Book Review: Awkwardness, Absurdity, and Humor in ...I Killed...
Up and Downs in Stories of Comedians on the Road
By Jillian Berry
I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics
Compiled by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff
Crown Publishers, 2006
I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics, compiled by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff, is a collection of more than 200 accounts that regale us with the horrors that a stand-up comedian can face on the road. From the foreword by Jerry Seinfeld, to the anecdotes of Larry David, Mike Myers, and Paul Reiser, this work includes some of the biggest names in comedy, and shows the long (and often scary) road each of them took to get where they are today.
When I first heard the premise of this book, I requested a copy immediately. I enjoy a good stand-up comedian, and I thought the back stories of such comedians would be interesting and entertaining. But while the compendium is entertaining on the whole, there are some cringeworthy sections, and some long slogging. Since each comedian account is about a page, by the hundredthth page, the pieces started to become repetitive, and I started to wonder how I could get through the next hundred pages.
Many of the stories have one of two formats. The first format involves the comedian playing a club in the middle of nowhere before getting drunk and having a one-night stand that either makes the ridiculously low payment worth it, or goes terribly wrong in some way. The other (slightly more interesting) storyline is that of the comedian playing in some area where a bad show does not result in just boos, but in physical violence that threatens the comedian’s life in some ridiculously over-the-top manner.
In both cases, I usually felt more embarrassed for the comedian than entertained by the account. Furthermore, no matter what the tale, there was usually something about a heckler. While I appreciate that comedians despise hecklers, the rest of us do not want to hear about them over and over and over again. After about a dozen stories, I wanted to yell at the book, “All right, I get it, you don’t like hecklers. Now get over it and move on with your story.” The only thing that saved these stories was the comedic talent of the writers. Had the storytellers been any less talented, many of their stories would not only have been awkward, but on the edge of disturbing.
While many of the tales are formulaic and portray road comics as lost souls more sad than funny, some of the stories stood out, and there were enough to save the book from being 200 pages of pure awkwardness. In particular, Mike Myers’ account of his first time on the road had me laughing out loud. The story involves clothes he’s been wearing for days, a car with one headlight, a lot of alcohol, and a pack of wolves in a hilarious mix of absurdity. This is one of those tales that is so unbelievable, it can only be true.
The book also has a handful of sections that contain five to ten very short accounts related to one theme, including the troubles of getting paid and bringing parents to shows. These are often very funny, and show an aspect of road comedy more completely than the longer accounts.
While I now understand how incredibly difficult it is to become a comedian, this book did not make me want to quit school to become a comedian. Paying your dues takes on a whole new meaning here, but I am not sure I really wanted to know all the details. Although more often than not, I was either not amused or worse yet, I felt uncomfortable reading this book, some of the accounts were laugh-out-loud funny (which is impressive for any written work) and rescued this book from being too much of a loss.