Review by New York Times Review
WRITING SERIOUSLY about humor is a tricky proposition. If you approach the subject too analytically, you risk losing sight of what made it worth writing about in the first place. If you try to leaven your analysis with a little humor of your own, there's a good chance you'll end up reminding your readers why making people laugh is best left to the people who do it for a living. Scott Weems makes clear in his introduction to hai The Science of When We Laugh and Why (Basic Books, $26.99) that he is well aware of that second pitfall. After explaining that his aim is to synthesize recent research on humor from a variety of fields and to "act as translator" for the general reader, Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist, also makes sure we know what his aim is not. "My goal in writing this book isn't to be funny," he says. "Humor scientists are notoriously serious about their work, as they should be, because the topic requires precision and academic rigor. But because the subject is humor, many people see the field as an opportunity to tell jokes." Weems definitely doesn't tell jokes; indeed, his approach is so dry that at times I wasn't entirely sure he got jokes. But he has marshaled plenty of scientific evidence to support his thesis that "humor is our natural response to living in a world filled with conflict," and to tackle big questions like "What purpose does humor serve, and why don't our brains adopt simpler means for turning conflict into pleasure?" In THE HUMOR CODE: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny (Simon & Schuster, $26), Peter McGraw and Joel Warner cover a lot of the same ground as Weems. But they range much farther afield, in terms of both subject matter and geography. McGraw, a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder and director of the Humor Research Lab there, has developed a theory that he insists can be used to explain all humor: "Humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems O.K., acceptable or safe (i.e., benign)." "The Humor Code" doesn't quite prove that his so-called benign violation theory is universally applicable, but that's all right, because the book is less about the theory than it is about the authors' worldwide search for insight into what's funny to whom, and why. (I say "the authors" even though the book is written entirely in the voice of Warner, a journalist. McGraw is credited as co-writer, but he is referred to in the third person throughout.) If "Ha!" is basically a textbook, "The Humor Code" is basically an adventure story. Weems devotes several pages to the strange case of a boarding school for girls in Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania) where students were seized by an uncontrollable, unstoppable wave of laughter in 1962; McGraw and Warner travel to Tanzania in search of an explanation. Weems makes passing reference to "Patch Adams," the 1998 based-on-a-true-story Robin Williams movie about a doctor who used laughter to help heal his patients; McGraw and Warner spend time - as participants, not just observers - with the real Patch Adams and a team of clowns whose mission is to lift sick people's spirits in an impoverished Peruvian city. Both books have more to say about humor than a skeptic might think possible; "The Humor Code" is a lot more fun. Brian Cogan and Jeff Massey have undertaken a much narrower task, an examination not of humor itself but of one revered troupe of humorists, in EVERYTHING I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT __* I LEARNED FROM MONTY PYTHON (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, $25.99). The asterisk directs us to what may or may not be considered a subtitle: "History, Art, Poetry, Communism, Philosophy, the Media, Birth, Death, Religion, Literature, Latin, Transvestites, Botany, the French, Class Systems, Mythology, Fish Slapping, and Many More!" The authors, professors at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y., take a close look at the numerous references - cultural, historical and otherwise - found in the four seasons of the groundbreaking sketch show "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and the troupe's movies. They also make a strong, if at times strident, case for the Pythons' significance. Monty Python, they argue, did more than just set a high standard for comedy that was simultaneously sophisticated and ridiculous. It was also subversive, smartly critiquing every aspect of contemporary society and proposing "not simply that life is silly but two additionally significant points: that the greatest danger for authority figures is humor (because they don't understand it) and that everyone needs to realize how much of a part we all play in keeping our false and meaningless sense of reality going." If the authors sometimes try to be as funny as their subject - a particularly unwise idea in the case of the Pythons - they more often fall into the trap of excessive pedantry. ("Inherent in the plethora of generic mash-ups depicted throughout the four seasons of 'Flying Circus' is the validation of literary forms and viewer expectations or, in a wider sense, a validation of genre as effectively communicative.") But they clearly know their Python, and they also know how much the Pythons themselves knew about virtually everything, up to and including the Spanish Inquisition. They do, however, have a tendency to overreach. For example, while they have some incisive things to say about the brilliant "Funniest Joke in the World" sketch (the joke, as you may recall, was so powerful it was used as a weapon in World War II), I was baffled by their suggestion that the name of the character who wrote the joke, Ernest Scribbler, is not just funny on its own but also might "indirectly evoke" Albert Einstein. Like some of their other notions, including that "Python is not only the forefather of modern television but the forefather of modern culture," that seems like a bit of a stretch. There are two things worth noting about the title of Mike Sacks's POKING a DEAD FROG: Conversations With Today's Top Comedy Writers (Penguin, paper, $18). The first is that the title is an allusion to the well-known E. B. White quotation that begins, "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind" - and that the same quotation is cited in both "Ha!" and "The Humor Code." I think it's time to give it a rest. The second thing worth noting is that the subtitle sells the book short. By no means is Sacks's list of interview subjects restricted to "comedy writers," at least not as I understand that term; it also includes stand-up comedians (Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt), fiction writers (Bruce Jay Friedman, George Saunders), cartoonists (Roz Chast, Daniel Clowes) and hyphenates like the writer-producer-directors James L. Brooks and Paul Feig. Nor are they all exactly "today's." Mel Brooks, probably the biggest name represented here, did the work that made him famous 40 years ago. And one of Sacks's most fascinating interviews is with Peg Lynch, little known now even to many comedy aficionados but a major force in the 1940s and '50s as the creator and co-star of the long-running radio and television series "Ethel and Albert," which as Sacks notes explored "the comedic possibilities of life's minutiae" decades before "Seinfeld." "Poking a Dead Frog" is a follow-up to Sacks's excellent 2009 book, "And Here's the Kicker," with a little more emphasis on practicality. His earlier book consisted of 21 in-depth interviews. This one intersperses 15 similarly substantive conversations with short chapters offering "Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge" - Bruce Vilanch on writing for awards shows, Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray on writing for radio - or "Pure, Hard-Core Advice" from the likes of Amy Poehler ("Be open to changing all the material you think is really brilliant") and the comedian Paul F. Tompkins ("Do whatever is going to pay the bills for you while you are trying to get your foot in the door"). Those snippets should be of particular interest to anyone thinking about pursuing a career in comedy. The longer interviews should be of interest to pretty much anybody. You don't have to be a comedy nerd to appreciate gems like Friedman's recollection of his days as a screenwriter: "I thought Hollywood was supposed to be about room service and pretty girls, orange juice and champagne. When I was gently asked to write a few scenes, I was annoyed." The veteran comedian and comedy writer Carol Leiter offers plenty of ultraspecific comedic knowledge and plenty of pure hard-core advice in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY CRYING (Quirk, $19.95), an unusual and endearing mix of showbiz memoir and self-help book. It's well worth reading just for the inside stories about breaking into the stand-up world and writing for "Seinfeld" (which turned out to be a dream job) and "Saturday Night Live" (which did not), and for Leifer's seemingly counterintuitive views on being a woman in comedy, which she argues "is a tremendous advantage, and always will be" - because "women see the world differently than men do," and because if you play your cards right, you could get preferential treatment. And happily, although career advice is the essence of the book, the how-to aspect is more than just the medicine that accompanies the spoonfuls of sugar. The advice is delivered with as much humor as the anecdotes. More focused than Leifer's first book, the essay collection "When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win" (titles don't appear to be her strong suit), "How to Succeed" is, she explains, "the book I wish I'd had when I started out in my career." Much of her advice is pretty basic - show up on time and well prepared for a job interview, don't develop a drinking problem - and some of it is not much more than an excuse to tell a good story and drop a few names. ("You should always say hi and be sociable to those you see when you're out and about" is the anticlimactic payoff to a very funny story about not being recognized by Harry Dean Stanton.) But how can you not love a book that offers useful life lessons under chapter headings like "So I Stole Soda From Aaron Spelling"? There's one big life lesson at the heart of THE TODD GLASS SITUATION: A Bunch of Lies About My Personal Life and a Bunch of True Stories About My 30-Year Career in Stand-Up Comedy (Simon & Schuster, $25), by Todd Glass with Jonathan Grotenstein. That lesson can be summed up in two words: Be yourself. It's a lesson that, as Glass explains, took him a long time to learn. Glass is a brilliant and very original comedian, but not nearly as celebrated by the general public as he is by his fellow comics. So when he came out of the closet at the age of 47 on Marc Maron's podcast, it didn't make much news beyond the comedy world. But it changed Glass's life. There are plenty of laughs in Glass's stories of his fast start in comedy - he went from discovering he could make people laugh to opening for Patti LaBelle on Broadway while still in his teens - and the long, slow climb that followed. Yet his account of his lifelong struggle to be honest about his sexuality is also serious, sad and ultimately triumphant. (The reference to "a bunch of lies" in the subtitle is presumably meant to be read in the past tense.) In the 1980s, Glass recalls, he "heard countless gay jokes told on and off the stage" - he names names, notably Eddie Murphy - but "figured that as long as I stayed in the closet, those jokes weren't about me." His breakthrough came almost 30 years later, when, thinking specifically of George Carlin, he realized: "Great comedians are truth-tellers. I couldn't even be honest with a lot of my friends about who I was." Both his comedy and his life, he writes, have been getting better ever since. There is an undercurrent of sadness in Bob Saget's memoir, DIRTY DADDY: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian (It Books/HarperCollins, $26.99), although usually when things threaten to get too sad, Saget switches to his distinctive staccato, scattershot joke mode. A mention of infidelity - his, presumably, although he doesn't specify - leads to this detour: "I always wondered, if Fidel Castro cheated on his wife, would the person he cheated with be an 'in-Fidel'? Because they had been 'in' 'Fidel.' Thanks, Bob, for spelling that out. O.K., I never wondered that." Saget has had his share of painful moments, including the early deaths of his two sisters and the near death, in childbirth, of his wife. But as he acknowledges, he is "by nature a comedian who, as a defense against his own unbearable pain, goes straight to the most tasteless joke that can be conjured." Many, maybe even most, of Saget's jokes - including a jaw-dropping one about the baby daughter born after his wife's brush with death - can't be printed here. Of course, despite his reputation as someone who "would go to a sicker place than anyone else would for the sake of sick humor," most people undoubtedly know Saget as one of the stars of the squeaky-clean family sitcom "Full House" and the longtime host of "America's Funniest Home Videos." He himself has trouble explaining how he came to live this double life, but he embraces it. Referring to the notorious documentary in which he and many others told variations on a graphically dirty joke, he notes, "Just like there's a place for a movie like 'The Aristocrats,' there's a place for a show like 'Full House.'" For Chelsea Handler, writing a book is not an opportunity to wax philosophical or bare her soul; it's to extend her brand. UGANDA BE KIDDING ME (Grand Central, $27) is Handler's fourth book - or her fifth, if you count "Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me," which is about her but supposedly written by friends and relatives - and it delivers the same brittle mix of snark and self-deprecation that fans of her other books, her stand-up act and her long-running (but soon-to-end) late-night cable show have come to expect. As the ungainly pun of a title obliquely suggests, "Uganda Be Kidding Me" is about travel - to Africa, the Bahamas, the Swiss Alps and elsewhere - and, this being a Chelsea Handler product, the stories involve various embarrassing mishaps and copious amounts of alcohol. Handler's fans have already made the book a No. 1 best seller. Others are advised to proceed at their own risk. PETER KEEPNEWS is an editor at The Times.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 1, 2014]
Review by Library Journal Review
In this heartfelt memoir, Saget relives his childhood, loss of close family members, stand-up career, and breakthrough on the sitcom Full House, as well as his work on America's Funniest Home Videos and parts on shows such as Entourage. Fans will find more earnest reflection here than laughs, although even the touching stories of loss are scattered with Saget's trademark anatomical and scatological one-liners. Saget makes a point of skipping behind-the-scenes dirt from the entertainment world, although he does relate a few amusing stories where he is the butt of the joke. Instead, listeners can expect to hear thoughtful tales of the author meeting his comedy idols as well as pieces expressing gratitude for his career, family, fans, and fellow comedians and actors. Chapters are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, often revealing his thoughts on the close relationship between suffering and comedy. Saget's narration could have used a bit more energy, but his tone closely matches the mood of the book. VERDICT Recommended for Saget fans and those who enjoy learning about comedians' process.-Cliff Landis, Georgia State Univ. Lib., Atlanta (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Family entertainer and champion of filthy humor aims to track his two divergent voices in his memoir.The author, best known for starring on popular TV shows Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos, theorizes that his bifurcated approach to comedy kid friendly for the TV audience, scatological and ribald in his stand-upderives from an upbringing in which strong family ties were tested by illness and early deaths: "The more tragedy befell us, the more odd gallows humor I would release." Saget discusses the difficult losses of beloved childhood uncles and, as an adult, his two sisters with a touching straightforwardness before moving on to portray his career arc, beginning with his hardscrabble initiation as a touring comic in the early 1980s: "For me it took ten years to even start to happen." He has a long memory for the comedy veterans who were kind to him, including Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor and George Carlin, leading to many amusing showbiz anecdotes and a few off-color ones involving the likes of Rodney Dangerfield. Yet, Saget was surprised when his initial success led to being cast as "a conservative, neurotic widowed father of three" on Full House, which he admits propelled him into the cultural mainstream. Saget's prose is frequently droll (on his concurrent success with America's Funniest Home Videos: "I was double-teamed by family TV"), but the overall effect is one of casual impressions and a broad account of his life rather than a sharper narrative about performance or his eventual experiences producing and directing. Instead, the author frequently indulges in asides, midlife musings and advice for readers, which may produce diminishing returns for anyone who is not a die-hard fane.g., "Anything good is hard. But enough about my penis."Some readers may sense the complexity and darkness beneath Saget's comedic stance, yet this memoir remains bubbly and superficial. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.