The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Memoir
By Toby Young (Da Capo, $25)
British journalist Toby Young’s notorious 2001 memoir, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People,
detailed his doomed attempts at succeeding in New York’s glossy magazine scene as a writer for Vanity Fair.
The book created a minor sensation among media observers for its insider portrait and earned Young a boatload of enemies in the process (chiefly, VF’s
editor Graydon Carter). This sequel finds him back in London, married, an expectant father, and barely scraping by as a theater critic. A phone call from out of the blue changes his fortunes, however, as he heads to California as a screenwriter for hire, working on a vanity project for a powerful Hollywood producer (so powerful, apparently, that his identity is left a mystery) and trying to get his own Friends
from the page to the screen. If Young’s adventures in the NYC media world were ripe for comedy, his efforts at navigating the movie industry are even more hilarious. Between sharply written accounts of his own industry faux pas and foibles, we get running commentary from his friend Rob Long, a seasoned entertainment pro who acts as a kind of guide and Greek chorus, helping Young translate Tinseltown’s peculiar customs. Frequently, Young’s plans for dealing with the fickle film business are right out of an old I Love Lucy
episode: After the power-player producer stops returning his calls, the author decides to ambush him at a trendy L.A. eatery with the aid of a paparazzi photographer pal, resulting in a disastrous career move and a brilliant bit of slapstick. Young is certainly not the most likable fellow — he freely admits to being narcissistic, fame obsessed, and often ambitious at the expense of his family. But, as such, he becomes the perfect comic protagonist, not unlike the characters who have come to dominate contemporary humor, from Larry Sanders to Larry David. While a little bit of his misadventure goes a long way, at a breezy 267 pages, Clapping
— like its predecessor — makes for a deliciously dishy read.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever
By Josh Karp (Chicago Review Press, $25)
Before his mysterious death in 1980 at age 32, Doug Kenney had cofounded the influential National Lampoon
magazine, cowritten the scripts for National Lampoon’s Animal House
and, in the process, changed the course of American comedy forever. Journalist Josh Karp’s wonderful new biography of Kenney is an essential work that also functions as a history of the Lampoon
and a study of the boomer-led new wave of humor. Born in small-town Ohio, Kenney attended Harvard, where he became editor of the university’s famed humor journal, the Harvard Lampoon
. Along with several alums, he went on to found the offshoot National Lampoon
in 1970. Kenney’s voice came to dominate the magazine early on; his savage, taboo-busting wit flayed both hippies and the establishment in equal measure. The magazine perfectly captured the zeitgeist of post-Woodstock America. It was a massive hit, spawning a series of spin-off books, LPs, and stage productions, thus turning into a breeding ground for young talent. After selling the publication and continuing as editor emeritus, Kenney tried his hand unsuccessfully at writing a novel before turning his focus to film, penning the script for Animal House.
The runaway success of the movie — it cost just $3 million, grossed more than $100 million, and established the blockbuster comedy — made Kenney a bona fide Hollywood player. He followed with Caddyshack
but fought with unsympathetic studio executives during its production. He was also busy battling his own cocaine and alcohol addictions and a growing sense of depression. After a drunken and disruptive performance at a press conference promoting the film, Kenney left for Hawaii in an attempt to sober up once and for all. He eventually went missing, and after a few days his body was found at the bottom of a cliff — friends still debate whether he fell or jumped; the death was officially ruled accidental. While the circumstances of his passing remain a mystery, Kenney’s comedy legacy does not. His mordant wit and unique voice have — for better or worse — influenced nearly all the humor that’s come after him. And although his contributions remain largely unknown to the general public, Karp makes a persuasive case for Kenney to be considered among the key architects of post–World War II humor.