Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe.
Being on tour for a book is simultaneously an exhilarating and a terrifying experience. Exhilarating because, after toiling so lengthily in the mines of authorial solitude, it is a pleasure of no small import to emerge to the surface, book in hand, and talk about it with friends, family, and total strangers. Terrifying because, as all authors who have ever done a book tour can attest to, the midnight panic that occasionally bubbles up, convinced you’ll give a reading and no one — literally not a single person — will show up.
Thankfully, that did not happen to me during my tour for my new book Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I occasionally broke out into a cold sweat at the prospect of.
Some writers are also good talkers, but many writers — myself included — would prefer to gather their thoughts in front of a computer, with unlimited time to gather my ideas and refine them before releasing them to the world at large. Speaking in public offers no such assurances. Like an actor, you must deliver on the spot. Acting is actually a fairly good comparison to giving a reading; there were times where I felt like an actor of whom a performance was required, and like an actor, there were times when I felt like I was playing a role, playing “the author.” But I ended up surprising myself at times with my capacity to perform. Shakespeare, here I come!
The thing about a book tour is that each stop is completely different from the previous one, even if the talk you give is the same every time. Some of my readings, like those in my hometown, Los Angeles, and New York, where I live, were filled with friends and family, while others were composed entirely of people I didn’t know. (Weirdly, I felt more confident in front of the strangers.)
The best part of the tour, hands down, was the people I met along the way. In San Diego, I got to hang out before the reading with the shop’s owner and some of his friends, who were devotees of 1940s comedy, and had some terrific recommendations for films I hadn’t even heard of. In Philadelphia, I had a long talk after the reading with a guy planning a blog devoted to the television shows his wife watched. In Raleigh, I got quizzed thoroughly by the wonderful students at North Carolina State University, who wanted to talk about Tyler Perry and whether I thought The Hangover was any good (I loved it, in case you’re wondering). Best of all, in New Haven, I got to share the stage with one of my favorite teachers from college, whose class on comedy had helped to inspireAnother Fine Mess.
Touring for Another Fine Mess was a wonderful opportunity for me to engage with comedy fans of all stripes — everyone from college professors teaching courses on Charlie Chaplin to casual fans of Will Ferrell, and all points in between. I surprised myself by especially enjoyed the question-and-answer sessions after my readings, when I faced a virtual firing squad of rapid-fire questions on everything from the importance of Preston Sturges to the comedic canon to the charms of Bill Murray.
I had expected to find the barrage intimidating, and tongue-tying, and was pleasantly surprised to find the air of nervous expectation (what will they ask next?) deeply enjoyable. Even the guy in North Carolina who asked me, apropos of nothing, about my feelings about Schindler’s List (and later revealed himself to be a Jew for Jesus), managed not to throw me entirely off my game. Bring on the questions!
Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy is now in stores.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of four previous books, including Just a Shot Away and Sitcom. His work has been published by The Boston Globe, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. He is a graduate of Yale and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is an adjunct professor of writing and comedy history at NYU.