November 16, 2005 was the official pub date for my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
How did it come about? Trying to chase the true genesis of such a thing is slippery. I’d been interested in vaudeville and theatre history at least since I was a teenager. Independent study in the area had always been one of my pursuits, and I’d been performing one or another form of comedy (stand-up, solo theatre, sketch comedy, pseudo-clowning) since I was a kid. In the late 80s I made my first visit to Coney Island USA; in the early 90s I got a day job working in the back office of Big Apple Circus — these were certainly major factors in intensifying my passion. In 1996 I started producing and hosting my own vaudeville shows at venues throughout New York, a process that continues to this day (my most recent vaudeville show was last year; I’m planning a big one for next year). I presented hundreds of acts, and attained some notable press. One of the more prominent press pieces, in The New Yorker, combined with articles I’d written for magazines like American Theatre and Reason, brought me to the attention of the visionary editor Denise Oswald, then at the Farrar, Straus & Giroux imprint at Faber and Faber. And out of our meeting(s), much research, and many drafts, came this book.
Now, I won’t lie to you. I am very much like the people I write about, which is the reason for certain aspects of the book which have been widely praised, such as the compulsion to entertain, and a close identification with the subject at hand. But being like them also means that I am restless, competitive and perpetually dissatisfied. I relate very much to John Lahr’s descriptions of his father the great comedian Bert Lahr, one of the funniest men who ever lived, but who fretted, worried and groused constantly when he was offstage. I don’t claim I’m as funny as Lahr, just that I’m as much of a wet blanket behind the scenes. Thus I have a tendency to bring people down when they ask me direct questions about the experience of having written this book. When I was a kid, I dreamed of living in a castle, and really nothing less than a castle will do. And so when people ask, “Has the book done well?””, I say, “Yes, but not well ENOUGH”; “Has the book changed your life?”: “Yes, but it has not changed my life ENOUGH”, “Has the book made you money?”: “Yes, but not ENOUGH money.” (By the way, that is an exceptionally rude question. NEVER ask anyone that question. What the hell is wrong with you? I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked this question. 100 times? “Must have made you some money, huh?” What are you, a ferengi?)
But the real answer deserves a qualification that puts the picture in better perspective. It comes when I add to “ENOUGH” the silent amendment, in brackets, “FOR ME“. Because it was successful. The book was critically praised, often highly, by just about every publication that matters: The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, etc etc etc. I was on NPR. I booked speaking and performing engagements all around the country. The book is considered by many to be the best all-around one on its subject. It’s in schools and libraries all over the country. It has been cited in tons of books, including Richard Zoglin’s recent Bob Hope biography. I hear from fans of No Applause from all parts of the world, all the time, to this day. I have people tell me it’s their favorite book; I have people tell me it’s their “desert island” book; I have people tell me the book changed their life. These things don’t happen to every author. And they certainly didn’t happen to me before the book came out. For these things I am grateful.
My son has asked me more than once for some perspective on the success of the book. I’ll often say, “It has sold very well for a book of its type.” Which is true, but doesn’t sound very impressive. I recently came up with another formulation that works a bit better. I relate it to Brian Eno’s quote about The Velvet Underground and Nico, which was essentially that though the album only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those copies started a band.” No Applause is influential. It has inspired people. It is a “cult favorite”. And many of the fans in the cult are high quality ones indeed, including Bette Midler (who put it on her short list of favorite books in People Magazine a few months ago), the late great David Rakoff, composer/performer Michael Feinstein, and many others.
Those are satisfactions. But this is the United States of Success, and the majority of people don’t understand how an author can be one if it’s not on the scale of John Grisham, Stephen King, etc. And frankly, I’m one of those people! You can’t BE a vaudevillian unless you are one of those people! I want a drink with an umbrella in it on a beach that I flew to without losing hair and sleep about buying the plane ticket. Not a can of Yoo Hoo on the bus to visit the Lou Costello memorial in Paterson, New Jersey. (Truth be told, I have deferred that expense indefinitely).
There were so many disappointments when I tried to climb to the next rung after No Applause — usually things that fell into my lap from out of the sky just to tease me and torment me before dissolving. A hot ritzy downtown nightclub opened and I discussed producing a big show there with one of the owners at his behest — until his partners decided to go in a more pornographic direction. (Insiders will automatically know which club I mean by that description). A hot Broadway composer reached out to me to collaborate on a show, and we did so for a few weeks, until he dropped it. Writers for hot network TV shows kept reaching out to me — invariably to pick my brain, for free, as a historian, for stupid projects of their own. (I’m a better than fair comedy writer myself, as it happens). And I kept trying to find work — like a paying day job — as a writer, with zero success. The nadir was when I met this guy who was hiring “writers” to develop phone apps. “For example”, he told me, “I’m looking for people to help me create things like this ‘fart noise’ app.” THAT’S what writers are being hired to do nowadays.
But you stay in the game. Last year was easily my best professional year in the theatre ever for reasons you’ve already been flogged to death with. If I’d quit after my mishigas with the Broadway guy, I’d never have had the opportunity to work with Noah Diamond on I’ll Say She Is, for example, or stars like Everett Quinton and Molly Pope in Horse Play and that would have been a dumb and tragic pre-emptive move indeed.
And now I’m cooking up new things, lots of big new things, including a new show business book that I think will have much wider reach than my first two, and already has interest from a major publisher. I’m very excited about that. And so and so in my garbled and lame attempt to live life according the creed of Tennyson’s Ulysses: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
And on the subject of mottoes, on this occasion I can’t help recalling that of Henny Youngman: “Nem di gelt.” The irony! For, contrary to the request I make in the title of my book, I have been receiving plenty of applause over the past decade, and FAR, FAR too little money. To quote Max Bialystock: I’m wearing a cardboard belt!
There’s six weeks until Christmas. Buy No Applause here. Please!