7 Standup Comedy Memoirs That Will Make You Laugh And Cry
Your favorite comics recount their lives—and their many onstage deaths
Writers of literary fiction are supposed to disdain celebrity memoirs. They’re sucking up all the big advances and lowering the bar of what’s supposed to be Literature, right?
But I’ve got a dirty reading secret. I love celebrity memoirs, particularly by standup comedians (and not just because I was doing research for No Good Very Bad Asian, my novel about a fictive famed standup comedian named Sirius Lee). The best standup memoirs can be so raw and honest, revealing uncomfortable truths about life that even the best fiction rarely addresses.
Here are some of my favorites, a mix of books that I read while researching No Good Very Bad Asian and recent entrees into the genre.
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
“I became an ‘energy producer’ at Bar Mitzvahs. Energy producer is what white suburban people call a ‘hype man.’ I was basically the Flava Flav of Bar Mitzvahs.”
If I had to choose one book to read before going to my grave, I would choose The Last Black Unicorn over just about any work of literary fiction. The book alternates between serious chapters that detail her relationships with abusive, possessive men as well as her violent, brain-injured mother and hilarious chapters about Haddish’s romance with a disabled co-worker and her quirky friendship with Jada Pinkett and Will Smith. Haddish’s inspirational life story is one of overcoming filial abandonment and poverty. It’s legit one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
“Don’t perform in heels. It’s not worth your calves looking 20% better.”
This one’s just came out and like my novel, also happens to be framed as a series of scandalous letters of advice to the comedian’s daughters. Though we’re complete strangers, I swear she stole my idea! When I was doing standup, I would treat myself by going to Comedy Cellar and seeing the soon-to-be stars and Ali Wong was one of them, and believe it or not, she was even raunchier back then.
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
“It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”
Widely considered canonical in the genre, Born Standing Up was one of the first books I turned to in my research. Martin’s unique brand of absurdism made him the biggest comedian in the world for a time in the 1970s. Unlike many of his peers, Martin skirted the life-curtailing nighttime dangers of the profession, and the prose has a level of erudition you don’t typically find in standup memoirs. For instance, not many standups cite Lewis Carroll’s logic textbooks as comic inspiration.
Too Fat to Fish by Artie Lange
“You haven’t lived till you’ve played Scrabble in a psych ward.”
If there’s one book that inspired No Good Very Bad Asian, it’s Too Fat to Fish. One of the traits that many standup comedians share is a lack of self-worth. This void drives them to the stage to seek laughter as an affirmation of their personal value and a temporary salve for their psychic damage. Lange’s memoir, which chronicles a difficult upbringing and an ongoing, harrowing battle with serial substance abuse, portrays the symbiotic relationship between comedy and pain.
Road Dog: Life and Reflections from the Road As a Standup Comic by Dov Davidoff
“The expectation of happiness creates a lot of unhappiness.”
A comic’s comic, Davidoff is probably best known for being a character actor on TV shows like NBC’s Shades of Blue. But like the legendary Dave Attell, Davidoff is a bard of the dark and surreal existence of a road comedian. In Road Dog, he leans in on this life, with wild tales of drug-spurred trysts with fellow comedians and the sundry mistakes you can make when you don’t like being alone and have nothing but time by yourself in hotels, casinos, and bars after shows.
The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
“Summer camp: the second worst camp for Jews.”
Soon to be a Broadway musical, The Bedwetter chronicles Silverman’s embarrassing childhood bladder control struggles with her trademark mashup of charm, pathos, and raunch. One of the strengths of the book is also her strength as a comedian: the ability to tell true Hollywood stories from the American celebrity stratosphere while remaining relatable as a regular person.
How To American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents by Jimmy O. Yang
“The first time I showed my mom a scene from Silicon Valley, she said: ‘Jimmy, how many times do I have to tell you, don’t hunch your back.’”
Though he wasn’t born in America like my protagonist, Jimmy O. Yang’s rise to fame mirrors that of my protagonist Sirius Lee. Yang came of age in Los Angeles and disappointed his father by choosing to pursue comedy over becoming a financial advisor. Unlike No Good Very Bad Asian, Yang’s book has a happy beginning and end. Not only does Yang become a star, but his father fulfills his lifelong dream of becoming an actor as well, appearing in films like Patriots Day, thanks to a dearth of older Asian male actors in Hollywood.