Books: “Growing Up Laughing”

December 5, 2010

DANNY THOMAS

Danny Thomas used to do a monologue about a man who got a flat tire and then discovered that he had no jack in his car. He had no choice but to walk to a gas station that was miles away, and the routine consisted of this guy muttering to himself as he trudges along the road. Already annoyed, he makes himself angrier by imagining how the garage owner will try to take advantage of him. He is so furious by the time he reaches the station that he verbally attacks the unwitting mechanic, telling him what he can do with his jack. Some people could tell that story in a few sentences; Thomas could make it last ten minutes. That was the genius of the saloon comic whose talent and know-how made him a television mogul.

Thomas was a popular guy in our house, not only because he was funny but because he had Lebanese parents. My mother’s parents were from Lebanon, and when Thomas became a national figure, he was the only one who shared that heritage. The Lebanese were once regarded in our country as exotic, so much so that my mother told me that her parents instructed her to say she was French if anyone should ask. Danny Thomas with his broad popularity and his frequent acknowledgement of his background provided a chance to wave the flag.

The story has been told often enough about how Thomas, when it appeared that he might never succeed as an entertainer, promised St. Jude that if his fortunes changed he would build a shrine to the saint. Even St. Jude might have forgiven someone for dismissing a vow made in desperation, but Thomas stuck to his word and, in the process, made himself one of the heroes of 20th century America.

When Thomas first launched a campaign to raise money for his project, the backbone of the drive then as now was the Arab-American community, including several of my mother’s Lebanese cousins. My parents attended fundraising events, including one at which Thomas and his wife, Rose Marie, appeared.

 

MARLO THOMAS

I figured that tenuous connection was better than nothing when I had an opportunity last year to share a meal with Marlo Thomas, one of Danny Thomas’s three children. I needn’t have bothered. She is a gracious and open woman who doesn’t require pandering. She and her siblings are also their father’s successors as heroes, making an extraordinary commitment to generating support for the hospital he founded. Although it has been operating since 1962, the mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – to treat children with catastrophic pediatric diseases regardless of their families’ ability to pay – seems more like a dream than a reality The hospital has operating costs in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a day. Someone who joined us at dinner asked Marlo about covering that nut. “How do you do it?” he said. And she answered: “We do it.” I have often thought about that answer; it reveals a combination of determination and confidence that I have encountered in leaders of other charitable enterprises.

Marlo Thomas, on her own, has had a remarkable career. She is a talented dramatic and comic actress, and her TV series “That Girl” was a benchmark in prime time representation of independent women. Her project “Free to be You and Me” — a record album, a TV special, and a book — broke new ground in eliminating the image of the helpless or subservient female that infected traditional children’s literature and entertainment.

She has recently published her sixth book, “Growing Up Laughing.” This book alternately recounts her childhood and adolesence in the Thomas household — which was frequently extended to include the likes of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jan Murray — and her conversations with contemporary comics about the origins of their own funny bones. Jerry Seinfeld, Kathy  Griffith, Whoopi Goldberg, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, and Robin Williams are among them. The observations of these modern performers supplement the wisdom that Marlo Thomas gleaned from her exposure to the wits of her dad’s generation. The book is entertaining and full of insights about both the inspiration and the discipline of comedians.

JERRY SEINFELD

I particularly liked Jerry Seinfeld’s explanation of his  remark that comedy doesn’t belong on the arts pages, but on the sports pages:

One of the things that drew me to comedy was that 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. If they’re not laughing, he’s not good. Period. And that’s the analogy to sports: You can talk all you want about how two teams played in a game. But we all know who won at the end. There’s no debate. It doesn’t require any perception. … Standup comedy doesn’t require value judgments. If you get laughs, you work; if you don’t get laughs, you don’t work. It’s all about the score.

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4 Responses to “Books: “Growing Up Laughing””

  1. bronxboy55 Says:

    Our family never missed an episode of Make Room for Daddy. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I now see how great it was that they played up the Lebanese component so wonderfully, at a time when many people were casting off their various ethnic backgrounds and Americanizing themselves.

    It’s also nice to know that some children of celebrities had enjoyable lives, and managed to grow up and remain well-adjusted, healthy, and giving. Marlo Thomas is obviously someone who realizes there are other people out there, and that many of them could use a hand. I’ve seen her new book in our local bookstore and I now plan on buying it.

    Thanks for this post. And long live Uncle Tonoose!

  2. charlespaolino Says:

    I used to wonder what the title — “Make Room for Daddy — had to do with the show. Marlo explains in this book that when Danny Thomas was on the road, which was frequently, the kids liked to climb into bed with their mother. But when he came home, they had to “make room for daddy.”

  3. shoreacres Says:

    I read this twice last night and then did some link-hopping and neglected to leave a comment. When I awoke this morning, I still was thinking about it – specifically, how decent the Thomas family is, and how nice.

    It may sound completely strange to you – it sounds a little strange even to me – but what you’ve written about their founding and support of St. Jude’s makes me think of John the Baptist’s comment about “He must increase, but I must decrease”. The family’s willingness to keep the focus on their cause rather than on themselves always has touched me.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I agree, and I think the Baptist’s remark is appropriate, because Christian doctrine as I understand and teach it is about diminishing the self in order to elevate others. Marlo writes in this book that her father did not want his kids to feel obliged to take on responsibility for St. Jude’s which, by the time he died, had a well oiled fundraising network. Still, all three siblings have consistently lent their names and given their time to the hospital.

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