Tag Archives: comedy

“Kiss Me Like a Stranger” by Gene Wilder

This hasn’t happened to me before: a famous person dies while his autobiography is in my “write a blog post” pile. Gene Wilder died yesterday.

The book is subtitled “My Search for Love and Art”. Wilder talks more about love than art, and occasionally provided more personal detail than I wanted to assimilate.

My favorite of Wilder’s movies (by far!) is The Producers. It’s “over the top” in so many wonderful ways. Wilder and Zero Mostel are an amazing comic duo.

I didn’t like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Too weird for me.

Some of the best writing in the book is about Wilder’s marriage to Gilda Radner. Her death from ovarian cancer in 1989 was tragic. Wilder’s subsequent accomplishments in fighting ovarian cancer and establishing the Gilda’s Club charities were notable. There’s a chapter of Gilda’s Club near me, and I took advantage of it when my best friend was stricken with pancreatic cancer in 2010.

Ironically, Wilder was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999. It was successfully treated, and his death was attributed to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. As Gilda Radner’s alter ego Roseanne Rosannadanna said, it’s always something!

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“Last Words” by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra)

Published in 2009, 294 pages.

Another book brought to me by my son! Thanks for continuing to broaden my horizons! If you bring it, I will read…

I wish this book had been published with its working title (discussed in the introduction) of “sortabiography”. I like that. Last Words sounds Biblical, and not very Carlin-esque.

I like the early chapters of this book the best, when Carlin describes his childhood, with emphasis on his friends and neighbors. After all, I also come of Irish stock, though my family didn’t pass through New York City and wasn’t Catholic. (I envy the former, but not the later.)

George Carlin was a rebel from his earliest days. His mother had the strength and good sense to leave an abusive marriage, but his older brother had already suffered terribly and his mother’s efforts to get cooperation and conformity from George were completely unavailing. At age 17, with his mother’s consent, he entered the Air Force. He was discharged on vague grounds after two courts martial and other infractions. I’ve heard the expression “not suitable for regimentation”. Sounds like George.

There follow many chapters about Carlin’s family life and his evolution as a performer. I feel that his writing in this book suffered from lack of editing. Once you get famous, you don’t get edited. (I first heard this from a Pulitzer prize winning poet.) NOBODY was really going to edit George Carlin. His co-author Tony Hendra (listed on the cover in itty-bitty print) is a better writer than Carlin, at least based on Last Words. (I haven’t read Brain Droppings and Carlin’s other best selling books.)

What Carlin and Hendra have in common is the satiric outlook on life. In Carlin’s case, this can get pretty dark. At one point, he contemplated an HBO special to be entitled “I Love it When Lots of People Die”. This was changed due to bad timing – September 11, 2001, came and went, and even Carlin knew it wasn’t funny any more. But you know, in a weird way, I get it. I have a close friend who roots for every hurricane that comes up the Atlantic coast. It’s not that he really wants people to die, but sometimes he really wants the storm to win. Many of us root for the forces of chaos on occasion.

I have a particular fondness for Tony Hendra because of how much I enjoyed his book Father Joe: the Man Who Saved My Soul (2004). See my blog entry of January 21, 2014. A “sortabiography” of great wit and charm.

At the end of Last Words, Carlin circles back to consideration of his childhood and discusses his desire to write a musical about it, which he proposes to call “New York Boy”. A good idea, and I wish it had happened. I wonder if he was thinking of the book Boston Boy by Nat Hentoff. Hentoff was a jazz critic, scholar and political commentator, a decade older than Carlin, and still writing at age 90. “Boston Boy” could be the backbone of an excellent musical, but I can’t find evidence that anyone is working on it.

Carlin says that he identified more with the rebel musicians of the 1960s (and earlier) than with his comedy peers. He probably knew and admired Hentoff.

So… If you are a Carlin fan, a student of contemporary America or a comedy lover, read this book!

“A Carlin Home Companion – Growing Up With George” by Kelly Carlin

Published by St. Martin’s Press, September, 2015. 322 pages, with photos.

One of my favorite book categories is “books recommended by my son”!  And this was not an ordinary recommendation. Robert told me about Kelly Carlin’s book weeks before the publication date, which he marked on his calendar. When it came out, he went straight to the book store and bought it. He read it at light speed and handed it along to me. A high priority read!

This is a wonderful memoir! It reminds me of why I like non-fiction better than fiction. If you made this stuff up, it wouldn’t work. Kelly Carlin comes across as authentic, energetic and lively.

I’m amazed that George Carlin and his family survived the amount of drugs they did. His wife was an alcoholic who, after years of heavy drinking, went to rehab, got sober and stayed that way. George consumed marijuana and cocaine with abandon (and LSD on occasion), and the cocaine may have contributed to his heart attacks. Considering what happened to performers like John Belushi and Richard Pryor (not to mention the “27 Club” musicians), Carlin and his family dodged tragedy with intelligence and a good deal of luck.

So the first part of this book, about Kelly’s early childhood, is very sad. The cover photo is sad. Anyone who works in drug/alcohol abuse counseling knows the story – Kelly tried desperately to be the adult as her parents’ lives became increasingly chaotic. Amazingly, the adult Carlins managed to pull back from the brink.

Kelly Carlin writes engagingly about her struggles and adventures, including, in adulthood, her need for spiritual context and exploration. After her mother’s death in 1997, she says:

“Death was the scariest thing I knew, and I wanted to be able to learn to sit with it in a more conscious way. Zen and Buddhist practitioners had been facing death with great wit and aplomb for millennia. I was appalled at how mentally and emotionally checked-out I’d been with my mother during the five weeks between her (cancer) diagnosis and death. I wanted to do better when it came to my dad’s death. And I hoped to do better when it came to my own.”

This is a voice worth hearing.

In part due to her wealth and connections, Kelly Carlin was able to undertake graduate studies and professional training in Jungian psychology. Some of her happiest times were when she was a student.

What about George Carlin? (After all, who is this book about?!) I’m not a connoisseur of comedy, and Carlin didn’t particularly appeal to me, except for his “bit” about baseball versus football. But the man I met in the book was intelligent, loyal and intensely loving. The book made it much easier for me to understand the devotion of his colleagues and fans, and the emotion that surrounded his posthumous receipt of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, awarded by the JFK Center for the Performing Arts.

The Wikipedia entry on George Carlin lists his “subjects” (look it up!) and I think he had lots in common with Mark Twain. Not Twain’s novels, but consider his short story “The War Prayer”, which was withheld from publication until after Twain died. Carlin, too, was a harsh critic of American politics and policy.

Of course, as I approach retirement, I resonate completely with one of Carlin’s most popular routines, “A Place for My Stuff”!

This book should be read by anyone one interested in comedy as an art form, or in contemporary American life.

Thanks, Robert, for leading me to this book. I just found a copy of Last Words by George Carlin and Tony Hendra, and I’m already several chapters into it.

“So, Anyway…” by John Cleese

This autobiography was recommended to me by someone who is much better informed about comedy than I am! But we agree that John Cleese is one of the funniest people on the planet. His “Fawlty Towers” TV series was the best British humor I ever watched, and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” is a classic film.

Cleese begins with some family history, then describes the various stages of his education. His family wanted him to move UP in the British class system, and undertook this by sending him to the best schools they could arrange. Ultimately, he went to Cambridge and studied law. To me, this was the most interesting part of the book. Oxbridge (as Cambridge and Oxford are called) is the pinnacle of the British educational system.

I’m fascinated by accounts of how young adults grow and learn. Cleese studied law but never practiced it, moving into comedy and comedy writing before he really finished his studies.

Cleese was part of the explosion of British satire that rocked the 1960s. Before that time, evidently NO ONE  mocked the English establishment. See my review of the autobiography of Tony Hendra (a friend of Cleese) in this blog dated January 21, 2014 (“Father Joe, the man who saved my soul”). Hendra’s life was changed by the inspired satire that Cambridge generated.

Cleese has a lively, informal style of writing and is fun to read. I hope he writes more, as he didn’t say much about “Fawlty Towers” and his movie making experiences.

“I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics” compiled by Ritch Shydner and Mark Sciff.

This book is hilarious! And, to me, enlightening. The list of comedians contains many names I don’t recognize. My level of TV watching dropped off very fast after the age of nine, and never made a significant comeback. And I never went to many shows… I saw Bob Hope – once, Bill Cosby – once…

Surprise! I am the parent of an aspiring standup comedian. He’s aiming for a world totally unfamiliar to me. So he tosses me the occasional book to read. Comedy is a subculture (tribe?) with a history, values, leaders and in-jokes. And I’m not likely to go out and immerse myself in it. So the books add to my son’s stories, which are so far fairly tame, though homeless drunks and drug addicts sometimes get hold of the microphone in the clubs of Atlantic City.

So what was I looking for in this book? Laughs, of course. There were many! But I also kept my mother-eye open. What are the hazards to my own (unique, can’t live without him) son?

Drugs, sex and poverty…not necessarily in that order. Travel? The general bizarreness of human nature? Some of the stories are scary. A comedian being chased by…wolves?!

All the comedians in the book had their share of disasters – the worst possible bad joke at the wrong time – but they continued to work. So my son will probably have his share, and I’ll feel terrible when it happens, but he may get what he wants – his time on the road and on stage.

I can’t pick a favorite story – too many funny tales. One thing I hadn’t realized is the huge role played by hecklers. It would be a different world without them, but there they are, presenting their own kind of opportunity. As a person who never thinks of the “right” comeback until the next day, I admire (almost) all the ways comics handle the unexpected and sometimes really awful hecklers.

I originally read this book in March of 2013.

Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences by Richard Pryor with Todd Gold

This is a sad book. Pryor was lucky to have survived his childhood. He was never educated in a way that took advantage of his high intelligence. And he made the same mistakes (about substance abuse and relationships) over and over and over.

One of the most positive events in Pryor’s life was his trip to Kenya in 1979, instigated by a psychiatrist who wanted him to see Africa, “the origin of the world’s beauty”. He was bowled over by the people, the landscape, the wildlife. 

“I left enlightened…I also left regretting ever having uttered the word ‘nigger’ on stage or off it. …Its connotations weren’t funny, even when people laughed. To this day I wish I’d never said the word…And so I vowed never to say it again.”

This change was misunderstood and rejected, to the extent that he became the target of death threats. Only a year later, Pryor set himself on fire in a grisly suicide attempt.

I recommend this book to those who study addiction, to anyone seeking insight about race in America and to people interested in comedy and comedians.