Sunday, May 31, 2015

Book review: Maybe We'll Have You Back

Actor and comedian Fred Stoller's Maybe We'll Have You Back: The Life of a Perennial TV Guest Star serves up an engaging glimpse into life as a performer who's always the bridesmaid but never the bride. Or, as he puts it in the subtitle, someone who's a "Perennial TV Guest Star."

He's gotten countless small gigs and guest spots, but never struck oil as a series regular in a hit show early in its run (or even a modestly successful show -- he did land regular spots on a few series, but probably nothing you've ever heard of because they were gone before you could say "New issue of TV Guide"). He got or nearly got regular spots on a few higher profile shows, but it always came just before the series ended. This is not the guy to blow on your dice for luck at Vegas, 'cause he's got none to spare.

I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Ray Chase. I found it a worthwhile use of precious Audible credit, but it was unusual that Stoller didn't read the book himself as most actors/comics do. Whatever his reason for passing on narrator duties, before you're far into the eight-hour reading you'll start thinking of that voice in your ear as belonging to Stoller and it won't be an issue. The more I heard him, the more I thought the narrator sounded like Stoller, but maybe that's a trick of the brain as I settled into the narrative. Chase does a solid job as narrator, and this makes an enjoyable backdrop to driving or folding laundry or whatever space you make in your life for audiobooks.

While this book recounts many funny stories, don't expect a non-stop laugh riot just because it's by a comedian. Stoller openly details his struggles in the industry as well as his own anxiety and periods of loneliness. It's a compelling look at life in the entertainment business for someone who's always just successful enough to not give it up, but never succeeding enough to stop constantly struggling. For a book about life in comedy, the tone can be downbeat at times. That's fine by me; it's his reality and he's willing to open up about it.

I've known several comedians, and most were road comics that, while talented and with a modest fan base, never built up the level of recognition that Stoller has, and even his level isn't high enough to mean the security of a few big paydays here and there. It's a brutal lifestyle of constantly working it, never making much money, and trying your heart out for some kind of break that will get your foot in the door to a higher level of recognition and pay (many also tend to swing between anxiety and depression cut with a healthy ego to balance it all out). One decent break could mean going from making a few hundred bucks for doing two shows a night in some sketchy dive to making a few thousand for the doing the exact same set in a nicer venue or, the mother lode, getting a TV or movie deal. You could easily be earning more from one episode, even with a modest deal as a supporting character, than you used to make in a year of busting your hump.

Stoller discusses how he started in comedy, his numerous small jobs in TV, and his writing stint for Seinfeld, where a few of his ideas made it to air, but Jerry didn't bring him back for a second year. Stoller spent his time there being tense and anxious -- he just wanted to do a good job and keep people happy. He isn't a light-hearted guy (not that there's anything wrong with that). The problem is, Jerry preferred working with people who are an "easy hang," or easy going, which Carol Leifer (a successful Seinfeld writer) talks about in her humorous guide to the working world How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying. Stoller, with his anxiety and walking on eggshells out of a desire to not say or do the wrong thing (wow, can I relate to that!) was definitely not an easy hang, and thus he didn't hang on at the show for long.

Stoller also shares a myriad of amusing, insider tales about working on the sets of several hit shows, from Friends to Murphy Brown to Everybody Loves Raymond. I relish such behind the scenes details because it's always fascinating to see how they make the donuts, you know? He also reveals a '90s hookup with Kathy Griffin (a very funny stand-up), but the two didn't quite mesh (that's the nicest way to put it). Later, Stoller says she didn't exactly make him feel welcome when he made several appearances on Griffin's show Suddenly Susan.

Griffin calls to mind an intriguing aside on the nature of earnings at different levels in the comedy biz. Suddenly Susan ran for four years and wasn't a big ratings hit (other than the first year when it aired after Seinfeld). Even still, Stoller speculated she earned $30,000 an episode (which doesn't sound amazing compared to what the Friend's cast later raked in, but still, $30K a pop for 20+ episodes a season adds up to a whole lot of sweet). After the show ended, she was working the stand-up trail and did any TV appearances she could get, but didn't really become a well-known name until the past few years. Yet long ago she purchased a gorgeous Hollywood Hills mansion for $3 million, which you see in her reality show Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. How could she afford that while on the self-proclaimed "D-list," you might ask? Besides working like a mo-fo and not turning down any job that met her quote, I'm guessing four years on a sitcom, even one that wasn't a heavy hitter in the ratings, gave her not only a nice nest egg, but also earned her enough recognition to get more gigs and charge more for them than she could've otherwise. Which is to say, one decent break can set you up permanently if keep your mind on your money and your money on your mind. Stoller never quite got such a break.

If you're interested in an inside glimpse of the entertainment industry, you'll enjoy this book (or audiobook, as the case may be). Sitcom fans can find a lot here about life on set, at least from the viewpoint of a lowly guest star. The asides about working with stars of several hit sitcoms will satisfy some curiosity as well. And if you recall seeing Stoller on TV for years and years, from stand-up sets to guest appearances, this book offers plenty of details on what life was like for him off camera while trying constantly to get back on camera. As an fyi, an updated print version of the book drops on Sept. 1, so if you prefer print over the audiobook, I'd snag the new edition for whatever new material it holds.

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