Humor as a topic is an exhaustive one. We can study what makes us laugh, why it does so, and the role of comedy in our cultures. Andy Nulman’s book I Almost Killed George Burns! explains how humor is manufactured, packaged, and delivered to the masses. Nulman, the 15-year CEO of the Canadian comedy festival Just For Laughs, fills his book with anecdotes of his life, the origins of the fest, its inner workings, and, of course, some of the dirty details of the lives and egos of comedians and how they operate both on and off the stage.
Just as when a joke is explained to death, humor loses its appeal when it is too self-congratulatory and smug, and this is the main issue at hand with Nulman’s book.
While I Almost Killed George Burns is surely full of interesting and humorous anecdotes about running a comedy festival, Nulman operates on a level where he assumes that his readers are familiar with him and the festival. He begins his second chapter confessing that this is a weakness: I always presumed that whomever I was speaking to knew about Just For Laughs, and then proceeds to question why one would bother buying the book if they were not familiar with it, which is a defeatist attitude. If Nulman marketed his book solely as one about comedy, or about putting together a comedy festival, this would be a non-issue. However, he practically insists upon focusing solely upon himself and Just For Laughs, only tossing in titillating but disappointingly brief anecdotes about the stars themselves, the comedians.
Not that learning about how a comedy festival is put together would not make for interesting reading, but Nulman’s stories and explanations of how Just For Laughs operates are simply not well-developed enough. He should either spend more time divulging the details of how comedians are contacted, arranged, discovered, how audiences are gathered and pleased and how the festival is advertised and promoted. Or, he should just skip it and get to the juicy details of the comedians themselves.
Nulman, though not a thoroughly compelling character himself, is talented in revealing the stories behind the scenes that we all want to know. He feeds us exciting stories about a manic Roseanne, a violent Jerry Lewis, a perverted Milton Berle, and, of course, how he almost killed George Burns (which is a better title than it is a story.)
However, as ripe for discussion as these topics are, Nulman could go deeper. For instance, in the chapter entitled How Sweet it Is: John Candy, Nulman describes the hoops he had to jump through to secure the corpulent comic to host the 1988 Just For Laughs festival. The author, instead of telling the readers any particularly insightful details about what John Candy was like as a person or how he prepared as a comic, mentions Candy almost only in passing as a tool for Just For Laughs. Nulman’s book would be a more solid effort if he separated the Just For Laughs nitty gritty from the stories of the comedy, and, when he does approach the comedians and the shows, gave us more. It’s no surprise that Roseanne has a bad temper or that George Burns likes making jokes about his age. As somebody who has been involved in a comedy festival for as long as he has, it’s disappointing that Nulman can’t give us a more in-depth look at comedians and what makes them tick. Nulman should have spent enough time around comics to give us more than brief anecdotes. Had he told us how Jerry Seinfeld changed with fame, or whether comedians are really as sad offstage as we hear they are, Nulman would have tapped deeper into the material he has on hand.
Not that the author’s tales aren’t entertaining, but Nulman’s often smug attitude is rather off-putting. Although he has so much material to discuss, he keeps drawing the attention, in an unwelcome fashion, back on himself. Nulman reveals an immature, manic sense of humor that actually makes the reader somewhat uncomfortable. When a co-worker, as a joke, cuts his tie in half and Nulman tosses a glass of red wine at his white Lacoste sweater, it’s hard to imagine sympathizing with him. Sorry sucker, you don’t screw with my clothes, he gloats. His writing in general is often tasteless (Like the sexual deviant who can only perform with amputee redhead midgets, I was only really moved by the freaks and crazies) and off-putting.
Where Nulman does draw the most interest out of his subject matter is when he discusses his favorite and lesser-known comedians, ‘the oddballs, weirdos, and freakniks.’ As we’re accustomed to the slick presentations of more famous comedians, it’s definitely eye-opening to read how other comedians earn their trade. Stevie The Regurgitator Starr, who learned to swallow objects and bring them up again as a method of self-defense in an Irish orphanage. Or Chris Lyman, whose finale involved inserting a Roman candle in his rectum and lighting it. The anecdotes of Nulman’s smaller comedians fascinate the reader just like a sideshow, and educate about the lengths some comedians will go for an audience.
Nulman’s main problem is that he doesn’t find balance in his topic. Granted, comedy is a difficult subject, but he exaggerates what is uninteresting and doesn’t give us enough of what we want. Comparing an audience member attacking comedian Jerry Sadowitz to Bobby Thompson’s Shot Heard Round the World is hyperbolic. But in the meantime Nulman glides over the subjects that readers would love to know more about, the seamy sex and drugs side, the juicy gossip of comedy. More about the comedians. More about disasters onstage. There is such a thing as leaving the audiences wanting more, but Nulman takes this to an unfortunate extreme.