‘Flying Funny’ a warm, rollicking memoir

"Flying Funny: My Life without a Net," by Dudley Riggs; University of Minnesota Press
"Flying Funny: My Life without a Net," by Dudley Riggs; University of Minnesota Press TNS

Dudley Riggs had to run away from the circus to join his home with the rest of us. In his new memoir, “Flying Funny,” Riggs carries us from his somewhat Oliver Twist-ish past to his current status as a fabled founder of American improvisational comedy/satire with the Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop.

He was born into the fourth generation of traveling trapeze artists who sidelined in vaudeville. By the age of 5 he was one of the best music hall child stars of the 1930s, belting out a bawdy song that kept his audience in an uproar. His passion for the spotlight, attention and applause stretched over eight decades. Now 85, Riggs tells his story like a daredevil aerialist, flying with the greatest of ease.

Like Riggs himself, his book is warm and a bit bashful in tone, avoiding the acres of melodrama and flamboyant flimflam found in many show business autobiographies. It reads like the work of a man with more good cheer than worry, making it through life’s travails without deep scars on his body or spirit. He attended public school intermittently and college largely against his will, but he recounts his memories with the clarity and detail a print journalist would envy.

It is an unusually colorful life story. He recalls that in early childhood he was put in the babysitting care of Bubbles, a boozer clown who seemed to have questionable intentions toward young Dudley. His father tossed Bubbles off “the second-floor balcony of our hotel. Bubbles bounced off the lobby sofa and wasn’t hurt too badly – just a broken arm and collarbone.”

The Riggs troupe, “good at being good enough” as variety entertainers, saw their financial security shoot high and dip low. It hit rock bottom after his father returned from Navy service in World War II too depressed to rehearse for the shows.

Preteen Dudley was hospitalized for a full year at the Mayo Clinic with kidney disease, but he never lost the sense that the show must go on. While performing in Japan during a postwar period of international peacemaking, he shared an audience-greeting handshake with Crown Prince Akihito. His greasepaint grin and firm grasp were photographed and widely circulated in the scandalized Asian media. His forbidden touching of the royal family broke a thousand-year taboo, caused an international furor and changed Japanese policy. The Royal Palace issued a bulletin declaring the grip reflected “a Japan that reaches out the hand of friendship to the World.”

Riggs also faced an initially questionable reaction to his idiosyncratic business ventures in conservative 1950s Minneapolis. When he established the state’s first espresso bar, it was suspected of being a shady hangout for beatniks. Moving on, he opened one of the nation’s first improvisational theaters in 1958, mentoring stage beginners with his instinctive knack for spinning random nonsense into comedy gold.

The Brave New Workshop on Hennepin Avenue initially felt like another misstep, its experimental ad-libbed satire drawing crowds like a bus stop after midnight. But his faith in audiences and performers for a less than “legitimate” stage proved sound. The workshop became a popular venue to this day, the training ground where Riggs taught the fundamentals of entertainment to Al Franken, Louie Anderson, Penn and Teller, screenwriter Pat Proft, Lizz Winstead, Mo Collins and hundreds more. He is beloved by his alumni and generations of his cabaret’s customers. “Flying Funny” demystifies the magic of how it all came about.

‘Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net'

By Dudley Riggs (University of Minnesota Press, 160 pages, $22.95)