'Growing Up Laughing' With Marlo Thomas

Marlo Thomas

Actress Marlo Thomas got her first big break as the star of the 1960s television program That Girl. John Zacker hide caption

itoggle caption John Zacker

Imagine growing up in a home where your father's pals included Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, George Burns and Bob Hope.

That's how actress Marlo Thomas was raised: surrounded by giants of comedy, including her father, Danny Thomas. Danny Thomas and his friends, "The Boys," regularly traded jokes and pranks around the dining room table that kept Marlo laughing — and provided her first taste of the comedy business.

Thomas also learned the craft of comedy from her father, sitting in as he listened to recordings of his material to hone his act and traveling with him to nightclubs and movie sets.

In her memoir, Growing Up Laughing: My Story And The Story Of Funny, Thomas shares her childhood memories and explores her comedic roots. Thomas' memoir also includes her own interviews with some of today's top comedians — including Chris Rock and Ben Stiller — about how they "found their funny."

Excerpt: 'Growing Up Laughing'

Cover of 'Growing Up Laughing'

Chapter One: Celebrations

"Did you kill ’em, Daddy?"

"I murdered ’em, honey! I left ’em for dead."

Dialogue from The Sopranos? No, just a call from my father, the morning after his opening night at the Sands in Las Vegas (or the Chez Paree in Chicago, or the Fontainebleau in Miami, or any number of other nightclubs around the country).

I didn’t realize until I was older how violent the language was for a profession that was so filled with laughter. It was life-and-death, all right — to all of them. But what a celebration when Daddy left ’em for dead. We were big celebrators anyway.

Growing Up Laughing: My Story And The Story Of Funny
By Marlo Thomas
Hardcover, 400 pages
Hyperion
List price: $26.99

We celebrated everything in our family. My grandmother (the Italian one — my mother’s mother) never missed a holiday, and sent us elaborately decorated cards on every conceivable occasion, with all the good parts underlined, followed by exclamation points. Tucked inside the card was always a hanky and a dollar (or, as we got older, two dollars). What a character she was. She looked like a dark-haired, dark-eyed Sophie Tucker (her idol, by the way) and sang in that same kind of husky, raucous voice.

But Grandma did Sophie one better — she also played the drums. In her seventies, she was playing drums with her little band called Marie’s Merry Music Makers. In a beer garden in Pasadena. During the week she billed herself as "Danny Thomas’s Mother-in-Law." On the weekends, to get the younger crowd, she billed herself as "Marlo Thomas’s Grandmother." She was some entrepreneur, my grandma.

Of course, everyone tried to get her to act her age and give up the drums — or at least the beer gardens. My mother wished she would just retire to babysitting and making pasta. My father wished she was Bob Hope’s mother-in-law. I adored her.

In a family of celebrators, there is always work to be done, and the work was divvied up. My sister, Terre, was the cake committee (she still is, to this day). I, being the oldest — and having a bike — was in charge of buying the cards. I’d ride over to Beverly Stationers on Beverly Drive, where Gladys, the ever-present, ever-dependable proprietor, helped us pick out school supplies each fall. She was also the maven of the card section. Sometimes she’d have a few already put aside for me. I’d pick out something clever and funny for my card; something with a sweet princess and a loving message from Terre; and one with a picture of a lion or a puppy from little Tony.

One year on Father’s Day, Terre had gotten Bailey’s Bakery to create an elaborate cake with pictures in frosting of all the characters on Dad’s TV show. I had done my job of choosing a custom card from each of us, and after dinner the ceremonial opening of the gifts began.

My present was first. As was the custom, Daddy would read the card aloud, and since mine was always a funny one, we’d all laugh. If it was really funny, he’d read it aloud again, and the laughter would start all over.

Then came Terre’s card. Daddy read it aloud. Inside, the saying was beautiful — Hallmark had outdone themselves. It was about how Dad was "the best father in the world," "caring and loving," a man who would sacrifice anything for her, who guided her and who was always there for her. Quite beautiful. Tears all around. I was very proud. But then Daddy looked up from the card.

"Terre, do you believe all of this?" he asked.

"Yes, Daddy," Terre said.

Daddy paused. "Because if you really believe what’s written in this card," he said, "you’d do the things Daddy wants you to do, wouldn’t you?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Like right now. Where is your retainer?"

"It’s upstairs, Daddy."

"Upstairs?! I didn’t spend my hard-earned money for you to put your retainer in a drawer upstairs. It belongs in your mouth!"

His voice rose. "I bought it for you so you would grow up to have beautiful straight teeth, with a smile to be proud of."

His voice got even louder as his body began slowly rising out of his chair. Suddenly, the festive room had become very quiet.

Terre looked at me accusingly and said, "You couldn’t have given me the other card?"

Within seconds, the tense standoff in the room had dissolved into what was more customary under the Thomas roof: laughter.

This still makes me laugh.

And my father? She murdered ’im.

Excerpted from Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny by Marlo Thomas. Copyright 2010 by Marlo Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.

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