John DeBellis should be famous. Far from a household name, he’s shared the company with Larry David, Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Gilbert Gottfried, Bill Maher, Andy Kaufman, Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy, and plenty others whose presence is more instantly recognizable than his own. He even wrote some jokes for Rodney Dangerfield and sketches with Billy Crystal, ultimately finding more success behind the scenes than on the stage with gigs on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show. But DeBellis was there to participate and observe a monumental period of stand-up comedy greatness. With Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs, we get a fly-on-the-wall account of a generation of comedians.
In just over two-hundred and fifty pages, DeBellis takes the reader on a tour of the East coast comedy scene in the seventies and eighties. With DeBellis as your tour guide, the writing is consistently entertaining, lively, and amusing. It’s full of jokes, with many paragraphs ending in a gem of a punch-line, and a general air of rascality fueling this heartfelt nostalgia trip. It beats with the pulse of a best friend who can’t wait to relay an experience they had, and the reader now becomes that friendly ear, with DeBellis becoming your most welcomed friend through a litany of fascinating inside stories. He’s the guy you can’t wait to hear from again, knowing you’re in for a treat when you pick up where you last left off.
There’s a lived-in perspective to the material, with honest, freewheeling psychoanalysis punctuating the semi-structured, stream-of-consciousness narrative. DeBellis shares his enviable experiences and imparts many words of wisdom that transcend mere show business advice (it’s full of that, too). The pages are filled with advice and quotes, a breakdown of the stand-up “life”, and the roots of the comedy germ, all told at a rapid pace. It covers bad gigs, great gigs, mentorships, striving for parental approval, the evolution and/or devolution of a comic, moving from coast to coast, club owners, problems talking to women, playing softball, practical jokes, encounters with the mob, encounters with legends and amateurs, the pain and joy of it all. He addresses great questions like “how was I, a guy whose comic believability at that time was the equivalent of a blow-up doll faking an orgasm, going to handle hecklers?”
Though he was once heckled for talking about himself so much, the book is as much about DeBellis as it is his peers and family (both surrogate and biological). Being so close with Larry David, many anecdotes concern first-person stories about one of the most significant comedy minds of the last twenty-five years. Some relatively unknown comics will be sought out at the conclusion of this read as well, with DeBellis painting vivid, colorful portraits of the less popular funnymen (and women—he devotes an entire chapter to that gender) of that day. Throughout you’ll find many personal, often emotional mini-tributes to those who have passed. He even gives a shout out to the extended family that is the comedy club staff, which, having belonged to that group for over five years, I have my own experiences with and it meant a lot to me. I’ve never read a comic’s appreciation of the club employees on paper before, but the appreciation is likewise reciprocated.
Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs offers the kind of writing that could very well make DeBellis the household name he should already be, if enough people get their hands on it. I’m not too worried about that, since anybody who reads this will likely recommend it to several of their friends, particularly those interested in comedy, since it firmly places itself alongside the best of that bunch. It’s a memoir, it’s a document of an era, and it’s an autobiography. It’s also the best book on stand-up I’ve read since Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up.
You can find a copy of Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs here at Amazon.com