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Growing Up Laughing

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

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Thomas had a rarified upbringing – when she and her friends played tricks on Halloween, it was Edward G. Robinson’s windows they were soaping. George Lopez’s comedy hails from the other end of the economic spectrum. “For my family, shopping was like ‘The Price is Right,’ ” he jokes before reminiscing about using the sun to blow up their basketball, because they couldn’t afford a pump.

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Thomas also covers her days as co-founder, with Gloria Steinem, of the Ms. Foundation, and her roles on Broadway and as a TV producer. That last leads to the only truly uncomfortable moment in “Growing Up Laughing”: When Thomas talks about remaking “It’s a Wonderful Life” against Frank Capra’s express wishes.

“She’s an interesting woman,” said costar Orson Welles on “The Tonight Show” after that project. “She’s a cross between St. Theresa of the Flowers and Attila the Hun.”

For those who remember Thomas mostly from her fundraising work for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital or her classic children’s album, “Free to Be ... You and Me,” she offers proof of her own comedy chops. There are pages of jokes from everyone from George Carlin (along with an unrecognizable photo of him on “That Girl”) to Roseanne Barr, but Thomas gets the biggest laugh. The reprint of her interviewing comedy writer Elaine May for Interview magazine made me laugh so hard my husband came into the room, wondering if I was OK. I believe I was at the point when May is saying, “And it’s always fun to take a weak, vulnerable person and slam them up against the wall.”

By interspersing the interviews with her own memories of her father, a stand-up comedian who starred in “Make Room for Daddy,” Thomas helps place him in the tradition of American stand-up, as well as show how the business has evolved since the days when he, Caesar, and the others would sit in their dressing rooms in their tuxedo jackets and shorts, since they didn’t want to insult the audience with wrinkles on their trousers.

Nor is she the only working comedian today who grew up with professionally funny parents. Ben Stiller, who’s interviewed with his father, Jerry, grew up with not one, but two veteran comics in the family. (His mother is Anne Meara.) When his parents were home, he and his sister would put on shows for them – rather like Thomas and her siblings.

“Children everywhere imitate the grown-ups in their lives,” Thomas writes. “Showbiz kids just have more material to work with.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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