Actor and comedian Mario Cantone reads excerpts from soap opera star Susan Lucci's autobiography, All My Life, as part of the long-running Celebrity Autobiography live comedy series in New York City.EXPAND
Actor and comedian Mario Cantone reads excerpts from soap opera star Susan Lucci's autobiography, All My Life, as part of the long-running Celebrity Autobiography live comedy series in New York City.
Andrew Werner

Mario Cantone, Robert Wuhl and Laraine Newman Read the Holy Scriptures of the Stars for Celebrity Autobiography

Update: This event has been canceled.

The tell-all celebrity autobiography is more than just an easy way to make another buck for a person who's lucky enough to spend any amount of time in the spotlight. It's become a comedy goldmine for writer and performer Eugene Pack and the other stars he sends out onstage with books in their hands.

The writer and performer who created the live reading series Celebrity Autobiography with Dayle Reyfel remembers the first time he picked up a copy of Vanna White's memoir, Vanna Speaks, and flipped to a passage about one of the daunting challenges of being a professional letter turner on TV's Wheel of Fortune.

"Years ago, I came across the hardcover edition of her autobiography and opened it up to a passage where she writes dramatically about how challenging it is to flip the panels on Wheel of Fortune," Pack says by email. "She writes, 'One day, my belt broke on national television and I held onto the loop.' I thought, wow, if you just simply read material like that out loud to an audience, could this be 'found' humor? So we presented that passage along with other unintentionally funny excerpts from various celeb memoirs, and this show was born."

Pack conceived the Celebrity Autobiography show in Los Angeles more than 10 years before moving it to New York City, where it's enjoyed a long, award-winning theatrical run featuring famous faces such as Ryan Reynolds, Kristin Wiig and Dick Cavett reading autobiographical books written by other famous people, including David Hasselhoff, Madonna and Joe Namath.

The shows don't deviate from the material. Celebrity Autobiography features real excerpts from real celebrity tell-alls with bizarre character pairings like Will Forte reading drummer Tommy Lee's section of the Motley Crue book The Dirt and Tony Danza reciting lines from Justin Bieber's First Step 2 Forever and Just Getting Started.

Laraine Newman reads from the autobiography of Carol Channing titled Just Lucky I Guess.
Laraine Newman reads from the autobiography of Carol Channing titled Just Lucky I Guess.
Tommy Lau

The fact that Bieber already has two autobiographical books is hilarious all by itself, says Pack, who will bring his show to the Moody Performance Hall at the AT&T Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday with Laraine Newman, Mario Cantone and Robert Wuhl doing the readings.

"We love that Justin Bieber has already written two books and writes about things like being locked in the trunk of a car," Pack says. "We have had everyone from Matthew Broderick to Fred Willard to Tony Danza acting out the Bieber tomes."

The cult of celebrity seems to drive almost every aspect of the show, especially the humor.

"What was funny was watching the people respond to it," says Wuhl, who has been part of the show for the last five years. "That was funny. That's what I remembered. I always had this impression of celebrity autobiographies, for the most part. That's when people are young and writing autobiographies and traditionally full of themselves anyway. So just because they are celebrities, it's overdramatic to begin with. So it's funny."

The celebrity culture is what attracts some of the show's performers to the stage, like Cantone, who says he did his first Celebrity Autobiography show just so he could meet a celebrity. That was eight years ago, and now he's on tour.

"They kept trying to get me to do it, and I kept saying no because, I don't know, I just don't like to work because I'm a lazy person," Cantone says with a laugh. "I think I was at the Triad, which now is Stage 72, which became the base for it. What finally made me say I really want to do it is because Ryan Reynolds is doing it and I said I'll do it because I really wanted to meet him."

The majority of the performers don't try to do impressions of the celebrities they are reading, with the exception of Cantone. He does impressions in his standup of famous people like Liza Minnelli, Katherine Hepburn and Betty Davis, whom Cantone says he can imitate "before the stroke" and "after the stroke," so it's a natural fit. 

"I started doing the people I did, and they loved it," Cantone says. "If anybody else tries to do it, they'll say, 'Don't try to be Mario.'"

The tone of the humor isn't meant to cut down the celebrities whose books they are reading. Pack says it's more about exploring the bizarre minutiae of celebrity secret sharing.

"I have to remind audiences before and during the show that everything we perform was written in their own words even though it is so hard to believe," Pack says. "People come up to us after the show and ask if we improvised it or if I wrote it. Honestly, we could not even make this stuff up if we tried. It amazes audiences what these stars reveal in their books."

Newman, who started performing in the show during its opening run in Los Angeles, says she's shared some strange celebrity secrets, such eating habits and the clothes they lay out for work, written in such detail that they create their own gravy for the crowd.

"Eugene Pack is a master with those particular autobiographies where people give a litany of what they ate or what’s in their refrigerator," Newman says by email. "The writing is quite often surprising. Autobiographies that are authentic, heartfelt, self-aware, self-deprecating and ironic have no place in this show. There are exceptions of course, like Dolly Parton who’s [sic] self-effacing stories are told in such a funny way that it's completely endearing and relatable. But for the most part, it's the ones that have their slip showing that are the most entertaining."

The show has become so popular that the celebrities who provide the lines have been known to show up in the audience and even onstage. Cantone recalls hearing that Susan Lucci wanted to see his characterization of her book during a show where she would be on stage with him.

"I said, 'That's not happening' and she wanted me to, and I said, 'No, that's not happening,'" Cantone says. "When I do them, it's cutting. It's not nice sometimes. It's cutting, but you've gotta have a point of view about it. You can't just do it as a tribute. Otherwise, there's no spin to it and it's not funny. It's like when you look at a person who does caricature drawings and they accentuate the highlights, and that's what makes it stand out and what makes it funny."

The performer's delivery can also flavor an autobiography, especially if the pairings seem mismatched but somehow find ways to compliment each other in the performance.

"To the best of my knowledge, none of the performers get to choose who they read, but that has presented me with the most delicious challenges, what I like to call finding my way into the material," Newman says. "Finding the nuance in the delivery that best shows what’s funny about it."

The goal of the show isn't to tear down giant pop stars the way we love to do when they are at the height of their prime. It's about tearing down the culture and mechanisms that make them famous and help keep them there, Pack says.

"It is not a mean-spirited show at all, which is why celebs enjoy doing it," Pack says. "If we are poking fun of anything, it's the celebrity autobiography as a genre. The idea that everyone has a story to tell, but if you are famous, we instantly care about your cookbooks, fitness manuals and self-help guides."

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