09.26.10

Marlo Thomas on the Power of Laughter

In her new book, the actress and National Outreach Director for St. Jude's Children's Hospital talks to Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and other comedians about the healing power of laughter.

If you’re en route to an interview and just about everything that can go wrong, does—lost wallet, broken tape recorder, coffee spill on your silk dress —your lone hope might be that your subject is Marlo Thomas, who will greet you with a smile, an offer of a chicken salad sandwich, and the chance to regain your composure while she wraps up a conference call with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

After all, “Laughter is the best way to get out of a corner,” Thomas writes in her new book, Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny. And Thomas is a practitioner of what she preaches. Over the course of a recent afternoon in her Charles Gwathmey-designed Fifth Avenue penthouse, she sat down to discuss the many irons in her fire: the book, the website she launched with AOL last week, the performance projects she’s involved in, and St. Jude’s, which her father founded and the hospital for which she remains National Outreach Director.

On the personal side of life are her husband, Phil Donahue, whom she married in 1980, the five stepchildren she has with him, and a cherished group of friends. Of course, the play she’s been performing in, George Is Dead, is written by one of her best friends, Elaine May, so these sides of Thomas’ life have seams.

"Joy Behar told me that if you scratch the surface of women comediennes, you’ll find women whose mothers were depressed.”

Thomas has led a fairly prolific and definitely ceaseless career. Her C.V. boasts the television series That Girl (1966-1971), continuous theater productions, plenty of big and little screen roles, and several books, including the bestelling children’s book, Free to Be You & Me.

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Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny. By Marlo Thomas. Hyperion. 400 pages. $26.99 ()

The new book, like its author, is wholly good-natured, featuring colorful snippets from Thomas’ life interspersed with her interviews with the best comedians in the world, including Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, and Conan O’Brien—all heirs to her father Danny Thomas’ circle of golden personalities: Art Linkletter, Bob Newhart, Bob Hope, George Burns, among others.

Thomas- pere’s orbit did not include women other than Phyllis Diller and occasionally Lucille Ball, simply because there weren’t many women comics back then. But Marlo reveres funny ladies, immediately citing Joan Rivers as a force. “I love Joan,” enthuses Marlo, who was so inspired by Rivers’ drive that she sat down and wrote a chapter on “Obsession,” about her own sense of motivation.

For all Thomas’ positivity, it’s easy to forget that comedians often have dark sides to their personalities. Did her father? No, not really. “They had their moments but I’ve never been in a group that loved to hang out and laugh so much,” she says. “My father fixated on his work, and he always said that comedy is hard work. Comedic dialect, finding the verbiage… It’s like being a matador, and then you have a ‘toro!’ moment.

“I feel that ‘toro!’ thing when I watch Chris Rock,” she says, later noting that Rock is a “preacher.” “If you watch his shows, in between the dirt, he is super-moral.” The work ethic of comedy kings and queens may stem from a deeper tick.

“It’s surprising how many of these comedians tried to get their mothers to laugh—to make them comfortable, make their lives easier,” says Thomas. “I didn’t expect that. Joy Behar [another of the book’s subjects] told me that if you scratch the surface of women comediennes, you’ll find women whose mothers were depressed.”

Though by her own account Thomas’ home life was a happy one growing up, women and children occupy much of her energy and focus. Regarding children, there’s St. Jude’s, which she says she did not intend to become so active in after her father died in 1991, but got deeper and deeper into over the years as she got to know families. Now, her name is almost synonymous with the hospital, and she recruits plenty of those famous friends to help in the efforts; Jennifer Aniston, Morgan Freeman, and Robin Williams have all participated in her “Thanks and Giving” campaign, in cooperation with the Today show. And there’s the website for women, www.marlothomas.com. “There’s no place to go [online] for women to deal with elderly parents, keeping your life together after a divorce, infidelity, alcoholism, money, sex… All the things women like to talk about. Women communicate better with other women,” Thomas says.

Men handle things differently, she continues, citing a fishing trip that Donahue took with a male friend in the midst of a divorce. “When they got back I asked him how the friend was doing, and he said ‘Oh, it didn’t come up.’ Can you imagine?”

The idea began to take root. “It organically came from me—I have been asked to do all kinds of projects, but this was one that originated with myself. And I love the idea of talking to women who aren’t in New York or Los Angeles.”

On the site, Thomas has broken down areas for a “laugh of the day,” “personal passions,” and daily topical videos. Mondays With Marlo features livestream conversation between women who tune into the “Marlo Channel”; Wednesdays feature a “Hero Next Door”—“a new series showcasing exceptional women you know.” Thomas cites “Hero for a Day” as one of her favorite sections on the site. “There’s this idea that celebrated women are more admirable than anyone else, and I wanted to celebrate the real, everyday women who are so great.”

Then again, some celebrated women are simply admirable.

Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at the Daily Beast.