Actress, comic and writer Annabelle Gurwitch has had … um, how would one put it? … a colorful, volatile career. She certainly makes the most of it.
For instance, when her all-time idol Woody Allen cast her in “Writer’s Block,” a series of off-Broadway one-acts, and then fired her during rehearsals — saying she looked “retarded” — Gurwitch, 55, didn’t spend too much time crying at her pity party.
She picked herself up, interviewed dozens of other notable folks who’d been fired from jobs and created a “fired” cottage industry, which included the book “Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed,” a documentary film and a series of performances that featured Gurwitch and others making uproarious fun over having been axed.
That pluckiness has carried her from childhood through adulthood — and is no more apparent than in Gurwitch’s new memoir, “Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To.”
Gurwitch is taking her book and stories on the road, including stops next week at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma and Book Passage in Sausalito.
“The line between comedy and tragedy is so close together,” the Los Angeles resident said in a recent interview. The comic/tragic line has been a constant running through her life, and Gurwitch demonstrates it to great effect in her new book. Many people would be embarrassed to talk about a family whose history includes bootlegging and other forms of hucksterism, tax evasion, bankruptcy and depression, among other swept-under-the-rug tales. But not Gurwitch, who, on her father’s side, hails from a long line of southern Jews from Mobile, Alabama, and who, in the regaling of sordid family sagas, makes it seem that she is related to most of that city’s 1,200 to 1,500 Jews.
“Malcolm Gladwell writes of people who came from nothing and ‘climbed the crooked ladder of success,’ ” she said, explaining her family’s rise from the shtetls of Russia and Eastern Europe to prosperity in the Deep South — albeit occasionally through means that some might consider unsavory, if not downright illicit.
Gurwitch said she felt compelled to share stories about her kinfolk’s good times and bad neither to find the humor in their situations — although she can’t help but find it — nor to write a tell-all exposé. Rather, in revealing how she had to drop out of college because her father had sustained another in a long succession of business failures, or how her mother spent what felt like an eternity in bed nursing depression, she hoped to “lessen the stigma” about the subjects considered off limits in polite company.
But it’s one thing to shed light on places, people and things that her mother and father were loath to speak about when Gurwitch was growing up, and quite another to do so while her parents were still alive. She had no desire to hurt them, so the book was written at the tail end of her parents’ lives. “I finished the book in my mother’s hospice room,” she said.
(Gurwitch also brings her sister, Lisa, former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund, into the book — as the wise, calm voice of reason in a rather dysfunctional family.)
Writing was something that came to Gurwitch only after years in the entertainment industry. She was encouraged and inspired by her friend, the late comic and actress Anne Meara, who’d heard Gurwitch’s first essay on National Public Radio and urged her to continue writing.
Gurwitch said she wasn’t always funny and that, in fact, she was an overly serious, earnest child growing up in Miami Beach, Florida, where her family moved after leaving Mobile. “Life turned me into a comedian,” she said.
And, she said, it helps being Jewish.
That thin border between comedy and tragedy? Jews know it well, she mused. “There’s this understanding in Jewish culture of the lines between hilarity and calamity.”
Annabelle Gurwitch will discuss her memoir at 7 p.m. April 20 at Copperfield’s Books, 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma and 6 p.m. April 21 at Book Passage, 100 Bay St., Sausalito.
“Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To” by Annabelle Gurwitch (320 pages, Blue Rider Press)