Saturday, January 2, 2010

Two showbiz sagas of love, letdown, and Letterman

Showbiz is hard...

...and glamorous!

Is there no business like show business, or is "the biz" just a boulevard of broken dreams?

Depends on what book you read.

I spent the last 24 hours in la-la land, soaking up true, showbiz stories from two books: Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer's "We'll be Here For the Rest of Our Lives," and former L.A. Times reporter William Knoedelseder's "I'm Dying Up Here."

The common link may be David Letterman, but the two books couldn't be more different in tone.

Shaffer's book is an idealized, romanticized version of showbiz, chronicling how a young kid from Thunder Bay became a big player in the Big Apple; Knoedelseder's book is about the underlying heartbreak that makes even the greatest showbiz success story bittersweet at best.

We'll be Here For the Rest of Our Lives

Shaffer's book is the easiest entry point for the Canadian reader. In the chapter "Blame Canada," he asks why so many brilliant comics are Canadian and comes up with this thesis:
"Canada is cold as hell. That means we stay inside and watch Canadian television. Watching Canadian television makes sane children crazy. The only alternative, of course, is American television. So if you take the factor of the freezing cold that keeps us inside and combine it with the less than thrilling nature of Canadian TV, you wind up with a nation hungry for truly funny comedy."
It's "that Canadian thing" that makes it easy to feel a kinship with Shaffer, and imbues his book with an entertaining and warm aura. True, the book doesn't have much of a narrative thread, but Shaffer's first goal is to entertain us with showbiz anecdotes, not to simply tell us his life story in the order that it happened. At that he succeeds.

Of course, it all starts for Shaffer in Thunder Bay, similar in climate and culture to Winnipeg, where he grows an appreciation for all things Vegas, New York, Hollywood, and showbiz.

He idolizes James Brown, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Ray Charles, and the girl groups of the fifties, is obsessed with the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon and the Ed Sullivan Show, and even credits Winnipeg's the Guess Who for playing Thunder Bay and being "the ultimate cover band," playing Penny Lane better than the Beatles themselves:
"Lead singer Burton Cummings was so proud of his authentic Liverpudlian pronunciation of the word customer - "in Penny Lane the barber shaves another coostomer" - he'd say the word twice."
His description of his parents sounds something like a description of my parents, and maybe your parents too: the typical, suburban, middle-class Canadian family coping with the Canadian climate through "social drinking and its ensuing merriment," and living their lives "as they imagined Sinatra lived his."

It's in this familial backdrop that Shaffer learns to play the piano, memorizing songs to play at his parents' parties, and developing the shtick he does to this day as Letterman's sidekick: mocking show business at the same time he's celebrating it.

Shaffer isn't the deepest writer around, which he admits early on, but he's a lovable and amusing name dropper of the highest order, so we get lots of breezy showbiz anecdotes:
  • He meets Bob Dylan on Late Night with David Letterman, and - to his surprise - all Dylan cares about is getting the show's human mascot, Larry Bud Melman's, autograph.
  • Shaffer warms to Gilda Radner with whom he works on Saturday Night Live, and finds out that she's slept with Winnipeg-born magician Doug Henning, for whom Shaffer also provides piano accompaniment. In anger, Shaffer tells Radner the secrets behind every one of Henning's magic tricks.
  • He speaks of meeting his idol, Jerry Lewis with Richard Belzer. Turns out that Lewis is so obsessed with Law and Order: SVU - the stories, the camera angles, everything - he can't talk about anything else.
  • Shaffer comically takes the blame for Mel Gibson's famous "problems with the Jews," cutting into his leg with a pair of scissors - accidentally - on the Late Show.
Although Shaffer spends most of his time working on the Late Show, Letterman is a distant character in his book, so there aren't any revelations about Dave's backstage sexcapades, which is in keeping with Shaffer's always diplomatic tone - even convicted killer Phil Spector gets the star treatment from Shaffer, who says he still considers Spector a musical genius and friend.

Shaffer's book is a light and fun read that doesn't stick with you much longer than the time it takes to consume it - in my case, about three hours.

After reading the book, you're mostly left with the thought that Shaffer is a nice Canadian boy who hasn't forgotten his groovy homeland and is still having a swingin' time at the epicenter of showbiz.

I'm Dying Up Here

Knoedelseder's book, I'm Dying Up Here, takes place early in Letterman's career, the mid-1970s, when he, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Tom Dreesen, Elayne Boosler, Robin Williams, and Richard Pryor took the L.A. comedy scene by a storm.

At first glance, the book appears to be fond recollections of the good and bad ol' days from today's established comics, which it is at first. Unlike Shaffer's book, however, Knoedelseder digs deep into the workings of that era's stand-up scene and finds plenty of dirt beneath the glitzy veneer.

As the book moves along, it morphs into the story of Mitzi "Paulie's mom" Shore's Comedy Store, which was the era's much-ballyhooed hot spot for new comedy talent: a young comic would show up from somewhere, audition for Shore, get stage time, be scouted for the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, do the gig, and become famous.

It didn't happen that way for everyone, but it happened often enough to ignite the dreams of would-be comics everywhere, who would risk everything to be the next Freddie Prinze or Jimmy Walker, two Comedy Store comics who had network sitcoms before they even turned 20.

The Comedy Store's system worked for awhile, but it was ultimately too good to be true. Shore thought of her club as a college, not a business, and refused to pay comics to perform, a fate all too common for stand-up comics.

So, the comedians formed a strike group called Comedians for Compensation and elected Dreesen as their leader. He comes off as the book's hero: a comedian who was willing to sideline his own career so that lesser known comedians could win the right to be paid.

It's here that battle lines are drawn - Letterman and Leno, among others, siding with the strikers and Garry Shandling and Yakov Smirnoff crossing the picket lines.

"I wish him all the success in the world," says Dreesen today of Shandling. "He's a funny guy and a good writer, but as a human being, as a man, I don't have any respect for him."

Ultimately, the comics win the right to be paid for their work, but not before a mysterious fire breaks out at the Improv, the Comedy Store's main competitor.

Even worse, a well-liked but troubled comic, Steve Lubetkin, kills himself by jumping off of a building with a note in his pocket that says, in part, "My name is Steve Lubetkin. I used to work at the Comedy Store. Maybe this will help to bring about fairness."

Lubetkin's suicide sends Richard Lewis into a 15-year bender, he's so wracked with guilt at having not been able to stop the tragedy. His comments about Lubetkin and stand-up are among the most insightful in the book:
"People in this business give too much power to to those who judge them, and it's so damn destructive. It keeps you from doing what you can do. The best way to deal with it is to work on your craft, surround yourself with good friends, be able to love people and get love back, and keep your fingers crossed."
This tragic tale provides the backdrop to some of the great successes of the era: Letterman's killer first night as guest host of the Tonight Show, Robin Williams' breakthrough on Mork & Mindy, and Andy Kaufman's starring role on Taxi, among them.

In the book's epilogue, Knoedelseder pulls off two minor coups, interviewing the publicity-shy Letterman (he agrees to talk at Dreesen's urging) and Mitzi Shore, "the Norma Desmond of comedy," according to the LA Times, and "the prisoner of her own memories," according to our author.

Ultimately, Knoedelseder's book is as gripping as Shaffer's is fun. For the ultimate true Hollywood story, read them both at one sitting.


  1. That Knoedelseder book sounds fascinating! Props for the recommendation, sir.

  2. I read "I'm Dying Up Here" at the beginning of last semester. I liked it, (I think I read it in 3 sittings,) but I was a little disappointed.
    Too much time on Dreesen. It became more of a story about labour relations and not enough about the art of least for my liking.

  3. That's the complaint lots of reviewers have - including the Washington Post. I found the book riveting, but I'm also obsessed with true stand-up tales; I'd never heard about this one.


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