September 25, 2008

Jerry Stiller's Married to Laughter

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I recently finished Jerry Stiller’s Married to Laughter: A Love Story featuring Anne Meara. Now, normally, Jerry Stiller’s autobiography is not something I would have picked up on my own (no offense to Mr. Stiller of course), being a consumer of politics and science fiction (e.g. a nerd). So why’d I read it?
Some of you may remember that Jerry Stiller performed at Cornell last spring, thanks to Cornell Hillel. Far fewer of you probably remember that I reviewed his performance for The Sun, as I am wont to do on occasion. Several weeks later, I received a package in the mail that I was not expecting (what fun!). It included a note and an inscribed copy of Stiller’s book, thanking me for my review. I was blown away by the generosity of this actor who had never even met me. I thank you, Jerry Stiller, as sincerely as I can.
The appeal of Stiller’s book lies in his storytelling ability. While the writing is not the most sophisticated, his simple eloquence nevertheless comes through. His style is pared-down and witty and in the end you find yourself utterly on Stiller’s side. He comes across with charm and humility and you admire his determination, perseverance and capacity for love.
Stiller began in a poor Jewish neighborhood in New York, his parents struggling to get by amid the throes of the Great Depression. Influenced by vaudeville performances and the comedic genius of Eddie Cantor, he decided early on that he wanted to be an actor and make people laugh. This burning desire stayed with him through the whole of his career, he said. It was all about the laughs.
Stiller describes in depth his relationship with Anne Meara, the other half of comedy team Stiller and Meara. They met while he was getting dumped by his girlfriend; she proposed he date Anne instead. They got coffee, and she stole spoons. Stiller discusses their eventual marriage throughout the book, pointing out that she was the pillar and he the neurotic one. He feared that when “Stiller and Meara” was no more, they would have no way to relate. The story is a heartfelt account, of two people who discovered they loved each other even away from the bright lights of the stage.
Stiller begins his book with an anecdote about riding his bike one day in his late fifties. The story serves as a metaphor for the evolution of his acting career and of his life. “I always thought that analyzing would rob me of spontaneity. But the next time I performed, I followed Anne’s advice. I locked into my intention, worked on structure and when I made my entrance, suddenly I was floating onstage. I was liberated. What a paradox: Structure had actually freed me.”
In the bike anecdote, Stiller attempted a feat he had always feared — riding with no hands — and succeeded. “It was balance,” he realized, “not courage.”
Stiller’s book is certainly a worthwhile read — part success story, part memoir, part comedy, part love story. He presents himself to the reader as is, flaws, strengths and all. And you can’t help but love him.