Book Review: They Said It

There was a time when daily newspapers had reporters covering the “entertainment beat.” Hell, I remember a time when concerts got reviewed in the paper. Those days are mostly gone, and likely forever. Yet those writers filled a perceived (I’d say genuine) need, especially when they conducted advance interviews with entertainers coming to town. Their pieces could alert potential audiences to the upcoming show, and maybe even provide a bit of insight into what the entertainers were about.

Into that context comes They Said It, a new collection of Q&A pieces from Kelley Simms. While one might take some small issue with the slight overreach of the book’s subtitle (Entertainment’s Biggest Stars Speak), the book does include conversations with some well-known personalities.

Because these pieces were originally written for general audiences (i.e. readers of daily newspapers), the interviewees tend toward the very-mainstream. And the overwhelming majority of those included in the pages of They Said It are standup comics. Tim Allen, Bill Engvall, Larry the Cable Guy, even (gods help us) Ronald Reagan’s favorite comic Yakov Smirnoff are interviewed. So how one feels about those artists (and about, say, Rob Schneider, Jim Breuer and Bob Saget) is likely to color one’s feelings about this book.

Truth be told, from the perspective of a writer, the Q&A format is just about the least creative medium. You ask the questions, they answer, you transcribe and lightly edit, and you’re done. You might get space for a brief intro into which you can insert a bit of character, but that’s it. But hey: I do ’em for select outlets (and sometimes for this site right here). One does what the assignment calls for.

But look beyond all that and simply read the pieces, and every now and then you’ll glean a bit of insight into those and/or other personalities. Simms’ questions are about as incisive, I imagine, as one could get away with in a mainstream outlet, and while some of the answers fall back on rote responses, the humanity and creativity of a few personalities manages to shine through. Among the most interesting (for me, anyway) are the chats with people who aren’t/weren’t known primarily as comics: Ed Asner is one such example.

Every now and then, readers might find themselves thinking out loud, “Why didn’t he ask this or that?” But in general, Simms displays a good sense of what the man or woman on the street would want to know from these personalities. As a nice bonus, Simms’ book also showcases his superb talents as a caricature artist; drawings of each interviewee – lively sketches of the sort you might have sat for and paid for at the amusement park or on a boardwalk somewhere – accompany each interview.

While the comics featured in the book are known for being funny (at least to some), in these interviews they’re generally serious. An occasional deadpan aside might find its way into a response, but for the most part, few of the interviewees take an opportunity to go for yuks (or even inward chuckles). That’s fine, of course, but readers expecting a laff-fest should know they’re not going to find it here.

Scattered among the comic convos are a handful of music-related interviews (hence my interest in the book). Interviews with Melissa Etheridge, Billy Gibbons, Chris Isaak and (no, really) Leif Garrett are included. The Gibbons section is a compilation of three interviews, some previously unpublished and all conducted via e-mail (Gibbons doesn’t seem to do any other kind).

Not to get too inside-baseball, but I can reveal that (from my perspective, at least) email interviews are the worst, and only in rare instances do they yield anything of value. The interviewees inevitably provide pat, phoned-in responses; sometimes, I suspect, they copy and paste from existing material at hand. And sometimes – wait for it – their publicists actually answer the questions instead, or at least vet and edit what the interviewee has written. But as I well know (and as I am sure Simms can attest), once again, when the paid assignment calls for an interview, one sometimes takes what one can get.

If Q&As with comics is your thing, They Said It is a worthwhile read. If you’ve ever been curious about the ins and out of being a touring comic – what it’s like being on the road as a standup – then Simms’ book will go some distance toward satisfying that curiosity.