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Growing Up Laughing

Marlo Thomas remembers her own childhood even as she asks top comics: “How did you become funny?”

By Yvonne Zipp / October 19, 2010

Growing Up Laughing By Marlo Thomas Hyperion 400 pp., $26.99

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Did you hear the one about the girl whose dad was a comedian?

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Marlo Thomas grew up surrounded by comedy legends. Milton Berle did magic tricks at her birthday parties (and was heckled by the kids). George Burns, Sid Caesar, Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, and all the others all played cards with her dad, Danny Thomas, and were frequent guests. The Thomas’s dinner table was a stage, and the quickest way out of trouble for Marlo and her siblings was to make her dad laugh.

In her new memoir, Growing Up Laughing, the actress, author, and activist intersperses vignettes from her childhood and days starring in the Emmy-winning sitcom, “That Girl,” with interviews with some of the most famous comedians working today – from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chris Rock, and Tina Fey to Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, and Whoopi Goldberg. (Thomas gets major points from this reader for including deadpan comic Stephen Wright.)

The interviews are all centered around the comedians’ memories of growing up and when they first realized they were funny, so even though both Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno are interviewed, those looking for more fodder about “The Tonight Show” brouhaha will need to look elsewhere.

Thomas’s questions aren’t what you’d call hard-hitting – they range in speed from softball to Wiffle ball. But the fact that she’s such a generous, appreciative audience – her most frequent quotes are “That is so great,” and “You are so funny” – means that she’s able to talk to even press-shy comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, her leadoff interview.

“One of the things that drew me to comedy was it’s a simple world. It doesn’t require the interpretation of any critic to tell you whether something is good or not good. If the audience is laughing, the guy’s good,” Seinfeld says, before riffing on the latent donkey hostility inherent in children’s birthday parties.
High school and the family dinner table, it turns out, are remarkably effective comedy incubators.

As O’Brien puts it, when people ask why he still makes fun of himself, his comedy defenses were honed when he was a skinny, freckled teen with orange hair who wasn’t good at sports. They’re so ingrained now, he says, “I could be made dictator of the world tomorrow, and I would still make fun of myself.”

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