Robert Wuhl “Assumes the Position” at Ars Nova

They say history is written by the winners. For Robert Wuhl, who has brought his humorous lecture on history, Assume the Position, from HBO to the stage, he prefers to go with Aldous Huxley's take on life, "who says the charm of history lies in the fact that nothing changes from age to age, and yet everything's different."
Wuhl said the motives of people don't ever change. We act out of our desires, for food, for power, for sex, or for money. "Nothing changes and yet everything's different," he said.
And he hopes that looking back on it all provides some laughs along the way.
Wuhl is one week into a two-week workshopping run of the live show at New York City's Ars Nova theater (Ars Nova schedule here), and so far, so good. "They're very much with it," he told me.

Here is a clip from the first HBO special in 2006:


He followed that up with a second HBO special, Assume the Position 201, in 2007. In all cases, the audience becomes part of the show — that's no different now that it's a theater and not a formal classroom. Wuhl already has workshopped the theatrical version at the La Jolla Playhouse, and then in Los Angeles. This is the second of two weeks here in New York City.
"Then I believe in probably the fall, or early winter, we'll do a full-scale production and go back to La Jolla — that's where Billy Crystal's '500 Sundays' started, where 'Jersey Boys' started."

The big difference here, Wuhl said, is trying to find the through-lines to "form a more dramatic point of view" that can sustain a two-hour production.
Is it more difficult trying to do that in a theater versus the classroom?
"Actually, students are harder, because they're younger. Your reference points (drawing from pop culture), just strictly the names of the years, or their experiences, are limited," Wuhl said.
The other big difference going live?
"In HBO, it was a total comedy show," he said. "We look at the darker side of history, too, in this show."

You've always been known as a sports guy, too, thanks to your roles in movies (Bull Durham, Cobb) and HBO's sports agent Arli$$. Do you incorporate sports history into the show?
"I haven't as of yet," Wuhl said. "We go into a whole thing about heroes, and judging slowly…that's something that I haven't figured out how to use it."
He certainly doesn't think fans care all that much about finding out their star athletes are using steroids or other drugs. "Is anybody going to be surprised by any of this? It just doesn't make a difference any more," he said. "From the fans' point of view, they don't care. The only thing the fan cares about is whether his team wins or loses. I firmly believe if O.J. could have made the Jets win, they would have taken him back. Who are the so-called keepers of the flame?
"The average Joe just doesn't care, and the media would sort of like it go away, too. Unless it helps their stories. If you can get a big name out there."

As for what's actually going to be in "Assume the Position" — the theatrical version — Wuhl said about half of it already is new.
And audiences aren't already coming to it with knowledge of the TV specials, or even him, exactly.
"What I get is, a lot of people don't have HBO! I'm learning that," he said.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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