'Growing Up Laughing' With Marlo Thomas Actress Marlo Thomas grew up surrounded by comedy legends, from her father, Danny Thomas, to George Burns and Bob Hope. Thomas shares her comedic roots and asks today's top comedians how they "found their funny" in her memoir, Growing Up Laughing: My Story And The Story Of Funny..
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'Growing Up Laughing' With Marlo Thomas

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'Growing Up Laughing' With Marlo Thomas

'Growing Up Laughing' With Marlo Thomas

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Imagine growing up in a house where your father's pals, the boys, included Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and George Burns and where your dad was a pretty fair comedian himself.

As a girl, Marlo Thomas learned the craft of comedy as her father, Danny Thomas, listened to tape recordings of his act to hone his material, took her along to nightclubs and movie sets. In the new memoir, she shares her childhood memories and goes on to explore the art of comedy with the boys and girls of today, people like Chris Rock and Lily Tomlin, Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.

Later in the hour, the king of the custom cars on the making of the Batmobile. But first, if you're a comedian, how did you find your funny? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Marlo Thomas joins us from NPR's New York City bureau. Her new book is titled "Growing Up Laughing," and great to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. MARLO THOMAS (Author, "Growing Up Laughing: My Story And The Story Of Funny"): Thank you so much, Neal. I'm a big fan of yours.

CONAN: Oh, well, thank you. That's nice of you to say.

Ms. THOMAS: I love the show.

CONAN: You suggested a couple of points in your book, that there's an element of genetics involved. So is it nature or is it nurture?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, as the great scientists always say, it's both.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: It really is. I think that there's got to be a comic gene in some way, but it's so much about it is how you grow up. And that's why I was fascinated excuse me when I was writing the book, I had no intention of putting in these new entertainers from today. I was just writing about my life as seen through the lens of comedy.

And as I was writing it, I thought, you know, my dad grew up in a really poor neighborhood. His dad was a very stern guy that they had 10 kids. My grandmother had no time for play. She was busy being the nanny and the cook and the laundress. And the only funny person in my father's life was his Uncle Tony, who was later personified as Uncle Tonoose in his "Make Room for Daddy" television show.

But this was a guy who was so funny, he was barred from family funerals. So that's how funny he was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: You know, I love the idea that somebody would be told that they couldn't go to the funeral. Anyway, I realized as I was writing about it: So that was my dad's touch with comedy. That's where he got the gift of laughter. That's where he got the timing and the sense of fun.

And I grew up with it in my family, and I started to wonder, well, how did Jerry Seinfeld get it, where did Robin Williams get it from? And it interested me. And I was just going to write them for a few, you know, quotes.

But I was so fascinated with their value of comedy. And that I think is the difference between people who take comedy on as a life's work and people who just love to go to comedy shows, and that is that there's a real value put on getting a laugh and...

CONAN: Thats interesting. That's what Jerry Seinfeld said.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes.

CONAN: He wasn't, you know, the class clown in any sense. He just valued comedy a lot more.

Ms. THOMAS: Exactly, exactly. And the interesting thing is, Neal, that when - I had assumed that everybody in the book was probably the class clown. Certainly, you would think Robin Williams or Conan O'Brien or Jerry Seinfeld would be the class clown. None of them were.

The only class clown in the entire group was Kathy Griffin. Everybody else said oh, no, no, they were too shy. Tina Fey said she muttered it under her breath. They weren't the class clown. In fact, Conan O'Brien had the greatest thing to say about that. He said: The class clown usually ended up in a motel shooting, which I think is so hilarious.

CONAN: Again, you're talking to Chris Rock, and he said, you know, it's interesting that I thought at first all you needed was jokes. And I realized that in fact, the people who were succeeding, a lot faster than me as he put it, were great performers.

Ms. THOMAS: Exactly, and I said to him, well, what happened to the great writers, the ones that wrote such great jokes? He said they became writers for other comedians because it really is, it's a different craft.

To be able to deliver a joke, and even, I find, to be able to write out a joke - my friend, Elaine May(ph), who's a great comedienne in her own right, read my book, and she said to me: What I was really impressed with is that you know how to write a joke, she says because it's very hard - to tell a joke is one thing, and that's already hard, but to write it down and black and white so that someone will laugh at it, that's a whole other craft.

CONAN: And anybody who doesn't think she is a great comedienne ought to go back and listen to those Nichols and May records all those years ago.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, wow, wow, absolutely.

CONAN: She's just fantastic.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, she is.

CONAN: But it's not merely to write it down. It's to be able to go out and execute it precisely.

Ms. THOMAS: Absolutely, every night exactly the same way. No, I saw my dad for so many years doing that, and I used to say he was like a matador. You know, he would get out there, and you really are facing the crowd. I mean, that crowd is like an angry bull.

As Bill Cosby had said to Joan Rivers, and she mentions it in my book, that Cosby said: Don't assume that the audience loves you. If they don't know who you are, they'll give you three minutes. If they know who you are, they'll give you five. That's it, that's all you get, and if you're not good, you're out.

CONAN: You're out, and that was another thing that Jerry Seinfeld says. He says, you know, you shouldnt review comedy in the arts pages. You should do it on the sports page.

Ms. THOMAS: Exactly, well, because it's a score. That's really what he meant is that like sports, there's no debate. We don't really need a critic to tell us if it went well or not. Either the Yankees won or the Yankees lost. The score is on the scoreboard.

And he said it's the same way with a comedian. The guy get up, or the woman gets up in front of an audience. He either got laughs, or he didn't get laughs. If he got laughs, he's good; if he didn't get laughs, he's not good. He said it's just it's not up for any kind of interpretation, which is different.

He said to me, like, he said you're in a play, and your friends come backstage, and they say, gee, you were great. And you say: Was I really great? I mean, did you really like it? You can't be sure. But if you're a comic, you're sure.

CONAN: We want to hear from the comics in our audience today. Where did you find your funny? How do you go about constructing your act? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're talking with Marlo Thomas about her new book, "Growing Up Laughing: My Story And The Story Of Funny."

And we're going to start with Keith(ph), and Keith's calling us from Sacramento.

KEITH (Caller): Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

KEITH: Good, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

KEITH: So I'm a comedian here in Sacramento, and how I found my funny, I guess growing up, I just sort of had it thrust upon me. My dad and my grandpa would share Mad magazines with me, and I had a ventriloquist doll and would do acts for the family. So I just kind of grew up being funny and having it encouraged a lot.

Ms. THOMAS: That's amazing.

KEITH: Then when junior high and high school came around, that was how I could impress girls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: I didn't have football or anything like that. So I could make them laugh.

Ms. THOMAS: That's great, and that's very typical of comedians. Every single person I interviewed in my book, whether it was Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock or Billy Crystal, whoever it was, every single person had a funny member in their family.

And so that family member made comedy a part of the language of the family. It's amazing.

KEITH: Even now, my dad will come to all of my shows, and I can see him mouthing the jokes with me from the stage.

Ms. THOMAS: Aw, that's great.

KEITH: (Unintelligible), he'll call me up: I've got a new tag for you, son.

Ms. THOMAS: That's so great. Wow.

CONAN: And families are always, I guess, the first audience.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, for sure.

KEITH: Yeah, absolutely. They had to put up with my puppet shows and my ventriloquist acts and all kinds of stuff as I developed material. That and co-workers. I feel bad for the co-workers of us comedians that still have day jobs. They have to listen to the material that, you know, ultimately gets rejected and the other audience doesn't have to suffer through.

CONAN: Yeah, Jerry Jay Leno can take his act out to comedy clubs all over the country and try out material. You're pretty much stuck in cubicle-land.

KEITH: Right, right.

Ms. THOMAS: What I thought was interesting, too, was that Chris Rock said that in order to do one of his HBO specials, he's done that 30 times, 30 different clubs. He said, and there's some guys who'll do it 150 times before they'll do it as an HBO special.

You know, because people think if you're funny, you just get up in front of the camera and you run around and do some funny jokes and get a lot of laughs, but in fact, that is completely honed, you know, into a...

KEITH: But to still make it feel fresh, to have something that maybe you, yourself, are starting to get bored with because you've done it so many times. You still have to hit the audience with it and allow them to believe that it's the first time you said it and that it's fresh off the top of your head.

Ms. THOMAS: Absolutely.

CONAN: In fact, Marlo and I have done this interview 17 times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: You guys almost have it. It's almost perfect.

Ms. THOMAS: I mean, it's so fresh. It's so alive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Keith. Good luck with your career.

KEITH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. I was fascinated to read your interview with you did both Ben and Jerry Stiller.

Ms. THOMAS: Right.

CONAN: But particularly Ben Stiller because like you, he grew up the child, well, not just of one comedian but of two.

Ms. THOMAS: Right, of two. He had a double-whammy. Yeah, I was interested in talking to him for that very reason. I thought it would be kind of a window on my life. And my sister, who's just read the book, wrote me an email and said it was so much fun to read that he also did shows, you know, for his dad and that they had the comedians over for dinner.

You grow up with that, and I'm telling you, whether you're famous or not, the fact that your parents are telling jokes and being funny really changes your life.

Conan O'Brien talks about the fact that his father was a scientist, but he was a funny guy. And Billy Crystal's dad was funny. He owned a record store called the Commodore, but he brought home all the comedy records.

These families were very lucky to grow up, you know, like that, where comedy was valued.

CONAN: Marlo Thomas, in her book, also gives us some examples of some of the various comedians' humor that she learned to appreciate growing up. The Dangerfield Zone is a page that includes some jokes called "Remembering Rodney," including: My wife is such a bad cook, if we leave dental floss in the kitchen, the roaches hang themselves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I don't have his timing, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's I was reading...

Ms. THOMAS: We can work on that.

CONAN: Yes, we can work on that. Now, you are an actress, often a comedic actress, but you did not go into comedy per se.

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I mean, of course my television series and a lot of my specials were comedies, but I didn't go into stand-up. But I have to tell you, after doing this book, a friend of mine said: What have you learned from doing this book? I said: I've learned that I want to do stand-up.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, I just so enjoy it. You know, I did a play a couple of years ago. I played Jacqueline Susann with F. Murray Abraham in a play called "Paper Doll." And the writer, Mark Hampton(ph), wrote a lot of monologues of funny stories that Jacqueline Susann would tell.

And I never had a better time in my life because there I was, onstage in a character, stopping to do a monologue that was just loaded with jokes. And I felt that I had sort of come to a place that was very, very comfortable for me, that I could stand up on my own, in a character, and tell jokes.

The other night we had a book party at Caroline's Comedy Club here in New York, and they had several comedians perform, and a lot of my friends, Joy Behar and Nora Ephron and Elaine May, wonderful comedy artists themselves. It's just so great to be within that whole milieu of people that want to tell jokes, that want to laugh and want to share it with you because, you know, laughter is contagious, and so is depression.

I remember reading once that you're only as happy as the least depressed person in your family. And it's true. Depression is contagious. But, you know, you'll be at a party or a restaurant and the table next to you is laughing like mad. I mean, I want to get up and go sit at that table. You know, they're the ones having the fun.

And I think that that is for all of us, that if you're around a lot of laughter, it picks you up. You know, there's endorphins in laughter, as there are endorphins in running in the park.

CONAN: We're talking with Marlo Thomas about her new book, "Growing Up Laughing." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Our guest is Marlo Thomas. She recently launched a website for women and continues to work with and support St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Her acting career is going strong, and she's just out with her sixth book, "Growing Up Laughing."

Of course, for many of our listeners, their first introduction to Marlo Thomas came in the late 1960s, when she played a struggling, quirky actress who often landed odd roles to make ends meet, Ann Marie from "That Girl."

(Soundbite of television program, "That Girl")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) How would you like to pick up some extra money working for me?

Ms. THOMAS: (As Ann Marie) Doing what?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Shoplifting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: (As Ann Marie) Shoplifting. Shoplifting?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) I've been looking for the right person to work with, and as soon as I saw you, I said to myself, if there was ever the perfect shoplifter, it's that girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: "That Girl" ran from 1966 to 1971. Comedians, how did you find your funny? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also reach us by email, talk@npr.org. Or tell us your stories on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Marlo Thomas, your father was reluctant to see you go into the business when you were a kid.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes. He later told me that he just didn't want to relive those terrible years, his first years alone. But also because he was afraid that maybe lightning wouldn't strike twice in the same family.

And I was an educated girl. I'd done very well in school. I had a good point average and graduated from USC as an English teacher. My dad didn't even finish high school. So he was really a typical immigrant child, you know, child of immigrants. So to him, having an education meant you could do so much in your life.

He wanted me to be a governor, a senator. He had very high hopes for me but not to be an actress. Anybody could be an actress because you didn't have to have an education to be an actress. So that was a complete, I think, point of view, you know, of an impoverished immigrant child.

CONAN: There was a great line, I think it was from George Burns at a dinner.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes. My dad and I were always arguing about this, and George said to my dad: What do you want her to be, a milliner? You know, as if there were only two things in life, a milliner and an actress.

CONAN: There you go.

Ms. THOMAS: But he also said to my dad: Danny, I feel sorry for anybody who isn't in show business. He loved the business, and so did his wife, and so did my dad.

And I think that once I looked like I was going to be okay, when I opened in "Barefoot in the Park" in London, and my dad saw that I was going to be able to stand on my own in this career, then he was completely behind me. But even when he didn't want me to do it, he came to every play in every little summer stock theater, every school play. He was always there supporting his daughter, not just not his daughter the actress.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Henri(ph). Is it Henry or Henri?

HENRI (Caller): Henri.

CONAN: Henri with us from Prattville in Alabama. Go ahead, please.

HENRI: Yes, I just wanted to call in. You had mentioned about the, you know, comedians calling in. I've been doing stand-up in one form or another, wasnt until - since I was 11 years old. It wasn't until I was about 14 years old where they would let me into open-mike nights to get up there and tell jokes.

And, you know, the thing that drove me was the fact that as a kid, I embarrassed myself a lot and would watch my mother laugh when I would embarrass myself because she was a really good mom. And to see her laugh, it was always good. So then I thought, ooh, good, this is nice. So I would make her laugh and ultimately make everyone else in the room laugh.

And now here I am today not a successful comedian, but I've had, you know, a nice little fan base that has built around me in Alabama, oddly enough Alabama. Kind of scary.

CONAN: And do you still is the core of your humor still to make fun of yourself?

HENRI: Sort of. I like to do I do a character who's based sort of on the old sort of, you know, he's kind of based in the rat-pack era. His name's Vick Trickinosis(ph). And he's a self-deprecating comic who's also an insult comic. So as much as he insults himself, he'll insult the audience right back. But it's always on, you know, it's always on him.

CONAN: So Don Rickles on Zoloft, maybe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HENRI: Right, exactly, exactly. You know, and for about six months, I had my own show at a local bar in Tuscaloosa, and one time I opened for Vick as myself. And the room did not laugh. But then when I came out as Vick, you know, people had you know, there was a word of mouth, and people knew I was Vick, and I came out there, and I sat there and made fun of myself as the opening act...

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, that's funny.

HENRI: ...and everyone loved it.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, that's great. That's kind of Andy Kaufman-like. Andy Kaufman did that, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Except we were never quite sure some of the time.

Ms. THOMAS: Never, never, not until he died and was gone, for sure. That's great.

CONAN: Henri, good luck to you.

HENRI: Oh, well, thank you, thank you.

CONAN: Okay, we're going to give somebody else a chance.

Ms. THOMAS: That was fun.

CONAN: Yeah, he's good. Let's go to Daniel(ph), Daniel with us from Syracuse.

DANIEL (Caller): Yeah, how are you doing? Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

DANIEL: Yeah, I just wanted to say I've been a comedian in New York City for six years, and I grew up kind of a class clown. It really depended which class I was in.

But I was a drummer for a long period of time, and I didn't want to rely on the musical accompaniment of other people. As a drummer, you can't just go out and play a drum solo for three hours.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DANIEL: So I had to go out and find a different craft, and I'd always had an affinity for stand-up comedy. So I started writing a lot by learning how to write joke structure, by watching sitcoms and a lot of, like, Rodney Dangerfield.

Because there's different types of jokes. There's set-up punch jokes, and then there's character-driven comedy, which is more Robin Williams-type.

Ms. THOMAS: Right.

CONAN: Marlo Thomas, I was fascinated again in your interview with Jerry Seinfeld where he talked about, you know, there's no such it's all observational humor. There's no such thing as observational humor, per se. But the way he described you, you know, taking the lost sock routine.

Ms. THOMAS: Right, the anatomy of a joke. What I think is interesting, too, and especially as we listen to these three different comedians from around the country, and they all have a different style, I said to Jerry Seinfeld, it's interesting to me since I grew up with George Burns and Bob Hope and my dad and all these guys, and they were all so different.

And Jerry said, you know, he said comedy is like a perfume counter. You go to the perfume counter, and you try these little tester bottles, and you don't like all the perfumes. There's just one or two that really is your style. He said, and comedy's like that.

There's no rhyme or reason as to why one perfume smells better to you than another one. And there's no rhyme or reason why one comic is completely your style, and another one isn't. And I found that really fascinating.

DANIEL: The most poignant thing that I found Jerry Seinfeld to say is that stand-up comedy is not a monologue, it's a dialogue because the laughter is as important as the monologue itself because laughter has different sizes and shapes and sounds and tones to it. And you have to be able to create that conversation as fluidly as possible. And that's when you become a good comic, when you're creating a dialogue rather than a monologue.

Ms. THOMAS: That's a great point. I can't imagine, like, being a monologist and rehearsing by yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: You really need to hear somebody laugh at it. That's great.

DANIEL: I mean, there's no way to rehearse comedy. I mean, if you're not going on stage nightly, you're not exercising the ability to create that dialogue. So it's really a necessity to be on stage.

Ms. THOMAS: Jay Leno said, I asked him why do you you have a show every night, why in God's name do you need to do 160 nightclub dates a year? He said it's different. He said if you're not out there doing it, you will forget it. Theres a certain thing that you must continue to practice.

DANIEL: Yeah, you have to stay sharp.

Ms. THOMAS: Absolutely. And then Seinfeld said if you're good at comedy - if you're good at stand-up, that doesn't mean you're going to be good at anything else. And if you're good at anything else, that doesn't mean you're going to be good at stand-up.

And that's fascinating because I had - George Carlin played my agent in "That Girl" in the first year, and he was okay. He wasn't great. In fact, you know, he was just fine.

We didn't hear from him for two years. He kind of disappeared. And two years later, we saw this guy, this brilliant, brilliant comedian named George Carlin. And that's when Jerry said, you see, doing one thing does not mean you can do the other thing well. It's a completely different art.

CONAN: Daniel....

DANIEL: It is, and I find that it just because you're naturally funny, like some of the people that in social situations tend to be the funniest people can't always translate that to the stage because it's really a different ballgame.

Ms. THOMAS: Completely.

DANIEL: Some can. Some can't.

CONAN: Well, it's also easy to be naturally funny once. It's hard to do it every night.

Ms. THOMAS: Exactly.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much for the call, good luck to you.

DANIEL: Yeah, thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Dorothy(ph), Dorothy with us from Jacksonville.

DOROTHY (Caller): Yes, hello, thank you. I just wanted to say, Marlo, this is Dorothy Pittman-Hughes(ph).

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, hi Dorothy. Wow, how exciting.

DOROTHY: It's so wonderful to hear you. And I'm in Jacksonville, Florida, have a bookstore. I'm calling for your book immediately for my store.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, you're going to love it. Thank you so much. Thank you. That's great. Great to hear from you.

CONAN: Obviously, you two know each other. Dorothy, where do you know Marlo Thomas from?

DOROTHY: Well, the last time we met, I think we were in a rap group. Marlo, we were sitting up in a rap group meeting.

Ms. THOMAS: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, see, like she means consciousness-raising.

CONAN: I see. All right.

Ms. THOMAS: We'll sit with a group of women in the '70s and the early '80s and just talk about everything that was on our mind and get together as a group. You know, you're going to find this really interesting, Dorothy, but I've just started a website called MarloThomas.com on AOL, which is a fabulous partner. And what we're doing on my site is, like, we're doing one of our programs. It's called Girls Night Out...

DOROTHY: Uh-huh.

Ms. THOMAS: ...where we sit and meet in room with a group of women all over the country, different cities, and talk about sex and love and marriage and money and kids who don't move out and elderly parents and shopping and girlfriends and what's - what we're griping about. It's really interesting. And it reminds me so much of those days when we all hung out together and tried to figure out these things together. And the interesting thing is, is that women are still trying to figure out these same things. We still don't know...

DOROTHY: Absolutely.

Ms. THOMAS: ...enough about each of them.

DOROTHY: (Unintelligible)

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. So...

DOROTHY: Gloria(ph) is coming to Florida to - and she and I are going to speak again like we did in...

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, that's great. She means Gloria Steinem...

CONAN: Okay. Okay.

Ms. THOMAS: They traveled together.

DOROTHY: Well, we're still doing it.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, that's great.

DOROTHY: I didnt know if you're still working it.

Ms. THOMAS: I'm still doing it, too, babe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Dorothy, good luck with the bookstore.

DOROTHY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

DOROTHY: Okay, bye.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Jacqueline(ph) in Tulsa. I started doing standup comedy after seeing my mother do similar. She's a member of a parody music group comprised of neighborhood moms called the Hot Mamas. They formed the group in 2000 when their daughters and I were in a Spice Girls tribute band. Their first song was "Wanna Sweep" to the tune of "Wannabe." After multiple Hot Mama performances, where my mother attempted to publicly embarrass me, a sassy 13-year-old, I decided to try it myself.

It's interesting. You talked to a number of women comics...

Ms. THOMAS: Yes.

CONAN: ...female comedians, but I have to say, the most interesting part on the aspect of doing that was when you talked to Chris Rock, who said that when he's on stage doing relationship stuff, he is essentially a woman comedian.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. He goes - because he gets inside their mind. He's not putting women down. He's coming from a woman's point of view, which is why I think women like me love Chris Rock. You know, you can really laugh at him because he gets right into you. He said he loves to see the women really laugh loud and poke their boyfriend or their husband. And he said, and some of them are laughing, he knows, louder than they've laughed in a very long time. You know, I interviewed several woman, as you know, Joan Rivers and Lily and Whoopi and...

CONAN: Joy Behar, yeah.

Ms. THOMAS: ...a lot of them Joy Behar. But the two women that I didnt interview but that I used jokes from in the book were Rita Rudner, who I just think is hilarious, and Roseanne Barr, who I also think is hilarious. And Rita Rudner said something that was so funny that I have to repeat it. She said, you know, marriages just don't last. She says, when I meet a guy, the first question I ask myself is, is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: I mean, that's so incredibly funny.

CONAN: We're talking with Marlo Thomas. We know her father, Danny Thomas was well-known. Marlo Thomas' grandmother was a performer, too. She played the drums with her band Marie's Merry Music Makers in a Pasadena bar - beer garden, well into her 70s. You can read more about the lessons she taught Marlo Thomas in an excerpt on our website.

That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Cindy(ph) on the line. Cindy with us from Minneapolis.

CINDY (Caller): Good afternoon. So I'm not a performer. I'm a I think about a wannabe and I'm thinking back to a couple callers ago, the gentleman that was talking about you can be socially funny but it's hard to perform that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CINDY: So I'm socially funny. And over the years, people have told me, have you ever done standup? You should do standup. I say, would you pay for this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CINDY: And a friend of mine said, I don't have to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CINDY: But my question is, how do you translate? Because I play off of people and the conversation and I think, well, if I could have a friend on stage, you know, I could be funny. But how do you go from spontaneous funny to writing that down and performing that?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, that's the craft. Being able to have a point of view, a theme, and then getting up on stage and really telling the people who you are and what you think. I said to Jerry Seinfeld, you know, what is it that makes a comedian - you know, he said he would get nauseous before he did "The Tonight Show." It was like having the flu. He would get so sick about it.

And I said, well, why did you do it? He said, because I needed to. Because I knew that I could, he said. And there's this thing inside of you that feels I'm the one that should be talking on the stage and everybody else should be listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: And he said that - it's just the feeling of it. I mean, you either have that or you don't. And I think that's kind of the - you know, you may not be meant for standup. But if you want to try it, then you have to hone an act, figure out a theme, you know, write it down, perfect it and get up and do it. And Jerry Seinfeld, I'm talking about him because I'm so amazed by his craft. He did a documentary called "The Comedian."

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMAS: ...which you should see, because - you can rent it or get it at Netflix or whatever. It's just fantastic. He goes out on the road -here's a guy who's made a fortune and he doesn't have to do anything -but he went out on the road and performed a new act. And his ethic was that he would not bring one old joke with him, that he would little by little create a new act and - to the point where he had only six minutes. But he'd get up and try six minutes...


Ms. THOMAS: ...just for the love of the craft. Just for the absolute, you know, desire to be able to do it again...

CINDY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMAS: ...and not rely on anything. That's so brave. But it's also - it's where the love of it comes from.

CINDY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMAS: You should try that. Maybe you just create five minutes and try to stand up in somebody's living room and try it. You don't need somebody else on the stage with you. You've got an entire audience of people for you in a club. And...

CINDY: (Unintelligible) true.

Ms. THOMAS: You know, at a dinner table, you've got, you know, 10, 12 people or five people.

CONAN: But take Henny Youngman's advice. Was it him? He said, if there's more than six at the dinner, you charge for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: Well, you know, my father, all he needed was an airplane. I was on a plane one time coming back from New York to L.A., and the stewardess said to me, oh, we had your dad on last month, and he was so adorable. He got up to stretch. He was sitting in first class, then he started talking to a few people. He never sat down. He performed for the first class...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: ...for the entire time. I said, well, that's my dad. You know, he had a room full of people that had nowhere they could go, so he performed for them.

CONAN: Cindy, thanks very much for your call. Good luck.

CINDY: Thank you.

CONAN: And - Marlo Thomas, we wanted to thank you very much for your time today. We do appreciate it. Good luck with the book.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Marlo Thomas, "Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny." Of course, a lot of us also remember her from "Free to Be You and Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Free to Be You and Me")

Ms. THOMAS: (Singing) There's a land that I see where the children are free. And I say it ain't far to this land from where we are.

CONAN: We thank Marlo Thomas for her time today.

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