Clinton and Me

The Book of the Week is “Clinton and Me, A Real Life Political Comedy” by Mark Katz, published in 2003. This is the engaging story of how an incurable wiseass used his comedic talent and skills in the political arena.

Born in 1963 in Brooklyn, the precocious author  received a political education in his formative years, thanks to the Watergate hearings. He was a class clown in school, no doubt. Careerwise, he began as a low-level staffer for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Next he cut his teeth as an unpaid volunteer on the Mike Dukakis presidential campaign. “My year on the Dukakis campaign sensitized me to the outrageous, insidious and coded tactics…[of evil, mudslinging political consultants]” Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. Katz then did a stint copywriting in general advertising prior to the advent of the World Wide Web.

Finally, the author parlayed this foundation into a relatively brief but rewarding set of adventures writing jokes contained in speeches for President Bill Clinton. Read the book to learn the lessons the author learned, in making a living for a politician soliciting laughs.

Wired

The Book of the Week is “Wired, The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi” by Bob Woodward, published in 1984. This is a career biography of the performer best known for his sketches on “Saturday Night Live” (SNL), “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.”

Born in 1949, Belushi started his career at an early age, thanks to a paternal high school drama teacher. Belushi formed a comedy troupe in college. At the youngest age ever (22), he  joined the improv group, “Second City” in Chicago.

Belushi’s brand of comedy was lowbrow and attention-whorish. He became the onstage focus when he joined such group-oriented acting companies as SNL and Second City; this irked his fellow performers.

Belushi met the younger and less experienced Chevy Chase when they performed in an Off-Broadway black comedy about death. Then came a National-Lampoon-produced radio show, and SNL.  Other roles included Bluto in the movie “Animal House” and comedian Dan Akroyd’s partner in the movie “The Blues Brothers.”

As is typical of talented yet insecure performers who hit the big-time almost immediately, behavior problems abound. But since the star is “the goose that laid the golden egg” his or her behavior is tolerated.

“… John could inflict remarkable chaos… There was no telling what was gone or broken or misused. It seemed that John had dipped his fingers into everything in the refrigerator” while attending a 1982 Super Bowl party at the home of his agent, Bernie Brillstein.

Toward the end of his life (which should not have been unforeseen), Belushi was surrounded by enablers to his cocaine addiction. He was provided weekly with $2,500 cash for “expenses” in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his business associates. They allowed him to act like a spoiled child borne of their own greed, or out of trying to avoid the hypocrisy of being drug addicts themselves. They continued to believe in his talent even though the movies he did after Animal House were money-losers.  A major rationalization of that era was that cocaine was unavoidable backstage at SNL and it was uncool to decline to socialize with one’s fellow comedians.

Read the book to learn the details of how Belushi ended up the way he did.

 

Why Not Me?

The Book of the Week is “Why Not Me?” by Al Franken, published in 1999. This is a funny, imaginary account of what a presidential run and administration of Democrat Al Franken might look like.

The author created a composite parody of the sinful actions and behaviors in which presidential candidates and other politicians have engaged in recent decades. His (mock) diary revealed all. Warning:  there were some toilet jokes.

The very illegal activities included manufacture of drugs, assault, fraud, theft, prostitution, obstruction of justice, “dine-and-dash” from restaurants, defaulting on hotel bills, and interstate flight from New Hampshire and Iowa after committing some of said crimes.

Lesser wrongdoing included failure of the campaign to file timely or accurate financial disclosure forms with the Federal Election Commission; the laundering of donations from insurance companies (campaign donors) via “royalty payments” for a book the candidate had authored;  influence peddling; patronage; lying in speeches; and “Dishonest conduct toward your wife and numerous girlfriends.”

Franken also failed to read his campaign manager’s memos in a timely manner. On a military issue, he wrote, “Gay military. All gay military (??). No…” One serious consideration he had was “goal [:] no wars during my administration.”

Read the book to learn of the candidate’s major hot-button issue, and the other, lesser issues he seized upon (which would be Republican proposals); of the trouble he had controlling his drunk brother; the underhanded, gay-related scheme he executed against his main opponent (Al Gore), and the aftermath of his election victory.

inventing late night

The Book of the Week is “inventing late night (sic), Steve Allen and the original tonight show (sic)” by ben alba, published in 2005.  This slightly sloppily edited book tells how Steve Allen created the format for late night talk shows on American television, starting in the early 1950’s.

When television was in its infancy, Allen’s original ad-libbing and off-the-wall physical comedy made audiences laugh through the 1950’s.  However, since history is written by the most prolific propagandists, and Allen was modest and less than aggressive at self-promotion, other entertainment-industry moguls such as Johnny Carson and his ilk, bragged that they were the ones amusing Americans in an unprecedented way on their late-night talk shows. David Letterman was one of the few who attributed his show’s stunts to Allen’s ideas.

In autumn 1954, Pat Weaver, president of NBC, gave Allen free rein to do whatever he wanted on his new, unrehearsed, live (!) program, “Tonight!” What resulted was an unscripted variety show featuring insane stunts, a band, singers, celebrity guests, news and theater reviews. In planning each weeknight’s episode, Allen would loosely specify the number of minutes of each segment– but continue with a segment if it got a great audience response, and cut the next act on the spot. If the show was a bit slow, he would go into the audience to converse with them.  Every minute of airtime was unpredictable. The only segment that was usually predictable, was the music.

Unfortunately, episodes of the taped, live shows were later incinerated due to lack of storage space at the network. Shortly after the airing of the show, the only way for the general public and cast and crew to get a recording was to buy one– a kinescope for $160. The singers made about $300 a week.

Eydie Gorme had this to say: “All of us working singers would go the Brill Building [in Manhattan] and get all the new sheet music, which they gave you free in those days.” Other celebrities who appeared on the show and were interviewed for this book, lamented that of late, performers of recent decades have resorted to obscenity and vulgarity to elicit cheap laughs from the audience, because they lack talent and creativity. Sadly, most audience members are unaware that their intelligence is being insulted. Even so, the younger ones are unaware of how high Steve Allen set the bar for quality entertainment.

Even more impressive– Allen’s show had TWO writers and twenty band members, while nowadays, late-night shows have TWENTY writers and five or six band members.

Read the book to learn the specifics of Allen’s stunts, antics, routines and style, and what changed when he started a second talk show simultaneously with what became “The Tonight Show.”

David Spade is Almost Interesting

The Book of the Week is “David Spade is Almost Interesting, the Memoir” by David Spade, published in 2015. This ebook is about the life of the actor and stand-up comedian.

Born in the mid-1960’s, Spade is the youngest of three brothers. His father abandoned the family when he was little.

The comedian wrote about how he started his career in stand-up comedy, and achieved sufficient success to become a writer on the TV show “Saturday Night Live” for a few seasons in the early 1990’s. The show’s content-generators and performers were fiercely competitive because extra money and a big ego boost went to the writers who got a sketch on the air, or did more acting than others. When Spade’s sketches were rejected, his fellow cast members were “… quietly doing mental cartwheels because of the schadenfreude festival around the seventeenth floor [of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan].” He summed up his situation thusly: “I had such a massive chip on my shoulder about being an underdog from Arizona with no show business connections.”

According to Spade, the movie and television studios encourage actors to use social media to interact with their fans. He revealed that the studios might cast an actor for a certain role based on the number of followers he has on Twitter or Instagram.

In addition to describing the making of movies with fellow comedian Chris Farley, the author also included a chapter on his love life. He apparently believes all the male and female stereotypes and that is perhaps why is still a bachelor, as of this writing.

Read the book to learn of Spade’s antics and traumas.

What’s So Funny

The Book of the Week is “What’s So Funny?” by Tim Conway with Jane Scovell, published in 2013. This is the comedian’s autobiography. An only child born in December 1933 to an Irish father and Romanian mother, he grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. The former groomed horses and the latter made slipcovers for sofas at a time they were becoming popular in American living rooms. Conway is best known for acting on the Carol Burnett Show.

Conway started gaining experience in an entertainment career in his mid-20’s, at a Cleveland radio station. When he had “made it” on TV, he performed material he had written himself. In the early 1960’s, Steve Allen, the late-night talk-show host, told Conway to change his first name from Tom to Tim, because there was another performer named Tom Conway, so he did.

Read the book to learn of the antics Conway used to break into show business in his generation, and of the characters who populated his life.

Dean & Me

The Book of the Week is “Dean & Me” by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan, published in 2005. This is a career memoir of one half of the super-successful comedy team, “Martin and Lewis.”

Starting in the mid-1940’s, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did live shows of banter, singing and slapstick, and performed in movies, on recordings and on TV and radio. They hobnobbed with “The Rat Pack”– other night-club and casino comedians and singers who included Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr., in the late 1950’s.

Read the book to learn about Lewis’ complex, love-hate relationship with Martin, Lewis’ later solo career, and the nature of American comedic entertainment in the mid-twentieth century.

Rickles’ Book

The Book of the Week is “Rickles’ Book” by Don Rickles with David Ritz, published in 2007. Rickles was a stand-up comedian and movie actor. He developed a reputation for insult comedy, or “roasting.” This is a book of anecdotes of his experiences in show business.

Rickles once replaced Lenny Bruce at a night club in Los Angeles because the owners considered Bruce too offensive. Rickles’ manager “…came out of that era when a man’s word was his bond and loyalty was everything… like any savvy promoter who came up in the thirties and forties, Joe had connections outside formal show business. That was the way of the world. Without those connections, you never left the dock, with them, you sailed.”

Read the book to learn of Rickles’ adventures with various celebrities.

Bonus Post

This blogger read “So, Anyway…” by John Cleese. The author initially thought he was going to be an attorney, actually acquiring a legal education. But he changed his mind and became a comedy writer.

Cleese is a rare bird, in that he possesses capacity for analytical thinking and comedic absurdity in equal measure– the former has kept him sane, and the latter has made him funny.

The author had the luck of entering the field of British television comedy around 1960 when it was in its infancy. He worked with David Frost– a TV executive who undeservedly grabbed writing credits by listing his name first in large letters on his own show, while there were tens of other writers, contributors of original material, whose names appeared in small type thereafter. Cleese comments that people harbored little or no jealousy over this because Frost had a hands-off management style, never said a mean word about anyone, ignored his immature critics, and sincerely believed people were cheering for him rather than trying to cut him down.

The author, a major contributor to the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and some funny movies, also writes, “I regarded swearing as a form of cheating, a lazy way of getting a laugh out of material that wasn’t intrinsically funny enough.”

Read the book to see Cleese’s other words of wisdom on comedy writing, and how he has been able to continuously contribute creative content to various shows through the decades– a major feat for someone with a career such as his.

Bonus Post

This blogger read Howie Mandel’s autobiography, “Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me” published in 2009.

Mandel has been a TV and movie actor, game show host and stand-up comedian. In this ebook, he reveals all of his psychological issues– ADHD, OCD, desperate need for attention, etc; “I was constantly consumed with my own pranks. I had no sense of boundaries.” Although his creative antics are amusing, he has poor impulse control. This has led to damaged relationships.

Read the book to learn how he became famous, despite, or arguably, due to his various mental and physical problems– he has used entertaining others as a coping mechanism to forget about the negative aspects of his identity.