Funny people, choppy rhythm
Been reading a slew of books by comics lately, because there are a number of them coming out, and who couldn’t use a laugh these days? What surprised me most — and probably shouldn’t have — is how uneven they have been.
Why should I expect funny guys and gals to be able to write sustained comedic prose? That’s not what stand-ups or sketch comics do; they tell a funny story then move on the next gag or anecdote. Without an overarching theme or connective narrative thread, pacing can be a problem: When books are written as a string of self-contained stories or anecdotes, it’s easy to put them down for a while after you’ve finished a chapter.
Such has been the case for three of the four books by comedians I’ve read, wholly or partially, the past few months. The exception? Kathy Griffin’s unexpectedly soulful memoir, “Official Book Club Selection.”
The brassy comedienne, who wrote the book with the help of journo Robert Abele while filming her reality show, writes candidly about growing up the youngest in an Irish Catholic family, her struggles to make it in L.A., plastic surgery and marital travails. She also tackles an extremely difficult subject – her brother Kenny’s incest and drug problems – with sensitivity and grace.
The comedienne is very clear in her goals: She promises to follow a recipe “of equal parts shit-talking about myself and others.”
“Yeah, I go down pretty hard on myself in this book,” she writes in the first chapter. “But I’ve had some heartaches and bumpy passages on this road to notoriety. Basically, I take great pride that I’m a professional. You’re in good hands.”
And so we are. Griffin cracks jokes but not incessantly; the focus is on the larger life story, and it’s a good read. After finishing the book, I was convinced I had the wrong impression of Griffin and her comedy. Then I caught part of her appearance on Larry King to flog the book and she was her usual brassy self, joking that he was staring at her chest, and batting her eyes suggestively. Fear not: Her comedic persona remains intact.
Carol Leifer and Susie Essman also tackle tough issues in their books (“When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win” and “What Would Susie Say,” respectively), but do so in chapters organized like bits. The tone — and topics — vary considerably from chapter to chapter.
Essman, so hilariously foul-mouthed in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” writes about depression in her twenties in one chapter and segues to her husband’s fondness for the Weather Channel in the next. Loosely fashioned as a compilation of “bullshit wisdom about love, life and comedy,” the book, due next month, is laugh out loud funny in parts, just as expected.
Leifer, meanwhile, focuses on the comic indignities of middle age in her book. She moves from her midlife discovery that she’s gay to a comic rant against plastic surgery. The chapters move along at a steady clip, her work as a TV writer paying off in her vignettes.
David Cross’s book, “I Drink for a Reason,” however, is much more uneven. It started strong, but quickly lost me. Cross keeps saying that he didn’t set out to write a memoir because “I’m a bit young for that,” but maybe he should have reconsidered. Or at least found a theme or topic to better focus his comedic riffs.
That just goes to show you: Funny people don’t always translate from stage to page. Their books may well surprise you –for better and worse.