Robert Wuhl
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Robert Wuhl

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The best kept secret in music

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The man behind "Arlis$" was Mr. Stand Up long before he was double-talking Shaq and getting showered by tickertape in the Canyon of Heroes. Now he's ready to return to the mike and assume certain positions, and in the process he might just be the funniest social studies teacher you'll ever meet...

HBO: So give us a little background on your show - what is "Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl" about, exactly?

Robert Wuhl: It's basically a monologue that's being done in a classroom, and it's about how pop culture becomes history. By pop culture, I mean whoever the most popular person is at that point in time. People say that life shouldn't be a popularity contest, but life is a popularity contest. And it doesn't make a difference if it's 2005 or 1805. Whoever the most popular person is at that time, they're going to have a lot of weight, whether they're being elected, whether they're being read, whether they're being sought out, whether we emulate them. And what they say and do is going to affect a bunch of other people because the media is printing it and people are listening to them. And that's just the way life is. It doesn't change.

Human behavior doesn't change over the years. People are still doing stuff for the same reasons they did it years ago, which is basically "My God's better than your God." Or "How much is in it for me and uh who's got the hots for you." That's basically where history comes from, those few things.

HBO: What was the genesis behind presenting this in a classroom setting and not a comedy venue?

Robert Wuhl: It was an experiment. [HBO President] Chris Albrecht and I got to talking about how when we were growing up, there was a show called Sunrise Semester. It was on at seven o'clock in the morning and it was a classroom. And we both liked it - we both liked to learn. I think there's a great thirst for knowledge in society today. I think the younger generations really want to learn. I don't think they want to be bored. I think they want to learn by telling a story that incorporates, encompasses something that they can use practically. Something they can relate to. And I think you can learn and you can entertain at the same time. You try to make it as palatable to people today to make them understand it in their terms. It's like when you hear 10,000 people were killed at an event, you say, well that's a big number. But if you get to know one person and they're killed, that puts a face on it. Well, that's what I try to do with history. So we're gonna kill 10,000 people. [CHUCKLES] No. I try to make it fun by telling stories and making people understand how pop culture throughout history becomes history.

HBO: So you're both performing and you're teaching. It's kind of like a hybrid?

Robert Wuhl: It's an interesting process because I don't know if I'm actually teaching or if I'm doing a monologue or a one man show, so I call it a docucomadality show. It's a documentary, it's a comedy, it's a reality show. But in a sense I really think that it can redefine the variety show.

I first started putting this together in a comedy club, and then tried it out on students in classrooms - realizing that those are two entirely different audiences. When it comes to a comedy club, first of all, people are drunk; second of all, it's an older audience. Now, when you do this in front of students, which is much more exciting to me, you have to be really honest with them. They're looking to you for the truth. They're looking to you for something interesting. You've got to keep their interest going and that's tough, so you better tell them interesting stories. And they have an amazing bullshit detector. So don't bullshit them.

Teachers are the most under-recognized, under-appreciated, underpaid people, and yet everybody will say the future of our children is education. But look who's on the low rung -- the teachers.

HBO: How did you get started delivering this to students?

Robert Wuhl: I started out by workshopping this at UCLA and USC, just gathering material and telling stories and trying to get students to give me their lunch hour -- so I'd hand out pizza to them. I'd get four of five students. Sometimes only one would show up. Then we decided to come to New York because I love the diversity there.

HBO: How did you find the reaction in a big lecture hall?

Robert Wuhl: Oh it was great, it was terrific. It takes a minute or two for them to get where you're going, because you're changing rhythms on them and you're doing something different. What is he talking about? Why are we here? And part of the charm was seeing the diversity of all these different people, and watching as they all start to get it at the same time. Suddenly they're all laughing at your jokes and they're with you, and they're grasping a concept that they never thought of before -- because it wasn't presented to them like this, so they didn't hear it before.

HBO: How do you go about pr - HBO.com


By RICHARD SANDOMIR
Published: April 1, 2006

He confesses to having studied "nothing" while an undergraduate at the University of Houston. But last year, the comedian and actor Robert Wuhl decided that he wanted to become a college professor. Not a real one, but a humorous substitute, backed by an HBO crew, who would amuse a packed lecture hall with a curriculum proposing that American history was popular culture — and a lot of gossip.

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Michael Falco for The New York Times
Robert Wuhl has a new HBO show, which examines history.


Forum: Television
"The key to history is who tells the story," Mr. Wuhl said in an interview. "Tolstoy said, 'History is a wonderful thing, if only it were true.' If O'Reilly and Franken see the same event, you'll get two different stories. A guy writes a book that says Lincoln is gay, so is he gay because someone says so?"

In "Assume the Position With Mr. Wuhl" (tonight at 10 on HBO), he asks a hall full of university students to consider the piffle perpetrated by Washington Irving in the early 19th century: that Christopher Columbus had discovered that the earth was round.

Or the nonsense that Paul Revere, and not the little-known postal rider Israel Bissell, deserved Longfellow's lionization for warning about British troop movements. But, he says, Bissell, who galloped much farther than Revere, did not suit the poet's stirring legend-making. He rights the wrong with a quick ditty about Bissell.

"I'm a history guy," said Mr. Wuhl, best known for his seven-year run on the HBO comedy series "Arliss," in which he played a conniving, amoral sports agent. "Spinning history is a way of making it fun, and if you make it entertaining and educational, you have something special."

His guiding analytic principle comes not from the writings of Will and Ariel Durant or Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but from the film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

"Assume the Position" is the result of a pitch he made to Chris Albrecht, HBO's chairman. "We have a great love of history," Mr. Wuhl said. "If you look at HBO, it's had 'From the Earth to the Moon,' 'Band of Brothers' and now 'Rome.' "

HBO's educational credits go well beyond lunar travel, World War II or the conquest of Gaul. Its course catalog features criminal psychology, modern polygamy, mortuary science and 19th-century frontier profanity.

But Mr. Wuhl's ambition was far more modest than the HBO's usual big-budget pedagogy. In describing what he envisioned, he invoked "Sunrise Semester," the erstwhile early-morning CBS series that enrolled viewers for educational credits. (Mr. Wuhl offers a 10-question quiz on www.hbo.com.)

Mr. Wuhl has been an HBO mainstay for about 20 years, a star of comedy specials before the 1996 debut of "Arliss," which blended plot concoctions about the sports business with cameos by real athletes like Barry Bonds (one of his better performers, Mr. Wuhl said), Roger Clemens and Shaquille O'Neal.

Mr. Wuhl has had a steady film career, playing the pitching coach in "Bull Durham," a reporter in Tim Burton's first "Batman" film, a disc jockey in "Good Morning, Vietnam" and the biographer of the notorious and often vile Baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in "Cobb."

He came to his teaching detour as an uninhibited performer, with expressive eyes and a face that always seemed on the verge of bursting into laughter. He is accustomed to playing to larger audiences than that of a university lecture hall, which might explain why Mr. Wuhl prefers not to name the famous university where "Assume the Position" was shot — other than to note that Washington Square Park in New York is a nearby landmark.

"I want to make it clear," he said, "that I'm not a professor, and you can't sign up for Robert Wuhl's course."

To sharpen his lesson plan, he went on the road — well, not far from his Los Angeles home — to the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Southern California; Loyola; and California State, where he offered students pizza to listen to his riffs.

"Wherever I could get a room — 5, 6, 8 or 10 students was a big house," he said. "One time, one person showed up. I said, 'Enjoy the pizza, but we'll pass.' " Mr. Wuhl left the room. (Sitcom historians might recall the episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in which the faculty of Ted Baxter's Famous Broadcasters School lectured to an insistent audience of one.)

Mr. Wuhl's college tour built what was supposed to be a 10-minute presentation to HBO — in the hope of getting a green light for a pilot — into a half-hour routine with enough pop-culture references to please Stephen King; simple, Pythonesque slide animation; and guest lecturers on tape (the social critic Sarah Vowell and the MSNBC commentator Tucker Carlson among them).

Now, the question for Mr. Wuhl and Mr. Albrecht is what to with the show. Does he become the Larry David of hist - New York Times


On screen, Robert Wuhl has hung out with the caped crusader and Ty Cobb. He also co-managed a minor league ball club and inked multimillion dollar contracts for pro athletes. The thrill of the Batcave or the excitement of the baseball field, however, will never erase the memories of the place where he learned his craft, the University of Houston’s School of Theatre.

Wuhl will return to UH to speak to students and answer questions at 3 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15 in the School of Theatre’s Jose Quintero Lab Theatre. This event is free and open to the public.

“We’re very grateful to have him returning to campus to share his thoughts with our young actors,” said Sidney Berger, director of the School of Theatre. “It is especially meaningful that he credits the training he received at the School of Theatre as being significant to his career.”

Wuhl is best known for his performances in “Batman,” “Bull Durham,” “Cobb” and HBO’s “Arli$$.” Most recently, he hosted a comedic look at American history in HBO’s “Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl.”

Wuhl attended UH during the 1970s and appeared in School of Theatre productions including “Fiddler on the Roof.”


WHAT: Robert Wuhl at UH’s School of Theatre
WHEN: 3 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15

WHERE: Jose Quintero Lab Theatre
University of Houston
School of Theatre, 133 Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts
Houston, TX 77204-4016
WHO: University of Houston’s School of Theatre
- University of Houston


Discography

Still working on that hot first release.

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Bio

Whether performing as an actor, writer, producer or director, ROBERT WUHL refers to himself as one thing -- a storyteller. This is never more illustrated than in his new critically praise HBO Comedy Special, “ASSUME THE POSITION WITH MR. WUHL”, in which he lectures NYU students about “the stories that made up America, and the Stories that America made up.”

Robert was the creator and star of ARLI$$, one of the longest-running original series in HBO history. In it’s seven seasons on HBO ARLI$$, a satire of the world of professional sports, achieved a rare feat, growing in ratings numbers each and every year, as it crossed the line between comedy and dramatic social commentary, presenting such issues as Domestic Abuse, Homosexuality, Ageism, Racism, Alcoholism, and steroid abuse in sports.

WUHL has also been critically praised for this work in films such as Bull Durham, Batman, Good Morning Vietnam, Mistress, Blaze, and Cobb. In 1996, he directed, wrote, and starred in the independent feature, OPEN SEASON, a biting satire of the TV ratings system.

In addition, WUHL has been twice honored with Emmy Awards in ‘91 and ‘92 for writing the Academy Awards telecasts hosted by Billy Crystal. He also received CableAce Best Actor nominations in both drama (Tales from the Crypt), and comedy (Arli$$).

As a comedian, Robert starred in his own HBO Comedy Hour titled, Robert Wuhl’s World Tour, and is a frequent performer on Comic Relief.
Wuhl has also lent himself to a myriad of charitable causes including the Alzheimer’s Association of Los Angeles, the National Breast Caner Coalition, St. Jude’s, Save the Music, Children Uniting Nations, and Heal the Bay.

In his little spare time, Wuhl does allow himself a few pleasures, an occasional round of golf, rotisserie baseball, and traveling with his wife, Barbara, and their dogs, Max and Sadie.