The Key West Capers series, written by Laurence Shames, is a highly entertaining set of romantic crime caper stories set in modern-day Key West, Florida. They are a mix of comedy, crime drama, thriller, and romance; there's something for everyone. You don't have to read any other books in the series to enjoy this one. Each book is a standalone story with the same setting and one common character throughout (except for book 5, Virgin Heat): elderly, friendly, sociable, retired crime boss Bert "The Shirt" D'Ambrosia. Surviving characters occasionally do come back in other books; when they do, their context is quickly established through comedic summary.
One Big Joke is the 13th book in the Key West Capers series, written by Laurence Shames. It's the sixth book in the series that I've narrated and produced, after Key West Luck, Tropical Swap, Tropical Depression, Virgin Heat, and One Strange Date. Chronologically, it takes place a year or so after One Strange Date, but you don't have to read it to understand and enjoy One Big Joke.
Lenny Sullivan and Pat Coates are comedy writers who had successfully pitched a new TV show to a major network. But just before the pilot began production, their star, comedian Ricky Reed, disappeared indefinitely to a drug rehab clinic. Devastated by this 11th-hour defeat, Pat returned to her home and her floating comedy club in Key West; Lenny returned to his New York apartment with Marsha, his college professor wife.
That's when the arguments started between Lenny and Marsha. Humor had always been Lenny's way of coping with stress, but this time the stress was too much; and Marsha, concerned with the dire state of modern politics, believed that there was no room for humor anymore. The frequency and ferocity of the fights increased until, one evening, Lenny went out to move his car to avoid getting a ticket, and decided to drive all the way down to Pat's house in Key West instead.
Just as Lenny is calling Pat to tell her of his surprise road trip, a naked man walks into her club, gets up on stage, sings a song, then hurries out the door. It would be surreal and comical if not for the fact that the naked man bore a strong resemblance to Ricky Reed. If it is Ricky, what's he doing in Key West? If it isn't Ricky, then what's someone who looks exactly like him doing in Pat's comedy club?
Meanwhile, local predatory businessman Ted Clifton tries to push Pat into signing over her long-term lease on the dock space in Garrison Bight where her floating comedy club resides. His intention is to ditch the houseboat and use the slip to start Key West's first legal ferry to Cuba, with NY crime boss "Fat Lou" Benedetti as his "partner." When Pat won't give up the lease, Fat Lou sends a couple of goombahs down to Key West to help convince her. Then he remembers that his old colleague Bert D'Ambrosia lives in Key West. Maybe he can help? As it turns out, Bert knows all about the comedy club because he's a regular there.
I can't reveal much more about the story without giving away some of the surprises. I will say that these two plot threads -- Lenny and Pat, and Fat Lou and his goons -- end up being related, with Bert and Ricky in the middle.
The narration style is much like Tropical Swap and Virgin Heat. The third-person limited narrative is delivered as each character intends. Often this comes through as a character's internal justification or excuse for doing something self-destructive or indulgent.
Overall, both the recording and the editing work was at least double what it usually is for a book in this series because there's so much humor in the dialogue. Even when the delivery was good, I often had to adjust the timing by adding or removing silence. I also developed a "comedy club PA" effect for the four standup acts in the book. I wanted it to sound the same way to listeners as it would to the characters in the club. Each one of those standup acts was its own challenge in terms of style, delivery, and pacing. I based the comedians loosely on Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, and George Carlin.
Bert "The Shirt" D'Ambrosia is the secondary character at the heart of the Key West Capers series, so the voice has to really work. He's in his 90s, and has been long retired from northeastern old-school mafia life. Mostly he's calm and slow, but there's still a tiny spark of anger that arcs whenever something unjust or unfair happens. As models, I used two men whose acting careers are dominated by these kinds of roles: Lawrence Tierney and Steven Van Zandt. Bert's voice has slowly evolved over the series, and I like where it is now -- more contemplative, slower-paced, and intentionally ambiguous in that lawyerly way that old mafiosos often are.
Lenny's voice was really difficult to develop. Character-wise, he has trouble being serious for very long, which makes it difficult for him when his world is taken over by serious problems. When seriousness threatens to overwhelm Lenny, he chases it away with sarcastic mumbling or gallows humor. As with all written or spoken humor, comedy is about 10% words and 90% delivery. After some trial and error, I discovered that Lenny's dialogue works well if I misdirect the anticipation of what comes next. For example, the old Groucho Marx line: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know." That only works if the setup is tied strongly to hunting in Africa, so the power of the punchline is predicated on the ability of the preceding material to establish an image of a serious safari. The modern masters of this technique are Chevy Chase and Jeff Goldblum. I ended up using Goldblum as a model, not so much for how the voice sounds, but in terms of how the dialogue is delivered. It should sound as if it's headed in an over-diplomatic direction, then internally filtered and sent in another more honest direction.
Pat Coates is often sarcastic, but honest. She doesn't attempt to be diplomatic like Lenny does, but she isn't offensive either. Sarcasm wants to be bitter, but it's much funnier if it's delivered cheerfully. The best model I could think of for that kind of humor is Ellen DeGeneres.
Ricky Reed is based entirely on Steve Martin from the 1970s and 80s, and that is a character choice I never thought I would make because, before recently, I didn't think Steve Martin was funny. I couldn't understand how he sold out stadiums with his goofy, manic standup act, or why I was supposed to laugh at his bizarre SNL bits. Then I saw him on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee show. Seinfeld said that you could put Martin's act "in a number of different decades, and it would still feel very fresh." And Martin said immediately, "I think it'd be a disaster. The comedy I was doing was so linked to the era we were coming out of, which was Vietnam. Part of my goal was to be absurd in a very serious time." That's when it hit me. Steve Martin's act was to lampoon all the very serious people in government and on the evening news, the people who put on a serious face and made threats and feigned toughness, and never once considered how ridiculous that serious act had become over the course of two decades of pointless warfare. Steve Martin made seriousness into a crime; he showed how ridiculous it had become to everyone who was sick of serious people and their bullshit. And that is Ricky Reed; a man who only sees one thing in the world as serious, and that is comedy. Comedy is the only currency, the only gamble, the only thing worth living or dying for. So he's physically unable to be serious, even when his life is at stake.
Ted Clifton is exactly the opposite of Ricky Reed. He's physically unable to be anything other than serious. He hates comedy. A Trump-based voice would have worked well for this character, but I just did that for Money Talks, and I felt it would be a distraction in One Big Joke. I briefly thought that Richard Nixon might work, but that's too iconic a voice and would be distracting. I settled on Michael Douglas' portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. It's low, gravelly, laboriously reserved, and totally serious.
Fat Lou is yet another old, obese mob boss. Somehow I manage to keep coming up with new (though not dramatically different) voices for these characters. I got close to the mic, and sort of pushed air through loose vocal chords. The result is slow, ultra-gravelly, thoughtful, and reserved. One of the hallmarks of a powerful boss, in business or in the Mafia, is that he can speak at his own pace without any concern for being interrupted. No one interrupts the boss, so he doesn't have to speak quickly or concisely.
Peppers reminded me of Robert De Niro's movie characters from the late 1980s to mid-1990s. He doesn't yell, he doesn't get angry, he wants to take the easiest and safest path that the job allows. In mob terms, he's a fixer -- or at least he will be someday, if he survives and stays in the business long enough.
Carmine is a muscle-bound thug. Although his tastes are simple, and he's only able to focus on one thing at a time, he isn't a complete fool. Uncomplicated is the best word to describe him. He's able to see reason when it's presented to him as an easier path to success. His first choice will always be violence, though, and that's why he makes an excellent counterpart to Peppers. I had Michael Imperioli's Sopranos character, Christopher Moltisanti, in mind as a vocal model.
For Carla, I used Marissa Tomei as a vocal model, but not the over-the-top My Cousin Vinny version that I used for Glenda in Tropical Swap. Carla is less shouty, more deadpan sarcastic. Where Glenda would exaggerate, Carla feels that the honest truth is much more powerful. Every comedian's ultimate reward is laughter, and Carla's hearty, musical laugh is one worth fighting (and maybe dying) over. You could say that she's a metaphor for the audience; she values seriousness and comedy, and finds that too much of either is unbearable. If everything's always serious, then you lose your sense of gravity and urgency, and you become numb to tragedy; and if everything's always one big joke, then nothing's really funny.
One Big Joke is a serious story about the necessity of comedy in an era where everyday reality is much too dire. If you think about current events for too long, or get sucked into the vortex of constant outrage on social media, then you'll go crazy with depression and anxiety. To treat this malaise, history prescribes a generous dose of laughter. If that's what you need right now, you'll find it in this audiobook. I strongly recommend the audiobook over the print or Kindle editions of this book. There's so much more in this story than just the words.