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Marlo Thomas' book looks at her life with a laugh

The Associated Press, Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 6:10am (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- In her new book, Marlo Thomas pulls off a bit of admirable alchemy.

Within its charming, breezy 379 pages, she blends a personal memoir; a loving tribute to her dad, comedian Danny Thomas; a portfolio of interviews she did with more than 20 well-known comics; and her meditation on the nature and essentialness of comedy.

There are also a lot of jokes, from W.C. Fields to Kathy Griffin.

Jay Leno tells a joke whose punch line has the Pope startling an American supplicant by whispering, "I thought I told you to get the hell out of here."

Conan O'Brien recalls suffering during his formal Catholic wedding. He couldn't goof off. He had to kneel and behave. All around him was a ready audience, wasted!

Pokerfaced Steven Wright speaks of the passing of a friend who was a clown. "When he died, all his friends went to the funeral in one car."

And you ain't heard nothing yet. The title of the book sums up its juicy concoction: "Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny." The key word throughout: laughter.

Mind you, Thomas says she never set out to write an autobiography.

"I didn't want it to be, 'and then I had this triumph,' 'and then I slept with this guy.' Oh, who CARES?!" she says with a laugh. "My life is remembered by me through the lens of comedy. That's what plays in my head. And that's what I wanted to express."

She grew up in a happy, laughter-filled household in Beverly Hills, Calif., one of three kids of Rose Marie (a band-singer-turned-h omemaker) and Danny Thomas, the beloved entertainer-raconteu r best known for his long-running family sitcom, "Make Room for Daddy."

Her childhood was remarkably normal, if by "normal" you mean huddling with Dad in his study while he polished his Las Vegas act, or plopped in the director's lap as an 8-year-old watching while Dad made a new movie, or growing up underfoot of Dad's world-famous chums — fellow comedians such as Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, Joey Bishop and George Burns — and sharing in the laughter.

"Our dinner table was like a writers' round-table," she writes, "with each of my father's pals taking his turn trying to top the others."

No wonder she got the show-biz bug. She studied drama and landed roles in theater around Los Angeles as well as guest roles on TV. In 1965, she scored the lead in Mike Nichols' London production of the Neil Simon comedy, "Barefoot in the Park."

A year later, she began her five-season run as Ann Marie, a bubbly, bright-eyed New York actress in "That Girl."

The ABC sitcom wasn't just a ratings success, but a cultural landmark: It was a series built around a female character who was single and pursuing a career, not just romance. Thomas and her fellow producers had no interest in social engineering, but viewers — especially younger women — took inspiration from "That Girl." It showed them options were available beside marriage and children.

Meanwhile, it shadowed Thomas' own journey and helped her crystallize her activist bent as realized a few years later in her groundbreaking kids' book, record album and TV special: "Free to Be ... You and Me."

"I think I knew, early on, that I wasn't going to choose my mother's role," says Thomas. "She'd been in show business and gave it up to raise a family. She was stuck at home. Not that every woman feels that way, but I could tell my father was having all the fun."

Fun seemed a no-brainer.

Besides, Thomas had become fascinated with the notion of comedy.

"I think I've always had a real love affair with comedy," Thomas tells a reporter over herbal tea in the penthouse apartment above Central Park that she shares with her husband of 30 years, talk-show pioneer Phil Donahue.

"People who don't have a good sense of humor are really bereft," she says. "How else do you get rid of the pain in your life, the injustice in life?"

Her formative influences about humor came chiefly from her father, who left her with many warm memories when he died in 1991 at age 79.

"A couple of years ago, I said to Phil, 'I'm thinking about writing down some of those stories. They're swimming around in my head.'"

Meanwhile, a related issue was on her mind: What makes funny people funny? Where does their funny come from?

"I'm so curious about comedy and how it evolves, so I decided to ask some comedians," she says. "I didn't even plan on putting it in this book."

But she did, blending with her own biographical notes her sessions interviewing comic pros including Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jerry and Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Tina Fey and Jerry Seinfeld.

This investigation led her to conclude that a comedian's intimate bond with audiences is almost voyeuristic: The comic not only makes you laugh, but typically does it through a process of courageous self-exposure.

"More than anybody else," says Thomas, "comedians tell us who they are: What you choose to bring up to laugh at is pretty authentic to who you are."

As an example, she points to Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and one of her interview subjects: "When you watch him perform, you are seeing the inside of this man's mind. THIS is what bothers him, THIS is what excites him, THIS is what he's thinking about and finds funny."

At this stage of her career, Thomas can point to four Emmys, a Golden Globe, a Grammy and a Peabody. She plays Demi Moore's mother and Miley Cyrus' grandmother in her upcoming film, "LOL." She's been touring in Elaine May's comedy, "George Is Dead." She just launched a website targeted at women over 35.

But is that enough?

"I told my friend Alan Alda that when I got through with this book, all I want to do is standup," she says with a laugh. "There's a standup comic living somewhere inside of me, in between my Pilates and my mascara. I'm done with everything else."

She's kidding. Or, after growing up laughing, does she dream of having the last laugh?

———

Online:

Website for memoir: http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Marlo-Thomas

http://www.marlothomas.com

———

EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

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