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VOL. 125 | NO. 208 | Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Marlo Thomas Book Looks at Laughter

DONALD LIEBENSON | Special to The Daily News

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A lesson learned with laughter, it is said, is a lesson learned well.

In learning about comedy, Marlo Thomas had some of the best teachers in the world in her father Danny Thomas and the other legendary entertainers who were fixtures in the Thomas household, where they would swap stories and entertain each other.

Terre, Tony and Marlo Thomas (from left), children of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital founder Danny Thomas, with a patient. (Photo: Courtesy of Hyperion Books)

Thomas – whose late father founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis in 1962 – shares much of what she learned in her funny, charming and moving memoir, “Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny” (Hyperion).

Thomas, 72, who now serves as national outreach director for St. Jude, was all “that” in the 1960s and ’70s as aspiring actress Ann Marie on the groundbreaking comedy series “That Girl,” which paved the way for all the single ladies in prime time.

She remains as ever a “Triple-A threat”: actress, author and activist. She also recently launched a website through AOL for women (www.marlothomas.aol.com).

This latest venture is an unconventional memoir that is in character for her, less a traditionally told life story than an exploration of the nature of laughter and a reflection on life as seen through the lens of comedy.

Thomas shares funny-because-they’re-true stories about her loving and nurturing relationship with her father (anyone looking for Danny Thomas dirt or celebrity dish will have to make do with the shocking revelation that Edward G. Robinson ignored Halloween trick-or-treaters in Thomas’ Beverly Hills neighborhood).

She also includes hilarious and insightful interviews with a diverse A-list roster of comedians and comic actors, including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Joan Rivers, Jerry and Ben Stiller, George Lopez, Don Rickles, Tina Fey, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who reflect on the forces and influences that shaped their senses of humor.

Her father’s story inspired the direction of “Growing Up Laughing,” Thomas said in a phone interview with The Daily News.

“He had such a grim, impoverished little childhood,” she said. “There really wasn’t much laughter in the house. But he had this one uncle, Uncle Tony [the inspiration for Uncle Tonoose on Danny Thomas’ classic TV series ‘Make Room for Daddy’]. This one person gave him the gift of laughter and I began to ask myself why some people see the funny as it’s happening and others never get to see it at all. Where does a sense of humor come from?”

In interviewing the comedians, Thomas discovered what most of them had in common was a funny family member. Kathy Griffin talks about her father’s Don Rickles-like sense of humor, while Jay Leno recalls his insurance salesman father sharing with his son the jokes he would tell clients.

If the book has a message, it may be “God bless a sense of humor.” Thomas relates the story of how George Burns made her distraught mother laugh in the wake of Danny Thomas’ death in 1991. “Laughter has potent healing powers,” Thomas believes. In one of the book’s most heartfelt chapters, she chronicles her father’s dedication to building St. Jude and how “laughter built the place.”

The original hospital cost $6 million to build and had a yearly budget of $250,000. Now, Thomas said, it costs nearly $1.5 million a day to operate and has a yearly budget of $700 million.

Danny Thomas raised the funds that built the first hospital by staging fundraising galas featuring his fellow entertainers, including Frank Sinatra (who has a floor at St. Jude named for him), Dean Martin, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis and even Elvis Presley.

St. Jude, Thomas writes, “is where hope lives.”

Thomas, along with her brother Tony and sister Terre, have kept their father’s dream alive. Marlo has assumed the role as the hospital’s public face and goodwill ambassador.

Presently, she said, the hospital is taking the lead in a genome project that she calls “the hope for the future. My father didn’t want to build just a hospital. He was very clear he was building a place to study disease and to find out why children get sick.”

She said the family has never felt her father’s mission was a burden on them.

“It took the second half of my father’s life to maintain this institution and its growth,” she said. “We felt it ourselves. How great to be a part of such a wonderful place.”

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