As I mentioned in last week’s HeldenFiles, Northeast Ohio’s Tim Conway has a new memoir, What’s So Funny?, and will be in Northeast Ohio soon to promote it. But that’s far from the only entertainment-tied reading that might deserve space in your bookshelf or e-reader.
Brian Jay Jones takes a detailed look at a visionary and Muppet mastermind in Jim Henson: A Biography (Ballantine, $35). Written with the cooperation of the Henson family and access to his company’s archives, the book digs deep not only into Henson’s ideas but his relationships, both personal and professional. The book jacket, for instance, notes his “weakness for women,” but the result of that weakness could be very complicated for the people involved.
And professionally, this is not a tale of repeated triumphs on the way to legendary status. For example, there were rumbles with author Roald Dahl over the adaptation of his tale The Witches (which proved less than successful at the box office) and long wrangles with the Walt Disney Co. when it was preparing to buy Henson’s group. And the much-anticipated Jim Henson Hour for NBC was a clear failure: a hodgepodge of material of widely varied quality that also showed cracks in the way Henson ran things. His eagerness to listen to everyone actually meant that too often “decisions couldn’t be made,” Jones writes, “because no one wanted to be in charge.”
But it’s still Henson we are talking about. And all you need to know about him is in the book’s lovely prologue, which finds Henson working the Kermit Muppet in conversation with a little girl for Sesame Street. “I love you,” the girl says as their work ends. And who, at the end of the day, couldn’t love something about Henson and his work?
Henson was one of those special creators who could make work for kids, and work for adults, and works that simultaneously appealed to both audiences. At its best, Nickelodeon has had the same quality at times, especially during the ’80s heyday of shows like Double Dare, Clarissa Explains It All, You Can’t Do That on Television and Ren & Stimpy. Those shows and more pop up in Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age (Plume, $20). Matthew Glickstein has collected interviews with key players both in front of the cameras and behind them to portray what those glory years (and some not so glorious days) were like.
This is not a book for children — the language is sometimes raw — but for adults who years ago spent their many childhood hours bonding via cable TV with the likes of Nick star Christine “Moose” McGlade. The oral-history approach is at times unwieldy, but with patience you will find fascinating stories, such as those about the rise and conflict-ridden fall of Ren & Stimpy. There’s also some Akron flavor, courtesy of Rachel Sweet, who wrote and sang the Clarissa theme, and Devo-tee Mark Mothersbaugh, whose music graced Rugrats.
You may also want to take a look at a couple of new memoirs. Billy Crystal has penned Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? (Henry Holt, $28). And Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman has Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living (Dutton, $26.95). Each very clearly has its author’s voice; read these aloud and try not to lapse into Crystal’s inflections or the murmurs of Offerman’s Parks character, Ron Swanson.
Crystal’s musings on his adventures as he gets older can be jokey. When he played a game with his beloved New York Yankees, he was “the first player to test positive for Maalox.” Or, at 65, “you don’t kid yourself and look at 25-year-olds anymore. Actually, I do, but they’re out of focus, and by the time I get my glasses on, they’re gone.” But, especially when he slams a joke into you page after page, I can’t help but laugh.
Offerman’s approach is, again, similar to what we have seen in some of his performances: smart, a bit cynical, wary of self-importance but capable of tremendous sentiment. (He leaves no doubt about how much he loves his wife, Megan Mullally.) Here, for example, is how he describes himself: “your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.”
But don’t think that he doesn’t prize his craft, or others’ craftsmanship. He runs his own wood shop, for one thing, and measures his success “in American dollars and Italian band saws.” Indeed, when he talks later about people’s surprise that he could “do comedy,” his reaction is, “It’s as though they were saying, ‘I didn’t know you specialized in identifying precious gemstones.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I perform entertainment. … Comedy is included in that.’ ”
Speaking of Tim Conway … (And we were, some paragraphs ago.) The time for his appearance at GhoulardiFest on Nov. 2 is now 2 p.m. The change to a later time is a result of Conway’s travel schedule. Conway will still talk about his book with Dan O’Shannon, another former Buckeye and an executive producer of ABC’s Modern Family. The fest nonetheless says his schedule will be tight, and there won’t be time for him to sign autographs.
For more about the Nov. 1-3 event, see www.theghoulardifest.com.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.