Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.
Pretty much all you need to know about So Far…, Kelsey Grammer’s morbidly fascinating 1995 memoir, can be found in the following paragraphs, which document a particularly dramatic moment in the actor’s emotional maturation as an adolescent.
It occurred to me, and I know this might sound strange, that I might be Jesus. And I prayed that God would let me know. I didn’t mind the idea of having to die for mankind; I was just sick and tired of not knowing.
After a while it became painfully clear that I was not Jesus. That this was not exactly what He had in mind for me. Still, it was the same desire to do good, to serve mankind, if you will, that led me to become an actor.
Grammer strongly refutes the notion that, in addition to being an Emmy-winning actor and the star of Down Periscope, he is also, somehow, Jesus Christ, savior of mankind and son of God. Yet at the same time, Grammer sees his decision to become an actor as coming from a similar place as Jesus’ willingness to be crucified for humanity’s salvation: Both come from a selfless desire to “do good” and to “serve mankind.”
Grammer does not take this metaphor further. He does not compare lukewarm reviews he received as a young theater actor to a crown of thorns or a subpar Frasier script to having nine-inch nails pounded into his hands as he stood on the cross in the blazing heat. But these passages nevertheless convey just how seriously Grammer takes both acting and himself. That extends to Grammer promising that his book won’t be an “egocentric ride through the seven deadly sins, with celebrities as my fellow passengers, and my redemption occurring, right on cue, in the last chapter.” Instead he boldly proclaims:
Yes, I will tell stories whose names you’ll recognize—and some of those stories may well strike you as “sensational.” But I’m not telling the tales to titillate. Or because I’ve retroactively decided that these folks said what they said and did what they did so that they could read about it later in my book. I have a higher purpose in mind. These stories are, for me, stones on the pathway, measures of my growth as an actor and a man.
Want to find out what Grammer thought the first time he read a Simpsons script featuring Sideshow Bob? Alas, Sideshow Bob and The Simpsons were clearly not measures of Grammer’s growth as an actor and as a man, because they’re literally never mentioned. It’d be an exaggeration to say that Cheers and Frasier are mentioned only in passing, but Grammer relegates the shows that made him fabulously famous and rich to a minor role in the narrative. You will learn far more about Grammer’s skirmishes with Christopher Plummer while he was playing Cassio in Othello on Broadway and Plummer was playing Iago than you will about his experiences with all the actors in Cheers and Frasier combined.
What about cocaine? Grammer is nearly as famous for his substance-abuse-filled battles with the law as he is for his acting, but Grammer’s cocaine problem is almost never directly addressed, nor is his alcoholism. Grammar’s long-standing substance-abuse problems also fail to meet the “measures of my growth as an actor and a man” standard for inclusion in the book, so they are hinted at sporadically rather than addressed directly.
No, Grammer will not pander to the basest instincts of the ignorant rabble with lurid tales of sex and stardom and notoriety. Instead he’s intent on presenting himself as he’d like to be seen: not as a tawdry tabloid figure, but rather as an artist, a thinker, a natural-born philosopher, and a man of deep, complicated spirituality.
Despite going perversely light on the author’s drug problems and two most famous roles (Frasier Crane and Sideshow Bob), So Far… is nevertheless long on drama. Grammer has led a life of darkness and trauma. His wild man of a father was murdered. His sister was raped and stabbed to death. An early girlfriend committed suicide, and Grammer says he was physically abused by at least one partner and emotionally and verbally abused by many more.
These formative experiences scarred Grammer in profound ways. Grammer coped with the seemingly never-ending string of trauma life dealt him by becoming emotionally detached, by viewing the turmoil of his life from a distance, as an outsider. He lived the life of the mind, though it is amusing to think of the young Grammer as an avid surfer or working construction alongside black fellow laborers who taught him valuable life lessons (So Far… is rotten with life lessons and moments of intense spiritual growth, almost none of them convincing) and loved to hear him sing spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
In So Far…, Grammer comes off as hilariously un-self-aware. He’s like Frasier Crane in that he is immersed in heady ideas and the language of psychobabble, yet comically oblivious when it comes to his own emotions and experiences. Seemingly half of the book is devoted to an endless string of romantic and sexual relationships that start off explosively but quickly devolve into waking nightmares where our unlucky-in-love author’s life and career are nearly destroyed by the crazed whims of a demanding and abusive partner.
At one point the author goes to jail for a stretch and says it was practically a vacation compared to the hellish relationship he was in at the time, and it does not feel like Grammer is kidding or even exaggerating. In So Far…, the slammer is a picnic compared to the hell that is womankind in its entirety.
Grammer acknowledges his masochistic streak and his subconscious desire for women who would abuse and mistreat him, yet that does not keep him from continually standing in stern, angry judgment of women who did him wrong and used him for his money and celebrity. Grammer seldom, if ever, concedes that, gosh, maybe some of these dramatically doomed romantic relationships were also harmed by the cocaine and alcohol addiction Grammer barely mentions.
I suspect that Grammer’s problems with booze and blow might also play a role in the constant rage he’s experiencing, most often directed at the women in his life, but also liberally pointed in the direction of his fellow men. Grammer does not discriminate in his zealously held grudges, whether the offending gent was a life insurance agent with the impudence to imagine that his deplorable profession and Grammer’s lofty and exalted craft were comparable (needless to say, our intrepid wordsmith put him straight with some choice verbiage!) or Christopher Plummer trying to bully him onstage.
Even Grammer’s free-flowing rage tends to take on a pretentious and overly formal dimension. The author spends much of the book flying into a froth at various women in his life, but he reserves his stiffest insults for men. Here are three of his choicest disses:
1. “There are few men of whom I hold as low an opinion as I do of Michael.”
2. “I invite this young man to fry in hell. But that’s probably a done deal already. William, I am speaking to you directly now—your mother must be very, very proud.”
3. “As for John Grammer and his participation in the scandal, I have nothing but contempt for him… Our consanguinity and our common name are all that’s left of John to shame me.”
That last one was directed toward the half-brother who sold a story to the tabloids about Grammar being accused of statutory rape of a teenaged babysitter, but I only discovered that from Grammer’s Wikipedia page, since being a consummate gentleman, Grammer alludes to it only in the sparest, fuzziest, most self-serving terms. That’s true of most of Grammer’s tabloid disgraces, where his rage is directed almost exclusively at the tabloids for diligently reporting his many scandals rather than himself for screwing up constantly in a way that imperiled his health, family, and career.
There’s a gulf both comic and tragic between how Grammer sees himself and how he’s actually seen. Grammer is indeed an accomplished, talented, and distinguished actor, but on a personal level, he’s rightly seen as a drunk-driving cokehead and blowhard fuckhead. So the idea that he’d spend an entire book pontificating windily on the wisdom he has accrued as an artist and man is both funny and sad.
So Far… is pretty much everything I want from a Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club entry. It’s utterly insane, wonderfully devoid of self-awareness, and a brisk read at 238 pages. It even ends with a glamour shot of Grammer on what I imagine is his yacht, staring soulfully into the distance while he contemplates lofty matters and a future he cannot possibly know but greets with stoic determination and moral fortitude.
Astonishingly, that isn’t even the most embarrassing image in the book. No, that would be the back cover of Grammer smirking triumphantly in an expensive suit while standing in front of a cherry red Corvette with a vanity plate reading “THE KELS.” Grammer goes to ridiculous, consistently comic lengths here to depict himself not as a tawdry and superficial Hollywood celebrity, but rather as a man of substance and thought, an intellectual and natural-born poet and philosopher with a brain swimming with big thoughts and elegant turns of phrase. Because Grammer is a generous soul, he is even kind enough to quote extensively from his own poetry, as well as the poetry of his spirit animal and creative soulmate W.H. Auden (who is thanked right after the author’s parents in the acknowledgments). It’s fascinating to me that Grammer, or perhaps his publisher, decided on a back cover that violently contradicts, even mocks, the exquisitely wrought pretensions that define the book.
Grammer’s memoir feels like it was written in artisanal ink with a quill pen, by a man wearing a Victorian velvet suit and sporting a monocle and toting an ivory-handled cane. It is an exquisite, gorgeously sustained exercise in unintentional self-parody. On television, and in real life, Grammer is a caricature of a deluded, oblivious intellectual. Thankfully, he’s wildly entertaining in both forms.