In late 2009, New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff boarded Robin Williams’s plane to talk about the comedian’s broken heart: his alcoholism, his bruised relationship with his family, and the actual cow’s heart valve he’d had implanted that March. Itzkoff landed one step closer to a journey that would take four years of his career, his new biography, Robin (Henry Holt). “Part of Robin’s genius was making things look spontaneous,” says Itzkoff, but when he discovered Williams’s script from an early Happy Days cameo, it was covered in scribbled notes that showed he’d approached Mork’s showdown versus the Fonz with the seriousness of Shakespeare. (Whose work, of course, Williams had studied at Juilliard, even if the closest Hollywood allowed him near the Bard was a bit part in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.)
“He wanted people to know the truth of him,” says Itzkoff, and in researching Williams’s arc from stand-up to sitcoms to his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Good Will Hunting, he realized Robin would also trace the last five decades of comedy itself: “It had a boom and bust as well.” Here are the five dynamite comedy books that lit up Itzkoff’s own life.
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The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night by Bill Carter
The book that I vividly remember reading in my teenage years — and a big influence in wanting to know more about journalism and pursuing it as a career. Probably the way those shows are run is much more mundane, but this inside account made it seem so adventurous and cutthroat. It certainly burnished the reputations of both Leno and Letterman, and filled in a lot of their back stories.
At that time in my life, I was just so obsessed with those personalities and I was deeply invested in how Letterman could have succeeded Johnny Carson. It shouldn’t matter to any particular teenage boy that much. My classmates in high school were not into late-night TV at all. I watched Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and the run-up to his departure totally alone in my bedroom. (Hachette Books)
Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber
Groucho Marx also wrote a couple of books about his life and the Marx brothers, but I just have a bit more of a place in my heart for Harpo’s memoir, which is very tender and full of his vivid anecdotes, not only of being in this ensemble with his brothers, but stories of their growing up together in New York in that tenement era and forging the personas of what would become their characters in the troupe.
There’s this great story Harpo tells of this guy named Gookie that he watches roll cigarettes in the window of a cigar store, and learning to mimic him — which Gookie does not appreciate in any way. I think he ends up chasing him away from the window. I can’t recall before or since seeing a physical comedian unpack their own technique so precisely. You come away thinking, “Oh, I could do what Harpo does, too, if I just follow the method that he lays out here.” Which nobody can. I’m sure there were lots of things that were terrible about that era, but it was romanticized. I lived in New York in the Seventies and Eighties, and now of course I’m romanticizing it, as terrible as it was. (Limelight Editions)
The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
Her book really stuck with me because there’s a very fine line between her and her persona, and as we learn more about her life and upbringing in New Hampshire, you start to really understand how her comedic perspective got forged. There’s some devastatingly sad things that happen to her in her childhood. She has a baby brother who dies accidentally. She has struggles with depression early on and starts being prescribed Xanax in her teens. She goes to a therapist and the therapist ends up committing suicide. She’s able to spin dark comedy out of recounting those tales. She’s not firing off one-liners; she’s not saying, “Isn’t that hilarious!” But she’s trying to make sense of things that happened to her, to reflect on it in a way that’s consistent with her comedic sensibility. I find it brave and very insightful. (HarperCollins)
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I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder
William Knoedelseder was a reporter out of the L.A. Times in that period in the Seventies when comedians like Robin Williams were starting to show up at the Comedy Store and make their bones. He was on the ground as it happened: the scene around [club owner] Mitzi Shore, the cult of personality that she built. There’s an important turning point in his book about how the comedians that worked the Comedy Store were not getting paid. They go on strike and one comedian commits suicide by jumping off the Hyatt Hotel. You appreciate the struggles of these early performers. It was starting to become a cool gig, but because of the efforts of these people. At the time that they got into it, it didn’t have glamour. There was no real cable TV yet; comedy wasn’t being broadcast into people’s homes. These people were doing it for love and the camaraderie of hanging out and partying with each other after the shows. You can understand why the source material was so tantalizing to Showtime. (Public Affairs)
Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul
That was extremely inspirational in preparing my own book. It goes all the way back to Pryor’s roots in Peoria [Illinois] and talking to his family members that raised him, grew up alongside him. Really putting truths to all the tales and urban legends that surrounded Pryor and his celebrity. It’s very interesting because it’s not trying to tell the entirety of Richard Pryor’s life — I think it stops somewhere in 1978 or 1980 — but there’s just so much deep reporting, starting at square one. You get such a complete history and really understand where and how the mind-set of a comedian is forged through upbringing and these early life experiences. It’s crucial. (HarperCollins)
The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.