Review: ‘Celebrity Autobiography’ and the Modern Warholian Dilemma
Thomas Burns Scully
How many times have you seen a hardback copy of a celebrity’s life-story and thought to yourself: good god, what’s the point? It certainly seems that in addition to everyone being entitled to their Warholian fifteen-minutes, these days everyone also gets five-hundred pages to rehash those fifteen minutes. Derek Hough, Dustin Diamond (alias Screech), Dog the Bounty Hunter, and the Terry the terrier (who played Toto in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) are among the not-so illustrious names who have given us life-stories that we never asked for. There is, of course, every chance that these works are enlightening, endearing, unexpectedly astounding contributions to the literary canon. It seems unlikely though.
‘Celebrity Autobiography’ is a show which, largely, confirms this. This team, headed up by Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel lifts the words of pampered celebs off the page and on to the stage, often exposing them for the hollow vessels that they are. They speak aloud passages from celebrity autobiographies, and astound audiences with the vapid redundancy of much of the disgustingly rich and famous’s grey matter (or at least the parts responsible for sentence construction). They did a special edition of their show for Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival this weekend, and much fun was had.
The cast (which rotates show to show) consisted of many faces and names people will be familiar with. Tate Donovan (’24’), Jackie Hoffman (‘On the Town’), Geraldine Hughes (‘Jerusalem’, ‘Belfast Blues’), Maulik Pancholy (’30 Rock’), Michael Urie (‘Ugly Betty’, ‘Buyer and Cellar’), Alan Zweibel (‘SNL’), as well as creators Reyfel and Pack were taking up the spotlight on Saturday, giving air to some fatuous celebrity prose. The show is essentially simple in structure, similar in format to a sketch show. Actors come to the stage and read, either as a solo, or part of an ensemble from celebrity autobiographies. The works of choice ranged from the false-modesty of Justin Beiber, through the blunt stupidity of Trumps and Kardashians, to the high-flown psychodrama of the Fisher-Taylor-Burton love-triangle-come-car-wreck. Detours were made that compared the strange dietary tips of Sly Stallone and Dolly Parton, and the deliriously pampered lives of various dogs of the stage and screen. Laughs were had all around.
‘Celebrity Autobiography’s conceit is so simple as to be infuriating, like ‘Cards Against Humanity’ it has an “anyone could have thought of this” feel to it. That’s not to take away from the skill involved in carefully cherry-picking and arranging the extracts for dramatic and comic effect, but like improv and garage rock and roll, there’s a certain amount of “I could do that” going through your head while you watch. Certainly, a lot of the show consists of attacking low-hanging fruit. Egos as bloated as Trump’s, Beiber’s or the Kardashians’ are hardly difficult to hit, a child with a Thesaurus and CNN could put together a half-decent roast of any of these. However, the cleverness of the show is in damning these people with their own (or at the very least, their ghostwriter’s) words. There’s something very pleasing at listening to barely-likable celebrities making themselves look like air-headed idiots. You will definitely laugh, and laugh a lot.
Apart from the laughter, there are a few points of concern I have for the show. In the program they quite plainly state “We’re not trying to be mean… they wrote ‘em”, and yet, I couldn’t help but nose a certain amount of mean-spiritedness in the air. Naturally I have no love lost for Donald Trump, that man demands more ridicule than could be mined out of the lifetimes of nine George Carlins. But cherry-picking the words of Diana Ross and Dolly Parton, flirts with vindictiveness. I’m not overly fond of either, but they have always struck me as naieve, rather than morally repugnant. And, while the show does not lambaste them, rather magnify said naivety, there is a certain extent to which it makes one feel that any celebrity autobiography read out like B-Movie dialogue would sound like… well, B-Movie dialogue. And that could potentially give ‘Celebrity Autobiography’ a license to print well-selected slander. For the record, I don’t think this is the case, the show has accrued sizable goodwill over the near decade it has existed, and you don’t get that by burning bridges. But you do have to wonder what could happen.
The extent to which ‘Celebrity Autobiography’ could be seen as mean is, largely, negligible. The most important part of this review is the earlier part, where I told you how funny it is. It’s very funny. The performers they get are top notch. I saw Jackie Hoffman in the final performance of ‘On The Town’ two weeks ago and she was stellar, a highlight. She is equally good here, reading various parts from the pantheon of celebrity. All the performers are excellent, as you would expect from the ranks that they draw their actors. I will say that it is hard to see exactly what the connection is to Origin’s 1st Irish Festival, though. None of the performers or creators are Irish, and none of the celebrities lampooned were Irish, and yet the show is quite decidedly part of the festival.
Alas, it remains a mystery to me. That said, if your only concern is watching talented people reading the ill-advised biographizing of semi-literate public figures, this is very much the show for you. It’s distilled comedy in easy to absorb snorts, geared for maximum laughs, and not much else. It seems like it’s going to run forever, so pick a date and buy a ticket. I can recommend it.
‘Celebrity Autobiography’ returns to the Triad Theatre on November 23rd at 7:00PM. Tickets available at celebrityautobiography.com costing $40 - $80. Details of the 1st Irish Festival can be found at 1stIrish.org.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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