BY LORNA LANDVIK
Stand-up and improvisational comedian, public speaker, and best-selling author
I was asked the other day why I finally decided to write about the time I spent in Hollywood doing stand-up comedy.
“Why now?” the inquisitor asked.
“Why was this the subject matter for your tenth novel instead of your first?”
There is that old saw, “Write what you know,” to which my reaction has always been, “Why?”
After all, the fun of writing fiction is making things up. The main characters of my first book, Patty Jane’s House of Curl, were two sisters (I don’t have a sister) and the setting is a beauty salon (my mom, proud of her thick wavy hair, did not keep a weekly appointment at Shear Magic like my friends’ mothers did and I wasn’t inside a beauty salon until eleventh grade, when I had my hair pouffed up and shellacked for the SnoDays dance).
My subsequent novels were based on characters who came into my head and I wrote about their lives, not mine. (Okay, so I’ve given little nods to my autobiography—most of my books include at least one Norwegian, someone who loves candy, and are set in Minnesota, and yes, I will give a passing minor character the first or last name of a friend, relative, or acting compatriot.)
I don’t know how long the idea for Best to Laugh simmered. I wish I had kept better records, as I would probably be the first to be eliminated in a memory challenge. Here’s what I do know: I have had a recurring dream—my only recurring dream—of Peyton Hall and its ultimate destruction since I left Hollywood. I put Candy, my heroine, in this most Hollywood of Hollywood apartment complexes, a complex that, yes, did have an Olympic-sized swimming pool designed by Douglas Fairbanks (I originally heard it was Johnny Weissmuller); did have embossed palm trees on the dining room wallpaper and rattan wallpaper on the ceilings; did have old tenants who could tell you how overpowering the smell of oranges and night-blooming jasmine was in the evenings and how you could get a steak dinner at Musso & Frank for forty cents. In this recurring dream of mine (the same one I give Candy), Peyton Hall is in the process of being torn down and me and a few other tenants still squat in the roofless, wall-less apartments in the back.
Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there weren’t a lot of women doing stand-up comedy, but there were a lot more than there were in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And (yahoo!) there are so many more now. Evolution is real.
However and whenever the idea came to me, I’m so glad it did, because it was so much fun to write.
I met my best friend in Hollywood at a Comedy Store workshop held on Sunday mornings filled with kids (i.e., people in their early twenties) who’d always gotten laughs in class, at home, on the bus, wherever. Kids for whom laughs were important; kids who wanted nothing more than to make a living doing what they loved doing: making people laugh.
Betty was a black woman from Detroit and I was a white woman from Minneapolis and we clicked in that open-arm, Hey, Pal! way you do with those who get you and those you get.
It was Betty who I’d stand with, waiting in line at the Comedy Store or the Improv to sign up for Amateur Night; Betty who I’d sit with watching other performers and whispering our snarky critiques or slumping in laughter (here’s to you, Larry Hudson, wherever you are: you were sublimely funny); Betty with whom I’d drive with in her old Mustang to the Denny’s on Sunset, where we’d order liver and onions (we both liked it—*&#@??!) and discuss whose act worked and whose didn’t, and why.
Betty could make me laugh in the way that hurts and while she had some success and was in a couple movies, she did not have the success she deserved. That’s the real heartbreak of Hollywood: sometimes the sublimely talented, the ones who spun your world’s axis in a way you didn’t think could be spun, wound up typing invoices in an insurance office, or doling out samples of pickle relish at Albertsons grocery store.
Lorna Landvik is the best-selling author of many novels, including Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons, Oh My Stars, and Mayor of the Universe (Minnesota, 2014). Her most recent novel, Best to Laugh, is now available from University of Minnesota Press. Check back next week for more memories from Landvik.
“Landvik’s novel (Best to Laugh) is happily filled with a double dose of nostalgia—the protagonist’s for the golden age of Hollywood and the author’s for a lovably gritty 1970s Los Angeles.”
“Best to Laugh is cheerfully outlandish, filled with ambition, love, adventure, kindness, swimming pools, nightclubs, and baked goods. Best of all, it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious.”
—Julie Schumacher, author of The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls