There is a certain kind of pain that writers get, and we can only get it from each other. Call it “Pen Envy” — that horrible feeling of complete admiration and loathing that comes immediately after the thought, “I wish I’d written that.” And if you want to compound that toxic stew of emotion, make the ache-inducing overachiever a friend. Grit your teeth, paint on a smile: “Yeah, that was good, nice job there.” Then count to five and expect some kind of return compliment, knowing full well you haven’t earned it. Ah, forget it, the next friend I make is a mechanic.
Actor, comedian, and writer Larry Miller first gave me a serious case of wished-I-dids a little over four years ago with an essay called “Whosoever Blesses Them.” Written for the website of that other conservative magazine, Larry’s 2,000 words brought electron microscope focus (and more than a few laughs) to the subject of the Middle East. The piece was e-mailed around at something slightly higher than the speed of accuracy, and soon people were mistakenly attributing it to Dennis Miller. It’s a spectacular job, a high-wire act both politically and comedically. Larry describes seeing a Hamas representative and his attorney interviewed by Greta Van Susteren, and finds himself less bothered by the terrorist:
Because if we’re only willing to absorb their own words–nevermind their demonic deeds–he and his brethren have a perfectly uncomplicated point of view and agenda, and their clarity should give us our own clarity, and wouldn’t that be refreshing? You want us dead? Well, now, isn’t that a funny coincidence. Guess what we want?
Ouch. The italics on “we” in the last line, like a kidney punch. I might need some ice. And now I am a bit older, a bit achier, and I sure didn’t need this: Larry Miller has a whole book. Spoiled Rotten America: Outrages of Everyday Life is 17 chapters of his musings and rantings on life, parenthood, marriage, entertainment, and work. Especially work, but more of that in a minute.
Full disclosure: Larry Miller is my friend. He co-starred in a show I created called Life’s Work which didn’t make it past episode 18 of its first season. Which was too damn bad, because I loved working with Larry, and if it had been a huge hit, we would have been able to work together for seven or eight years, and I would have $60 million right now. (I might need a moment. Thanks.) Larry originally signed on to do the show because he liked my writing, and that compliment has always meant the world to me. Making Larry laugh is one of my great joys and a source of immense pride — in fact, I stood right next to him as he told Jerry Seinfeld that I was funny, and by golly I won’t bring that up less than a trillion times between now and the grave. We were on the phone recently, and I was teasing him about his technophobia. (Larry isn’t exactly Steve Jobs.) As he struggled to get the dot-com or dot-net thing right on my e-mail address, I said, “No, Grandpa, you dial the area code first, then the number.” He had to think for a few seconds, and then he laughed for about five minutes. Assuming he was sober, I took it as quite a tribute.
You probably know him already as an actor, and if you don’t, your kids do. Somehow Larry has become Evil Principal/Dean/Boss to a generation, and (this is a compliment) is well on his way to being kind of a sturdier Margaret Dumont for our era. But before acting, Larry made a lasting and significant mark as a stand-up comic. (Which has always struck me as a weird term — why should posture enter into it? Was stand-up to differentiate from sit-down? Who were the great sit-down comics?) Larry always describes his work as a comedian in the simplest, most beautiful terms: “I tell jokes,” he says. And if you’ve never heard his classic bit, “The Five Levels of Drinking,” reserve a few moments later today to enjoy it in its entirety.
Then a few years ago, Larry started writing for that conservative-magazine-that-shall-not-be-named. It’s not a surprising evolution, really — a lot of comics want to be profound. Steve Martin was a philosophy major. Woody Allen balanced the Early Funny Ones with the Later Unwatchable Ones. (For comic profundity, little beats the scene in Stardust Memories when the aliens tell Allen that the secret to life is “tell funnier jokes.”) Why, even a humble sitcom writer might someday dream of dabbling in politics for a conservative magazine website. (Of course, I refer here to Rob Long.)
But here’s the kicker: Larry Miller is profound. He possesses an ability to look deep within a thing, whether it’s the racial divide in America, or the surpassing greatness of Lou Costello, and bring forth a richness of understanding, a new way of seeing it, or maybe a surprising and funny and sweet observation. His book is packed with laugh-out-loud moments, but they surround a wonderful, refreshing take on life, a traditionalist’s view that dares to note (for instance) that men are given to wander, but shouldn’t, because if they’re married, they promised not to. In the midst of a several-chapter rumination on adultery and the male libido in general, he hits on the Unified Moral Theory: “There’s no free lunch.”
Everything has a price, up front or later. That’s not cynical, it’s liberating, and a big step toward individual accountability, responsibility, and loyalty – which, if you think about it, is the whole point of the Ten Commandments to begin with. In fact, “There’s no free lunch” is a pretty good secular reduction of numbers 1 through 10 right there.
Another theme that runs through his book like coal through Pennsylvania is work. Larry has a work ethic that would put… well, coal miners to shame. Frankly, it puts me to shame every time I think about it. He keeps an office for writing, follows regular work habits, and puts in regular hours. You have to understand, most people in Hollywood didn’t come here for their love of sweat. We like the creative work, but we like it at our own pace. Until I have a deadline approaching, I can avoid work with the best of them. Not Larry. He tells a story in the book of doing some writing in his house early one Sunday morning. While his wife sleeps in, their kids take to driving golf balls into a newly painted living room wall. And Larry doesn’t notice. Because he’s working. But his attitude about work is never superior, he claims no higher moral ground for his efforts. He just loves it. It’s beautiful to behold, really, a man who loves his work for the pure joy of it, and Larry both embodies and celebrates that.
I suppose to keep this on the up-and-up, I better point out a few flaws in the book. Larry likes puns a good deal more than I do, and he goes on one or two Seussian rhyming jags, but that’s the price you pay for reading an author who will take a break mid-page to suggest that you join him in a cocktail, then resume, refreshed, a few moments later. Larry also puts a lot of chips down on the premise that any title with “The Quickening” after a colon is comic gold. It didn’t really tickle me the way it must have tickled him, but I can’t hold it against him, the way you can’t hold The Pompidou Centre against Paris. There’s so much to enjoy, and so few reasons to complain.
The amazing thing about Larry Miller’s career is that in his film work he frequently and easily plays the bad guy. It’s a stunning irony, as the only thing I can honestly say for sure about him, and what comes through loud and clear in Spoiled Rotten America, is that he wants nothing more than to be a good guy.
– Warren Bell is a veteran of 17 years of writing for television. He is currently executive producer of ABC’s According to Jim, which will return to the network in mid-season. He lives on a tiny lake just outside Los Angeles where he chases geese with his two sons on their mighty boat, the Proud Anselmo.
<title>Spoiled Rotten America, by Larry Miller</title>