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I Almost Killed George Burns

By Andy Nulman
ECW Press, 2001

Review by Mary Elizabeth Ladd

Once in a very long while Ape Culture gets press copies of books in the mail. It never usually works out for some reason or another. We once had a offer to do a review and interview with author Alice Echols for her book Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin. It turned out to be my first and last interview. I spent hours pouring over the book and drumming up questions for Echols. I loved the book and the sexual/feminist issues she ruminated on. I felt like I was preparing for a college term paper and Echols was a teacher whom I badly wanted to impress. We decided upon an email interview. Echols sent back answers to my questions, but I deleted her email by mistake. D’oh! Echols had no extra copy and she was furious because she had spent a lot of time responding to my ridiculously academic questions. The publicist tried to smooth things over and in the process wanted to know how “big” Ape Culture was so she could get Echols to redo the interview. This pissed me off, and I refused to provide the information. (I actually had no idea).

Lately, I dread getting requests to review books. Coolia and I each have stacks of books we haven’t read yet, books written by our friends we haven’t even finished, books co-workers have loaned us, birthday presents from years ago, not to mention our own book lists. I personally don’t have the willpower or the spare time to read it all…unless I’m at the gym. Then I’ll read candy wrappers if they’re handy. And this is how a book called I Almost Killed George Burns moved from the bottom of my “I don’t want to read these books” stack to the top of my “Light reading for the gym” stack.

The press release stuck inside the book indicated it was sent to us back in August of 2001. I avoided this book for three years. I guess I assumed from the cover it was another self-absorbed comedian airing some off-kilter industry tales. I blame the title and cover art for this. But shortly I discovered Andy Nulman was really just an every-guy “Just for Laughs” festival producer; and this was his inside view of the world of live comedy, with some interesting but watered-down gossip.

Nulman saw a slew of international comedians parade through his Canadian comedy festival, which attracted the cream of the crop. In many ways, this book reads like a long cheerful press release for the “Just For Laughs” festival. In other ways it confirms what we all suspect: that comedians can be either tragically miserable or manically disturbed people. It would seem many of them have lost the ability to laugh with sincerity.

Sadly, the goal for many of these comedians is winning attention, not jolly living. It was interesting to see Nulman parcel out the weak from the wonderful. His voice is very inclusive, as if he’s a student of comedy, just like the rest of us.

Nulman’s own philosophy for pulling the festival together and learning to take risks was inspiring, his festival’s adage being “if everything worked, we didn’t go far enough.” Failure being a part of growth, his team would continually challenge themselves with the question “did you make a mistake today?”

The most fascinating chapters were about trying to herd the comedy cats. One entire chapter covered the tense negotiations with John Candy who Nulman was trying to secure as the festival host one year. This was followed by the vaudevillian theatrics of trying to get Candy to show up in good shape for the big show. And then plan B when he didn’t.

The best reason to read the book is for Nulman's detailed explanation of events surrounding Jerry Lewis’ infamous bigoted comments against women critics and comedians, the first episode which occurred in 1986, the year Lewis spoke at a Muscular Dystrophy Association press conference in Montreal where Nulman was on the dais. There, Lewis declared he couldn’t accept female critics' views regarding his work because “when they get a period, it’s difficult for them to function as normal human beings.”

Nulman was also in attendance years later at the 2000 HBO US Comedy Arts Festival where Lewis was being honored. When asked how he felt about female comedians, Lewis made the following comment which solidified his reputation as an old coot:

“A woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me, but it sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.”

The press had a field day, comedians had a field day. Lewis’ remarks were just so beyond the pale “offensive,” it was hard to take them seriously. He came across as either daffy or pandering for shock value.

Nulman also had plenty of other tales about Lewis’ bad behavior on stage and backstage, plus tales of bad behavior from Roseanne and Tom Arnold, Milton Berle (one can never hear enough nastiness about Milton Berle), Steve Allen, Mort Sahl, and Marcel Marceau (of all people). All juicy bits of gossip, no doubt. However, by the end of the book it became evident that bad behavior gets top billing. The biggest of the ogres above each earned their own chapter while a parade of good guy moments were all relegated to one chapter, like the ghetto of goodness.

Nulman glossed over more salacious backstage antics involving sex and drugs, probably to preserve his prospects in the business, spilling the beans only on comedians he has sworn off working with again anyway.

If you’re a student of comedy and comedians, this may be an interesting introduction to a facet of their world. Nothing deep or profound; in fact, quite a bit of skimable fluff. Nulman only begins to describe the cut-throat nature of the funny business and all the hard work it took just to sign John Candy, let alone pull together the one thousand technical elements of a balanced and cutting-edge comedy festival. But if that’s more than you know now, it’s gym quality reading.

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