10 Autobiographies Every Comedy Buff Should Read

Being funny is one thing; writing funny is something else. Most stand-up comedians are gifted performers and improvisers who use speech and stagecraft to get their point across, but some of them are also skilled enough to shift gears and turn those stories into compelling literary narratives. These autobiographies aren’t just trranscripts of the performers’ best-known bits, nor are they cash-in attempts that just string together one-liners. They’re actual books, and it’s amazing to hear the voice of the comic you love coming through the page in a way that’s different from everything else they’ve done yet still instantly recognizable. The comedians who make good authors are the ones who can take their worldview and channel it into any medium. If you’ve ever wondered what made your favorite comic minds tick, these books are a must.

  1. Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, Steve Martin: Steve Martin seemed to walk away from live performances at the height of his popularity, but as his book details, it’s because his fame brought him all the things he never wanted. Devoted to doing progressive comedy that eschewed traditional set-ups and avoided typical punch lines altogether, Martin’s act became so huge that he was selling out stadiums and feeling stifled by the crowd’s demands. He quit stand-up in 1981 and devoted his time to writing, film work, and other pursuits. His autobiography is a fantastic companion piece to his early comedy albums, and he speaks honestly (if briefly) about his desire to do something different and the frustrations he felt trying to carve out a place for himself. Martin’s departure from comedy 30 years ago makes this book a welcome discussion of the stuff that got him started.
  2. Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin, Paul Feig: Paul Feig took the terrors of puberty and mined them for comedy and heartache with Freaks and Geeks, and he went on to write a pair of memoirs detailing his awkward youth. Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence will feel familiar to fans of Freaks, since many of Feig’s actual experiences (dodgeball, bad dates, etc.) were turned into stories on the show. But Superstud is a cut above, as Feig details his conservative upbringing and the ways it played havoc with his hormones and his abortive attempts to get a girlfriend in high school, college, and beyond. It’s a hilarious, painful, poignant memoir about a guy trying to figure himself out, and Feig doesn’t shy away from stories that paint him in an unflattering light. One chapter is composed of excerpts from his personal diary from 1981; another deals with his attempts to contort himself into a position that would enable a method of self-pleasure that’s definitely impossible. A great, honest read.
  3. Bossypants, Tina Fey: The cover art for Tina Fey’s Bossypants is definitely creepy, but it’s got a purpose: Fey has had to make her way to the top of a highly competitive field dominated by men while also juggling things men don’t have to think about (breastfeeding, the gender gap in the wordplace, etc.). Her memoir hit shelves in spring 2011, with 30 Rock closing in on the end of its fifth season. Fey’s got an amazing comedy career to draw on for her autobiography, including time at Chicago’s Second City and a decade at Saturday Night Live, where she was a writer (as well as the first female head writer in the show’s history) and performer as well as a "Weekend Update" anchor. She’s consistently funny, and her book follows her journey and digs into the eye-opening details of motherhood and professional scheduling.
  4. I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This: And Other Things That Strike Me as Funny, Bob Newhart: This is how big Bob Newhart is: In 1960, he released a pair of comedy albums — The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart and The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back — that at one point occupied the top two spots on the Billboard charts at the same time. No one had ever done that before, and it wouldn’t happen again until Guns N’ Roses put out the Use Your Illusion albums in 1991. He’s been a legend for so long it’s easy to take his place in the comedy pantheon for granted, but his autobiography is a welcome reminder of how gifted he is and how much he’s done over the past 50-plus years. The book is a great mix of facts and observations that showcase his dry, straight-faced sense of humor, and it’s also full of wonderful insight into the origin of some of Newhart’s best-known sketches and bits.
  5. One More Time, Carol Burnett: One of the great things about Carol Burnett’s memoir is the hilarious and heartbreaking detail she brings to stories of her own childhood, including living with an unbalanced grandmother during the Depression. Comics in Burnett’s era, especially female ones, were far less focused on confessional comedy, so her autobiography adds an amazing layer to her already storied persona. It’s not a completely dark book, though: she’s still a funny and talented writer, and she mixes the good with the bad as she lays out the steps that took her from aspiring performer to host of one of the most popular variety/sketch shows of all time. It’s an amazing story.
  6. Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Painfully True Stories, Mike Birbiglia: Mike Birbiglia started out as a traditional stand-up comedian before transitioning into more long-form, confessional stories that mixed humor with autobiography. He later turned those stories into albums like My Secret Public Journal Live and the one-man show Sleepwalk With Me, a funny look at his sleep disorders. (He once jumped out a hotel window while sleepwalking.) His autobiographical book takes some of his stage material and fleshes out it, and he talks about his childhood misadventures, life as a road comic, and the weirdness of being a minor celebrity. The book is equal parts material and process, and the stories provide a nice backdrop for the performer people see on stage.
  7. American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, Craig Ferguson: Craig Ferguson went largely ignored during the latest round of late-night wars, which is just the latest indication that not nearly enough people are aware of how funny Ferguson can be. As the host of CBS’ The Late Late Show, he’s taken the format in bold new directions; in 2010, he won a Peabody Award for a 2009 episode devoted entirely to guest Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a frank discussion of apartheid. He’s never without a sense of humor, but he’s also always willing to talk to his audience about the darker parts of his own life, like his younger battles with alcoholism. His memoir, American on Purpose, traces his life from Scotland to the U.S. as he bounces from one career to the next and succumbs to his own worst vices. The story sees him gain TV success in the states and eventually earn his citizenship. A truly wonderful read from a gifted humorist.
  8. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt: Comedian Patton Oswalt has, against his better wishes and stated desires to the contrary, grown up a lot in recent years. His comedy is still mostly observational, but where it once focused on the absurdities of life, it’s now more concerned with the trials of modern fatherhood and what it means to live in a world as crazy as ours can be. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is an essay collection that mostly deals with Oswalt’s formative years and experiences, beginning with the change that took him over as a child when he started reading books with a real desire to find good art. The title refers to the way young storytellers lean toward one of three basic worlds in which to set their tales — worlds of zombies, aliens, or empty wastes — and Oswalt uses his pet theory to discuss his own comedic journey with skill. Definitely one to read for fans of modern alternative comedy.
  9. Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox, Greg Fitzsimmons: Greg Fitzsimmons’ central premise — an inherent distrust of authority — makes for a great connective tissue in his autobiography, which reproduces a variety of letters, notes, and warnings he received growing up. He uses those notes, and his own writing, to tell his story of growing up in a highly dysfunctional family. He’s one of the few comics who isn’t afraid to go into detail or offer lengthy explanations of his background, which gives the book the weight and emotional heft of a real memoir and not a quickie cash-in. He’s quick to make fun of the traditions and rituals that define his heritage — the boom of Saint Patrick’s Day babies born around Christmas are summed up as "the result of drunken unprotected make-up sex after a slap fight at the Blarney Stone that day" — but he’s also possessed of a real sense of pride in where he came from. The book’s as honest as it is entertaining.
  10. Last Words: A Memoir, George Carlin: George Carlin’s autobiography was published posthumously, which makes it feel like a bonus parting gift from one of the comedic masters of the 20th century. He uses the book to tell the story of his life in full, or at least as full as can be boiled down to a simple narrative, and he also goes deep on the psychology of comedy and what he’s learned about everything from audience dynamics to joke construction. The book’s proof of the many reasons that a good autiobiography from an artist will always emotionally outstrip one by an athlete: while the latter are paid to forget who they are and perform physical feats of strength and coordination, the former are trained to always look inward and use their own experiences as material. Carlin’s career often focused on the power of words (dialogue in that clip extremely NSFW, by the way), and his life story makes for a fantastic memorial.

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