From The San Francisco Chronicle
January 22, 2010
By Leba Hertz
“Celebrity Autobiography” started in Los Angeles, had a special on Bravo and has become one of the in things for New York theater people to do on Monday nights – reading excerpts from other stars’ books, with hilarious results. Even when the stars aren’t performing, they tend to show up to watch. The one night I attended, Vanessa Williams made a surprise appearance to read, and Bernadette Peters was in the audience to cheer on her pals.
Now the show, produced by Emmy-nominated writer-producer-performer Eugene Pack, is coming to Cobb’s Comedy Club next weekend as part of SF Sketchfest. Pack, whose play “Stan the Man” was just optioned for film and who has created series for CMT, Style Network and TV Land, talked about “Celebrity Autobiography” with The Chronicle via e-mail.
Q: What is “Celebrity autobiography” and how did it come about?
A: I remember, years ago, noticing that Vanna White wrote her memoirs – it’s called “Vanna Speaks” – and I flipped through it, marveling at how she described in serious detail how hard it is to turn the letters on “Wheel of Fortune” and how one time her belt broke on national television and she just had to stand there and hold the belt while flipping those panels. I thought that reading passages like that out loud to an audience might be hilarious “found” comedy. I had access to a theater one night in Los Angeles and grabbed the opportunity, inviting performers to try different passages from different memoirs. The one requirement was that it had to be an autobiography. It immediately took off with audiences and started to build. The goal was always to bring it to New York audiences, and it has become this must-see event night. You never know who is going to show up onstage or in the audience.
Q: Monday is the usual dark night for theater in New York. How do you persuade Broadway stars to do this show on their one night off?
A: It’s one of the most fun shows for a performer to do. They usually just have to go over the material with Dayle (Reyfel, who is one of the producers and performers in the show), and then jump in. Once you experience it, you want to do it again. And then you tell your friends, and they want to do it. We have a lot of Broadway stars, but also stars from “Saturday Night Live,” “The View,” “Ugly Betty,” “Law & Order,” “30 Rock” – all the TV shows that shoot in New York. They race over after shooting, just in time.
Q: What are some of the autobiographies you use on a given night, and have any of those authors ever attended a performance or participated in one? Have any of them complained?
A: Among those you will hear passages from are Mr. T, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Motley Crue, Kenny Loggins, Miley Cyrus, the poetry of Suzanne Somers, Star Jones, the Jonas Brothers. I actually read from George Takei’s autobiography (Mr. Sulu from “Star Trek”). He came to the show and thought the whole thing was hysterical. It’s all done in a fun spirit. We’re not making fun of anyone. If anything, we are poking fun at the autobiography genre in general. No one has called to complain. If you’re Mr. T and you get to see someone like Fred Willard reading your words, it doesn’t get better than that.
Q: What do you consider some of the funnier passages in the autobiographies?
A: A highlight is our mashup combo ensemble pieces. For example, one piece we do combines the memoirs of Loni Anderson, Burt Reynolds and Burt Reynolds’ secretary. We also combine the “he said, she said” memoirs of Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor. It’s theatrical, and you get to learn a lot about one of the most dramatic and famous love triangles in history. It also has some of the funniest lines in the show. Audiences think we made it up, but you just can’t make this stuff up.
Q: What can the crowd in San Francisco expect at the shows next weekend, and how will this be different from or the same as the New York shows?
A: We’ll be having Neil Patrick Harris joining us for the first time. Expect to also hear a memorable selection from Tiger Woods’ “How I Play Golf.” It’s fun to keep what people are reading a surprise, but we’ve put together shows for Sketchfest that we know the San Francisco audiences will love. It’ll be all over the map – from classic stars to books hot off the press.