), you would have some clues, but few answers. The book, to be honest, is not all that good, and Grant knows it. It is a book about risks that takes few risks. It presents the stock formula for “aliveness” that dozens of self-help books and new-age claptrappers have been repeating ad nauseam for years: make yourself vulnerable, take risks because that’s what life is all about, etc., etc., etc. (in all fairness, that idea wasn’t so trodden in 1978 as it is today). Grant is not a new-age flake. He really lives his philosophy, and the key to his character lies in what he has done, not in his empty statements of intent, for which he is notorious. Grant did what few people dare to do. When success, as most people define it, became intolerable, he threw it away. Not without doubts but, in retrospect, with few regrets. “Life,” says Grant, “is a ludicrous proposition at best. I believe in taking risks. If you don’t roll the dice, you might as well lie down and die. It is the process of life that counts, not the content.”
Nobody knows better than Grant that many times he has leaped blindly over the Fine line between calculated risk and reckless buffoonery. “Sure, I fall flat on my face all the time,” he says. “My family and my old friends ridicule me, but I feel sorry for them. They see my risk taking as insanity, but I see their sanity as insanity. Striving to be normal, to be the same, to be like other people, is absolutely maniacal. When I look out the window and see people mindlessly screaming down the freeways to work, mindlessly screaming back, then eating health food so they can live longer, I think, ‘Live longer for what?' ”
Peter Grant is forty-nine. He chainsmokes and, rumor has it, gambles a lot. In the morning he coughs a lot. Though single now, he has been married three times and has two children. His hair is gray; his face has a nut-brown, youthful hue which, rumor has it, is due to a product called Man Tan. Though he has lost a lot of weight in the past few years, he still carries a tidy paunch. Grant is a gregarious, likable man with a gravely voice and an infectious laugh. Without his laugh, Grant would be someone else — Durante without his nose, Liberace without his rings. It’s not a giggle. It’s not a wheeze. And it’s not a chortle. It’s a lusty hybrid of a laugh, a brash, throaty cackle that enters a room and demands to be acknowledged. “I use’ my laugh,” Grand says. “I can tell whether people like me or not by the way they respond to it. ”
In November of 1980, after fifteen years as a psychologist. Grant closed the doors of his La Jolla practice. “When I don’t feel like explaining why,” he says, “I tell people it was a midlife crisis. The fact is, I was burned out. It’s as simple as that. I couldn’t sit and listen to people’s problems anymore. I felt like a walking vending machine: put fifty dollars in my slot and I’ll help you. There I was, a shrink whose job it was to architect other people’s lives, to get them to be creative and individualistic; but one day I woke up and decided that I was a robot. My own life was predictable and mediocre.”
Two months later KSDO offered Grant the chance to do a “call-in therapy” radio show. It started slowly, but the glib, quick-witted Grant soon developed a following. The public appreciated his offbeat approach to therapy that insisted humor was the key to good mental health. When a man called in threatening to jump off a bridge. Grant told him, “I may not be able to stop you, but you’ll be laughing all the way down.”
After quitting his practice. Grant began frequenting the Comedy Store in La Jolla, where he met the local amateur comedians. Stand-up comics are a very close-knit group, and they generally don’t allow “civilians” (noncomedians) to penetrate their circles. But they accepted Grant. Tony Stone, Ralph Williams, Caroline Simpson, John Fitzpatrick, Bob Lincoln, Susie Loucks, Jeff Miller, and several others felt affection for the middle-age psychologist who had money, a keen interest in comedy as well as a riotous sense of humor, and laughed hysterically at their jokes. So Grant, who had been with KSDO for about three months, asked four of his comedian friends to act as a panel on the show. It was an innovative idea that turned to disaster. “I had four immature kids in there taking cheap shots at people,” Grant says. “Those guys were like piranhas. They’d see a punch line and they’d be fighting for the microphone to get it. When a woman called in and said she wanted to kill herself, one of them said, ‘Keep on talking lady, my nipples are getting hard.’” The KSDO management was not amused. Talk of a long-term contract with Grant ceased, and soon thereafter San Diego’s not-so-serious shrink was off the air.
When in late May of 1982 Peter Grant and comedian Tony Stone walked into the offices of Channel 6 in Kearny Mesa, station manager Martin Colby reluctantly agreed to give them five minutes of his time. The meeting lasted one and one-half hours. “Colby ended up very interested in us,” says Stone. “He liked our ideas and wanted to help us do something that has never been done in this country — produce a local TV comedy show.” At meeting’s end. Grant had signed a contract to buy one hour of air time for thirteen weeks on Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. The cost, $26,000; $2000 to be paid each week as the season progressed. Channel 6 would have no role in producing the show or in selling commercials. It would only provide the air time and preview the show to insure that it was in good taste.
Grant left Channel 6 that day knowing he had three weeks in which to produce 46.5 minutes of laughs. Problem: he had no script, no writers, no actors, no actresses. He had no director, no production crew, and no means of financing his venture. Worse still, the man in charge hadn’t the faintest idea what he was doing.
But Grant, with characteristic pluck, wasted no time setting his comedy-making machine into frenetic motion. He hired a young woman to be his associate producer. She had a degree in television production from San Diego State, but — alas — no experience. Grant assembled at his home a group of comedians to script the show. Pat Gorse, touted as “the best comedy writer in San Diego” (he writes for radio station 91X and has sold many jokes to Rodney Dangerfield), was called in as head writer. He was clearly talented, but had no experience writing for TV. Because they worked so cheaply (“for nothing,” jokes Grant), the comedians were to perform the skits themselves. Grant put an ad in a newspaper requesting “media sales girls” who would sell advertising to local businesses. The dilettante producer was convinced that his group of pretty, eager young women — attractiveness was a major criterion in the hiring process — would take San Diego by storm. The sales staff, none of whom had any experience in media sales, were instructed to appeal to local pride; “This is a local show, using local talent, shot on location in San Diego.”
Peter Grant had always been a performer. “I was pulling Don Rickies stuff on the other kids when I was five,” he says. His fifth-grade teacher,* exasperated by Grant’s insatiable need to entertain his peers, finally gave up trying to control him and put aside a half-hour of class time each week for ‘ ‘The Peter Grant Show.” Now, at age forty-seven, this was the real thing, and for twice as long. The dream, to be in television, was within his grasp, and he had a group of talented young amateur comics dreaming along with him. As the mature adult in the group and the one risking the most, he should have relied on more than the dumb luck of the debutant to succeed. But he didn’t. “It is incredible how wrong I was about so many things,” reflects Grant. “The law of averages dictates that by random chance I would have to be right about something once in a while. During the production of Peter Grant’s San Diego, I was definitely defying the law of averages.”
The first day of shooting at Bully’s in La Jolla was a fiasco. An enormous entourage descended upon the bar on Memorial Day, 1982: cameramen, lighting technicians, grips, directors, actors and actresses, friends, groupies, and of course the graying producer himself. To an outsider they looked like a bunch of celebrity heavies preparing for an intense, no-nonsense shoot. But no one on the set had the slightest idea where or how to begin. An embarrassing spirit of amateurism prevailed. The crew was a team — all dressed up to play, referees in place, the crowd cheering — but none of them knew the rules of the game. The first few hours were like a prolonged warm-up during which one fiddled with wires, experimented endlessly with lighting angles, shouted meaningless orders, postured, or — if all else failed — got drunk. On Peter Grant’s tab.
The show’s associate producer, it turned out, knew next to nothing about production. “It was a case of the blind leading the blind,’’ recalls Grant. “She was too inexperienced even to know a good production crew from a bad one.’’ As Grant’s luck would have it, she chose a bad one. In the weeks to come, the show would change production crews again and again, and eventually Grant took charge of the shooting himself. He,.of course, knew only what he’d learned in a few days on the set. Consequently, the technical production of the entire show was dreadful. The sound was bad, the composition of the scenes consistently flawed, communication between writers and director muddled, the use of camera techniques and angles inept.
In the rocky voyage between concept and finished product, it often seemed as though humor had bailed out along the way. Pat Gorse’s parody of Ted Leitner showed potential — it was the kind of local humor Grant wanted — but in general the comedy skits just weren’t working, even though they had seemed so funny on paper. “When we finally had a script six days before shooting, we had no coordination whatsoever with the director,” Gorse recalls. “Not that it would have mattered. The director Pete hired was used to filming plants on a table. He had no experience filming comedy. We had scenes where the camera wasn’t even focused on the person delivering the punch line. It was pathetic.” After six hours at Bully’s, Grant left with six minutes of mediocre comedy material and a $400 bill for food and drinks.
The crew moved to Belmont Park, in front of the broken-down roller coaster. Gorse got a few laughs interviewing passersby, but frankly they weren’t worth the trip. Some scenes were shot at Grant’s house, then it was back to La Jolla to film stand-up comedy acts at the Comedy Store. Russ T. Nailz was very funny; so were Susie Loucks, Caroline Simpson, Tony Stone, and Jeff Miller. Finally, a seventeen-hour day of shooting ended and the crew retired to Grant’s house for one of many all-night parties. Everyone was exhausted, but exhilarated, after the first big day in show biz.
Grant had stayed away from drugs in his youth, and had always cautioned his patients to avoid them. But his involvement with the stand-up comedian crowd changed that. “Suddenly, I found myself deeply involved with cocaine,” admits Grant. “It was easy to get, and it made me feel energized and euphoric. I was a middle-age man trying to maintain the energy level of a bunch of kids in their twenties. Coke helped me do that.” Since few of the others could afford it. Grant became the supplier of cocaine on the set and at parties. His connection in La Costa would send four beautiful “cokehead” girls, who would give Grant “a lot of physical attention. At first, I was too naive to realize the strategy of the girls. They would sell their bodies for two or three lines of coke.”
Grant found himself in a new world. Show business. The fast lane. An unreal world of vertiginous rises and precipitous falls: emotional chaos compounded by sleeplessness, intense pressure, the absurdity of gratuitous sex, and drugs. He loved his new life. It was the antithesis of what he’d known since leaving the University of Michigan in the early Sixties: suburban normalcy, starchy professionalism, financial and family responsibilities. Now, after years of lonely bachelorhood, he suddenly had younger women attracted to him. Robin Williams came to a party at his house one night after performing at SDSU. Grant became close to several professional comics in Los Angeles, notably Allan Stevens and Mike Binder (the latter, who used to appear regularly on The Mike Douglas Show, once told him, “Pete, I hope someday I’ll grow up to be like you”). Grant had a strange attraction to stand-up comics, and they to him. Few lifestyles are more unstable than that of a comedian. The competition is fierce and the chances of hitting it big are minute. The pay is bad, when there is any. The pressure to produce new material is overwhelming. And the risk of failure is present each time the comic steps on stage. “I have a very sincere, multilevel camaraderie with comedians,” Grant says. “The stand-up comic does not fit into society, so he pulls back and observes. He has no conventional support systems. He is off-center, both psychologically and emotionally. That’s why he is able to see things that most people don’t see. He has a deep sense of the ludicrousness of our lives. To him the status quo seems ridiculous. ”
By 1982 Grant had rejected much of what comedians love to attack. He was a freak like them, but one with a curious twist: he had beaten the system from the inside. He had a house on the hill and a thirty-foot cabin cruiser. He drove a Mercedes. He had his own radio show. He could afford to spend money lavishly — on booze and drugs, among other things. In sum, he had the very things they wanted. Conversely, they had what he wanted. They were risk takers. They led a wild lifestyle. They were quixotic, impractical, unpredictable, mercurial — and young. Though they seemed to him manic-depressive at times, they were seductively vulnerable, the direction of their lives no more certain than the arrival of the next laugh. That’s the life Grant wanted.
So he became the Pied Piper of the local comedy world. The comedians — most in their twenties — made him the nominal king of San Diego comedy, the renegade patron of their profession. In addition to the material benefits they enjoyed, the young comics also confided in this paternal shrink, who not only understood them but provided a justification for their marginal behavior. “Their parents were always pressuring them to get ‘real’ jobs,” Grant says, “but here I was, an adult, a parent myself, telling them they were okay the way they were.” When Grant suggested doing the TV show, they jumped at the idea. Their sugar daddy was going to make all of them stars.
One of the comics, Russ T. Nailz, now a disc jockey at 91X, didn’t buy what Grant was selling. The most prominent comedian in the show, and probably the funniest, Nailz was the one participant who kept his distance from Grant. “I thought the show was a great idea,” says Nailz, “a great opportunity for exposure, but there was something about Peter Grant that I didn’t like right from the start. He tried too hard to be part of the group. He just told all the comedians what they wanted to hear, and he laughed too easily at their jokes. I didn’t like the way all the comedians just dropped their lives to follow Peter Grant.” Nailz is hesitant to talk about Grant. “I don’t mean to sound like Bambi, but I figure if you haven’t got anything good to say about someone, don’t say anything. The guy never did anything rotten to me, and 1 always treated him with respect. He helped us, I guess, but I was planning on making it anyway. If he hadn’t come along, I don’t think anything would have been any different. The best thing that came out of it for me was that I met Pat Gorse. Peter Grant brought all the comedians together. I’ll say that for him. It’s just too bad Peter Grant had to be there.” As the day of the first show approached, Grant began to realize how little he understood about producing a television show. He had no competent director; Gorse, the only writer who had the discipline to chisel an idea into a scene, was overworked; the skits weren’t very funny; and with only days till June 19, when the show was to air, no ads had been sold. Money was the biggest problem. Grant was offering twenty-four thirty-second spots for $255 each and four fifteen-minute segment sponsorships for $1500 each. But it was a buyers’ market and the pitch wasn’t working. By the time the show aired, most of the sales staff had quit in frustration. All told, Peter Grant’s San Diego sold only four thirty-second commercial spots.
Grant was undaunted. He decided to pay for the first show out of his own pocket. He convinced himself that all the sponsors needed was to see one show, then they would buy. “But it never happened,” laments Grant. “I was moving myself towards a financial disaster that would jeopardize my life’s security and I didn’t even know it. I’m a risk taker — but I’m not into financial suicide.”
The crew shot two more times on location in San Diego, and on June 18 Grant previewed the show for Channel 6. They accepted it, and Grant paid them $2000 for the time slot. The following night the cast and crew assembled at Grant’s house to watch the show. Coked out and euphoric, intoxicated by an undisceming spirit of accomplishment, everyone roared with laughter at a TV comedy show that wasn’t very funny. Few saw that most of the humor was “inside,” and that any viewer who had the patience to watch was probably laughing at them, not with them. “That night I worked myself into an unreal world where I had the feeling we had a smash hit,” Grant recalls. “It scares me, in retrospect, to see how the human mind — especially mine — can play tricks on you when emotions and desires take hold.”
The funniest part of the first show was, ironically, a real commercial that Grant performed for Raleigh Hills Hospital, an alcohol rehabilitation clinic. It was filmed in a bar (the now-defunct Playboy Club) and Grant was drunk. At 2:00 a.m. after a shoot, someone remembered they had forgotten to do the commercial, which Raleigh Hills had paid for. Grant was called in: “I had had about eighteen drinks, but I figured, ‘What the hell, we’ve got to shoot this thing.’ ” As he read the cue cards on take fourteen, he had the pathetic, wooden look of someone drunk trying for thirty endless seconds to look sober. His droopy eyes were held open as if by strings. His flushed cheeks hung like wet laundry. His mouth was on automatic pilot, seemingly unaware of the relationship between its movement and the sounds it was producing. Given the circumstances, Grant performed heroically, though any sober viewer must have guessed that he was either soused or lobotomized. Raleigh Hills’ phone number, which began with the tricky juxtaposition of “five” and “seven,” was more than he could handle. He snagged on the “f” of “five.” His upper teeth grabbed his lower lip and refused to let go. When they finally did, what was supposed to be a crisp fricative had degenerated into a sloppy sibilant: Fffsssfive, seven. . . .” Remarkably, Grant finished take fourteen with a straight face.
As the filming of the show progressed, it was becoming more and more apparent that Grant — even though he had a great sense of humor and a good comic imagination — was not headed for superstardom. “Pete comes across well when he’s being interviewed,” says Tony Stone. “But he has no talent as an actor or a comedian. Toward the end we were gradually writing Pete out of the show.”
Bob Lincoln: “He’s a bad actor. Period.”
Pat Gorse: “He has classic stage fright. Though he’s very loose and funny normally, he tenses up on camera. With some practice, he could be a good talk-show host because he can really put people at ease, and he’s very insightful. But as a comedian he’s bad and he knows it. He’s incapable of delivering a line.”
All those involved in Peter Grant’s San Diego vividly recall the frustration, intensity, and exhilaration of producing a TV show on the budget of a starving artist. “The camaraderie was incredible,” says Lincoln. “I made some great friends during that experience. We had some of the best parties ever held, and Pete was the catalyst for it all.” The comedians also remember doubts, not only about the artistic value of the show, but about Grant’s ability to raise money to keep it on the air. “All over Pete ’s house were letters from creditors asking for their money,” continues Lincoln. “I remember seeing a letter from a bank demanding payment of $13,000. One day it hit me that Pete must be dying. He would often take us all out to dinner and pay with credit cards, and it seemed as though he had no intention of paying them off. He had the worst health habits of anyone I’d ever known. He would get up every morning and eat four bowls of Froot Loops. He poured heaps of salt onto everything. He smoked cigarettes constantly, even while he ate. His behavior was so peculiar — with the drugs, the alcohol, the women, and all the money he owed — that I figured he must have terminal cancer. I told Pat about it, and we were saying, ‘Yeah, that’s it, now all the pieces fit.’”
Sometime between the first and second show — there was a two-week break — Grant began to realize the extent of his financial problems. In the past two years he had bled the equity on his home, cashing out for a total of $300,000. But he had a $5000 monthly mortgage payment, profligate spending habits, and no consistent source of income. It all caught up with him in July, 1982, when he had to borrow money to pay for the second show. The following week, he and Lincoln went to Las Vegas with $2500, hoping to win enough to pay for a third. But the cards were cold at the blackjack tables and Grant returned to San Diego close to ruin. He had aired his last gag.
His young colleagues were angry and let down. “I went into a severe depression,” says Pat Gorse. “I had worked so hard, staying up all night writing and coordinating the direction and the script. If anything, we were overprepared. We had learned so much from the first two shows, and the third was going to be our vindication. But Pete didn’t get the money like he promised. He swore he’d have the money, but he lied to us.”
“A problem I’ve had all my life is that people put me on a pedestal,” Grant says. ‘‘One of my weaknesses is that I let them do it. Those comedians thought I walked on water. They saw my house and my boat and my car and they couldn’t imagine that I had no more money. I kept assuring them I’d get financial backing, in order to maintain morale. I was the emotional stabilizer, the guy they confided in, the glue that held the whole thing together, and they didn’t think I could possibly let them down.”
Everyone agrees that Peter Grant’s San Diego was a great learning experience. ‘‘I’m a better person for having known Pete Grant,” says Gorse. ‘‘Even though the show was a flop, it made me write and showed me how jokes can be made visual. Essentially, we were educated on Peter Grant’s tab.”
Bob Lincoln agrees he learned a lot, but is less indulgent. “We used Pete Grant, but Pete Grant used us. Pete has always dreamed of being a celebrity. He has a tremendous ego and he needs people’s approval all the time. What better way to get it than to become a TV producer? All Pete wanted was to have his own TV show — at any cost. I mean, the title, Peter Grant's San Diego, says it all. It sounds like the Pope’s Vatican.”
‘‘When push came to shove, people said, ‘Now we need Peter Grant,’ but he wasn’t there,” recalls Russ T. Nailz. ‘‘He just flaked out. He gets people to believe in his dreams, then says, ‘Here, finish my dream for me.’ We needed more than just praise and Peter Grant’s funny laugh. We needed direction. We needed somebody to take charge and crack some whips. Peter Grant just didn’t have it.”
"Peter had a hunger for recognition, and it didn’t matter to him how he satisfied it,” continues Lincoln. ‘‘Like a bad coke habit, the more he got, the more he needed. And it didn’t matter who got screwed along the way. Some of the other comics saw Pete’s scam-ming as a big joke, but they didn’t see the dark side. I did. I saw Pete screwing over a lot of people. I feel bad for all the girls he hired to sell ads for the show. He conned them into believing they could do something they were totally unprepared to do. He bounced a lot of checks. He put a fortune on his credit cards, without thinking about whether he could ever pay up. Tony Stone’s girlfriend (now wife] invested her life savings in the show with guaranteed return. Another woman invested $10,000. All those people got screwed. Somehow, Pete believes he is above thinking about money. He doesn’t realize that he hurts people.” "Anybody who gets burned by Peter Grant lit the match himself,” says Allan Stevens, a professional comedian and screenwriter who works the L.A. Comedy Store, where he met Grant. ‘‘Pete is a nice guy. I like to hang around him because he’s lots of fun. But you know after ten minutes where he’s coming from. If you don’t, you deserve what you get. I don’t work on his projects to move my career ahead. I do them because he’s a fun guy, and when I look at him, I know I’m not that bad. People who say they got burned by Pete are angry at themselves more than anyone else. There’s nothing malevolent about him. He’s a harmless guy.”
Stevens provides a striking contrast to the amateur comedians here in San Diego. In an interview he presents the jaded persona of a bleary-eyed grunt fresh off the battlefields of Hollywood. It’s not surprising to hear him say that the people he most respects in this world are Vietnam veterans. ‘‘There are lots of Peter Grants around,” says Stevens. ‘‘I’d say he has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding in comedy, but I’ve learned not to underestimate anybody anymore. If Richard Simmons can become successful in the exercise business, and if people will buy pet rocks, Peter Grant could someday have his own comedy show.”
In the risky streets of Hollywood, there is a saying that expresses the unpredictability of any project’s fate: “Nobody knows.” Certainly nobody could have guessed that a show as crude as Peter Grant’s San Diego would pique the interest of veteran Hollywood funnyman Steve Allen. Allen had read about the show in an article by Los Angeles Times comedy critic Lawrence Christon, so he called Grant and asked him to bring tapes to his office for a viewing. (Christon, to this day, probably does not know the telling irony of a small mistake he made in the article; he referred to Grant’s book as The Risks and Chaos [instead of payoffs] of Being Alive.) Allen ended up buying the rights to a short segment in which Grant tries unsuccessfully to pick up a woman in a bar. “Steve liked me,” says Grant. “He told me my greatest asset was that I was utterly unencumbered by a body of knowledge.”
Two years after the fact, Grant realized that his show was doomed from the start. “I’ve since learned that a local comedy show can’t make money. If I’d done a little research, I guess I could have figured that out, couldn’t I?” he asks, only a little embarrassed. When it is pointed out that that’s why no one besides him has ever tried. Grant bursts into hearty, abdominal laughter that, if it conceals the rumblings of a broken spirit, conceals them well.
“One of the reasons Pete is so likable is his capacity for self-deprecating humor,” Tony Stone observes. “We all used to laugh hardest with Pete about Pete. He lets himself be the butt of people’s jokes and he loves to let comedians play off him.” Several comics tell the story of how one night L.A. comedian Jimmy Brogan got a laugh at Peter Grant’s expense. Grant was seated in the front row (where else?) at the Sunset Strip Comedy Store, a position that can be as dangerous as a Gestalt hot-seat. Brogan, who had never met Grant, heard his maniacal laugh during his opening, and decided to ad lib a dialogue with the oddball who owned it.
Brogan: Where are you from sir? And what do you do?
Grant: I’m a comedy TV producer from San Diego.
Brogan: Oh, yeah. I play San Diego all the time. I’d like to know more about this show. What’s it called?
Grant: It’s called Peter Grant's San Diego.
Brogan: And who, may I ask, are you?
Grant: I’m fucking Peter Grant, that’s who!
Brogan: Sir, I didn’t ask you how you got your job.
That line brought down the house. And Grant, of course, laughed harder than anyone.
In late 1982 life was not very funny for Peter Grant. Deeply in debt, his house on the verge of foreclosure, smarting from his failure in show biz. Grant saw his life in a shambles. In December he sold most of his possessions, packed everything he owned into his Bronco, and, with $75,000, left San Diego for Idaho, where he had vacationed several times over the past ten years. “I will never forget the feeling I had closing the door of my empty house in La Jolla,” recalls Grant. “I was leaving my whole life behind. It was very lonely.”
In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a town of 28,000 populated mostly by loggers, Grant intended to buy land and build a house with his own hands. He would also write a book about his experiences in television. In the peace and quiet of the north woods, far from the predatory breath of creditors, no longer swayed by the vicissitudes of show business, Grant meant to put his life back together. He wrote a book, called So Far ... It Feels Pretty Good, which he claims was a “catharsis” for him. But as literature it is as shoddy as his TV show. It is riddled with typos, replete with awkward constructions, and bogged down with cliches, and one cringes to think Simon & Schuster was given the chance to reject the manuscript. Like Peter Grant’s San Diego, it shows promise at times, but it looks as if it were written in a single draft, as fast as one could type with two fingers. As it turns out, it was. “I probably only spent about fifty hours on that thing,” confesses Grant.
One can only guess what his house would have looked like. He never finished it. There was a nightclub in Coeur d’Alene. It was for sale. Peter Grant was restless. So he bought the nightclub — even though he knew its five previous owners had failed. In March of 1983 the Belly Laugh opened its doors. Grant was back in business, the center of attention once again, calling the shots, rallying enthusiasm, charming the local yokels, hustling the gals, and — only incidentally — taking another phenomenal risk with his life.
Jim Favor, an attorney and close friend of Grant’s, helped manage the club. “Pete went first class,’’ says Favor. “He had belly dancers, a jazz trio in the afternoon, a band in the evening, and comedians several nights a week. Pete would bring his old friends up from San Diego and Los Angeles to perform — all expenses paid!” Some of the big names, such as Mike Binder, earned as much as $400 a night. The locals loved the Belly Laugh, and they loved Grant for bringing Southern California to the sticks.
“When I arrived in Coeur d’Alene, I was treated like a star,’’ says Pat Gorse, who performed at the Belly Laugh for two weeks in April at one hundred dollars a night. “I was a celebrity just because I was associated with Pete Grant. He had that whole town in his pocket. Those people were so excited about Pete’s comedy club. He had them believing Robin Williams was going to perform there. “I ’ll never forget the wonderment in their faces when they’d say, ‘Robin Williams is going to be here.’ ’’
Grant probably would have gotten Robin Williams at his club if he were less an entrepreneur and more a businessman. “Next time I open a nightclub — which I will do — I’m going to have eighteen Jewish accountants working for me,’’ jokes Grant. “We had standing-room-only in the Belly Laugh several nights a week. At closing I’d see all this cash going into the vault, I mean stacks of it, and I figured we must be doing great.’’
Favor knew they weren’t. “We were paying the band alone $2000 a week. On top of that we had to pay the belly dancers, the comedians, the jazz trio, and the staff. Also, everybody associated with that place was drunk all the time, and most were drinking for free. I kept telling Pete that money was going out faster than it was coming in, but he wouldn’t listen. All he saw was those stacks of cash. Pete has no sense of how to manage money.” After two months in business, the negative cash flow caught up with Grant. Eleven thousand dollars in bad checks bounced, and once again he found himself facing angry creditors. “Those loggers wanted to give me a haircut with their chain saws,” Grant says. “But even though we were falling apart, it was okay with me because everybody was having a good time. It was an ego thing for me; / was giving everybody a good time. I was like the social director of the Titanic. Jim is telling me the water’s running over and I’m saying ‘Strike up the band! ’ I think that image captures me perfectly.”
“It was in Idaho that it occurred to me who Peter Grant really is,” says Gorse. ‘ ‘Pete is the Music Man. He did to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho what Harold Hill did to River City, Iowa. He mesmerized the town. He had all kinds of people working for him for free, adults who should have known better. These people all had dreams of making something of their dreary lives, and Pete was bringing Hollywood to their doorstep. They fell for him hook, line, and sinker. But, you know, they have probably never known such excitement.”
Nor had Grant. The day after he closed the nightclub, the police issued a warrant for his arrest. Grant hid out in his barmaid’s basement for two days until money arrived from an associate in Del Mar to pay off the $11,000 in bad checks. But the Coeur d’Alene police wanted him anyway. “That mountain sheriff was going to get his prey,” Grant says. “He really wanted to take this Southern California asshole down a peg.” Grant fled to nearby Washington to escape arrest and refused to pay back the money unless the charges were dropped. The sheriff agreed to a withheld judgment on the condition that Grant return to Coeur d’Alene and face a perfunctory trial. “I didn’t want to be a fugitive, so I went,” explains Grant. “But I was scared. I walked into the sheriff’s office with my attorney and the guy says, ‘Halt, you’re under arrest.’ They fingerprinted me, took mug shots, and threw me into a cell. Finally, I went to court and pleaded guilty to writing one bad fifty-dollar check. When I went before the judge for sentencing, the first thing he said was, ‘I don’t believe in withheld judgments.’ I figured it was all over for Pete Grant, that I’d be a forgotten victim of northwest justice. But then he said he’d make an exception in my case, and he gave me three years’ probation.” Grant then returned to San Diego; he was penniless, severely shaken emotionally, and wearing the scent of a two-time loser. In January of this year he officially declared bankruptcy.
Last April Grant taped a comedy TV show called Belly Laugh at the Belly Up Tavern. The show cost about $5000 to produce and was paid for entirely by gate receipts. Five hundred people paid ten dollars to be entertained by Grant’s latest comedy venture. “The only costs we had were production costs, fees for professional comics, and promotion,” explains Grant proudly. “Everybody else was working on the come. I told them, ‘Look, I’m going to roll the dice, what do you say you roll them along with me.’ ”
Once again Peter Grant had people breathing the smoke of his pipe dream; director Rob Rosenbaum, Belly Up Tavern owner Dave Hodges, Rob Summit of Western Video, and twenty-five actors and actresses all placed faith in a man whose only experience in television had been an epic blooper. But Grant did things differently this time. He brought in local professional stage people to perform. He prepared a script in advance and coordinated every shot in detail. He rehearsed several times before filming. When the production crew arrived, eighty-three numbered scenes were shot in five hours with the regimented snap of a crack team. This time, Peter Grant was organized.
“Everybody told me I was crazy to do that show,” says Grant. “They told me, ‘Pete, give it up. You’re not a producer.’ But I knew I’d learned from my mistakes in the past. I wasn’t the «old Pete Grant. There were no drugs this time [Grant insists he long ago quit taking drugs], and there was no partying. I was very assertive, very directive, and very serious. Belly Laugh was produced for one reason, to make money.” Which, indeed, it might. A national program syndicator has expressed interest in the show.
Florine Vallaine was the only participant who had been involved in the Peter Grant’s San Diego fiasco. Some from the earlier show were angry that Grant insisted they audition; others wanted to avoid what they figured would be another failure. “Peter was very professional this time,” Vallaine says. “The spirit on the set was very high, and there was a good sense of unity. I think Peter wanted to break away from all that happened two years ago; he wanted to prove himself.”
Though the production of Belly Laugh is good, the script lacks verve. “I did most of the writing myself, and overall it wasn’t very good,” admits Grant. If a true belly laugh originates in the Grand Canyon of comic depth. Grant’s latest show generally produces laughs about on the scale of Mission Valley. There are, however, a few ticklers: “I went out with a girl who’s half-French and half-Chinese. I took her home and she tried to eat my laundry.” The half-hour show, which consists of successive vignettes reminiscent of Hee Haw, has lots of pleasant repartee and is entertaining — at least as much fun as most prime-time television. “I’m not all that happy with it,” admits Grant, ‘ ‘but it's a lot better than the previous show. I mean, look what I did. I got all those people together with no backing, no money, no sponsors, no nothing. I produced a show for a fraction of what it would normally cost. It’s a miracle that I pulled it off at all, and now I’ve got a syndicator who wants to buy it. I’m just getting started in this business. You’re going to hear more from Peter Grant. So watch out.”
After two decades as a guardian of sanity and an arbiter of normality, Peter Grant has, in the past three years, lived the madness most people hide deep in their skulls. He has become a psychic outlaw, an analyzer of dreams turned dreamer who breaks all the rules. “He should give up the dream of being in television and go live on the land in Idaho,” says Bob Lincoln.
“But instead he keeps trying. He’s like a swallow who keeps coming back to San Juan Capistrano. He doesn’t even know why he keeps doing it.’’
“The King of Comedy is one of my favorite films,’’ Grant says. “I’ve seen it four times. I wouldn’t recommend anyone do what Rupert Pupkin did [kidnap a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host in exchange for a chance to do a comedy routine on the show], but the message of that film is important. It says it’s better to be king for a night than to be a schmuck for your whole life.’’
In a sense Grant has made his own life the embodiment of the tragicomic spirit his comedian friends try to capture in their routines. He is a comic character wearing a tragic mask, a tortured hero with a smile on his face, and a laughing fool all rolled into one. If nothing else, Peter Grant is a risk taker, a man who sets himself up as a target for life’s punch lines. For that some hate him, some love him, and some who should hate him like him anyway.
“You know, I had never thought until this moment why the Music Man did what he did,’’ exclaims Pat Gorse, excited as though by a great discovery. “Harold Hill didn’t go into towns and flimflam people in order to make money. He did it to satisfy his ego! He just wanted to create a parade. It made no difference that he didn’t know a lick of music. He just wanted to be the leader of the band. That’s Peter Grant!
“I remember the day we realized that Peter Grant’s San Diego would never air again,’’ he continues. “We were all sitting around bad-mouthing Pete for letting us down. But I stood up and started telling people, ‘Wait, remember what our lives were like before we met Pete Grant? If he hadn’t come along, we never would have had the chance to do a TV show.' Without realizing it, I was giving Marion the Librarian’s speech to the people of River City when they found out Harold Hill was a con artist. Pete flimflammed us in the sense that he made us believe in his dream, but the bottom line is that we did something we never would have done; we put two TV shows on the air! Given the circumstances, that was a miracle. Everyone involved will remember those few weeks as one of the most significant periods of their lives.’’
Closing notes from several players in Peter Grant’s laughing band:
Stevens: He should be a soda jerk.
Gorse: You can’t dislike someone who is so in love with people, and who needs their love all the time.
Nailz: If he were my sister, I might accept him.
Stone: I have plenty of reasons to be down on him, but I just can't dislike the guy.
Lincoln; He’s a great guy, but he’s an asshole.
Stevens: He should have a boat and should sail from island to island bullshitting the natives. He probably couldn’t sail the boat, but he could get some Tahitian women to sail it for him.
Nailz: I think he hurts people by accident. With his knowledge and his experience, you figure he should know what he’s doing.
Stone: His laugh sounds like somebody tickling a chipmunk in heat.
Gorse: He wants to be Shakespeare, Balzac, and all those other highfalutin Greeks.
Nailz: There’s a little Peter in all of us.
Lincoln: He’s all sizzle, but no steak.
Grant: Life is the sizzle, not the steak.