Irish America – Patricia Harty – January 21, 2011
A couple of years ago, comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, known to me as Greg Fitz or Fitz, was honored as one of Irish America’s Top 100 and we roped him in to perform. He brought the house down with his stories of growing up in an Irish household where a sense of humor was not only highly valued, it was a necessary tool for survival.
Fitz grew up in Tarrytown, New York and started out in stand-up as a student at Boston University doing the rounds of the clubs in Boston. He looks like a cross between Tim Conway (the much underappreciated genius of The Carol Burnett Show) and Bob Newhart, both of whom have Irish roots, and he has the comic timing of both, with the irreverence and edginess of George Carlin, another Irish-American great, thrown in.
I knew Fitz was funny but I didn’t know he could write, so it took me longer to get around to reading his memoir than it should have.
Fitz can write (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that he’s a friend of a dear friend). At just 44, he may seem a bit young to write a memoir, but when he came across a box of notes from teachers that his mother had kept, including one from a Kindergarten teacher complaining that he didn’t know “how to wiggle,” a flood of memories came back and an idea for a book was born.
The notes and letters act as a linking thread in Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox, but the writing in between the notes has a purity and directness that is elegant, and of course, since it’s Greg Fitz we are talking about here, a good dose of bawdy. One gets the impression that every insult or injury is remembered, but he gives equal time to people he sinned against.
In addition to teachers complaining about Greg’s inability to pay attention, we learn that Fitz’s Irish family includes cousins and aunts who are “ball busters,” and an uncle Jimmy who is a down-and-out but who gives him lots of great books to read about the Bible and American history. And about his early days breaking into the business when he figured out how not to let the tough, largely Boston Irish, audiences break him down. And that’s the fun part. There is also the stuff that will gut you, like his early addiction to drugs and alcohol and how he decided to quit cold turkey when he bombed at a charity event because he was so stoned his timing was off. Most poignant is his coming to terms with his relationship with his father, a radio talk show personality, whom he adored, but who had his own addictions and a dark side.
At the launch of this book, Greg signed a copy to me, “Thanks for honoring our people no matter how we act.”
Comedienne Sarah Silverman describes Fitz as “Irish to the core. Despite himself, Greg Fitzsimmons has this bottomlessness oozing from his pores, and it’s raw, honest, and hilarious. This portrait of one comic’s life is funny, and true.” I can only concur.
Watching Fitz perform on stage at Caroline’s, as I did recently, I realized that what makes him so engaging as a stand-up artist is the undercurrent of empathy and understanding of human nature. This sensitivity, which he uses so well in his stand-up routine, translates beautifully into this memoir.
Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox deserves a standing ovation and months on the bestseller list.