In 2013, at the National Speakers Association Convention, Ron Culberson presented the Master of Influence Award to Robert “Bob” Orben for a lifetime of influencing others with his words. Bob died on February 2, 2023, at the age of ninety five. The following is an edited article Ron wrote in 2013 about Bob and his love of curiosity.
Imagine waking up at 4:00 a.m., putting on a pot of coffee, reading several newspapers and then writing 25 jokes for well-known comedians, a prime time talk show, a political candidate, and the President of the United States. That’s what Robert “Bob” Orben did as one of the most prolific joke writers in the United States—and possibly the universe (current access to universe databases prohibit confirmation of that latter claim).
I had the privilege of knowing Bob since we served on a committee together in 1999. He was a wonderfully kind and humble person whose career showed that underneath the glitz and glamour of rubbing elbows with the giants of Hollywood and Washington, DC, there was a never-ending curiosity about what makes people laugh.
At the age of 18, Bob was demonstrating magic in New York City when he read Smart Talk for Magicians and thought, “I could do that.” One year later, Bob wrote his first book on comedy patter (the verbal monologue used during a performance) for magicians called The Encyclopedia of Patter.
After that, he wrote the popular newsletter Current Comedy plus 47 books for comedians and speakers, including a wonderful book of one liners and personal stories called Speakers Handbook of Humor. Beyond his numerous publications, Bob also wrote comedy for Dick Gregory, Red Skelton Show and Jack Paar. Finally, he served as the Director of the White House Speechwriting Department for President Gerald Ford.
Bob said that curiosity played a major role in his career because the basis of good comedy writing is to look for humor everywhere. As he scanned the newspapers for material, he would look for any idea or concept that would make a good joke. However, since he was writing material for other people, he always had to consider what would work for them and their audiences.
Bob suggested that there is no real formula for writing comedy but that there was a routine to getting it done. During the peak of his career, his goal was to write 25 jokes per day. Whether it took him two hours or ten, the target remained the same. As most writers will attest, the only way to succeed is to just do it. By creating this habit of writing, Bob cranked out many successful jokes day after day. But it didn’t end there. Because he was curious about what jokes worked, he would listen to the audiences’ reactions and recognize patterns which could be used in future joke development.
We can learn from Bob’s career. First of all, if we really want to be good at something, we must develop a routine which puts us in the right environment to do that thing every day. Bob said, “You can’t reward yourself by taking a day off and not doing it.” It’s about grinding it out.
Second, we must be curious about everything. Going through life without questioning what’s going on makes us complacent. Asking questions about every detail allows us to understand and react in new and curious ways.
Bob Orben certainly brought a great deal of humor to our world. He did this by satisfying a curiosity and turning that inquisitiveness into a gift for others. He will be missed.