Friday, February 26, 2010
Friday's "Forgotten" Books: Rita Rudner: I STILL HAVE IT...I JUST CAN'T REMEMBER WHERE I PUT IT (2008); Dick Gregory: FROM THE BACK OF THE BUS (1965)
Rita Rudner's newest book has put me in the mind of all the books (or as they sometimes formerly were called, non-books) by comedians over the last fifty years or more...where you'd see the results of a stand-up comedian, well-trained in that focus, grappling with writing prose fiction or essays and even their memoirs, and not quite getting the hang of it, though credited well enough because they were often still funny, certainly usually to the audiences who were following them over to the books. For example, Woody Allen's vignettes and short stories (and what Steve Martin fiction I've read) are very much in this tradition, usually extended jokes that are relatively flat as fiction but are often at least as funny as his routines used to be; perhaps the most obvious example of memoirs that fall into this category in my early reading is Fred Allen's Treadmill to Oblivion, his relatively tired and bitter recounting of his radio and subsequent career (his other memoir, Much Ado About Me, was somewhat less bitter as it dealt mostly with his earlier career; Fred Allen's Letters is also very much worth seeking out), where much of the writing is still building to a punchline entirely too often.
So, too, I Still Have It..., though Rudner, one of the best comedians active, is both honest and witty enough to keep one reading this volume easily, even if it it simply a fleshed-out version of a number of her jokes (with single-page interlineations of some of the standalone jokes without elaboration). I'll suggest you take the "look inside" spin of the first link above rather than my pulling any particular bits out, but the book is very pleasant reading, actually touching in Rudner's memoir of her mother, and absolutely a very good (if not completely satisfying) reading experience.
One of the first books I read in this mode was Dick Gregory's From the Back of the Bus, which is basically also his routines with good, appropriate accompanying photos, mostly of Gregory in performance but some, like the cover shot, of him in comedically (and otherwise) charged poses. Another good book, if not quite the experience of reading his autobiography, Nigger, with its famous dedication to his late mother, suggesting that anytime anyone uttered the word in the future it would be an advertisement for his book...like Lenny Bruce's How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, the Gregory autobio is full of interesting and a few wrenching details (comedians often do not have the happiest of marriages), and unlike even the Bruce (despite Bruce having the help, reportedly, of Harlan Ellison and other editors at Rogue magazine for the articles that his autobio is based on), Nigger is not a primarily jokey patter in print...but From the Back of the Bus is, and is still worth the look (even if much of the patter will be familiar to any fans of Gregory's early career). The Avon edition is very reasonably-priced on the seocndhand market still (I've had a copy of that edition since the very late '70s or earliest '80s).
For more Friday books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.