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Book Review

Stiller's Show-Biz Memoir Chronicles Well-Deserved 'Laughter'

MARRIED TO LAUGHTER. A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara by Jerry Stiller; Simon & Schuster

$25, 336 pages

September 21, 2000|TONY PEYSER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two of the most memorable pop culture catch phrases are "a really big show," courtesy of "The Ed Sullivan Show," and "Serenity now!" courtesy of "Seinfeld." Although these programs are separated by decades, one performer was on both of these landmark series and spoke (no, make that "bellowed") the last line: another Jerry, named Stiller. And we're not talking about just a couple of appearances, either.

In the 1960s, the comedy team of Stiller and wife Anne Meara were booked on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 35 times, which, in the comedy world, is like Pete Sampras winning 13 major tennis titles. (Sullivan never once pronounced their names right, but who's complaining?) Equally impressive is Stiller's portrayal of basket case Frank Costanza 25 times during his six years on "Seinfeld" in the 1990s. He was also a charter member of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. This long and remarkable career is the subject of his new autobiography, "Married to Laughter."

Stiller's gifts as a storyteller are abundantly clear, and he emerges as someone you'd love to have as a dinner guest. His devotion to his wife and pride in their children, Amy and Ben, is also palpable. The stories don't revolve solely around him, which is unusual for a show business memoir. And, refreshingly, the person who is the most frequent butt of the jokes is Stiller himself. But fun is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering his childhood during the Depression in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, which was bookended by extreme poverty and battling parents.

Stiller's family was so poor that they couldn't afford their own Passover Seders and would regularly show up unannounced at relatives'. They figured (and rightly so) that no one would turn them away. It was that kind of deprivation that sparked Stiller's ambition to leave home and make a name for himself.

When he was 19, he saw "Command Decision" on Broadway, went backstage and introduced himself to performer John Randolph, who encouraged the young Stiller to pursue his acting dreams. Not only did Stiller later work with Randolph, but ironically, he replaced him as George Costanza's father on "Seinfeld."

Fans of the NBC series will be amused to learn that Frank Costanza was supposed to be low-key until Stiller (in an Emeril Lagasse kinda way) bumped it up a notch the first time he did the show by shrieking these lines to his wife about their son: "You made him this way; you spoiled him! You slept in the same bed with him!"

His "Seinfeld" role, however, is a relatively small chapter in the book of Stiller's life. In 1953, Stiller met Meara and, a year later, they married and began their club act at Greenwich Village coffeehouses. They played off his being short and Jewish and her being tall and Irish. Their many appearances on Sullivan later caught the attention of up-and-coming adman Jerry Della Femina, who hired them in the 1970s to do spots for Blue Nun. Sales for the wine went through the convent roof because of their commercials.

It's a pleasure to report that the book shows what a good heart Stiller has, although he does have a bum hip and a bad back. When seeking treatment for the latter in 1980, he found himself surrounded by many celebrities in the Park Avenue waiting room of a New York doctor who had a quick cure for just about anything. All it involved was putting long tongs in your nose for five minutes. Stiller's back problems miraculously went away--and so did the doctor: It turned out the tips of the device his patients placed in their noses contained a diluted cocaine solution.

A memorable incident occurs when Stiller meets half of one of the few other husband-and-wife comedy teams, George Burns. Stiller told him he'd heard Burns and Allen were the happiest married couple in Hollywood. Burns' surprising response was, "We were never married--we were married to the business." Stiller took this to mean that their love of show business brought them closer.

Still, Stiller and Meara eventually found that seeing a therapist helped them cope with the pressures of working together for years, through thick and not so thick, and then tried to forge new careers separately after they stopped performing as a team. Meara, who wrote most of the Blue Nun spots, has become a successful playwright with "After-Play," a biting comedy about couples who meet after a play and wind up dissecting their lives. (Stiller has appeared in productions of her play.)

They must be doing something right as a couple; they've now been married 46 years. Remarkably free of rancor, "Married to Laughter" is a testament to love and perseverance and a reminder that behind every successful Hollywood story is a lot of rejection, family woes and tough luck. Jerry Stiller has earned his serenity now.

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