Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

Giants of Comedy

Comedy is its own peculiar art form, birthed from pain, acute powers of observation, and an urge to pinpoint the human condition for an audience that will send back waves of spontaneous laughter and applause across the footlights. Recently I purchased Billy Crystal’s autobiography Still Foolin’ Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? and then Joan Rivers’ first autobiography Enter Talking, released in 1986 at the time she was the permanent guest host of the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Both are great reads that will reward anyone interested in detailed memoirs about a life spent performing.

Billy Crystal-Still Foolin' Em
Billy Crystal-Still Foolin’ Em

Baby boomer Billy Crystal has had a multifaceted entertainment career in standup comedy, movies, and theater since he broke through to a mass American audience in the mid-Seventies. Crystal grew up on Long Island in a music showbiz environment, as his father managed a prominent record store in Manhattan where he met various stars such as Louis Armstrong. He intersperses chapters of happy memories of his all-American adolescence playing sports, performing in school, and discovering women with hilarious musings on the aging process, religion, sex, insomnia, his obsession with the Yankees, and how he got to his current place in life. You may want to read it at home if you are embarrassed by laughing out loud continually in public places.

After attending the film and television directing program at NYU under the aegis of such professors as the young Martin Scorsese, Crystal started doing standup while trying to make ends meet with his new wife and baby. Famed comedy manager Jack Rollins helped him make his comedy more personal, and he gradually honed his craft to the point of getting a guest acting spot on All in the Family. After landing a regular spot as the first lead gay character on a TV series (Soap), he did a stint on Saturday Night Live before moving on to movies such as the classic When Harry Met Sally and popular favorite City Slickers. Crystal is often sidesplitting and touching as he describes encounters with actors, his one-day stint playing for the Yankees, and his friendships with celebrities and other personalities. If you’re already a fan, you know you will enjoy this book. If you don’t already know him, you’re in for a treat.

Joan Rivers is a force of nature: at age 80 she has a Web-based talk show, a reality show, a clothing and jewelry line on QVC, and a standup career. The bio-documentary on Joan Rivers’ recent showbiz life called Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work grabbed my attention several years ago when it received great public acclaim from critics and audiences alike. It sparked my interest to pick up her book Enter Talking, which covers her early history up until she finally got her big showbiz break in 1965 by appearing on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. This memoir is one of the best showbiz autobiographies I’ve read in terms of keeping my interest. It only covers her life until 1965, but it is a very detailed account of her journey from childhood to age 31.

Feeling like a complete misfit, Rivers escaped the constraints placed on her by her gender and conventional but aspirational Jewish background to break free in the Fifties, rebelling against strong pressure for her to fulfill the role of a woman who only goes to college to get married, settle down and have children. Fulfilling an insatiable and endless desire to have a career on the stage, she started a grueling but fascinating process of putting together and sharpening an act while getting exposure to an intense and creative artistic landscape in New York City. Rivers starred with high-school-aged unknown Barbra Streisand in an Off-Off-Broadway play in 1958, emceed and did standup at strip clubs and other seedy entertainment venues, and met up-and-coming comics like Bill Cosby, Dick Cavett, Rodney Dangerfield, and Linda Lavin while paying her dues.

Joan Rivers’ honest, funny, and sad portrayal of the insecurities and mercurial highs and lows she experienced on her two-steps-forward-three-steps-back trajectory is completely captivating. So is the rich texture of her description of a raw, painful journey to self-discovery, and how working in improvisational theater in Chicago’s famed Second City troupe led to her creating a different kind of act that tapped into the rapidly increasing cultural ferment of the mid-Sixties and launched her to stardom. Her ambition, drive, and energy in the face of obstacles continue to be extraordinary. She has already packed several lives into her life as a groundbreaker and an icon, and I look forward to reading the chapter of her life that comes next.

Written by: Miriam R. Kramer

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