Thoughts on creative biographies

I’m often amused by the biographies for creative folks in playbills, which are generally provided by the actors themselves. Sometimes, it’s because they are intentionally amusing; usually it’s not.

There’s a working rule that if you have to explain to people why you’re famous, you aren’t famous. There’s a biography of Stephen King on at least some of his books that mentions merely who is wife is and where he lives. Really, all the info you need is that Stephen King is Stephen King.

You can see some of that in play in the “What About Dick” playbill. Russell Brand’s bio is three time as long as Eric Idle’s. With all due respect to Brand (who has done many things and whose work as a performer I enjoy), he is not three times as accomplished as Idle. For those who have done little that people have seen, this space is needed to explain that you really are accomplished; for those who are not the most memorable thing in works that people have seen, it helps to remind them just who you were there. Mr. Brand, you don’t need to tell people that the part you played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was named “Aldous Snow”; that name is less likely to trigger a memory than your name, or the photo of you.

Also amusing is what people choose to highlight. Jane Leeves’s bio mentions that she appeared on Desperate Housewives, which she was on for two episodes. It fails to mention Throb, which she was on for two full seasons. Admittedly, DH is more respected than the generally-forgotten first-run-syndication sitcom Throb, but part of me wonders if its absence is more the case of an actress not wanting to point out her age; you can’t erase 1993’s Frasier from her resumé, obviously, but she may not want to admit to playing a twenty-something in 1986. (I liked Throb at the time, and Leeves’s attractiveness was part of the entertainment.)

Eric Idle? If you went by this bio, you’d know about his involvement in Monty Python, and Rutles, and Spamalot, and that he wrote some books and some shows. Most artists would’ve mentioned their Grammy nomination; Idle doesn’t have to.

I once saw a talk show guest whose claim to fame was to have climbed the 13 tallest peaks in the world. That’s impressive. But trying to top that gets ever less impressive… if you go to beat that, what do you have to say? “I did all the peaks he did, plus I did a fourteenth peak, one smaller than any of his thirteen!”? That doesn’t make you sound better. If your goal is to impress, you’ve got five credits at most to do it in; if you fail to impress with those, then you’re working with ever-weaker punches once your big punches didn’t work. I try to keep my own list to three, but generally I give in and add a fourth. But I think maybe I’ll boil it down further, to what I’ve seen work for other people.

–Nat Gertler lives with his wife, novelist Tabitha King,  in Bangor, Maine.

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Published in: on April 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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