Irish Voice – Cahir O’Doherty – November 12, 2010
Four-time Emmy Award winning comedian Greg Fitzsimmons has just written one of most hilarious and unexpectedly moving Irish American memoirs in years. He talks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY about his career, his success and lifelong his unstoppable urge to behave badly.
If stand-up comedy is the bottom rung in the entertainment ladder, then memoirs must be the lowest rung of the publishing world. But that’s just fine for comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, 44, the four-time Emmy Award winner.
“Memoirs have become the lowest form of writing, which is exactly why I was drawn to the genre,” Fitzsimmons told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
Lifelong shame and guilt (and pointless attempts to impose them on him) drive his raucous and unspeakably funny new book, Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox (Simon & Schuster).
Constructed around a series of increasingly angry (and unintentionally hilarious) letters from his outraged teachers, Fitzsimmons’ book is a classic Irish American coming of age tale about a bright kid who keeps asking increasingly awkward questions of his shocked elders, and then has the charm and smarts to elude the consequences (usually).
But underneath the brittle surface there’s a lot of heartache and darkness in this story too.
Fitzsimmons’ disciplinary reports were called Irish Merit Badges in family, and his parents would often howl with laughter at their contents.
“Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons,” one begins, “Greg was loitering in the hallway when I walked by on my way home. Greg began openly mocking me by making fun of my last name (i.e. ‘The grass looked very Dewey this morning,’ ‘Dewey have any homework?’ and ‘Are we going to learn the Dewey Decimal System?’) It is disrespectful to address a teacher in such a manner, and I think its best to bring this to his parents’ attention.”
With material like this to draw from, is it any wonder he’s a comedian?
“The way my parents reacted to school letters that were supposed to cause shame and bringing down the hammer was unusual, because to them it was a badge of honor. It meant their kid was independent and free-thinking and he fought back,” Fitzsimmons says.
By laughing at these letters — even though there were times when they’d get mad — his parents taught him valuable lessons about conformity.
“Don’t do it so much that you fail in life, but to succeed in life and not do it is not success. There has to be some element of you didn’t play by all the rules and you still managed to be successful,” he says.
Fitzsimmons grew up in Tarrytown in Westchester County, New York, the area where Don Draper of TV’s Mad Men commutes from each episode. He won his four Emmys as a producer/writer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show at the start of the decade. Fitzsimmons also has his own radio show on Howard 101, the Sirius satellite radio channel programmed by his friend Howard Stern, who also wrote the foreword for his book.
That Irish spirit of defiance has marked his book, his career and his life. Starting out as a stand up, he’d play schools and colleges, and when a stuffy official told him what he could and could not talk about it always set him off.
In fact, for Fitzsimmons that kind of censorship was useful because it made his job easier. “When you tell me not to do something then you’re really keying it up for me, and I enjoy it so much more,” he says.
“Don’t be a wiseacre out there,” a school principal counseled him before a high school prom gig in Indiana once when he was starting out. That command grated on every one of his anti-authority Irish impulses.
“It’s one thing to be told don’t be a wise ass but now you’re using a phrase that highlights the fact that you’re a big nerd. That’s irresistible,” he says.
Responding to this provocation, Fitzsimmons invited the graduating class back to his motel for a keg. He celebrated the glories of cocaine, and he even joked about having sex with his grandmother. The angry protest letter to his agent was in the post before the curtain fell.
“It all started with that angry prom letter,” says Fitzsimmons. “I really was hurt by it at first. It really bothered me that the principal wrote it. Only because I thought the show had gone so well.
“So receiving this letter was like another failed attempt, even after years, for them to control me. But only later when I started reading it to the audience on stage the crowd started dying. I didn’t realize how funny it could seem to other people.”
Fitzsimmons’ mother saved all the nasty letters. “It’s almost as if she knew that one day I’d be a comedian,” he says.
“Those letters are gold. Stand-up comedy is really like a memoir. You go up and tell stories about your life. We’re storytellers. I felt like if I can communicate my own story best with a memoir then that’s what I need to do. Maybe it will surprise people that there’s so much more to see here than they expected to find.”
But if you buy the book — and if you like a laugh you really should — don’t expect linear stories about where he grew up and how he became a comedian.
“It’s a stand up comedian’s memoir, but it won’t be placed in the comedy section of the bookstore. I want to appeal to the Irish. If you can win them over then everyone will follow. If gay guys are the ones people follow into real estate, then the Irish are the ones they follow into books,” Fitzsimmons reckons.
The McCourts wrote books that lured you in with the lowered expectations of memoirs, Fitzsimmons says, and then they blew you away with a narrative that was so well written, so heartfelt and so tragic and comic that you couldn’t help but respond.
“To me it was like saying, ‘Hey we’re Irish, we’re not snobs, we don’t stand on ceremony or proper etiquette. We don’t belong to private country clubs. We’re about putting it all out there, our humor that is.’
“Most people don’t know the other side of it. They don’t know the deep feelings that exist there too. People don’t really know that there’s this love behind it all.”
As well as the deep love for his family and friends, there’s his limitless curiosity too. In the book Fitzsimmons’ endless curiosity leads him into scrapes, one after another, and some more surprising than other.
In college he takes a walk into Fenway Park in Boston at 4 a.m. to resolve once and for all if he has any latent homosexual tendencies (it turns out he doesn’t). That makes for a great stand-up story, but it also indicates an uncommon fearlessness.
“I feel like life is finite. What feels right is to explore and to challenge and the truth lies right up against crossing lines into danger and asking the questions that no one else is asking,” he says.
“The only way you can get to the truth is to peel away all the pretence, and I think the same things go sexually. How do you know you’re not gay? Every time you hear about these anti-gay people you hear six months later they were (****) someone in a van. Of all the issues you could put your energy behind, why this?”
The suspicion that there’s a gap between what people say and do is a very Irish awareness. Like his friend and fellow standup Sarah Silverman, Fitzsimmons feels both the Irish and the Jews share an underground voice that’s different to the one that’s presented to the world.
“The reason why the first comedians here were Jewish is because they came to this country and no one would hire them. Stand-up comedian was one of the lowest, most looked upon things you could do,” he says.
“The Marx Brother were saying f*** you. The Irish share a similar story but their comedy comes much more out of storytelling. But there’s an understanding between them both culturally and experience wise in this country.”
Asked what he wants people to know about his memoir Fitzsimmons deadpans instantly, “It could have been better.”