Poor Traits of the Artist

Only the Truth is Funny:
My Family and How I Survived It
by Rick Reynolds, Hyperion, 1992

Fame standardizes the goals and the measures of achievement. The result is a frenzied yet monotonous society, smug in its stage-managed sense of greatness...
-John Lahr, Automatic Vaudeville
Fame...What you get is no tomorrow.
-David Bowie

To many outside observers, stand-up comedy has been in a state of crisis for a decade. In conjunction with the rise of Reaganism, this once-vital art form has been reduced to innocuousness. The average stand-up routine is mere dry fodder, an impersonal survey of moribund comedy bits on air travel, bad drivers, dealing with kids, differences in parental punishment techniques, dumb things fast food joints do, and other examples of the irritating or fascinating "little things" the comic observes in life. That this material is little more than rehashed Shelley Berman, Alan King, or Bob Newhart is yet another sign that America has regressed to a stage of `50s infantilism.

Stand-up comedy can be a beautiful art form. One man (usually), bravely standing before an audience, using words to create a world, can be a stirring, hypnotic experience. It's a form in which the individual genius of a Richard Pryor could once magically conjure up, say, a front yard in order to provide the setting for a brilliantly realized tale about parental retribution, or a Lenny Bruce could populate a bizarre political parody with the lively denizens of a B film. In its fundamentals, the comic's working area is the essence of what Peter Brook called the "empty space," a self-contained rectangle in which the events that occur are little more than representations, half-imagined by the audience through the evocative power of the performer's words and the flexibility of the human voice.

But in the Reagan `80s, stand-up became as juvenile and immature as the icon of the decade was aggressively optimistic and grandfatherly fraudulent. Contemporary stand-up's emphasis on minutia at the expense of ideas, on the private and the personal at the expense of the political and the public, condemned the art form to exploitation by a set of performers incapable of expanding it. A once-flexible art form, one capable of the most marvelous creative potential and radical subversion, was restricted to the point of inanition--if it wasn't outright annihilated.

Comedian Rick Reynolds seems to agree. The former Portlander, who entered the comedy scene in the late `70s and developed a moderately successful career throughout the `80s, seems to have burnt-out on the comedy grind by the `90s. "Stand-up comedy had become `just something funny'--and no more.... Comedy today is instant gratification, the rock `n' roll of the nineties. This makes me sad, because there was a time when comedy was jazz,,," But "To be honest, I never enjoyed doing stand-up, even in the beginning. There was always an inherent deception in the delivery of my material…" As Reynolds recounts in this brief memoir--part recovery testament, part pop philosophy tract--a crisis in his career drove him away from conventional stand up to a more agreeable avenue of performance, one in which all the attention focused on him and his interests, undiluted by other acts, much less the real world outside the comforting walls of the theater.

Reynolds was the headliner at the Dallas Improvisation and working a tough, rowdy crowd when he lost control of both the audience and his emotions:

It was Friday night, second show. The moon was full and the crowd was ugly. I sat in the back of the room watching three hundred grown kids, full of booze and bravado, tear apart the master of ceremonies.... As I began my forty-five minute set, it immediately became apparent that my regular act wasn't going to work.... People began to break into discussion groups, apparently debating whether to attack my personal appearance or my lack of talent.... [M]y microphone went dead. I looked behind me and saw [a kid] hopping off the side of the stage. ...I could feel my anger well up, bursting behind my eyes in a red flash. Then, in a real sense, I went crazy. I jumped off the stage, grabbed the kid by the lapels, and pulled him out of his chair.... I lifted the kid off his feet and threw him across the table, which crashed to the ground. With the sound of shattering glass still echoing in my ears, I turned to the stunned audience and said, "Fuck You."
The direct outcome for Reynolds of this defining moment was what the self-help books like to call a midlife crisis and the recovery books designate as "hitting bottom." While flirting with the woman in the seat next to him on the plane home to L.A., he realized that he was "suddenly ashamed of being a stand-up comedian.... [It] seemed kind of dirty to me--at least the way I had been doing it.... I wondered if there could be a better kind of comedy." He began to analyze the art form with a seeming depth that few comics have ever shared with their public.

After nine years of stand-up comedy, being funny wasn't enough for me any more.... So [his wife] Lisa and I moved to Petaluma, where I started to piece together the puzzle of my life. I began to make some quantum leaps in my own personal happiness.... I'd made the decision to try to do something meaningful in my work.
Out of this introspection arose his one man show, a cobbling-together of his life story with the best jokes from his past acts, of which this book is presumably the modified transcript.

It was a cunning career move. Spalding Grey, Eric Bogosian, Roy Blount, Jr., Calvin Trillin, Jackie Mason, Lily Tomlin, Sandra Bernhard, Gilda Radner, and others had all found varying degrees of fame or artistic success with the theatrical, one-man-show format. Free of the taint of booze and cigarette smoke, and mounted in the grave, august confines of the "legitimate" theater, what is at heart a conventional stand-up act newly takes on the tones of authority, seriousness, artistry.

But Reynolds's change of venue, as it is presented in the book, ultimately isn't motivated by a philosophical or introspective alteration in his personality. Rather, it is the continuation of the lifelong personal crisis that serves as the subtext of his book, but was, to those who knew him during his pre-comedy life in Portland, the main text of his life: it is a continuation of his unambiguous flirtation with, in fact his desperate hunger for, fame.

If I may wax elegiac about the recent past, those who did not live here before the Reagan revolution do not appreciate the sweetness of life then. Portland in the early `70s was a wonderful time to be young and exploratory. It seemed as if one could do anything, and money worries were almost irrelevant. Portland State University, where Reynolds went to college, was a great place for self-discovery. The PSU Film Committee was a crucial addition to the city's movie scene. The PSU library offered incredible rewards to those who logged long hours in its quiet, magazine-and-book packed floors. The school's theater department was lively and of near-professional level (Reynolds even appeared in a one-act played he wrote). Nearby, the 5th Avenue Cinema allowed kids to fill gaps in movie history; there was nothing so close to ecstacy as leaving the 5th Avenue after seeing a "midnight movie," entering the quiet streets at two o'clock in the morning brimming with ideas and enthusiasms for life and art as the brisk October air hit your face and its wind carried a cavalcade of leaves down the South Park Blocks. Staying up all night to write a play, or a short story, or discuss movies, or ideas, or ambitions with friends was effortless. With the aid of a Super 8 camera and around $20 dollars of film and the indulgence of several friends, you could make a movie. Besides Reynolds, composer Bryan Johanson and writer David James Duncan also emerged from this fruitful ambiance.

Portland in the early '70s was a wonderful time to be young and exploratory. PSU was a great place for self-discovery. With the aid of a Super 8 camera, $20 of film, and the indulgence of several friends, you could make a movie. Besides Reynolds, composer Bryan Johansen and writer David Duncan also emerged from this fruitful ambience.

Reynolds fit into this world nicely. Reynolds spent his formative years (as did this writer, who is alluded to on page 79 of Only the Truth...) in PSU's realm of relative freedom. In those days, he was a dynamic man who filled up a room. He was funny, loud, had intellectual ambitions and a strange philosophy. In his world view, it was posited that if there was something you didn't like about him, it was your fault, not his. This philosophy formed the basis of his one-act play, which, in larval form, also serves as a precursor to this show. Reynolds was funny at the time, or he seems to have been upon looking back, or at least seemed funny then. His humor, which was mostly cruel, as was all of ours in one way or another, was based on the premise that he was the kind of person who says the things of which others are aware but are too socially proper to acknowledge out loud, like a mentally disturbed person who enjoys the sufferance of her family despite the constant emotional discomfort they find themselves experiencing thanks to their "unpleasant truth telling" daughter. Reynolds's form of honesty was bracing to those who were finally freed of the confines of middle class hypocrisy, and his surging creativity was an inspiration to those who followed in his wake. If there was one evident and pervasive flaw in Reynolds's makeup it was his overarching hunger for fame. As he once said, while pondering the lights that flicked from houses in the silence of the night air, his ambition was to have "everyone in all those houses know the name `Rick Reynolds.'"

Despite that ultimately empty ambition, it is sad to ponder what has now become of the man who spurned phoniness with a philosopher's grit, whose short-lived humor newspaper The Portland Enquirer and brief television review column in Willamette Week lambasted phoniness, who insisted on those around him having the same level of integrity. That Rick Reynolds gradually has turned into the kind of Hollywood entertainer who throws back his head and slaps his leg and laughs with vacuous intensity at David Letterman's toothless barbs on national television. And it is sad to contemplate a man who, hungering for Madonna-level fame, settles for the achievement of a Louie Anderson.

Fame is a not an achievement, it is a pathology. As Christopher Lasch writes in The Culture of Narcissism, "The narcissistic fascination with celebrity, so rampant in our society, coincides historically with what Tulsen Henry calls `the erosion of the capacity for emulation, loss of the ability to model one's self consciously after another person'." We are a nation that yearns for fame, yet we are afraid of it. John Lahr writes, in Automatic Vaudeville, that fame "has become America's greatest export." It is "America's Faustian bargain: a passport to the good life that belittles human endeavor while seeming to epitomize it." Writes Lahr, "The classical idea of fame was reputation based on deeds...[but] Visibility is now an end in itself.... Whoever is most visible holds the most sway.... Attention-getting becomes the national style." In his view, "The famous are flaunted so that the system can be seen to work." They "inspire envy and feed off it," "set the standards of comparison in a competitive society trivialized by its pursuit of status." Lasch suggests that "The narcissist divides society into two groups: the rich, great, and famous on the one hand, and the common herd on the other." One doesn't even have to be competent to be famous. According to Lahr, "Renown now comes from having a media job, not from being good at it." Thus, thousands strive for that status that Alexander Pope called "a fancied life in others' breath" and James Grainger called "an empty bubble "

Among them was Rick Reynolds. "This is embarrassing to admit," he admits, "but...I want to be famous." For Reynolds it is a bid for "immortality." "I began to believe that the key to happiness was having a lot of people know who I was, so I became a comedian." Reynolds doesn't make the connection that his need for fame might have derived from an emotionally damaged son's need for constant, insatiable, attention.

Reynolds's life, as relayed in this memoir, is a textbook example of the typical fame-monger's roots. Playwright Heathcote Williams said that fame is the perversion of the natural human instinct for validation and attention. According to his own account, Reynolds had the wrong kind of attention. He was born in the Portland area in 1951. His father drowned not long afterwards and he was raised by a violent, hard-drinking mother with low self-esteem who was later diagnosed as manic-depressive. A succession of violent men came through Reynolds's impoverished household, but he seems to have had typical American childhood experiences with his siblings and various friends. Despite uncertainties and insecurities connected to his poverty, he ended up becoming, by his account, popular in high school. After going to college as a philosophy major, and after the end of a disastrous relationship, Reynolds entered a comedy contest that sparked his rise in show business.

But he can't seem to escape his past. The thrust of the book, as the subtitle announces, is how he "survived his family." Reynolds was a physically abused child and this volume chronicles his efforts to overcome a poor self-image derived from that abuse.

Reynolds recounts at length one harrowing experience of abuse:

One night I spilled my milk at the table. As soon as the glass slipped from my hand, my heart started to race, because I knew what was coming. Mom had just waxed that day, and when she saw the milk dripping onto her shining hardwood floor, she went crazy. I belted [sic] from the chair as she lunged for me. She chased me into my bedroom, where I curled up in a corner while she stood over me, kicking and cursing. She beat us for years, up until the time that she was diagnosed as manic-depressive and began receiving treatment.

The consequence of this abuse is rage. Alice Miller and other psychologists have chronicled how the violence done to someone in childhood finds expression in that person's adulthood. Social service workers refer to the unbroken chain of abuse, which visits upon the young abuse that they in turn will visit upon their young, endlessly, a saddening chain without hope of finding a weak link. Rick Reynolds admits that "my big fear in life had always been that I would turn out like my mom." Such a possibility becomes pressing when one reads his account of a fight with his wife while looking for a friend's apartment in Manhattan. They become confused on the subway, and once they discover that they are lost, he urges that they walk in the general direction of the apartment. He doesn't want to spring for a cab, which his wife presses him to consider. Out on the street "My anger nearly exploded when Lisa actually waved down a cab (without my permission!), got in, looked at me and said, `Are you coming?' I struggled to control my temper and climbed into the cab..... It turned out that we were a block and a half away from where we were going." Yet, in this confusing anecdote on page 85, he goes on to say that he was wrong. He also describes how he once threw a cigarette butt back in the car window of a litterbug. Isn't the comedian's stage act a form of aggression, which utilizes verbal rather than physical aggression? And isn't the verbal aggressiveness that was the distinguishing characteristic of Reynolds's young adulthood at PSU, and later in his comedy act, a substitute for the physical aggression that his mother put upon him? The man presented in these pages claims to love his wife, yet calls her a bitch on the second page of his book, and then at least one more time, all in the interest of being "funny."

Ultimately, Reynolds's book is strangely denuded of outside influences. It contains much about His Life, but little of life. There is hardly a possibility for politics in a book in which the author crows about his "surrender to my Doritos!" Reynolds presents himself as someone who wants to care about others. "When I see an elderly man in a restaurant eating by himself, I always get tears in my eyes." But he doesn't admit to talking to such a man, either to offer comfort or to see if his imagination of the man's debasement is matched by reality. Reynolds says he cried when Magic Johnson announced he had AIDS. But did he contribute to AIDS research? He may, but the reader is left with the impression that he isn't exactly Liz Taylor. This is a highly personal account, and if the author declines to discuss politics, the arts, or any of the events that occurred during his tenure as a moderately successful comedian, that is his right. But the reader, yearning for the insights that only this insider could provide, soon finds this book suffocating.

One also wishes that it were better written. I am aware that this is the apparent transcript of the live show, the very show with which he has been blessed with that long-sought fame, and maybe the text sounds better coming from its author than it does when absorbed privately. Yet to the reader of this volume, it is clear that what we find tolerable in spoken speech sounds lugubrious when transcribed onto the page.

The parade of clichés is endless. Photographs are said to capture "frozen moments." Evil eyes are, of course, "vacant," and when Reynolds first meets his future step-father he "set[s] eyes on" him; a night light casts an "eerie glow"; Reynolds's wife took to gardening "like a gopher"; cigarettes and beer are referred to as the "icons of adulthood"; a mixed drink is an "odious concoction"; marriage is a "sacred ritual"; his mother's promiscuity is "a bitter pill to swallow," even though she is simply looking for happiness "in all the wrong places." Suicide is referred to as "closing up shop," television emits a "numbing glow" (though later he claims to love TV) and he describes himself as "out to lunch-three clichés distinguished by the fact that they appear within 50 words of each other.

Reynolds is also given to ugly locutions. A surprised child looks as if "I had sucked his little brain out of his head," and when he is angry "my brain slithers to the front of my head." L.A. is universally "behated," and while waiting for his wife to give birth he eats a number of vanilla puddings: "Twelve of them I had." And some of the sentences simply don't make sense. He admits to eating fudge until he has a "chocolate orgasm," whatever that means, and later describes apple pie "coursing through my veins," though that's not quite how digestion works scientifically. He misuses, as do most contemporary writers, "quantum leap" and he says "ironic" when he means "paradoxical."

For a popular comedy show, Only the Truth is rife with bad jokes. Though there are a few good ones, such as a bit about a divorce ceremony, and a take on "inverse grounding" for kids, most of the jokes are either derived from the style of old Woody, such as the progression on page 10--"Does God exist?" "What is the meaning of life?" "Is there any fudge left downstairs?"--and a joke about not being able to say the word love ("`I think I lu... lu...luuuu-ike you'") or are simply flat, such as his telling us that he once looked like Jesus "on a really bad day," or that his brother Mike talks to God "because nobody else can stand him," or that you need some sort of dictionary to understand the way New Yorkers talk. In passages in which Reynolds revels in the little things of life, say, the way he likes to curl up at night into the S of his wife's warm body, or the joy he finds in sweets, or the pleasures of falling asleep, the reader's thoughts hark back to the wondrous celebration of minutia found in the books of Nicholson Baker, or to the hilarious and cynical observations offered in the novels of Martin Amis.

It is sad to contemplate a man who, hungering for Madonna-level fame, settles for the achievement of a Louie Anderson.

But ultimately, the reader (as opposed, perhaps, to the spectator) of Reynolds's show, finds him, when not predictable and faux insightful, simply an unpleasant person. According to Lahr, fame excuses the worst tyranny of the famous. Reynolds admits that he is "anal, obsessive, vain, quick to temper [sic], overly introspective, lazy, judgmental, insecure, and self-righteous." He recounts dreadful scenes. Besides various arguments with his wife, he "steals," as he puts it with quotations, a best friend's girlfriend; at the height of '60s student protest, he melts before the power of federal authorities who wish to prosecute him for wearing illegal military insignia.

The point of these confessions, as he writes early on, is to cleanse his soul (his "lurid fantasies, embarrassing faults [and] painful memories...become so much less lurid, embarrassing and painful the more I talk about them"), and in that regard Reynolds is doing something unusual in the annals of comedy-but not something atypical. After all, admitting one's failings in order to absolve them from the judgment of others is the oldest trick in the comedy repertoire.

If there are no politics or culture in this book, at least there are attempts at a philosophy of sorts. It is a philosophy that finds expression in the advice to eat "each cookie as if it were the last," or in the suggestion that "You have to take the time to consider the good things in your life," or fake insights about such things as drinking ("It gives [the drinker] an excuse"!). As a philosopher, Reynolds is fond of Either/Or contrasts. "I would die for Lisa...I think," he says, but when confronted by him with a grim Either/Or situation, she admits she "would rather have me go blind than have her brother die." Such impossible Either/Or questions are misconstrued as "philosophy" by the unlearned. Reynolds also likes to say that, in any given situation, there are only two kinds of people in the world. His judgmentalism extends to a vaunted list of friends he keeps, from which he excludes one friend he berates for littering. These Either/Or situations reveal a basic insecurity about himself that compels him to a self-righteous adherence to what are really just predilections (he personally, he says, doesn't smoke, drink, or litter) as if they were heavy moral issues, and frees him to berate others for what are now "failings." In the Reynoldsian world view, once one has one of these failings, one can never change; once one litters, one is forever damned.

Except for Rick Reynolds. Reynolds criticizes now his past need for fame. "I had chosen quality of life over fame." Nevertheless, he has just published a book, apparently has a TV series in the works, and has superpowerful representation in the agency of Rollins and Joffe, which he shares with no less than Woody Allen and David Letterman. This does not sound like a man spurning fame for the sake of his peace of mind. But perhaps fame is the onerous necessity that licenses one's continued creativity. Philosophical in bent though he may be, Reynolds isn't going to end up being Thomas Merton.

What Reynolds has attempted to do is turn the stand-up routine into a confessional. Those who have seen his show (as opposed to having only read it) attest to its air of honesty. Reynolds says "I am the most honest person I know," and that the show is completely true. Yet on page four he says that he has "...been putting together my Top Twenty Friends List for about ten years now." In real life it is more like 20--he has announced the existence of the list since at least 1975. A little inaccuracy like this can cast doubt upon the veracity of the rest of the show. Particularly when he presents his anger at the heckler in the beginning of the book as a one-time thing when in fact several profiles of the comedian make a point of referring to his notoriety for being hostile to the audience. Toward the end, he tells of an elaborate joke about bad fortune cookies that used to be in his stand-up act, how the joke was popular with other comics, but how, because it wasn't "true," he decided to drop it from his act. The machinations of integrity fall flat when he brags about expunging such a "false" joke from his act, only to include it in the show as an example of the kind of joke he will no longer use. If Reynolds is in search of another cliché, that is called "having your cake and eating it, too." The rest of the book is so fake that efforts at moving the reader with accounts of the birth of his son or his own childhood memories are fatally compromised. Reynolds's routine does have a certain charm in its "return back to the beginning" circularity. But because the one man show is simply a more sophisticated, more expensive way of doing the same old stand-up comedy thing, the traditional comedy shtick, without need refinement, without being made new or strange, the supposedly original notion of "confessional" comedy is nullified.

Confession, as H.G. Bohn said, is good for the soul. The problem is finding someone who wants to listen.

-D.K. Holm

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Last Modified: 28 March 1995 by Darrel Plant
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