Marlo Thomas Remembers 'Growing Up Laughing'

Marlo Thomas has written a memoir about the sound and spirit that was so formative in her life and the lives of others. Host Scott Simon talks with the actress and activist about her book, Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

A lot of the people who made people laugh when they were on "Ed Sullivan" or "The Tonight Show," people like George Burns, Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, Bob Newhart, all sat around Marlo Thomas's family dining table, telling stories late into the night. Marlo Thomas has written a memoir about the sound and spirit that's been so formative in her life and the lives of others.

F: My Story and the Story of Funny," in which she talks about - and to some of - the biggest names in American comedy, including Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, Don Rickles. I could go on, but let Marlo Thomas do it. She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARLO THOMAS: My pleasure, my pleasure.

SIMON: So...

THOMAS: And I know that you also had a dad who was a comedian, so you and I grew up the same.

SIMON: We sure did. Are funny people born or made?

THOMAS: It's both. I think in my case, I had no choice but to have a good sense of humor. I grew up with my dad, Danny Thomas, and George Burns and Bob Hope and Milton Berle and Sid Caesar and all those guys were at our house all the time and telling jokes and making each other laugh.

I remember when I was teenager, I'd be out on a date but I'd look at my watch and I'd think, I better get home because the comics will be in the living room smoking cigars and drinking brandy and just screaming laughing. It was just delightful. And I think it gave me a real appreciation for the value of comedy.

SIMON: I was surprised and pleased to learn - recognizing that this is obviously not a scientific sample - a lot of the comedians with whom you speak in this book actually came from happy, stable childhoods.

THOMAS: Yes, it does seem that way - very traditional families: Kathy Griffin, Jay Leno - they all went home and made jokes around the dining table, and that's pretty much the way I grew up. We lived in a house where my father was also making jokes, encouraging jokes from us at the table. We always said at the dinner table: Has anybody heard a good joke? And then we would tell it, everybody'd laugh, and then he would say to us, you know, it would be much funnier if that was an old guy. You know, he'd rewrite the joke.

Which was great, because then we'd go back to school and retell the joke or tell it to somebody else, and we had the confidence that we'd made it even better. So there was a craft that he was teaching us all at the same time.

SIMON: Could you recount for us - I think near as I can tell by reading this book at any rate - one of the few times your father got genuinely angry at the dining table and what he said when he went stalking up the staircase?

THOMAS: My parents were bickering at the table and after a while my dad got up and he walked across the marble floor of our entry hall to the bottom of the staircase, the carved staircase, and he put his hand on the carved knob of the staircase and up above him was this Venetian chandelier. And he screamed at my mother in this very loud voice, and he said, Rosemary, I can't live like this anymore. And then he fell over laughing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: And you know, in that - and we all did too. But in that instant he saw how absurd he looked, that this man in this opulent house with all these lovely things, was actually saying to his wife that he couldn't live like this anymore. And when I wrote that in the book, I made the observation that there are really three kinds of people in the world: those like my dad who could right in the middle of an incident see the humor in it. And then there are those who can see the humor after some time has passed. And then there are those who will never see the humor.

And I really think that that's almost more important than the people that are glass half-full or half-empty. Because it really is the cushion for life, as far as I'm concerned. The rejection that we all take and the sadness and the aggravation and the loss of jobs and all of the things that we live through in our lives, without a sense of humor, I don't know how people make it.

SIMON: I love the story about how Billy Crystal used to watch, and from where he used to watch, "The Jack Parr Show" with his father.

THOMAS: Oh, wasn't that adorable? He would put his chair - at seven years old - he'd put his chair next to the TV so he could pretend that he was the next guest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: Oh god, that really is so darling. And I love that Robin Williams's mother used to drop a rubber band out of her nose to make his friends laugh. It was interesting, as I was writing, and I remembered that my father told me - my father had a very stern father and his mom was just completely, you know, overwrought. She had 10 children and nobody to help her and she was, you know, the cook and the laundress and the nanny and everything.

So there wasn't a lot of playfulness in my dad's house, but he had this one uncle who was this real card. And he was so funny that he was barred from family funerals.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: Which I love that too. It just really makes me laugh. So, that was my dad's - that's where he got the gift of laughter from, his uncle Tony. And then, of course, I thought about where I got my gift of laughter from - from all those comedians that hung out at our house, and that's when I started wondering, where did all these other comedians get it?

SIMON: Could I get you to tell about the time you and your friend took the mass pills...

THOMAS: Oh my god...

SIMON: And your father's reaction?

THOMAS: Oh, I hope I could tell that quickly enough. Well, you know, I went to Marymount, and my - where no women, no girls, were allowed on the altar - not even the nuns were allowed on the altar - and we used to have this priest who would come and say mass for us. And so, of course, because no girls were allowed on the altar, everything would be set out for him. So he would have to ring his own bells at the holy part of the mass, and he'd have to pour his own wine and water and all of those things himself, which altar boys do, you know, in a regular church.

And so my girlfriend Moy(ph) and I were just disgusted by the fact that girls weren't allowed on the altar, so one day we decided to steal the bells so that when he went to ring the bells they wouldn't be there. We just couldn't wait for this. And so all of the other girls in mass were doing what they should be doing, praying and paying attention to the mass. And of course my friend Moy and I - we were 13 years old - were sitting in the back of the church just - we couldn't wait to when he started to fumble to look for the bells.

(Unintelligible) we saw him, the moment came, and he went to fumble for the bells and, of course, they weren't there. And he did this thing that we never could've imagined he would do. He said: ding-a-ling-a-ling.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: And then, of course, we started to choke. And then he did it again: ding-a-ling-a-ling, 'cause there's three times that you ring that bell. And then we - oh, then I thought we were going to die. And then a third time: ding- a-ling-a-ling. Well, of course, we fell over laughing and it was obvious who had done this and we were immediately expelled from school.

And so my father was called up to Marymount and Mother Emmanuel, Reverend Mother Emmanuel said to my father, I'm sorry, Mr. Thomas, but Margaret just does not have the poise for a Marymount girl. I knew it, I was going to be expelled. And my father stood up very humbly and said, oh, I know, Reverend Mother, that's why I've given her to you. And I could see Reverend Mother's eyes. She knew she'd met her match.

And we got in the car and I said, oh daddy, you were so great. That was so funny the way you checkmated Reverend Mother. And he said, don't you ever, ever have me face off with that woman again. And don't you ever make jokes at mass. Mass is not the place for jokes. And I felt terrible. I'd done this awful thing. And we were very quiet for a while. And then he said, I was good though, wasn't I?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I love that story.

THOMAS: I know. It's a good story. It's true - it's good to have a dad on your side.

SIMON: Gosh, yes. So in the end, can comedians be happy?

THOMAS: Well, my dad was. I know George Burns was a very happy man. It looks to me that...

SIMON: Don Rickles seems very happy.

THOMAS: He is. He's having a good time. He's married happily. And...

SIMON: Joan Rivers, what about?

THOMAS: I don't know. I think Joan, you know, Joan's had a rough time. Her husband committed suicide, so she's had a difficult time. But a lot of her - she says in the book that a lot of her humor comes from anger and from wanting to show people, which is different from, say, where Jon Stewart's humor comes from, which is really about, you know, taking on the establishment. Or Robin Williams, who's just a big kid, or Billy Crystal, who's a big kid. There are different ways in which people approach comedy.

SIMON: in a room full of comedy writers, because I think that's where I'd be the happiest.

SIMON: Marlo, great talking to you.

THOMAS: Oh thanks. I've had a ball. So nice to meet you.

SIMON: Marlo Thomas, the Emmy, Peabody, Grammy-winning actress and producer, author of several bestsellers. Her latest, "Growing up Laughing."

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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