I had a couple of show business memoirs on my 2011 reading list. One was Growing Up Laughing: My Story and The Story of Funny by Marlo Thomas, her remembrances of growing up in show business, mostly as the daughter of the great comic and actor Danny Thomas. The other book is by my idol, Dick Van Dyke, titled My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. I have been more influenced by professional comedians, TV stars and comic actors in my own speaking career than by any other single group of role models. Even though the two books are ostensibly “light reading,” I took some worthwhile points from them:
- There is no substitute for rehearsal. Marlo talks about how her dad would go over his material ad nauseum until he had all the timing and nuances down. In his day, Danny Thomas was one of the most preeminent and successful storytellers in entertainment, probably comparable to Jerry Seinfeld in a way. This was why: He left nothing to chance.
- Play to your strengths. Thomas profiles 20 different comics and actors in her book, and they are each unique. Steven Wright depends on wordplay. Don Rickles is successful in his 80s as a master of the putdown. Both George Lopez and Chris Rock make their ethnicity relevant to their entire audience. Conversely, Jay Leno gently plays “Everyman.” Dick Van Dyke made his talent for physical comedy the tent pole of his career. As a speaker, find your brand and stick to it rather than adjusting your style to the latest fashions.
- Build on those strengths. Van Dyke talks about how a friend arranged an audition for the Broadway classic musical, Bye Bye Birdie. When he auditioned for the show’s director, Gower Champion, Van Dyke did a little soft shoe and a song. Champion told him on the spot that he got the job, but Van Dyke admitted that he could not dance. Champion — a great musical director — assured him that all was okay. This was because Champion saw how Van Dyke could move well enough on the stage to make the choreography work. Obviously, he was right, as Van Dyke went on to win a Tony Award for his role and went on to reprise the role in the movie version. We shouldn’t be fearful of our limitations; instead, we need to build on them.
- Be as timeless as possible. How is it that The Dick Van Dyke Show, a black & white series that is approaching its 50th anniversary, remains so popular today? Van Dyke observes that Carl Reiner, the creative talent behind the seminal series, tried his best to avoid specific topical references, such as personalities of the day or specific events. In that way, the themes are what carry the show. While that may not seem practical today (after all, can we really avoid discussing topics such as AIDS, the economy or record employment?), we should espouse timeless principles, such as ethics, continual improvement, or caring for others.