You Gotta Be Joking Funny
Paul Reiser, Ellen DeGeneres, Dennis Miller and more celebs are putting paper to pen for huge payments
Right now, black women, gay men, and stand-up comics are the most overpaid writers in book publishing,” says Craig Nelson, executive editor at Hyperion. The comedians, it seems, have Jerry Seinfeld to thank for the cash avalanche: Sales of his SeinLanguage have topped 1.2 million copies in the last year, touching off a contract-signing frenzy that has fellow cutups laughing all the way to the bank. Among the deals cut since Seinfeld became master of the best-seller list:
*Paul Reiser has just released Couplehood, which analyzes the absurd minutiae of marriage in the manner of his NBC sitcom, Mad About You. ”The difference is, the show you can’t take into the bathroom with you, whereas a book travels,” says Reiser, who received an advance of well over $300,000 from Bantam Books.
*Hyperion, said by industry insiders to have forked over a mid- six-figure advance for Tim Allen’s Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man, has upped its first printing twice to a whopping 600,000 copies, even though the book won’t be released until later this month.
*Dennis Miller’s agent says reports of a $350,000 advance for the forthcoming Dennis Miller Rants (Doubleday) are ”inaccurate,” but he declines to say whether the figure is too high or too low.
*Garry Shandling reportedly received just under $1 million for his fall 1995 Simon & Schuster ”tell-all autobiography” of Larry Sanders, the fictional character he plays on his HBO TV show.
*Brett Butler of ABC’s Grace Under Fire is penning a tome for an undisclosed amount for Hyperion.
*Ellen DeGeneres of ABC’s Ellen earned a reported $1 million for her upcoming book from Bantam (see page 46).
”For publishers, the mentality is like lemmings,” says one New York editor. Even stars of distinctly lesser magnitude than Seinfeld have benefited by his good fortune: Dan Strone, the William Morris Agency wunderkind who swung Seinfeld’s and Reiser’s deals, has just put would-be literary figure and Tonight Show arsonist Bobcat Goldthwait on the auction block. And hotshot editor Judith Regan — who gave us Howard Stern’s Private Parts — just sold a book by Fran Drescher of CBS’ The Nanny for a sum said to be way beyond the dreams of the average nanny. One promising young comic recently spurned a mid-six- figure deal, holding out for seven-and she has yet to graduate from stand- up comedy to network TV.
Turning big-yuks acts into big-bucks books is tougher than simply transcribing a comic’s stand-up routine. ”The question to drive home is this: Is the humor verbal?” says Publishers Weekly‘s Maureen O’Brien. That’s one reason why many frowned on the notion of a book from The Mask star Jim Carrey, who ignited an especially intense bidding war among publishers. ”I was shocked that people were offering Carrey seven figures,” says a prominent editor. ”He’s a great slapstick performer, but it depends on contortionism and impressions-it’s not based on words.” (Carrey has decided against doing a book, for now.) And there may be such a thing as being too verbal: ”Miller is too erudite to earn back his advance,” predicts one editor.
In fact, funny business can be risky business for publishers. Even if they sign a comic for a now-bargain-basement $300,000, they must sell at least 50,000 copies to ”earn out” their investment. Even the mightiest comic of all, whose first book, Roseanne, was a triumph-is capable of falling off the list: ”I’ve heard from good sources that Roseanne’s second book (My Lives, published in February) is likely to sell no more than 125,000 copies,” says one insider. ”(Ballantine) shipped over 500,000.” Whatever the figures, says O’Brien, Roseanne’s book, for which she received a seven-figure advance, is ”a huge bomb. People have had enough of her”-in print, if not on screen.
Could the belly-laugh futures market collapse? Readers clearly haven’t had enough of TV’s literary clowns just yet: Two weeks after its Aug. 24 publication, Reiser’s Couplehood was moving up the best-seller lists.