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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Marlo Thomas Remembers 'Growing Up Laughing'

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Marlo Thomas Remembers 'Growing Up Laughing'

Marlo Thomas Remembers 'Growing Up Laughing'

Marlo Thomas Remembers 'Growing Up Laughing'

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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.

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

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