A third of the way into MY POINT … AND I DO HAVE ONE, stand-up comedian-turned-sitcom star-turned-author Ellen DeGeneres has a good one. In a chapter — consisting of one page, but a chapter nonetheless — entitled ”Things That Sound Like a Good Idea at First, but Really Aren’t,” she lists seven things, and the last one is this: ”Writing a book.”
I do not doubt her sincerity. Even a million-dollar advance (which is what the first-time author received) doesn’t make up for the tedium of having to sit down and actually write. And not just any old thing: something that’s not a monologue (she can do that terrifically well) and not some lines for her character to say on her ABC show Ellen (she can do that just fine), but something that can stand between book covers and make readers (who presumably already enjoy her pungent, expertly timed, guardedly female sense of humor) want to turn the page.
That she didn’t do this — that My Point is, in fact, testament to a kind of dispiriting creative threadbareness the humorist probably never thought she’d be caught wearing on the street — reflects less harshly on DeGeneres’ capabilities as a talented comic than on the book industry’s voracious desire to flog a trend. After all, Jerry Seinfeld’s Seinlanguage sold 8 trillion copies and Paul Reiser’s Couplehood (each, like My Point, published by Bantam) sold at least 5 trillion, as did Tim Allen’s Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man. Garry Shandling’s got a book in the works; so does Brett Butler. ”Heck,” I could hear DeGeneres saying (she was raised a Christian Scientist in New Orleans), ”a mil for 60,000 words? No sweat, I blab that much with my pals decompressing after each show.” It is because of such deeply misinformed thinking that DeGeneres hobbles through My Point like a novice Boston Marathoner. ”The lawyers have reminded me that the book must be at least 60,000 words,” she gasps, out of gas on the last chapter. She proceeds to limp to ”The End” announcing, ”Nothing has to mean anything; I can just look around and write down everything I’m looking at … ” And she does.
It was that old comedian herself, Gertrude Stein, who told her kibitzing colleague Ernest Hemingway, ”Remarks are not literature.” The same needs to be said to TV-star comics (and the publishers who sign them up): Stand-up routines do not necessarily make sit-down material. Reiser translated well because he took his personal/sitcom situation and built his stories around a theme. Allen translated okay because he told some interesting anecdotes from his actual, real life between wacka-wacka jokes. Seinfeld did wonders (considering he’s as opaque as a black turtleneck about his personal life) because his comedy is so narrative and word loving: salsa … seltzer!