Dispatches | February 16, 2012

I learned recently, via Twitter, that comedian Dave Hill is publishing a book.  I know Dave Hill only from his Twitter account, where, after the acquittal of Casey Anthony, he produced a series of tweets speculating what it would be like to date her, implying that he hoped she was still single and that he would have the opportunity to take her out in the near future.  It was the volume of these tweets – he wrote them continually for hours – that made them as funny as they were.  I laughed myself sick.

Soon after I learned of Hill’s forthcoming book, I heard news – also on Twitter – that comedian Michael Ian Black’s newest book will be released at the end of this month.  From his Twitter feed I wheeled over to comedian Michael Showalter’s, and learned that his memoir, Mister Funny Pants, is doing well in Amazon sales.

I find none of this surprising or disturbing – a rare turn for me, because usually when I mention something vocally or in writing it’s because I find it disturbing and/or surprising.  As proof of my lack of frustration, were I dismayed at the apparent proliferation of books by comedians, I wouldn’t mention any of these authors by name.  To do so serves as a kind of free, offhand promotion on their behalf, which they don’t need because they have substantial, if not enormous, followings.

Books by comedians are nothing new – see Lenny Bruce’s 1965 autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.  W. C. Fields wrote books, and so did Groucho Marx.  This Christmas I was given a book by Patton Oswalt, and I know that another generous handful of comedians are planning to write books or have written them; they say so on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, on which Maron himself has mentioned several times (I think) that he’s working on a book, which will not be his first.

There are times when I find this trend frustrating and it makes me angry.  Why, I ask myself, do so many comedians write books?

For the same reasons, I answer myself, that so many other people write books.

Why, I then ask, do they seem to get published so readily?  Why are there so many of them?

Self-answer:  It probably isn’t so easy for them to find publishers, and if they do it’s because they have built-in audiences, as is indicated by the numbers of their Twitter followers.

But as easily answered as those questions are, I am interested in the fact that they come up, and that they take the shapes that they do; it’s the kind of thing I generally describe as “telling.”  They are, in short, the same questions that frustrate me when they’re raised with respect to the genre that I tend to work in, which is the memoir.  People harass me constantly with the same questions I have asked of the comedians; it happens at least a few times a year.

Not coincidentally, a number of these comedian books are memoirs; from the Amazon description of Michael Ian Black’s book:

Darkly humorous and told with raw honesty, Michael takes on his childhood, his marriage, his children, and his career with unexpected candor and deadpan wit in this funny-because-it’s-true essay collection. He shares the neuroses that have plagued him since childhood and how they shaped him into the man he is today.

They call it an essay collection, but it sounds like a memoir to me, and it’s subtitled Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death and Other Humiliations.  Michael Showalter’s book, Funny Pants, is subtitled A Memoir of False Starts.

When I started writing this post, I thought I was headed in a profound direction, but really this is a post about how easily certain anxieties can be put to rest, with the aid of genre knowledge.  What kinds of memoirs have an intrinsic advantage, in terms of their chances of getting published and sold and given as gifts, because of how easily their authors are recognized?  Celebrity memoirs, of course, and while I’m loath to put anything by Michaels Showalter and Ian Black, and Patton Oswalt (and surely female and non-white comedians write books, too – somebody name some please) into the same category as more overt and probably less memorable celebrity memoirs like Dennis Rodman’s long-forgotten Bad As I Wanna Be, I’m tempted to think of the comedian memoir as a kind of offshoot of the celebrity memoir.

Perhaps it is the celebrity memoir at its best – self-conscious and funny, not self-absorbed and probably boring.  I don’t know, I haven’t gotten to read them yet, and Bad As I Wanna Be has been at the bottom of my reading list since it came out.  It will always be at the very bottom of my reading list.

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Meanwhile, I recently interviewed Marc McKee, poet and former poetry editor of The Missouri Review.  You can hear audio from it here.

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Also, don’t forget our Audio Contest.  Deadline in less than a month!  You choose the entry fee!  Amateurs welcome!

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