Saturday, January 2, 2010

It's Only Show Biz

By Pat Browning

Comedian Sid Caesar raised one of those expressive eyebrows and explained the magic of working before a live audience. The place was Caesar’s dressing room in a San Francisco theater, where his latest show, “Little Me,” a smash hit on Broadway, was playing. I was a new stringer for the Fresno Bee and somehow wangled an assignment from the Bee and an interview with Caesar.

Green I was, and so star struck I didn’t take a single note. I walked into his dressing room, looked into his brilliant blue eyes and blurted, “You’re a lot funnier in person than you are on television.”

This got me the raised eyebrow and the explanation. That was 40 years ago and it’s been my backup ever since.

Caesar said because I bought a ticket, dressed for the occasion and made an effort to get myself into a seat before the curtain went up, I was primed to think he was funny. In a nutshell, performer and audience worked together. We expected to be entertained and we helped to make it happen.

It’s so simple I wonder why any writer is ever nervous about presenting a program at a library or a book club or a conference. The same kind of performer-audience interaction takes place when you’re selling books at personal appearances. You are the star of the show, and the audience wants you to succeed. Marketing gurus have been saying it for years: It’s not about the book; it’s about you.

The creative process seems to be the same, whether you’re writing a book or dancing in a Broadway musical. I recently watched the 1933 movie “42nd Street” starring Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels and Dick Powell.

Baxter plays an ailing, hard-driving Broadway producer who wants one more hit show. Powell plays a romantic lead who sneaks Keeler into the chorus line of Baxter’s play. Daniels plays a Broadway star torn between her career and her love for a less-successful actor. When Daniels breaks her ankle just before opening night, a desperate Baxter pulls Keeler out of the chorus to take the lead.

Keeler is terrified. Daniels pays her a visit on opening night and says:

“You’re nervous, aren’t you? Well, don’t be. The customers out there want to like you. Always remember that, kid. I’ve learned it from experience. And you’ve got so much to give them.”

The YouTube clip, showing Baxter browbeating Keeler into shape for the role, and Daniels coming in with her good advice, is worth watching. Forget Keeler’s clunky tap dancing and watch the agony she goes through to get ready for her shot at stardom. It’s not that different from a writer who writes and rewrites and lurches from despair to success.

This line is the point of the whole struggle -- “’ve got so much to give them.”

Who, me? you think. Yes, you. If you have the intelligence, imagination, wit and discipline to write a book, you have a lot to share with your reading audience, your customers. Try not to forget it.

Wait for your cue. Take the stage and claim your spotlight. Shake off the trembles and come back a star. 


Mark W. Danielson said...

Sid was a superb entertainer, and he offered excellent words of wisdom.

I think about some of the presentations I've listened to and wonder, how can this highly regarded author be so BORING? I agree with you, Pat. If you're going to make the effort to meet an audience, then ensure you have made it worth their while.

Anonymous said...


Some authors never get past themselves to connect with an audience. And let's face it, some of the most famous are so pushed and packaged by a publisher they don't remember the difference between sharing and presenting.

When I interviewed Caesar his PR flack sat there giving me the evil eye the whole time. If I asked a personal question, Caesar's mouth would open but the flack would answer, like some Charlie McCarthy character.

Fortunately Caesar was a very bright man and he could steer the conversation any way he chose.

Pat Browning

Helen Ginger said...

Such a wonderful post, Pat. I love it. Feel like I should print it out and post it nearby.

Straight From Hel

Anonymous said...


The secrets to success are so simple, although a little luck never hurts.

Watching football bowl games the past few days reminds me of another one of those little secrets: focus. How do players cope with weather, newshounds, referees and 94,000 screaming fans as they chase a ball around a field? They just focus on the ball and the end zones.

Sad to say, my focus in 2009 was all over the map and I accomplished zip. I'm making some hard decisions in an effort to change that in 2010.

Thanks for your comment, and Happy New Year! (-:

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

Good ideas to think about, Pat. I made a decision a couple of weeks ago to get serious about writing and have done pretty good so far. It's a struggle, though, with so many distractions (like this blog). As you say, the key is focus.