This book review was originally posted on April 15, 2014. I am reposting it here as/is.
Having grown up in the 70s and 80s, I remember The Carol Burnett Showwith great fondness. For months, I’ve had her book, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, on my iPad. I just finished reading it last night and, I’ve got to say, it’s a delightful book. Carol Burnett shares heartwarming and funny anecdotes about her family and long career in show business. She comes off as a genuinely wonderful woman who has stayed true to herself as she’s rubbed elbows with some true Hollywood legends.
I’m not sure what prompted me to download this book. I’ve seen Carol Burnett in films and of course I’ve seen her show on TV. I remember her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, from Fame. I used to love that show in the 80s. Sadly, Carrie died at age 38 in January 2002. She had lung cancer.
Carol Burnett used to do a question and answer session on her show and this book is sort of like that, filled with cute stories about meeting everyone from Cary Grant to Joan Collins (who apparently was such a fan of Carol Burnett’s that she got on her knees when they ran into each other at a restaurant) to Barbara Stanwyck, who supposedly had an imaginary leprechaun friend who told her that Burnett would win a court case against a tabloid magazine.
She writes of what it was like working with Vicki Lawrence, who was sort of a Burnett protege after she wrote a fan letter to Burnett and included a photo that showed off how much Lawrence resembled her. She writes of the hilarious Harvey Korman and Tim Conway and, of course, Lyle Waggoner (though I knew him better from his time with Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman).
Above all, Carol Burnett comes across as someone with a huge heart. She writes one story about a little girl named Kathy who had cancer and loved Carol Burnett’s show. Kathy wrote to Carol, who responded in a very touching way. I get the sense that though Carol Burnett is a celebrity, she’s someone who is still very grounded, and funny too! I recommend her book. I just started another one by her about her relationship with her daughter, Carrie.
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A few days ago, I reposted a rant I wrote in 2014. In that rant, which was originally composed on December 30, 2014, I went off about how annoyed I get when people want to “correct” each other’s opinions. At the end of the rant, I included a popular meme that included Betty White’s visage and the quote, “Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” I also shared the original source(s) of that particular joke, which actually came from two comedians– Sheng Wang is partially credited, but it appears that he “borrowed” the joke from Hal Sparks, who did a hilarious routine on Showtime back in 2010. Have a look.
When I reposted that blog entry from 2014, I didn’t know that Betty White would die just two days later on New Year’s Eve, 2021. And in the wake of her death, people are, once again, sharing incarnations of that meme with the misattributed quote about how tough vaginas are. I’ve already seen it a few times, and, well, it bugs me.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you shouldn’t be surprised that the practice of misattributing quotes to celebrities bugs me. It’s especially irksome to me when the person who is being falsely attributed to a quote is dead. When a person is dead, he or she can no longer shield themselves against people who put words in their mouths.
Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” If you happen to look this quote up, you’ll see it attributed to notoriously sweet 90-year-old TV great Betty White. Only those words never passed her lips, and she’d quite like people to bear that in mind next time they see fit to quote it at her, as I have just done. “That’s what I hate about Facebook and the internet,” she sighs. “They can say you said anything. I never would have said that. I’d never say that in a million years.”
I know many people loved Betty White, and that funny quote sounds like something she could have said. I can practically hear her Golden Girls character, Rose Nylund, saying that. But she didn’t say it, and has said she never would have. She plainly said, “I never would have said that. I’d never say that in a million years.” And yet, ten years later, people still share that quote as a means of “honoring” her. Is it really honoring someone when you pair their visage with someone else’s words? Especially when that person has repeatedly and publicly stated that they’ve been misquoted or misattributed?
Betty White joins a long list of famous people who have been credited improperly for things they’ve neither said nor written. How many times have I seen George Carlin credited for writing The Paradox of Our Time, an essay that sounds a little “Carlin-esque”, but was actually written by Dr. Bob Moorehead? George isn’t the only one who has been wrongly credited with writing that essay. It’s also been credited to the Dalai Lama and an unnamed Columbine student. Obviously, many people think it’s a wise and thought provoking essay; that’s why it continually gets shared. But if people really think it’s such a great piece of writing, why not give credit where credit is due? Credit the real writer, Dr. Bob Moorehead, not George Carlin or the Dalai Lama. Take a minute to double check before you share, too.
Most of us have never met the celebrities we admire so much. I think that’s a good thing, since heroes often don’t live up to their images. I have a feeling Betty White was just as sweet in person as she seemed to be on TV, but I don’t know that for sure. She was an actress, and it was her job to be someone she wasn’t– to convincingly play a part on screen so well that people believed they knew her.
I think it’s important to remember that most of the things Betty White said while playing a character, were things that professional writers wrote for her scripts. She played parts that were initially created by someone else, and brought to life by her talent. So when Rose told a St. Olaf story, that wasn’t just Betty– that was also the person who wrote the script.
Even if that quote about the toughness of vaginas sounds like something Rose Nylund would say, we should remember that Rose Nylund wasn’t, in fact, Betty White. Betty was Betty White… and when she wasn’t playing a part, she was herself. And the vast majority of people who know her name and have seen her work, never actually knew Betty off camera. It probably was annoying to her that so many people assumed they knew her well enough to put words in her mouth, so to speak. But, in the Internet age, I’m afraid that is an occupational hazard, as she noted in her article with Michael Cragg of The Guardian.
I do hope that by sharing this post, maybe a couple of people will reconsider sharing that meme– funny as it is. The lady just died two days ago. I’m sure there are other things she actually said that could be shared instead of the “tough vagina” meme that appears to have been inspired by a couple of somewhat less famous comedians. Why not give Hal Sparks or Sheng Wang the credit? They would probably appreciate it, and since they are presumably still living, they can actually use the associated fame.
Betty White was a wonderful, talented, blessed performer who was with us for so many years. Surely we can find another funny quote that Betty actually said that we can share among our friends on Facebook or other social media. Or, better yet, instead of sharing quotes that famous people said, why not come up with some of your own wisdom? I’ll bet you can do it if you try hard enough. But… then you might have another problem.
Every once in awhile, I’ll say something clever and original, and Bill will laugh and say, “That’s funny. Who said that?”
And I’ll roll my eyes and say, “I did. Why is it that whenever I say something funny or interesting, you automatically assume I’m ripping off someone else?”
And then he laughs and apologizes, then admits that I can be clever and witty in my own right, too. In fact, he’s said that’s one of the things he likes about me.
I’m not sure why people feel the need to share quotes, anyway… I used to have a Facebook friend who almost never posted his own thoughts. He just shared things other people said. I wondered what the point of that was. Is that something people do in their everyday lives? Do people go up to others and say things like, “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Gordon B. Hinckley said ‘Conflict grows out of ignorance and suspicion.'”?
I have seen many people use wise quotes online, but it’s not something I see out and about in public, not that I go out in public much nowadays. So why do we do it so often on Facebook? I’m sure some people do it to inspire thought, and there’s nothing wrong with occasionally sharing a profound quote… but I’m a lot more impressed by people who share themselves, rather the stale words some famous person said… or didn’t say. But there’s no pressure to be wise, either. Why not just be yourselves? And let famous people be THEMSELVES.
I know this post makes me sound terribly uptight… and, you know what? I’m gonna own that. We all have our little quirks. This is one of mine. Dead people, especially, can’t defend themselves against false attribution. I will keep complaining about it as long as it’s a problem… which means I’ll probably write another rant on this subject at some point. And if you don’t like it, as Eddie Murphy said, while imitating his drunk stepfather…
This review was originally written for Epinions.com on January 29, 2012 and appears here as/is. I was in the United States when I wrote this. Seems crazy now!
A few weeks ago, actor and comedian Darrell Hammond was on an episode of Dr. Phil,talking about his new book, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem. I usually scream at the TV when Dr. Phil is on, but I have to admit I enjoyed the episode starring Darrell Hammond, who is probably best known for being on Saturday Night Live for an amazing fourteen years, doing impressions of Bill Clinton and other political figures. I quit watching SNL many years ago, so I didn’t actually recognize Hammond on Dr. Phil’s stage. But when I saw him do a hilarious impression of Dr. Phil himself, I decided I wanted to buy his book. Off I went to Amazon.com, where it was being offered in print and for the Kindle.
Who is Darrell Hammond?
Darrell Hammond is a comedian and actor. He’s also an addict. The reason he was on Dr. Phil was because he’s spent some time in rehab, recovering from his attempts to self-medicate the pain resulting from a very painful childhood. Hammond reveals that his parents were very abusive. Growing up in Melbourne, Florida, Darrell Hammond was the son of a World War II veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and an abusive mother who happened to be very good at mimickry. Hammond reveals that he got his comedic gifts from his mother, the same woman who tortured him when he was coming of age.
Such an upbringing does not come without a price. Though he is a very successful comedian, Darrell used to drink constantly and abused cocaine and crack. He was also a “cutter”, slicing his skin to relieve his psychic pain. In a laid back, personable writing style, Hammond reveals everything as if he’s sitting next to you in your living room. He writes about the good– getting to work as a professional comedian with some of the biggest people in show business– and the bad– sinking to the depths of addiction and being arrested in the Bahamas. Hammond also includes pictures and they show up very clearly on the Kindle.
My thoughts It took me awhile to get through Hammond’s book. That’s not because it wasn’t a good read. His story is a lot to digest. Even though his parents were abusive people, I can tell he still loves them. Toward the end of the book, he writes about visiting his dying father, who passed away in 2007 of cancer. As his dad lie in bed, missing an ear that was removed in an attempt to stop the cancer, Hammond sat by his side, remembering the good times he had with him. He has less to say about his mother, who died a couple of years ago. And yet, even though she put him through hell, his tone is never bitter. In fact, toward the end of the book, he offers some insight as to what people must do to get past anger. And his solution has nothing to do with justice or payback and everything to do with letting go.
I have noticed that a lot of really funny people usually have personal demons and trauma in their past. Some of the most hilarious people suffer from depression or addictions or both. Hammond is not bitter when he writes his story, because he’s expressed that bitterness in different ways… by abusing himself. And now he’s written about those times in a very compelling memoir.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be on SNL, you might also want to read Hammond’s book. He reveals a lot about what it was like to be discovered and how it was working with Tina Fey!
This is a good book for anyone struggling with addictions, either personally or through watching a loved one or a friend. I give it five stars.
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I posted this review on my original Blogspot version of this blog on August 30, 2018. It appears here exactly as it was posted then.
Sorry about the lengthy intro to this review. If you just want the review, skip down a few paragraphs.
In August 2014, Bill and I had just returned to Germany so he could start a new job as a government contractor. That summer was one of the most stressful and horrifying of my life so far. Weeks before our international move, my father died somewhat suddenly. And just after our return to Germany, I got the news that my mom had breast cancer (she had surgery and is fine now).
Robin Williams’ suicide on August 11, 2014 was just one of many traumas during the summer of 2014. I remember being absolutely shocked to hear about this man, who had been such a big part of my young life, had suddenly killed himself. From his time as Mork, the gentle alien, on Mork & Mindy to his standup routines featured on HBO, to his many wonderful movies, I had so many memories of watching Williams be a genius. And now he was suddenly gone. He was 63 years old.
Robin Williams as Mork.
I seem to have a knack for being in Europe when legends die. I was in Europe when Princess Diana was killed. I was also here when Michael Jackson died. I lived in Europe during 2016, which was when a whole host of legends passed away, and last week, we lost Aretha Franklin. Still, I was pretty blown away when I heard about Williams’ suicide. At the time of the announcement, many people thought he had simply been an addict suffering from depression. Quite a few people were angry about the suicide; some even went as far as to call Williams a coward. They didn’t know the truth. Robin Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, the same neurological disease my father suffered from during his final years. Having seen it firsthand, I really can’t blame Williams for what he did. It’s a horrible way to live, and ultimately die.
When I saw that Dave Itzkoff had written an exhaustive biography about Robin Williams, I decided I wanted to read it. I downloaded Robin in May of 2018 and just finished it last night. It’s taken me a few weeks to get through Itzkoff’s book, mainly because it’s quite long and detailed. Also, I don’t have the attention span I used to have. Back when I read real books, I’d whiz through them in a matter of days. Now, I read most things on my iPad and get distracted by social media, games, or email. Add in the fact that I usually read in bed and you might guess that sleep often also interrupts my reading sessions.
I see that I bought Robin just five days after it was released. It was also just weeks before celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself. When Bourdain died, many people compared his situation to Williams’ situation. Although they may seem similar on the surface, I truly believe Robin Williams’ decision to commit suicide was caused by a very real neurological illness. I have seen Lewy Body Dementia in person. It really brings the “crazy”. Not only do sufferers lose their physical faculties, they also have hallucinations, experience paranoia, and lose the ability to articulate their memories, even though they still have access to them. It really is a special kind of hell.
I don’t know if Williams killed himself because of acute symptoms of the disease or because he got a glimpse of what was coming. What I do know is that I can hardly blame him. In fact, his death was probably a blessing, not just for him, but also for those who love him. I can speak firsthand about how hard it is to see someone you love turn into a stranger who has lost all ability to take care of themselves.
Anyway… about the book
Robin is an extremely detailed accounting of Robin Williams’ life. Itzkoff knew Williams, having interviewed him for the New York Times. I get the sense that they were friendly, if not outright friends. At the end of the book, Itzkoff reveals that he and Williams shared a love of comics and Williams had even invited him to go shopping for collectibles. The author notes that many celebrities, hoping that the reporter will be kind to them, will try to ingratiate themselves. In Williams’ case, the offer to go shopping was genuine and based on a real desire to get to know the man who shared his love for comics.
In Robin, Itzkoff starts at the very beginning, detailing Williams upper class but lonely lifestyle. His parents each had sons from other relationships– two half brothers, with whom Robin was close. However, Williams himself grew up by himself, playing in attics in empty mansions and attending private schools. It was during those years that Williams found his voice as a comedian, which he later parlayed into standup routines at open mics in the San Francisco area.
Williams’ big break came in the form of Mork & Mindy, an adorable sitcom that aired in the late 70s and early 80s. I was a young child in those days and I loved that show, which also starred Pam Dawber. Williams played Mork from Ork, a kind-hearted, gentle alien who had come to Earth to learn about the ways of mortals. Every week, at the end of each episode, Mork would communicate with Orson, his boss on Ork. He’d deliver that week’s theme mallet/moral, often with witty aplomb.
During and after Mork & Mindy, Williams started making films. The first one I remember seeing him in was Popeye, which was released in 1980. I actually remember seeing that one, probably in the theater. Itzkoff writes that Popeye was one of a number of films Williams did that wasn’t all that popular. But when Williams hit the right project, there was magic. I want to say it started with 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society, which was a huge hit. He went on to make a string of other good movies, as well as a few that flopped. Itzkoff offers some good analysis about the vehicles that worked, as well as the ones that were less successful.
Williams had three wives. His first wife, Valerie Velardi, bore their son, Zak. While Williams was married to Valerie, he hired Marsha Garces as a personal assistant. They ended up falling in love and Williams divorced Velardi and married Garces in 1989. Garces had a knack for helping Williams pick out projects. She kept him stimulated and organized his life. She also had his daughter, Zelda, and son, Cody. Twenty years after he married Garces, the marriage fell apart. Williams’ last wife was Susan Schneider, an artist and fellow alcoholic who had sort of a healing effect on Williams. He married her in October 2011.
As lovable as Robin Williams was to so many of his fans, he did suffer from many demons. Williams struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. When he was sober, Williams was unstoppable. When he was under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or mental illness, he crashed into misery. Williams would use his experiences in his comedy routines and characters, making him likable and relatable to many more ordinary people who had struggled with the same things. I appreciated that Itzkoff took the time to explain Williams’ demons and why they helped make him a better performer, even if they also tortured him.
Another important message from Mork… I have to admit, Mork was probably my favorite incarnation of Robin Williams.
Robin Williams was also a good friend. Itzkoff includes a very informative section on Williams’ relationship with the late Christopher Reeve, who was his roommate at Juilliard. The two made a pact that they would always be there for each other. When Reeves had his horseback riding accident in May 1995, Robin and his second wife, Marsha, where there for him immediately. Robin even dressed up like a Russian doctor and made Reeves laugh at a time when laughter seemed impossible. Williams was also friends with Billy Crystal, who would call him on the phone impersonating people like Ronald Reagan. He was friends with Bobcat Goldthwait, too, and appeared in a couple of Goldthwait’s movies. Williams would go to open mics, even when he was very famous, and hang out with young comedians just getting their start. He’d be one of the guys.
Robin is basically well written and loaded with details and information, as well as pictures and an extensive reading list. I really think Itzkoff did a good job capturing who Robin Williams was, reminding me that Williams was a warm, funny, real person who was incredibly unique and irreplaceable. But he also reminded me that Williams was fallible and did have his disappointments and failures. As amazing as Williams’ talent was, he was still a man.
Some readers have pointed out that this book has some factual errors. I’m sure an obsessive Williams fan would be able to point these out better than I can. I liked Robin Williams, but I wasn’t someone who studied his life on that level.
A criticism I could personally make is that this book is very long– to the point of being exhaustive. It took me considerable time and effort to finish this book, and I’m usually a pretty speedy reader. If you prefer brevity, Robin may not be the best book for you. I see on Amazon.com, many people had the same complaint I have. This book could have used a talented editor to help pare it down just a bit. 440 pages is a long haul, even if a book is enormously fascinating. On the other hand, as a writer myself, I can understand how easy it is to get bogged down in minutiae.
Overall, I liked Robin. I learned new things reading this book and got an appreciation for who Robin Williams was. If I were going to assign a rating, I’d probably give it 3.5 stars out of five. If it had been maybe 100 pages less, I’d bump it to four stars.
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