In On the Joke, by Shawn Levy****

Shawn Levy has taken on an ambitious project, researching and writing about the pioneers of women’s stand-up comedy. In his author’s note, Levy says that while it may seem counterintuitive for a man to write about women comedians in this era of #MeToo, nobody else has done it, and because they are heroes, forging the way forward, performing for audiences that were frequently hostile. The result is in On the Joke, a well-researched book that tells the stories of the women that emerged from the vaudeville era to make history, roughly between the World War II era and Watergate.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

There are eight chapters in this book, each dedicated to a particular type of comic. He starts with Moms Mabley, whom I had never heard of, and continues down the line with Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, and several others, and ends with “The Scrapper,” Joan Rivers. I confess it was Rivers’ face on the cover that drew me to this historical work.

Levy has cut no corners, and the documentation is flawless; his style of reporting is conversational and written for a general readership. All told, he’s done a fine job here.

My only sorrow—and one that isn’t the author’s fault—is seeing what horrible things these women had to do to themselves in order to meet with success. One after another, women comics have mounted the stage, day after day, night after night, to make self-deprecating jokes, many of them downright vicious. They tell about how ugly they were as children, and how ugly they are now; they tear themselves apart like Christians diving voluntarily into the colosseum pit where the lions await. I expected to laugh my way through this thing, but most of the time I wanted to sit down and sob for these artists.

As I expected, my favorite among them is Rivers. Eventually she eased up somewhat on the self-attacks and began roasting other public figures. I saw some of her work when she was still alive, and at the time, I thought some of her jokes were too mean to be funny, but as Rivers pointed out to her critics, she always “punched up.” Using her well known catch phrase, “Can we tawk,” she eviscerated the most successful celebrities, politicians, and other newsworthy public figures, and a lot of her material was absolutely hilarious. In fact, I’d have finished reading and reviewing this book much sooner had I not kept setting it aside to watch old footage of her routines, as well as some of the others Levy covers.

If you are looking for a book to make you laugh your butt off, this isn’t that book, but it’s an excellent history of the women that paved the way for the likes of Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Hannah Gadsby, and many others.

Recommended to feminists, and those interested in entertainment history.

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox, by Carol Burnett****

suchgoodcompany  When I saw that Burnett had published a memoir of her years as America’s favorite comedic performer on The Carol Burnett Show, which ran from 1967 through 1978, my first thought was, what, another memoir? She’s already published at least three others, one of which I have read and reviewed. But the fact is, she hadn’t used up all her juice yet. Each of her memoirs focuses on some particular aspect of her life, and so this book is new, it’s original, and it’s probably the stuff you were hoping she’d talk about in her other memoirs. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Crown Archetype. It was published September 13 and I am sorry to be on the late side, but I scored my own copy just prior to publication; I had no idea it was available till Crown put a promotion up on Facebook and it showed up on my home page.  I genuinely held my breath as I logged onto Net Galley to see if I was too late, and happily, the Literature Fairy smiled on me.

As the memoir begins, I am at first a trifle disappointed, because it appears as if she is just going to list every single person that’s ever appeared on her show and gush about how nice they were.  But she’s just warming up, and it gets more interesting. She describes how she made her way into show business, and though she skims over the early years, knowing that the reader wants to get to the show, it sounds very much as if she was the overnight success that aspiring actors only dream of becoming.  She was on a show that I wasn’t around yet to watch called “The Garry Moore Show”, and she must have made not only a tremendous impression, but also a lot of friends, because she was offered her own variety show—think of it!—and then was able to bring a head writer, a choreographer, a bunch of dancers and some other people west with her from New York to Los Angeles.

This show was a fixture in my childhood and adolescence. One of Burnett’s regular satirical sketches lampooned soap operas, and it was called “As the Stomach Turns”. It was one of the few things that made my parents and me laugh out loud at the same time. My friends and I spent ridiculous, late night hours creating our own satire of a satire, which we dubbed “As the Stomach Churns”, and which featured imaginary illicit relationships among our own teachers along with the administration, janitorial staff, and especially our librarian, a book hoarder that chased away all potential clientele from her sacred gates.  So when I saw that Burnett was writing about the show, I had to see what she’d written, because she had been an intrinsic part of my own development.

All comers that want to read this should do it near an internet source if at all possible, because the comedic sketches can be viewed on television and now also on YouTube. This is fairly new: I tried to view them a couple of years ago and they weren’t there yet, so this is exciting all by itself.

And if you have never seen any of her work and wonder what I am carrying on about, check it:



and with Robin Williams:


The life that she led sounds like something most actors could only dream of. She got up, got her kids off to school, started work on the show mid-morning Monday-Friday, with a single run-through on Thursday followed by a live show before a studio audience Friday, and then they were done at three o’clock and she was done by the time her kids were out of school. It came down to disciplined behavior on the part of the cast and crew, and to the unusually respectful atmosphere in which the show was done. Once a guest misbehaved and when he threatened to storm off the set, she let him go and said good riddance; they did the show without him.  (She won’t give us a name, but he was short. I have been speculating ever since.)


She does tell the many spoofs that were done on movies of the past, and which actors called to say they just loved what the show had done with their film, and which either called up and were angry or sent indirect messages that they were not amused. And she  offers a retrospective look at the way women in show business were expected to behave back then; she was sometimes a doormat, and exultantly recounts how Edie Gourmet, on a guest visit, gave some of it back to those that bullied Carol.


Some of the funniest bits of writing are included, and some of the regular cast’s best onstage moments are recounted, along with those of favorite guest stars. A complete list of every show and which guests were featured is at the back of the book for those that want to look up particular entertainers, or  peruse it for fun.


But the bottom line is that this is pure gold for those that love Burnett and the show, and that can follow along some of the high performance points online. If you aren’t interested in her work, then the memoir won’t mean much to you.


Recommended to Burnett’s many fans.


The Sound of Music Story: How A Beguiling Young Novice, A Handsome Austrian Captain, and Ten Singing Von Trapp Children Inspired the Most Beloved Film of All Time, by Tom Santopietro ****

thesoundofmusicstorySince the enormously popular movie based on the story of the Von Trapp family was released 50 years ago, numerous books have been published about the family, the movie, or both. This reviewer tried reading Mrs. Von Trapp’s memoir many years ago and found it surprisingly dry. Not so with this humdinger by Tom Santopietro. When it comes out in February, you may want to read it even if entertainment history is not usually of interest to you. Because after all, The Sound of Music is not just any movie! Thank you, thank you to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for providing the ARC so that I could check it out and report back prior to the release date.

That said, if your entire life has been spent sad and deprived, or with your nose to a video game or hiding under a rock and so, somehow, you have never seen this movie, watch the movie first. It is a full three hours long, and not a single moment is wasted. In the tradition of Rogers and Hammerstein, the music forms a part of the narrative, rather than something inserted in between lines of a story which slow it down. Painstaking care was leant to avoid having a moment when the audience would collectively think, “Ho hum, I can see we’re about to burst into song here.” In fact, musicals were not much in fashion anymore, and religious films, which had enjoyed popularity just prior to this one, were now considered old and outdated. Extraordinary effort was taken to engage the audience, and it shows.

One reason it was even considered, odds being what they were, was that the stage version of The Sound of Music, which starred Mary Martin as Maria, had sold tickets like hotcakes. The possibility of a successful motion picture was intriguing. There was no way to use Martin for the film, though; she would have been past the age of fifty years when filming began, and things that can be obscured or disguised on stage tend to show up on camera. There could be no painted backgrounds for film—how cheesy! An entirely new script, with two additional songs added by the original composers, made it much more appealing than the stage version. A lot of money went into making this show work, and it was money well spent.

How the deal was struck to make the movie is explained thoroughly without trying the reader’s patience without a lot of extraneous or uninteresting detail. Each time I thought perhaps I was getting too much information—such as back-stories on the behind-the-scenes specialists—the narrative would lead from there into the aspects of the film that were their particular contributions, and then I would understand why I needed to know about that person. The creator of that gob-smackingly gorgeous wedding dress? Oh, hell yes! The choreographers who put together the whole nine-minute Do-Re-Mi music video…oh, yes I guess that was pretty amazing, so yes! And behind all of it was the genius of Robert Wise, a producer and director I had never even especially noticed before, but now will never forget.

I loved walking through the casting roster. Hmmm, who should play Maria? How about Angie Dickinson? (If you are old enough to remember her, you’ve got to find this pretty amusing.) Mia Farrow? She would’ve had the job if she could’ve sung better. Doris Day had a red-hot career going, but she turned this one down cold, accurately pointing out that her resume had been built by being the quintessential all-American girl, and just how was anyone suddenly going to think she was an Austrian nun? Point well taken.

Some of the others were fun, too. How about Yul Brynner as the captain? He really wanted that job. NO. And so it goes.

Interwoven throughout are the real family Von Trapp. Once she had accepted the deal and signed on the dotted line, the real “Sister Maria” was every bit as outspoken in real life as her fictional counterpart. In fact, she was so outspoken in her limitless suggestions as to how the film could be kept more in keeping with events as they unfolded that finally, a letter was sent off to her explaining, for once and all, that the movie was based “loosely” on her own story and was not intended to be a documentary. Stay out of the way; we’re making a movie here!

Which scenes were shot on a Paramount stage, and which were on location? Sometimes the difference is a matter of angle, with scenes being freely mixed. (The Von Trapp manse had several different locations, according to whether one was out front, out back, indoors, or in the gazebo.)

Imagine Maria skipping down that lane singing “I Have Confidence”…with fifty or so cameramen and other personnel following closely. And didn’t she make it all look easy? A clue: it wasn’t. That woman had an unstoppable work ethic!

And what of the Von Trapps now? Once they emigrated (not really through the Swiss Alps, silly; for one thing, to get there from Austria, you have to go through Germany!), they came to the United States, flat broke after a life of great comfort, albeit not as much luxury as depicted on film. They sang and toured till some of the “children” were sick to death of it and vowed to sink deep roots and stay put ASAP. Eventually they founded a ski lodge in Vermont, where the grand-Von-Trapps, at least some of them, still live and work.

Was Julie Andrews really that nice, or was she different off-camera? You have to read the book, and then you’ll know. Who else is remembered fondly by the cast, and who not-so-much? It’s all here.

Even less central aspects of the story, such as the campy sing along tradition that draws thousands anually, many in full costume (even dressed up as carburetors!) and likened to a nerdy version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, are interesting and amusing.

What’s more, after you read the book, if it affects you as it did me, then no matter how many times you have watched the movie, you will need to see it again in order to appreciate everything you just read. Happily, we had the DVD ready to hand, and my daughter, who has also watched a number of times before, and I nestled next to the Christmas tree and re-watched it, with me pointing things out to her as we went along.

If you don’t have a date Friday night or prefer a less boisterous evening in the privacy of your own home, this movie just could be a great plan for you! Then you’ll be properly ready to read the book once it comes out around Valentine’s Day.

Mark your calendar. This story-behind-the-story is worth the anticipation.