Four-time Emmy Award winning comedian Greg Fitzsimmons has just written one of most hilarious and unexpectedly moving Irish American memoirs in years. He talks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY about his career, his success and lifelong his unstoppable urge to behave badly.
If stand-up comedy is the bottom rung in the entertainment ladder, then memoirs must be the lowest rung of the publishing world. But that’s just fine for comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, 44, the four-time Emmy Award winner.
“Memoirs have become the lowest form of writing, which is exactly why I was drawn to the genre,” Fitzsimmons told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
Lifelong shame and guilt (and pointless attempts to impose them on him) drive his raucous and unspeakably funny new book, Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox (Simon & Schuster).
Constructed around a series of increasingly angry (and unintentionally hilarious) letters from his outraged teachers, Fitzsimmons’ book is a classic Irish American coming of age tale about a bright kid who keeps asking increasingly awkward questions of his shocked elders, and then has the charm and smarts to elude the consequences (usually).
But underneath the brittle surface there’s a lot of heartache and darkness in this story too.
Fitzsimmons’ disciplinary reports were called Irish Merit Badges in family, and his parents would often howl with laughter at their contents.
“Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons,” one begins, “Greg was loitering in the hallway when I walked by on my way home. Greg began openly mocking me by making fun of my last name (i.e. ‘The grass looked very Dewey this morning,’ ‘Dewey have any homework?’ and ‘Are we going to learn the Dewey Decimal System?’) It is disrespectful to address a teacher in such a manner, and I think its best to bring this to his parents’ attention.”
With material like this to draw from, is it any wonder he’s a comedian?
“The way my parents reacted to school letters that were supposed to cause shame and bringing down the hammer was unusual, because to them it was a badge of honor. It meant their kid was independent and free-thinking and he fought back,” Fitzsimmons says.
By laughing at these letters -- even though there were times when they’d get mad -- his parents taught him valuable lessons about conformity.
“Don’t do it so much that you fail in life, but to succeed in life and not do it is not success. There has to be some element of you didn’t play by all the rules and you still managed to be successful,” he says.
Fitzsimmons grew up in Tarrytown in Westchester County, New York, the area where Don Draper of TV’s Mad Men commutes from each episode. He won his four Emmys as a producer/writer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show at the start of the decade. Fitzsimmons also has his own radio show on Howard 101, the Sirius satellite radio channel programmed by his friend Howard Stern, who also wrote the foreword for his book.
That Irish spirit of defiance has marked his book, his career and his life. Starting out as a stand up, he’d play schools and colleges, and when a stuffy official told him what he could and could not talk about it always set him off.
In fact, for Fitzsimmons that kind of censorship was useful because it made his job easier. “When you tell me not to do something then you’re really keying it up for me, and I enjoy it so much more,” he says.
“Don’t be a wiseacre out there,” a school principal counseled him before a high school prom gig in Indiana once when he was starting out. That command grated on every one of his anti-authority Irish impulses.
“It’s one thing to be told don’t be a wise ass but now you’re using a phrase that highlights the fact that you’re a big nerd. That’s irresistible,” he says.
Responding to this provocation, Fitzsimmons invited the graduating class back to his motel for a keg. He celebrated the glories of cocaine, and he even joked about having sex with his grandmother. The angry protest letter to his agent was in the post before the curtain fell.
“It all started with that angry prom letter,” says Fitzsimmons. “I really was hurt by it at first. It really bothered me that the principal wrote it. Only because I thought the show had gone so well.
“So receiving this letter was like another failed attempt, even after years, for them to control me. But only later when I started reading it to the audience on stage the crowd started dying. I didn’t realize how funny it could seem to other people.”
Fitzsimmons’ mother saved all the nasty letters. “It’s almost as if she knew that one day I’d be a comedian,” he says.
“Those letters are gold. Stand-up comedy is really like a memoir. You go up and tell stories about your life. We’re storytellers. I felt like if I can communicate my own story best with a memoir then that’s what I need to do. Maybe it will surprise people that there’s so much more to see here than they expected to find.”