The Book of the Week is “All By My Selves” by Jeff Dunham, published in 2010. This is the autobiography of a politically incorrect, professional ventriloquist. He developed his career-passion as a child when, by chance, he was given a dummy as a gift.
Dunham auditioned to be a guest for The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” nine times before he was finally accepted in April 1990. His striving to become famous took a toll on his family, but when he “made it” he was afforded an “entourage of management, agents and publicists.”
Read the book to learn of Dunham’s experiences as a professional ventriloquist, that include but are not limited to: his decades-long struggles to achieve an act of sufficient quality to appear on television (prior to the advent of social media), his learning the hard way what not to do before performing, and being stiffed on compensation by night clubs.
The Book of the Week is “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me” by Rain Pryor, published in 2006. The author is one of the daughters of the late Richard Pryor, the African American comedian; the only child of a Caucasian, Jewish mother.
During her childhood in the 1970’s, Rain struggled with her three identities: black, white and Jewish. Her biracial appearance caused people to instantly develop biases, making it easy for them to practice tribal exclusion when it suited them. She found she could dispel the discrimination by making people laugh. Rain writes, “Comedy was about connecting with people in places so personal that it actually made them uncomfortable, and then showing the humor in it.”
Rain’s early-childhood circumstances did not allow her to develop a personal relationship with her father until she turned four. But when she finally did, he shamelessly exposed her to the birds and the bees. She commented that one redeeming trait of her father’s call girls, was that they were honest.
“They weren’t there because they loved my Daddy, and they didn’t pretend to love my Daddy… That was life with Richard Pryor. Sex and violence, puctuated by rare moments of family happiness.” In addition, over decades, her father went through five wives, who bore a total of seven children.
Although as a young child, Rain witnessed the seamy side of the adult world, she enjoyed a sense of love and belonging from a large family on both her parents’ sides. Another lucky aspect of her life was that of her father’s fame and fortune. He could afford to, and did take her and her siblings on various luxurious domestic and international trips.
Read the book to learn more about Rain’s issues with her own ethnicities, her father’s and her own addictions, his multiple sclerosis, and her family crises.
The Book of the Week is “Maybe You Never Cry Again” by Bernie Mac with Pablo F. Fenjves, published in 2003. This is the autobiography of a man who heeded his mother’s wisdom in achieving his life’s dream of becoming a famous comedian.
Foremost, Mac’s mother taught him to be self-reliant. One of her sayings was, “If you want a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.”
Mac listed the four kinds of standup comedians: mediocre joke tellers, political commentators, observers of human nature, and tellers of personal stories. He exemplified the fourth kind, making audiences of mostly his own ethnicity laugh by comparing his African American experience to that of Caucasians without mincing words. “The most personal is the most universal.”
For example, he told the reader that, as an adult, he became as excited as a kid in a candy store when he flew in a plane for the first time. He said, “White people wouldn’t understand that feeling. White people get on planes all the time. They born on planes. Same thing with photographs. White people, they got pictures of themselves every minute of their lives. Here’s little Libby…Black people, they lucky to have one or two pictures of themselves.”
Read how Mac put his mother’s teachings to use to get through the trials and tribulations he suffered on the way to stardom.
The Book of the Week is “Confessions of A Prairie Bitch” by Alison Arngrim, published in 2010. This is the autobiography of the actress who played Nellie Oleson on the hit American TV show, “Little House on the Prairie” which aired from 1974 to 1983.
On the show which was set in a small town in the late 1800’s, Arngrim played the role of the spoiled, rich teenage daughter of the owners of a general store. She frequently got into fights with a goody-goody girl from another family in the neighborhood. Arngrim was twelve years old when she started the show. Prior to that, her show-business parents had afforded her the chance to play some small parts in TV commercials and movies. Starting when she was six, she was subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of her much older brother.
Read the book to learn how Arngrim was able to deal with the trauma from her early childhood in positive ways later in life through her acting career and social and political activism.
The Book of the Week is “I Got A Name, The Jim Croce Story” by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock, published in 2012. This is a career biography of the singer-songwriter Jim Croce.
In struggling to be his own man, Croce’s strengths and weaknesses emerged. In the early 1960’s, Croce rebelled against his parents in various ways. He broke free of his strict Catholic upbringing by converting to Judaism, marrying a Jew and pursuing a music career irrelevant to his Villanova University education in psychology and German.
He was able to stand up to his family but not the music company he chose to represent him and his wife. Although Croce had incredible talent and passion for composing and singing folk songs about working class people and love, the couple got swindled due to their phobia for dealing with attorneys. For years, Croce’s music made only his promoters wealthy. The couple stayed dirt poor even after there was widespread purchasing of his music.
In the late 1960’s, the Croces were pressured by the music company to go on concert tours at colleges. In the early 1970’s, Croce, without his wife, went on long, grueling road trips, during which he adopted the stereotyped rock-star lifestyle– taking drugs (not the hard ones, though) and philandering, but without the luxury accommodations and high pay.
Read the book to learn the full story (that ended tragically) of the suffering that Croce and his family endured in order for him to pursue his dream.
The Book of the Week is “Wendy and the Lost Boys” by Julie Salamon, published in 2011. This is a biography of Wendy Wasserstein, award-winning playwright.
Wasserstein grew up in a wealthy Jewish family with a mythmaking, high-pressure mother. Born in 1950, Wasserstein had four older siblings. As an adult, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, carefully orchestrating public relations for herself. For much of her life, she denied the existence of an older brother who was mentally challenged and sent away to a home.
A large number of women of Wasserstein’s generation were fighting for gender equality. She realized that she was attending the wrong college when her classmates at Mount Holyoke knitted sweaters in class and obsessed over getting engaged instead of planning their careers.
Wasserstein became famous through making connections with powerful people she might not have met had she not been born to an upper-class family. Nevertheless, it took her several years to find herself; all the while her mother was needling her about her super-successful older siblings.
At one point, Wasserstein befriended New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. He found himself in a conflict whereby as Wasserstein’s friend, he was inclined to write a favorable review of her plays. A New York Times theater review makes or breaks a new production because it is the bible of theatergoers. One review can hold overwhelming power and influence over the success of playwrights like Wasserstein.
Another factor in Wasserstein’s popularity was getting the right directors for her different works. The wrong director can spell doom for a show while a different one with a certain vision can make it shine.
Read the book to learn about Wasserstein’s relationships, eventual fulfillment of her dreams and her and her family’s sad fate.
The Book of the Week is “Shakespeare’s England,” a Cassell Caravel Book, by the editors of Horizon Magazine, published in 1964.
This book recounts English cultural, theatrical and royal-family history of the late 1500’s through 1616– the years of the height of Shakespeare’s fame.
In the late 1580’s, Shakespeare’s acting company performed for Queen Elizabeth. At that time, the status of acting company members was divided into three groups: veteran actors who were shareholders in the theater, weekly wage-earning minor-role actors who doubled as stagehands and writers, and young boys who played girls’ and boys’ roles (as females were banned from theater careers).
There were two kinds of playwrights: university-schooled, and non-; the plays of the former were more stiff and serious than that of the latter. All intellectual property rights to a work were transferred from the writer to an acting company upon purchase of a play. Nevertheless, works were pirated all the time, with no adverse consequences for the thief.
Read the book to learn about the events and issues that affected the fame and fortune of Shakespeare and his colleagues– the plague, censorship, a theater fire, playhouse construction, political intrigue and more.
The Book of the Week is “One More Time” by Carol Burnett, published in 1986. This is an emotionally rich, memorable autobiography. Its author had a tough childhood, as the older daughter of two alcoholic parents. Raised by her grandmother on welfare in Texas, she enjoyed a few happy times nevertheless.
Burnett experienced excellent luck on days when it was pouring rain. For example, on a rainy day, a benefactor appeared in her life to allow her to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. He provided her with two years’ worth of funding in which to succeed. She met the deadline.
Read the book to learn how her life experiences provided tons of material for her comedic TV show.
The Book of the Week is “Growing Up Laughing” by Marlo Thomas, published in 2010. This book is part memoir, part snippets of conversations with comedians of different generations, and lots of jokes.
Marlo’s famous father, Danny, ran with a crowd of live entertainers, which included, but was not limited to George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Don Rickles, the Marx Brothers, Joey Bishop and Sid Caesar. Danny was mistaken for Jewish due to his nose and the company he kept, but he was actually of Lebanese, Catholic extraction.
In this book, Marlo chats with various personalities– Lily Tomlin, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert among them– about how they started their comedy careers, and why their acts are funny.
Marlo is probably most famous for starring in the sitcom “That Girl” and co-creating– along with a group of other celebrities– the book, movie and record, “Free to Be You and Me,” a hodgepodge of songs and skits for kids.
The Book of the Week is “Audition” by Barbara Walters, published in 2008. This is Walters’ autobiography, a detailed account of her personal and professional life. She had a long, illustrious career in TV News. She started out as a behind-the-scenes writer for the “Today Show” on NBC in the early 1960’s, when there was still a lot of discrimination against women. Nevertheless, her hard work at, talent and suitability for her job, over the course of decades, afforded her the opportunity to interview countless famous people; some, multiple times.
There were occasions when Walters received special treatment by her interviewees. In the spring of 1977, she was personally driven for six hours around the Bay of Pigs vicinity by none other than Fidel Castro. Later that year, she witnessed multiple Middle Eastern politicians gather all in one place when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat made (momentary) peace with Israel’s Menachim Begin. ABC interrupted a college football game with the “breaking news.” Viewers telephoned the network to express their displeasure, and after seven minutes of complaining, the viewers got their game back.
Walters was lucky to have helped pioneer the art of the TV interview and enjoyed its best years. She asked hard-hitting, sometimes personal questions that hosts do not ask anymore. She writes that nowadays, TV ratings rise with guests who are attention whores or criminals– whose stories are tabloid articles. Political leaders or celebrities with substance have become a rarity. “We really seem to care only if they are outrageous and call our president a devil or declare that the Holocaust never existed. Stand up and scream and we will interview you, or be reasonable and unheard.” Fortunately, the internet has become a source of intelligent discussion in some quarters– a source that is not under pressure to generate ratings.