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September 27, 2007 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | September 27, 2007 |

Occasionally, when bored with my mundane existence, I imagine myself living and working in Hollywood. At times I turn wistful; it must be glamorous indeed to rub elbows with the rich and famous. Thankfully, these moments don’t last long — I need only think of the turd du jour currently clogging our collective consciousness and I’m reminded how vapid, how superficial, how utterly soulless many “Hollywood types” can be and suddenly … I feel content again.

Who Stole the Funny? does not seek to undermine this image of Hollywood as a soul-sucking black hole and its denizens as superficial pricks. In fact, it reinforces every Hollywood stereotype I’ve ever heard — and then some. And while I know Benson’s humor works in part due to its exaggeration, I can’t help but believe that in some cases, Benson isn’t exaggerating much at all.

To be fair, everything about Who Stole the Funny? is done on a larger-than-life scale. The novel begins as the director of a hit sitcom dies in a freak accident: upon finding his wife in flagrante delicto, the poor schlub (see, I’ve even learned some vocabulary along the way) steps on a nail gun and shoots himself in the head. Although his death is most certainly an occasion for a teary-eyed moment of silence back at the studio (minus the tears and the sincerity), his death is important for another reason: the Powers That Be (like “schlub,” another of the many terms defined throughout the book) need another director to finish the season of I Love My Urban Buddies.

They decide J.T. Baker is the perfect choice to pick up where the nail gun left off. Even though everyone hates him (he is “passionate” and therefore a nightmare to work with), they know Baker will accept: having recently retired to live the good life on a farm, Baker must return to the insanity of Hollywood in order to earn his insurance, which pays for treatments needed by his ill son.

It should be an easy enough job for an experienced director; unfortunately for J.T., he not only is “passionate” but also truly cares about his work, so he will be fighting an uphill battle as he deals with coked-out writers, closeted actors, two-faced agents, and more. This is not an exaggeration; almost every single character in the book is a total asshole — except, of course, for Baker, his family, and his best friend.

You might think this near-total lack of any sympathetic characters whatsoever might make it difficult to enjoy the book, but that’s not entirely the case. Who Stole the Funny? is labeled as a roman à clef (meaning Benson is telling the truth through a layer of fiction), and one can’t help but wonder how thin this layer really is. I blush to admit that I remember Benson only for his vocal skills as the Beast, but his resume contains far more distinguished credits. As a Hollywood veteran with plenty of directing experience, he has directed episodes of “Ellen” and “Friends,” and it’s impossible not to compare the latter to “I Love My Urban Buddies.” The titles are practically identical, and so, it seems, are the castmates. One Buddy constantly swills liquid Vicodin; another is known for her ditzy personality and quirky facial expressions. Sound familiar?

While it’s fun to imagine Benson’s characters as their possible real-life counterparts, it’s not as enjoyable to imagine Baker as a thinly-veiled Benson. This comparison is the most aggravating aspect of the novel, since Baker actually cares about people, about his work - it’s the rest of Hollywood that doesn’t deserve to be spat on if found burning. Is Benson painting himself as a glorious example of humanity, an idealistic knight in shining armor who dives into battle to save even the lowliest crew member? It certainly appears so, which at times makes Who Stole the Funny? seem like little more than a $15 handjob created solely to stroke Benson’s ego.

However, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the read. What seemed gimmicky at the novel’s onset became enjoyable as I fully entered Benson’s world, and several scenes elicited genuine laughter. More amazing is the fact that I even came to care (admittedly only a wee bit, but it’s better than nothing) about Baker and his quest to perform his job well. And so, Who Stole the Funny? is ultimately pleasing, since it delivers exactly what I expected: a light and fluffy read that kept me entertained while reaffirming my quaint little existence far, far from Hollywood. Amen to that.

Bibliolatrist possesses extraordinary powers that enable her to read tall books in a single bound. As Jennifer McKeown, she spends her days as a mild-mannered English teacher living outside Philadelphia. She blogs over at Bibliolatry.

The $15 Ego Handjob

Who Stole the Funny? by Robby Benson / Jennifer McKeown

Books | September 27, 2007 |

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