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Unfunny friends: Book review of ‘Who Stole the Funny?’ by Robby Benson

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I don’t know who stole the funny, but I have a pretty good idea on who is hoarding the resentment. If you are searching for a novel that examines one man’s torment toward the entertainment biz then look no further because a Hollywood veteran and 70’s teen feathered-hair heartthrob has a tale that seems more motivated by vindictiveness then it does a fun loving satire of an industry he knows so well. Who Stole the Funny? by Robby Benson starts with a protagonist whose metaphorical cereal bowl was violated by something yellow and basically ends in the same vain except health insurance is finally rewarded – and some people wonder why we need Obamacare.

Since Funny? is penned by an individual with an IMDB page (interesting facts include the voice of Beast in Beauty and the Beast and Ice Castles) it is easy to check Benson’s work to speculate on whom he is basing his characters. Listen, the guy seems to wear his heart on his sleeve so when he tackles show runners aggressively (no passivity here) it feels apparent he wants old foes to go down in flames. There is no character development so Benson defenders can’t mumble that Funny? is strictly a work of fiction. I mean seriously his main character not only was a sitcom director (like Benson) but also an ex teen idol. He calls the Friends like sitcom, which according to IMDB he directed several episodes, My Urban Buddies.

The protagonist, J. T. Baker, has been living his life out in rural Virginia far from the maddening crowd of Hollywood. It seems as if his decision to leave Tinsel Town was mutual for both himself and the powers that be in entertainment. However when a sitcom director dies suddenly a replacement is needed in order make a good faith effort for their insurance company to recoup the cost of lost wages due. The production company believes that Baker won’t last the three weeks required to film the slotted episodes. Baker comes back into the fold reluctantly knowing that he will have to keep his famous temper in check or risk losing the minimum days he is required to work in order to maintain his union health insurance. He has a sick son whose medical expenses are adding up and his local college teacher’s salary cannot keep up.

Benson paints Baker, i.e. himself, as an everyday man who enjoys everyday people and cares more about the creative process and doing a good job than the trappings of fame. The truth is that his character thinks so highly of himself, with the exception of his son’s health, readers come to hope for the worst to fall upon his pointy earnest head. He reiterates that he knows the greats (references to say Burt Reynolds type of Hollywood figures) that he is talented, funny, knows how the business is run because he has been in it since a teen (which fails to explain why he didn’t know about certain union rules or how to deal with agents who are screwing with him).

Baker knows he is being tested but tries to focus on his son’s needs to get through the next three weeks. Lucky for him he has a friend who tags along making sure that Baker’s temper doesn’t go all Mel Gibson even though the show’s runners, husband and wife team (most likely based on Linda Bloodworth Thomason and her husband Harry Thomason with whom Benson worked on Evening Shade) are pretentious pills – the wife a harpy, the husband a philander, both untalented and uninterested in making a superior sitcom. Baker showing he cares he goes to great lengths to help one actor with a learning disability and another who is a closeted lesbian (yes, he directed a few episodes of Ellen Degeneres’ first sitcom, Ellen) both of which betray him in different ways. After a while a reader wonders if Benson sees himself as a Christ like figure who is suffering for America’s bad taste in television.

Most of the action in the novel takes place within a week; however the days seem to go on forever. One day in particular reads like it lasted 72 hours where Baker not only rescues a pack of children from a child molesting on set tutor (who was hired on the cheap by the before mentioned show runners) who then commits suicide by shooting himself in the head to Baker spending the afternoon pleading for his job and working uphill to get the comedy filmed.

I don’t recommend Who Stole the Funny? unless you are the type of person who wants to spend their downtime not laughing. At a few points I did give in and started to enjoy the maze of troubles Baker found himself entangled, and wondered how he would circumnavigate his way out, but then Benson would make his character whiney and I would lose all sympathy. It should have been fun to try and figure out who he was basing certain individuals on but it is so obvious it was like completing a crossword meant for eight year olds. Which begs the question; how did writing this 2007 book affect what was left of Benson’s Hollywood career? Answer, not a lot of IMDB credits post 2007.

Happy reading!