Required Reading: Great Books by Stand-Up Comedians

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Congratulations are in order for Patton Oswalt: in addition to being one of our favorite working stand-up comedians, he is now officially a New York Times bestselling author. His book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a surprisingly sophisticated piece of work. This comes as a surprise not due to its particular author — Oswalt’s magazine pieces and routines are peppered with enough obscure literary references to indicate a guy who’s read a book or two — but because of the rather lowly reputation of the stand-up book in general.

It goes back to Bill Cosby. In 1986, with The Cosby Show at the height of its considerable success, the good doctor of comedy made a deal with Doubleday to write a book. The resulting volume, Fatherhood , was a slim text that consisted primarily of material very familiar to fans of his 1983 concert film Bill Cosby: Himself . The book was basically a transcription of his act. Didn’t matter; it was a huge bestseller, and the quickie stand-up book was born. No need to actually “write” a “book” — just adapt your stand-up material into book form! Type it up, maybe grab a thesaurus to change some of the slang to bigger words, and viola! Instant bestseller.

Other comics (and their publishers) took note. In the years that followed, we saw Jerry Seinfeld’s SeinLanguage , Paul Resier’s Couplehood , Chris Rock’s Rock This! , Ray Romano’s Everything and a Kite , Ellen DeGeneres’s My Point… and I Do Have One , Larry the Cable Guy’s Git-R-Done , Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer, and George Carlin’s Brain Droppings, Napalm and Silly Putty, and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? And those books are fine, for what they are. But every once in a while, a comedian takes the opportunity to write a real book, to use the form as its own specific kind of writing, and produces something unique and memorable. Here’s a quick jaunt through some of our favorites:

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People by Lenny Bruce

It seems appropriate that the artist most often pinpointed as the father of modern stand-up comedy would also write the first great stand-up book. Bruce’s notorious legal battles had led to him being effectively blacklisted from American nightclubs by the mid-1960s, so his buddy Hugh Hefner suggested Bruce turn his energies towards writing this piece, which Hefner then serialized in Playboy magazine and released in book form (via Playboy Press) in 1972, several years after Bruce died of a drug overdose. The book — which was titled as a parody of Dale Carnegie’s ubiquitous How to Make Friends and Influence People — offered up Bruce’s thoughts on his career, his obscenity battles, and the world around him. On nudity: “The first great breakthrough — or, rather, breakdown — of society’s nudity/lewdity guilt-by-association was the now-famous Marilyn Monroe calendar. Marilyn’s respectability when she died was based principally upon her economic status, which is, in the final analysis, the only type our society really respects.” Fast-paced, thoughtful, and (no surprise) edgy, Bruce’s book remains a riveting read.

Without Feathers by Woody Allen

Woody Allen had pretty much given up stand-up comedy to focus on playwriting and filmmaking when he wrote the short humor pieces for The New Yorker, The New Republic, and other publications that were assembled for this 1975 collection, which remains a must-have for any serious comedy nerd. Though Woody was no longer working the clubs, the inspired intellectual silliness of his act is ever-present in Without Feathers, whether in the gag-heavy “Selections from the Allen Notebooks” (“Should I marry W.? Not if she won’t tell me the other letters in her name”), the gumshoe spoof “The Whore of Mensa” (“He was shaking like the lead singer in a rumba band”), or his guide to “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts” (“The great roe is a mythological beast with the head of a lion and the body of a lion, though not the same lion”; “The frean is a sea monster with the body of a crab and the head of a certified public accountant”). He’s published three other collections (one before it — Getting Even — and two after, Side Effects and Mere Anarchy ) but this remains the best.

Dear Dad: Letters from an Adult Child by Louie Anderson

Louie Anderson is mostly remembered these days for his stint hosting Family Feud, but he was a pretty hot stand-up in the mid-to-late 1980s, touring with Roseanne Barr (he called it the “When Do We Eat?” tour) and starring in multiple specials for HBO and Showtime that showcased his gentle, Cosby-inspired family humor. But he didn’t follow Cosby’s lead when he got a book deal. Instead, he wrote Dear Dad, a painfully emotional account of his childhood, formative years, and initial success, penned as a series of letters to his deceased, alcoholic, abusive father. It’s serious stuff: “I figure that you spent several hours a day for 40 years drinking,” Anderson writes, “Multiply that by 365 days, then divide by 60 minutes, and then divide again by 24 hours. That’s more than 1,000 days you spent with alcohol. In other words, that’s more than three years you spent with alcohol instead of your family. I was alive for 27 of those years, and I missed you.” But Anderson’s unapologetic prose and dashes of humor keep it from being a wallow-fest; to the contrary, it’s a surprisingly moving and life-affirming affair.

Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences by Richard Pryor

Pryor, quite possibly the greatest stand-up of all time, wrote his autobiography (with Todd Gold) in 1995, years after multiple sclerosis had taken him away from performing. Perhaps as a result of feeling that he had nothing whatsoever to lose, the volume is astonishingly candid and honest (even by Pryor’s standards), and immensely powerful. He details his difficult childhood, tempestuous marriages (all seven of them), the dips and falls of his career, and, most vividly, his drug addictions — including a tightly-written description of the notorious 1980 incident in which he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. “I continued to smoke until I ran out of cocaine,” he writes of the moments beforehand. “By then, I was experiencing serious dementia. Stuck in a surreal landscape of constantly shifting emotions. No weight. Floating at the end of a tunnel. Miserably alone. Frightened. Voices growing louder, closing in. Wave after wave of depression. Needing to get high. Real high.” The writing is terse and visceral; Pryor doesn’t attempt to suppress his distinctive voice (there’s no shortage of 12-letter words), instead using his street rhythms give a punch to the prose.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin

Martin’s done the Allen-style essays collections ( Cruel Shoes — published while he was still working as a stand-up — and Pure Drivel ) and the autobiography (the wonderful Born Standing Up ). But he’s also one of the few comics to write full-on novels: the recent An Object of Beauty , and the 2000 novella Shopgirl, which he later adapted into a film. As in his short pieces, Martin’s style is light and elegant, but not simple; he writes the book in the present tense (always a difficult proposition, executed here with aplomb), and negotiates the tricky emotional waters with ease — as in this passage, describing his main character’s response to receiving an expensive gift: “She leaves the box on the kitchen table in a disarray of tissue. She backs out of the room and circulates nervously through the apartment, returning several times to the vicinity of the box. She doesn’t touch it for the rest of the night, and she is afraid to move it because she does not understand it.” There’s nothing showy about the passage, but that’s the power of Martin’s writing; he conveys so much by doing so little.

Knee Deep in Paradise by Brett Butler

By the time the comic-turned-sitcom-star published her book in 1996, the autobiography of the tortured comic had become a bit of a cliché. But so had the quickie transcription stand-up book, and this sharp-edged volume stood out well ahead of the pack: “It is unlike any other comedian’s book project you’ve read in recent years,” raved Entertainment Weekly , calling it “powerful, stylish, the work of a real writer with a distinctive literary voice.” Butler is refreshingly self-deprecating about putting her story to paper: “Surrendering an autobiography before the age of 40 is best left to geniuses or martyrs. Since geniuses are too busy and true martyrs never speak of it, that leaves celebrities.” Butler confesses that she dreamed of being a writer, rather than a comedienne or actress; that delayed passion and burning enthusiasm is clear in this compelling, brainy book.

Naked Pictures of Famous People by Jon Stewart

Stewart spent the years between his initial MTV breakthrough and his takeover of The Daily Show on a variety of projects: supporting roles in films, filling in for Tom Snyder, doing stand-up, and writing. In 1998, Harper published Naked Pictures of Famous People, a collection of 18 humorous essays. The tone and structure was noticeably Allen-inspired, but the pieces were all Stewart (which is to say, uproariously funny). Among the highlights: “The Cult,” in which Stewart imagines himself a cult leader (“Somewhat a stretch considering I have yet to be able to sell off a box of Amway products I ordered in 1986”); “The Recipe,” a series of instructions for putting together awards shows — much like those Stewart would host in the coming decade (“HOST: Praise of audience for responsiveness and sense of humor. Query as to their readiness for program’s continuation. Introduction of two participants who will begin process of bestowing honors: an unattractive, humorous male renowned for his portrayal of other unattractive, humorous males, and a female of great physical beauty who has achieved fame for her skill in walking while wearing newly designed expensive clothing”); “Adolph Hitler: The Larry King Interview” (“Look, I was a bad guy. No question. I hate that Hitler. The yelling, the finger pointing, I don’t know… I was a very angry guy”); and “Martha Stewart’s Vagina,” in which Martha gives advice for a very particular kind of entertaining (“For the summer you may want to go with simple horizontal pull shades or a top-hanging translucent white cotton drape — one you can easily pull aside for a dramatic voila effect. Again, don’t get too complicated with pulleys, rods and weights. The vagina treatment must be easily operated”). Stewart’s two subsequent books (written with the Daily Show staff) are quite funny as well, but this volume allows the full run of Stewart’s distinctive weirdness.

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

Oswalt — the brilliant stand-up and star of Big Fan and Ratatouille — clearly surveyed his predecessors among comics-turned-authors, and faced with the two choices (humorous essays or autobiography) said to hell with it and did both. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland vacillates between his memories of growing up in suburban Virginia (and the beginnings of the comedy career that followed) and funny, unrelated satirical interludes. The former are remarkably nuanced and striking; he makes the Townsend 3 Movie Theater in Sterling, Virginia, where he worked the ticket booth as a teen, into a palpable refuge of young-adult ennui (it feels like every terrible gig you ever had in high school). The story of how they stole an assistant manager’s martial arts paraphernalia becomes the story of any wasted night in a nowhere job: “Another night at the Towncenter 3,” he writes, “a night that never really started, was about to not really end.” The hilarious interludes include “punch-up” script notes for a terrible comedy film, an epic poem for a Dungeons and Dragons character, a series of twisted greeting cards, an analysis of “those old hobo songs,” and his grandmother’s explanations of her thoroughly terrible gifts. The best, though, is a menu of “wines by the glass,” varying from the $2 “drinkable” Merlot (“A bunch of grapes, and they’re smooshed, and then they get kind of rotten, and we drain off the alcohol part and that’s the part you drink and then you’re drunk. Are you gonna finish that burger?”) to the “unattainable” Riesling of “variable” price (“Angel sweat strained through diamond mesh into a platinum tureen hammered smooth by three former presidents and the current pope. Stored in an oak barrel made from the Tree of Life, bottled by billionaires, and poured into your glass by a scientist or poet. And Bob Dylan will personally watch you drink it”). By combining the two prevalent forms of stand-up books, Oswalt manages to make his volume the best of both worlds.

So what do you think? Have any stand-up books struck you with their poised prose?