A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Memoir

I recently came across a couple of interesting memoirs that deal with one of my favorite subjects: humor (or “humour” to my friends in Canada and the U.K.) What’s really impressed me about these books is that they deal with humor in a way that is both analytical and funny. Most people would agree with E.B. White who quipped, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Robin Williams expressed the same sentiment when he told an interviewer, “Analyzing humor is like self-abuse with sandpaper.” While discussions of humor and comedy can indeed be deadly; others can be quite delightful and thought-provoking. Here are some reactions to these memoirs, which I hope you’ll be inspired to read yourself.

Full disclosure: As some of you know, I take the topic of humor quite seriously…so seriously that I actually majored in the study of it in college. (No joke.) But that’s a topic for another blog entry. For now, I’d like to share my thoughts on these remarkable books.

  • Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
  • Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs By Famous & Obscure Writers edited by Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith.

BORN STANDING UP: A COMIC’S LIFE by Steve Martin (Scribner, 2007).

Years ago, an international conference on humor that I attended had as its motto: “It’s all very well in practice, but does it work in theory…” Steve Martin’s autobiography about his years as a stand-up comic does a wonderful job exploring how his “comedy about comedy” evolved. As a fan of Martin’s comedy act in the 1970s, I was eager to get a behind-the-scenes look at how it came to be. I found this autobiography-which tells how Steve developed from an amateur magician and banjo player at Disneyland to a Smothers Brothers Show writer to a comedy superstar-very honest, self-deprecating, and charming. Recalling his teenage years, he writes, “At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent.” While his on-stage persona was “wild and crazy,” his preparations and post-show analysis of his act were often methodical. Some of his trademark material evolved from his applying his college philosophy studies to his act. In one class on logic, Martin tells how he found comic inspiration in Lewis Carroll syllogisms. Example: “1) Babies are illogical 2) Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile. 3) Illogical persons are despised. Therefore, babies cannot manage crocodiles.” How that translated to the arrow-through-the-head bit, I’m not sure. Martin hit upon the creative idea that his comedy could be simultaneously smart and stupid. I could go on and on but I’ll stop so I can chat about the other memoir. I’ll end this quasi-review with one of my favorite sentences from Steve Martin’s biography: “Through the years, I’d learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

NOT QUITE WHAT I WAS PLANNING: SIX-WORD MEMOIRS BY FAMOUS & OBSCURE WRITERS edited by Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith.

This book was inspired by a legend about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was challenged in a bar (where else?) to write a story in only six words. He responded with: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The online publication SMITH Magazine took this idea and ran with it. It asked folks from all over the world to submit six-word memoirs. They received replies from many famous people (Author Joyce Carol Oates submitted: “Revenge is living well, without you.” Chef Mario Batali wrote: “Brought it to a boil, often”) But many of the most delightful submissions were from unknowns. Over 800 of the six-word memoirs were compiled in a book. Its clever title-Not Quite What I Was Planning-comes from one of the six-word memoirs. Here are a handful of some of my favorites. I love the way that so many of them are simultaneously poignant and hilarious.

“Lost and found, rescued by dog.”

“Dorothy Gale had the right idea.”

“Wasn’t born a redhead; Fixed that.”

“Afraid of everything. Did it anyway.”

“birth, childhood, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence‚Ķ”

“EDITOR. Get It?

So, what would be MY own six-word memoir? Hmm… I’m sure I’ll think of a bunch. But for starters, how about:

“Ahh… bittersweet chocolate. Just like life.”

I recently heard a comedian being interviewed on the radio about his latest book: CANCER ON $5 A DAY* (*CHEMO NOT INCLUDED): HOW HUMOR GOT ME THROUGH THE TOUGHEST JOURNEY OF MY LIFE by Robert Schimmel (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2008). In college, one of the things I studied about humor is its power to help people keep their sanity in harrowing situations. As you may know, there’s even been research on how humor can sometimes boost the body’s natural defenses against disease. I’ll have to pick up a copy of this book and will comment on it here soon… Stay tuned…

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