Marlo Thomas, 72, star of iconic sitcom That Girl, daughter of comedian Danny Thomas, and wife of chat TV's Phil Donahue, has a new book. Growing Up Laughing: My Story and The Story of Funny alternates memoir and interviews with comedians including Joy Behar, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Elaine May and many others. We sat down at her Fifth Avenue penthouse to dish about her current projects, including newly launched www.marlothomas.com. Naturally, she cracked me up. More unexpected: I made her laugh, too.
Thelma: Are comics born or made?
Marlo: There may be a gene somewhere but it has to do with how you're brought up. My sister, brother and I have the exact same sense of humor. I can fall over laughing from their emails. A lot of it does have to do to your family's approach to comedy.
T: In your book, comics repeatedly talk about how funny their families were...
M: Jerry Seinfeld said his father had a joke file. Chris Rock said his grandfather was a funny guy who drove a cab and Chris would drive in the cab with him. Robin Williams' mother pulled pranks. Most of them had somebody funny in their family and there was a lot of laughter around the kitchen table.
T: I was teasing my daughter because a recent study said you should have dinner around the kitchen table at least 3 times a week or your children are more prone to smoke pot.
M: That's funny
T: But it didn't say any thing about how if you sit around the table your children could become comedians.
M: hah hah hah hah hah. Well it's true. Jerry Seinfeld said that the dinner table is a great stage.
T: Your book is full of examples.
M: Stephen Colbert says that his brothers and sisters all made each other laugh. He said that laughter was the coin of the realm. A lot of people can tell jokes and have laughs in their lives but these comedians, and my family as well, really held comedy as a value of some thing to aspire to, some thing to hone and to be better at it.
T: In your family, comedy was also used to defuse conflict...
M: Yes. In one chapter I talk about the lesson I learned was that laughter can get you out of a corner. When you're in a very tense situation, laughter can defuse the tension.
T: There's a story in your book, also set at the dinner table...
M: I was being naughty and not eating my dinner. My grandfather said to my father "your children don't listen to you," and my father was so embarrassed that he jumped up from the table like he was going to spank me so I ran around the room trying to get out.
T: Did you escape?
M: When I was eight, I had been sitting on this director's [Henry Koster's] lap for an entire summer [while her father acted in The Unfinished Dance] and he was directing with "cut, print it, very good, we try it again." When I got in a corner I turned around and I said in a Hungarian accent, "cut, print it, very good, try it again." My dad just fell over laughing. My grandfather was just disgusted.
T: No sense of humor! Reading your book, the sheer variety of comedic styles amazed me.
M: I thought the quote from Jerry Seinfeld was interesting. He said comedy is like a perfume counter; it's all the little bottles. You hate some, you love some, you buy some, you want some, and you don't like others. Comedy's like that. There's no rhyme or reason when you pick up the little perfume bottles and test them, why one you should love, and I don't love the one you love...
T: Why some people love Coco, and others Shalimar.
M: Exactly. When I went to see my dad and Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, they had an act in their seventies called The Legends of Comedy. Although I had seen their acts for years I had never thought about how different their styles were until they got up one after the other. Milton Berle was making funny faces and walking on the sides of his ankles and there wasn't a moment of silence. He never even paused. My father comes out real slow in his black tuxedo with his little red silk hankie, takes his time "good evening ladies and gentlemen," and tells a long story, not afraid of the silences. And out comes Sid Caesar, and he doesn't even say hello. He goes into a complete mime routine and then the Hungarian professor routine and completely hides himself and folds himself into the characters, totally different kinds of comedy and each brilliant and each appreciated by the audience. It was really very exciting to see it. It was like a school of comedy.
T: How would you describe your own comic talent?
M: I have good timing that I inherited, and learned from my Dad about how to tell a story. I'm always very careful when we're working on something to say I know we can get a laugh there but it's not as important as staying on track with the story, to not be afraid of the silences. When I give a speech that's funny, I like the silences, too. I'm my father's daughter in that way.
T: Who else influenced you?
M: George Burns for sure. Again, there was a man who took his time, told his story. He waited. His timing was impeccable. I also learned from watching the interaction between them all: my dad, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Bob Hope and George Burns and Jack Benny. They would hang out at my parents' house.
T: What was that like?
M: Well, comedians love to make people laugh and they're also thrilled to laugh themselves. My father loved a good joke and he loved to laugh.
T: Is that true of your husband, too? How many years have you been married to Phil?
T: And has laughter been at the heart of your relationship's longevity?
M: I think so. I think it's not just laughter but good humor. You don't necessarily need to be falling down laughing all the time but there's a good humor about your moments, entanglements, tension, and problem-solving.
T: That good humor characterized the comedy greats of your father's day, too.
M: That was part of why their friendships were so strong. They approached each other in a state of good humor. There was a kindness to it all and an appreciation of each other's comedy. I think that's what makes for good friendship and certainly among people that could be competitive. In the epilogue of my book when George Burns came to the Hillcrest Country Club, he walked over to my mother who was still very fragile after my father's death and looked at her and said, "Hey, Rosie, I hear your single again."
M: And she fell over laughing. The last line of my book is "God bless a sense of humor." If my book has any message at all, it's that, because to have a sense of humor means you have a real chance at living a happier life.
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