Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F*cked

Fair or not, as I read Darrell Hammond’s God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked, I couldn’t help comparing it constantly to Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Both Hammond and Fey are prominent alumni of the long-running NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, and their memoirs were published a mere seven months apart. While Fey’s book was modestly entertaining, it was a bit of a disappointment. It favored cute and clever witticisms over candor and humility. In contrast, Hammond has penned an absorbing, emotionally frank, and surprisingly educational memoir that lays its author bare in a manner that is both delicate and unflinching.

It is no surprise that Hammond’s time at Saturday Night Live should underscore nearly every chapter of his memoir. His record-breaking 14-year stint as an SNL cast member made him a household name, from college dorms to the most famous house of all, located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Indeed, Hammond’s impressions covered a veritable pantheon of political figures—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Jesse Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, pundit Chris Matthews, and even Donald Trump (who counts only because he briefly flirted with the idea of running for president). The man also famously performed as Sean Connery, Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Phil Donahue, Regis Philbin, and scores of others. Hammond’s notoriety as the preeminent comic impressionist of this generation followed him everywhere, from Presidential black-tie soirées, where Hammond was invited to perform as Clinton alongside Clinton himself, to the psychiatric hospitals where, as a patient, Hammond still couldn’t escape the requests to appear in character.

Little do people know that Hammond’s penchant for imitation began as a child, when his impressions of Porky Pig and others formed the only positive link between him and his sadistically abusive, mentally-ill mother. It was a relationship that would germinate more than Hammond’s vocal talents, leading the comedian for most of his life to struggle with severe mental and emotional problems, and in turn with alcohol and a wide assortment of other drugs. Even more shockingly, Hammond’s psychological turmoil was frequently manifest in acts of self-cutting, a practice he engaged in often just moments before taking the stage and performing in comedy skits on live television. An amazingly persistent talent, Hammond nevertheless didn’t always make it in front of the cameras. More than once his appearances were cancelled as he was rushed from the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center to a hospital—one time in a straitjacket.

Hammond’s tome is a powerful one, with writing as dignified as it is gracious. It’s almost surprising that the book is a memoir for as little as Hammond makes himself the center of attention. In no way does he shy away from the details of his life, from his vast accomplishments and the wealth of professional respect that has come his way. And yet Hammond exudes an unwavering awe toward all of the talent with which he’s had the honor to have worked, a relentless gratitude for all of the wondrous occasions of which he’s been a part. At the same time, Hammond openly discusses his foibles and flaws. His matter-of-fact recounting of personal weakness is neither arrogant nor apologetic nor a plea for sympathy, it is just the truth. It is a pervasive and guileless honesty that commands the respect of the reader, even when a bit of the unsolicited sympathy does manage to slip in.

I would be remiss not to mention the expert way in which Hammond fuses informative passages into his tale. The knowledge the reader gains of everything Hammond discusses, from life in Hell’s Kitchen circa 1980 to law enforcement in the Bahamas, is staggering. A copious amount of detail is woven into the narrative, but it is done so seamlessly and succinctly that you’ll scarce realize you’re being educated just as much as you’re being entertained. Nowhere is this as true as when Hammond describes the inner workings of Saturday Night Live. Even the casual fan of the show will gain an appreciation for the controlled chaos that goes on behind the scenes. Hammond’s book should be used as a primer for anyone aspiring to join the cast or crew of SNL.

It is incredibly fitting that Hammond should conclude his memoir discussing his most recent adventure, playing Truman Capote in a stage production of the one-man show Tru. As Hammond notes, the stage is designed to make audiences feel as though they are sitting in Capote’s living room, effectively transforming the nearly 100-minute monologue into something of an intimate conversation between Capote and the individual viewer. Hammond’s book accomplishes nearly the same feat. By the time I had reached the final few chapters, I realized that I was reading every page as though poised on the edge of my seat, with Hammond sitting directly in front of me, talking to me personally, telling me about his life as if I were a near and dear friend. It donned on me then that Hammond, whom I felt had alluded me in the earlier chapters, had been there all along, but with such a quiet and pleasing demeanor that I had failed to appreciate his arrival, so caught up was I in what he had to say. Without my even realizing it, Hammond had befriended me through his stories. And I can’t think of a better compliment for the author of a memoir.

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