Book Review - Comedians scrawl self-portraits with poison pens

Lisa Lampanelli, David Cross and Russell Brand reveal different facets of their confrontational stage personae in new books

In his eloquently raucous confessional My Booky Wook, English bad-boy comedian Russell Brand describes what he calls “Simon Says” for junkies. Discussing his first stay in rehab for drug addiction (as opposed to his subsequent stint for sex addiction), Brand says that in recovery meetings, “You can get away with any admission, however appalling, so long as it’s preceded by the words ‘To my shame.’” For example: “I used to exploit women because I couldn’t cope with being alone…” “He didn’t say ‘To my shame!’ You bastard! You vicious, selfish bastard!”

Shamelessness proves to be an advantage for comedians, and an absolute requirement for the ones who get paid to say the things average people would find unthinkable. Some shock comics temper what they say through the way they say it: The right delivery can either alienate audiences or make them complicit with a performer’s naughty notions. New books from three such comedians reveal how their voices change before a microphone vs. a word processor, while turning a different spotlight on their shameful admissions.

In Chocolate, Please: My Adventures in Food, Fat, and Freaks, big, brassy Lisa Lampanelli delivers a solid example of the standard-issue comedian memoir. Her writing style echoes her stage voice as a brash but likable insult comic of the Don Rickles model. Lampanelli specializes in ethnic stereotyping, as well as alternately defiant and self-deprecating digs about her weight and Italian heritage. She also works blue, and in Chocolate, Please, you’ll encounter the word cunt more often than at a cockney gangster film festival.

Lampanelli, who performs Oct. 10 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, writes a few mildly engaging chapters about her childhood and concludes the book with a section of observational pieces that read like edited transcripts of her stand-up. Her candid accounts of sex and dating, however, turn out to be hilarious and compulsively readable, particularly in her early chapters about her decision to exclusively date African-American men. The title Chocolate, Please doesn’t just refer to candy. The book contains an intriguing tension between her bout of “jungle fever” and her comedy as an equal-opportunity offender. Her first flirtation with a black audience member involves “pointing at my ass and saying, ‘C’mon baby, I’ll give you something to hide behind when the cops start shooting.’”

Chocolate, Please reveals a contradiction between Lampanelli as a no-bullshit neighborhood broad who terrorizes hecklers and disdains the touchy-feely aspects of therapy, but also endorses the results of self-examination. During one of her three visits to rehab — for co-dependency and food issues — she mentions the difficulty of forgoing jokes for a whole weekend. The book reveals some of her compulsion: The further you go, the more knee-jerk her one-liners feel, as though she can’t write a paragraph without teasing a minority group. Her put-downs generally come across as old-fashioned joshing around, so it’s hard to find her material offensive. One wonders how she’ll fly during the Obama administration, when there’s significantly more genuine racism in the air.

David Cross’ I Drink for a Reason isn't an autobiography. Instead, Cross offers an odds-and-sods collection of essays, reminiscences, showbiz stories, short fiction and McSweeney’s-esque humor pieces. Cross is best known for co-creating the brilliant sketch program “Mr. Show” and playing “Arrested Development’s” Tobias Funke, a would-be actor and self-described “analrapist” (part analyst, part therapist). His stand-up routines tend to be defiantly dark and left-of-center, while being nearly as contemptuous of hippies as he is of religious right-wingers.

I Drink for a Reason is more personal than, as Cross puts it, “just a collection of your shitty stand-up routines that you don’t do anymore, with full-sized childish illustrations on every page.” He offers glimpses of his youth and contemporary life, and the three-page entry “My Memoir-to-Be” alludes to “Angrily/pathetically jerking off into a hole on a golf course near my apartment when I was 16.” Mostly he decries annoying social trends, arguing that he doesn’t hate America and that he’s not a self-loathing Jew, since he considers himself to be a reasonably happy atheist.

Cross begins his chapter “A Little Bit About Me, ‘Cause It’s My Book” about his childhood in Roswell, but segues in great detail to his resentment of a blog review that called him a “bigot” for an anti-Mormon routine. Cross runs both the actual review and his lengthy defense in their entireties, but doesn’t quote the actual routine, making the essay seem like a missed opportunity. His repeated assertions that he has the show on tape sound defensive, almost Nixonian. However amusing, I Drink for a Reason seldom conveys the pleasure Cross takes in performance, despite his straight-faced affect.

Cross proves more entertaining when he settles scores with celebrities, such as his “Open Letter to Larry the Cable Guy” and an anecdote about some vile on-set behavior from Jim Belushi that morphs into outrageously unflattering fantasies. Cross’ cunning use of recurring jokes and pieces written in the voice of offbeat characters seems to come from the same creative place as his sketch comedy. He could probably do well with George Saunders-esque fictions about self-deluded narrators, if he wanted to do a more focused, disciplined book.

Where Lampanelli’s book reads like chummy talking, and Cross’ like passionate blogging, Brand’s My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up reads like literate writing. I’m not sure if it’s because Brand grew up in the cradle of the English language (Essex, specifically), but his prose proves much more colorful than the average celebrity bio. My Booky Wook features enough telling details and rich evocations of Brand’s mind-set that he’s as compelling in his accounts of his dismal childhood as he his talking about, say, attending a shabby orgy in Hackney.

Brand’s onstage patois combines English street slang with antiquated verbiage, like the way he describes his stage persona as a “rakish fop” or condemns a politically complacent audience as “a lazy cluster of atoms.” Americans probably know Brand less for his material or any specific accomplishment (apart from his libidinous supporting role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) than for his celebrity. He loosely patterned his image as a slightly poncey glam star after Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison imitation in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.

Though his material can be as uninhibited as any of his contemporaries, Brand’s controversies tend to follow in the wake of his outlandish behavior. When he discusses his “Jackass”-style television show “RE: Brand,” which involved taboo-confronting stunts, he recounts his distaste for wanking a gay fellow in a men’s room, on video, in the name of an episode about sexuality. Most of My Booky Wook tours through Brand’s Byronic bad behavior off-screen: cheating, whoring, heroin intake, self-mutilation during stand-up routines. He maintains a largely regretful tone regarding his hurtful, self-destructive acts, while acknowledging his lifelong tendency to act out. Somehow, he never seems worse than when he admits his sexual self-centeredness: “My policy was — first sexual encounter orgasm come free, after that be on your toes ‘cos I won’t be hanging about.” Hey, he didn’t even say “To my shame!”

Chocolate, Please: My Adventures in Food, Fat, and Freaks by Lisa Lampanelli. It Books. $24.99. 304 pp.

I Drink for a Reason by David Cross. Grand Central Publishing. $23.99. 236 pp.

My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up by Russell Brand. Collins. $25.99. 353 pp.

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