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Book Review: Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons

Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox by Greg Fitzsimmons (Simon & Schuster, $25, 9781439182697/1439182698, November 9, 2010)

Standup comic, writer and radio personality Greg Fitzsimmons stumbled on a cache of letters that his mother saved from his childhood and teenage years. Eagerly browsing through what she had deemed worth saving, he discovered the collection contained every last bad report she had ever received about him, starting with his preschool teacher’s ridiculous complaint that he was unable to wiggle (the inability to wiggle should have tipped them all off that this was TROUBLE in short pants). Instead of burying this hoard of rebukes testifying that he was trouble every place he set foot, Fitzsimmons uses them as prompts in this merciless and hilarious memoir of his pugnacious early years and coming into his own as a comic. Humiliating craziness is recounted; blame is placed with acid zingers that define his style; and the incontrovertible evidence is laid out in the original letters and family photos.

“Raised by Irish parents from the Bronx, my culture was about short fuses, long grudges and zero tolerance for giving in,” Fitzsimmons states in an emotionally complex portrait of his father who epitomized that culture–fierce, funny, inconsistent and scarily intimidating. When those bad reports arrived in the mail, Greg never knew whether his father (Bob Fitzsimmons, a popular talk-show host on New York City radio) would find them infuriating (leading to a hiding for little Greg) or funny (leading to a laugh-in by the whole family). Extreme mood swings and alcoholic rages were, to be sure, balanced by gales of laughter over whatever was handy to mock, but home was a breeding ground for Greg’s hate and rage, which he would later “channel in a productive manner [in] drunken, smoke-filled stand-up comedy clubs.”

Rebelling against a bullying patriarch was a full-time job for Greg as an adolescent. He began drinking seriously at 13 and, despite his self-described small-and-scrawny size, was always in fights. A typical exchange with his parents at that time: “Greg, get off the roof, you’re drunk!” as he ignored their orders. The key to his survival was leaving home. After backpacking in Europe, he enrolled in Boston University. Never a dedicated student, Fitzsimmons discovered his passion in Boston–to stand in front of a crowd daring him to make them laugh when the looks on their faces said, “You loser, you can’t even get us to crack a smile.”

He recalls, “In Boston, they’d rather see a fistfight than a comedy show.” Once he gave them both in a performance that earned a standing ovation from a really tough audience. “For me being funny was always in reaction to somebody telling me what to do,” he confesses. That would be Dad, who died young at 54, yet still looms large, as a model and a warning, for his son.–John McFarland

Shelf Talker: A merciless and hilarious memoir of surviving a domineering father to turn hate and rage into comedy.


Crave Online – Book Report

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Crave Online – Johnny Firecloud – November 21, 2010

Let’s begin with a disclaimer: If your particular brand of comedy involves the words Dane Cook or Larry the Cable Guy, chances are strong that Greg Fizsimmons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you absolutely despise the kneejerk dumb-funny comedy they shill, opting instead for true grit and relatable, agonizing humor, Fitzsimmons is the man for you.

Constructed around a collection of increasingly angry, unintentionally hilarious letters from his outraged former instructors, Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox can’t help itself in an overload of raucous hilarity, becoming a classic Irish American coming of age tale about a bright kid who keeps asking increasingly inappropriate questions of those charged with raising and caring for the future side-splitter, and his general ability to sidestep consequence. Think of it as A Christmas Story with less holiday flare and a whole lot more mischief.

The 44 year-old Fitzsimmons has made a lot of mistakes in his long road to becoming a four-time Emmy Award winner, but while most parents would hide or destroy any evidence so clearly demonstrating their child’s failures, Greg’s family has preserved each mistake like a precious memento from his childhood, allowing for hilarious recounting in a book that steps beyond the nostalgic humor and – through tracing his shameless self-damnation back to its origin, fantastic storytelling and a genuinely morose attitude – reaches a point of empathetic harmony with the reader.

Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons is a highlight reel of Greg’s life as a kid in the Boston suburbs spent terrorizing the neighborhood, told through this avalanche of disciplinary letters, incident reports and newspaper clippings that his parents received from teachers and school officials. Greg picks up where his parents left off with his own collection of letters received during college and throughout his successful career as a writer, producer, and stand-up comic. Revealing the larger story of how Greg’s distinctly dysfunctional Irish-American family bred him to blindly challenge anyone, anytime, anywhere, over anything, Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons comes full circle to show that the Fitzsimmons torch has been passed on proudly to a new generation.

“Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons,” one such letter 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.”

Full of wince-worthy stories and cringe-tastic photos to pair with the narrative, the book pulls the reader back into the grit of growing up as an everyday kid. The laughter mixes well with the poignant heartbreak associated with growing up, from being rejected by girls to recounting his father’s death in a chapter called The Sad Part Where Dad Dies. Furthermore, it’s impossible to go wrong when you’ve got a crushingly hilarious foreword from the King of All Media himself, Howard Stern, complete with a sexy picture of his stunning wife Beth.

A fantastic comedic wit with a dazzling ability to move words on paper, Greg Fitzsimmons is far more than another stand-up routine. Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons is highly recommended – pick it up for the holidays. And if the stories sound familiar, or you have one to top his, Fitzsimmons has created a Web site, DearMrsFitzsimmons.com, for you to share.

CraveOnline Rating: 9 out of 10


DEAR MRS. FITZSIMMONS enhanced e-book

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