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Comics try to be funny in print

By Mark Bazer

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list this past Sunday looked suspiciously like an all-star night of programming on Comedy Central. Paul Reiser and Drew Carey, whose sit-coms consistently rate high in the Nielsens, both had books in the Top 20. Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock saw their literary manifestos debut at #9 and #14 respectively. Add bestsellers from George Carlin and Dennis Miller earlier this year plus new titles from the cancelled House of Buggin' star John Leguizamo, gay comic Bob Smith, and even a dirty-joke collection from Howard Stern headwriter Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling and you start to wonder whether there's a comedian out there who doesn't have a book. Sinbad? Nope, turns out he's got one too.

These comics certainly aren't the first to try their hand at prose. Bill Cosby wrote a string of titles in the '80s; Woody Allen has three collections. And former Tonight Show host Steve Allen, when he isn't writing jazz tunes or hocking hearing aids, churns out book after book. The list includes Steve Martin, Bill Maher, and Joan Rivers. But with this recent crop, the motivation -- if not for the comics doing the writing, at least for the publishers doing the releasing -- seems somewhat less genuine.

Call it an attempt to cash in on the comics' already established stand-up and TV success. As Carey admits in Dirty Jokes and Beer's first chapter, "All the best-selling books by comics-turned-sit-com-stars were basically written-down stand-up routines as told to ghost writers who wrote it down for them." These new comics' books aren't all based on older routines, but they are all first-person recollections and/or observations. Instead of a comedian coming to a publisher with an original idea, as Maher did with his ambitious 1994 comic novel True Story, the publisher now comes to the comedian with the same old prepackaged proposal.

Two publishers in particular. Hyperion is responsible for Carlin's Brain Droppings, Carey's Dirty Jokes and Beer, Rock's Rock This!, and Tracey Ullman's upcoming Tracey Takes On. Rob Weisbach Books, a division of William Morrow, put out Reiser's Babyhood, Whoopi's Book, and Smith's Openly Bob. Weisbach can take the credit -- or blame -- for the current onslaught. As an editor at Bantam Books, he helped SeinLanguage, Jerry Seinfeld's 1993 collection of stand-up routine-like musings, and Couplehood, Paul Reiser's 1994 take on relationships, sell more than a million copies each.

Weisbach's book-jacket style features the author's face, grinning, with a hand resting pensively on the cheek. "Come on in and get to know me a little better," Jerry and Paul seem to tell us. Hyperion choose to have the comedians posing in their own wacky ways. But put all these releases together and they look like a display at Buck-a-Book. With the exception of SeinLanguage, Whoopi's Book, and Leguizamo's Freak (Riverhead Books), the jackets all have white backgrounds, and the titles and authors' names are printed in colorful, puffy type.

At least the Weisbach books -- by Reiser, Whoopi, and Smith -- offer uninterrupted prose. Smith and Goldberg divide their volumes into essays of opinions and tales of past experiences; Reiser devotes his entire book to the trials and tribulations of changing diapers. Hyperion, on the other hand, is more interested in capturing what the comedians have done elsewhere. The Rock and Carlin volumes -- both co-written -- consist mainly of stand-up bits and quick observations. Carey, whose book is one-third fictional stories titled "Stories of the Unrefined" and two-thirds details of the comic's life and his likes (strippers) and dislikes (sexual-harassment seminars), writes of having had to push his loftier ambitions on the Hyperion editors. He refers to his "Stories of the Unrefined" as "the small collection of short stories that the publishers at Hyperion wish would just go away."

Publishers' motives aside, the bottom line is still: are these books funny? After all, no one expects Chris Rock to write like Hemingway. We just want him to make us laugh while we're sitting on the toilet, out of earshot of his CD playing on the stereo. Instead, Rock This! shows how important a comedian's delivery is. As Seinfeld writes in SeinLanguage's introduction, "This book is filled with funny ideas but you have to provide the delivery. So when you read it, remember -- timing, inflection, attitude. That's comedy. I've done my part, the performance is up to you." As hard as I try, I'm just not as good as Rock at doing Rock's act.

Reading Babyhood, on the other hand, is kind of like having Paul Reiser over your house to tell you a story. Sure, his humor is fairly standard -- tricks like giving babies adult thoughts and continually switching his pronouns from "I" to "You." But credit the guy for having the formula down perfectly. Carey occasionally had me laughing as he related his joy for life's simple pleasures like owning a big TV set. His "fiction," on the other hand, which he says he's the most proud of, is a set of moderately funny tales about -- surprise, surprise -- a guy from Cleveland named Drew. Carey claims these tales represent his dark side, but if you want dark, try John Leguizamo's "semi-demi-quasi-pseudo autobiography" of growing up poor with an abusive father. Although Freak, based on his new one-man show, is often funny, it's also the quickest read of all these books -- which in this group is no easy feat.

At least Leguizamo tries to present his topics (often serious ones) in a hysterical, absurd manner -- somehow he turns the idea of a 10-year-old Leguizamo being forced by his dad to drink hard liquor into a riot. Goldberg's Book adopts a resoundingly unfunny manner to tell us about herself and her opinions on society and politics. (That's true to some extent of Rock This! and Dirty Jokes and Beer as well.) Unless you're infatuated with Whoopi, why would you give a damn what she thinks about paying taxes? When she does get silly, it's about men pissing on toilet seats or farts (her penchant for releasing gas earned her her nickname).

The least known of these comics, Bob Smith, may not have written the most enjoyable book (Reiser earns that distinction), but Openly Bob is the one that asks to be taken the most seriously. Smith mixes stand-up jokes and clever play on words with lucid and often sophisticated prose to create both heartfelt and amusing stories. Like Steve Martin in recent New Yorker back-page essays or Paula Poundstone in her Mother Jones column, he's going for something unique. And yet his essays do tend to drag on. Funny thing: what I'll remember most about Smith from the book are the jokes he's told in his act or to his friends.

Indeed, what these comedians all have in common is that their stand-up routines are infinitely more amusing than their books. Take Whoopi. She has the kind of commanding, charismatic presence that can turn her material into something funnier than it should be. Seinfeld was right: "timing, inflection, attitude. That's comedy." So, comedians: please leave the books to the writers. If you keep this up, a reverse trend just might develop: writers doing stand-up. Do you really want to see Updike at the Improv?

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