You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn

2010. 261 pages. Hardcover. Crown.

From: the public library

Where I heard about it: I saw this book mentioned briefly a while back on the blog Stuff & Nonsense.

For the challenge: What’s in a Name (plant)

In a nutshell:

Actress / writer Annabelle Gurwitch and television writer Jeff Kahn write about marriage, specifically humorous, warts-and-all stories about their marriage to each other.  It is also a story about raising their son, Ezra, who was born with severe birth defects.


In the introduction to the book, Jeff describes authors of previous marriage self-help books as “the Daniel Boones and Davy Crocketts of the new frontier of marriage.”  He then says, “And if they are Boones and Crocketts, then you should think of Annabelle and me and our book as the Donner Party.”

As that quote indicates, Gurwitch and Kahn do not think of themselves as a model married couple.  Most of the book consists of self-deprecating stories of their courtship, marriage and parenthood.  The book is told in a he says / she says format throughout, where they often (with humor) contest the other’s version of events or perspective.

I definitely laughed aloud several times throughout the book.  My favorite passage was Annabelle’s description of their late-night discussions regarding baby Ezra’s fluid intake, which had to be measured and monitored carefully due to defects.  An excerpt:

If our house had been wiretapped, you might have thought that we were running a meth lab: Male voice: “How many ounces of liquid did you pour in this morning?  I can’t read your handwriting.”  Female: “I can’t remember!”

Though I would characterize the book as mostly humor writing, the authors do get serious on occasion.  This occurs particularly when talking about their son’s health condition and in their concluding chapter when they get down to why they are still married.

Though the book had its funny moments, after the halfway point, I realized that it was failing to charm me overall.  I had been reading the funniest parts out loud to my roommate, but as I told her later, she was getting the “trailer” version of the book.  You know how some movie trailers make the film look wall-to-wall laughs and then you find out the best bits were all in the trailer?  That’s the version she got.  I felt like for every genuinely funny anecdote, there were so many more jokes that fell flat.

For example, I didn’t understand why there had to be quite a few lame jokes about Republicans and right-wingers.  I just think that liberals’ jokes about conservatives, and conservatives’ jokes about liberals have been done to the ground.  There is often such a smugness and laziness to these jokes that I find grating.

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up was published recently, so I usually understood the various references to pop culture and current news.  However, references to the Rosie O’Donnell / Donald Trump feud, and the careers of Dane Cook and Gretchen Mol, already make the book sound dated, and it’s only going to get worse in future years.

At one point, when Annabelle says that her mother “indoctrinated me in the kind of feminist rhetoric she had been denied,” I suddenly was reminded of Ayelet Waldman who described her mother similarly in her book Bad Mother.  And once that connection was made in my head, I inevitably compared the two books, which cover similar territory (though Waldman’s book is focused more on motherhood than on marriage).  Bad Mother wins out for being more strongly written and more thought-provoking.  I actually intend to read Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon later this year (Waldman’s husband), where he talks about being a father.  Apparently, this is my year for reading husband/wife point and counterpoints.

As for You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, I found Annabelle and Jeff to be likable, but their book has a certain forgettable quality that prevents me from recommending it in general.

Other reviews:

A Worn Path – who does recommend the book and also has an embedded video of Gurwitch and Kahn discussing their book

Citizen Reader


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays

5 responses to “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn

  1. I hate it when a book dates itself, especially humor books- good humor transcends that, so it feels cheap.

  2. I love your “trailer” analogy.
    Wonderful review … it makes me realize that it is a library book (if anything).

    And do read “Manhood for Amateurs.” It is brilliant. I just loved it.

  3. I love that you called it the trailer version! I’ve used that analogy before, and so far it has never prevented any member of my family from reading the book in question. And then they don’t find it as funny as they were expecting and they say, “I guess I didn’t think this was as funny as you thought it was,” in spite of my clear warning that it wasn’t as funny as the excerpts I was reading them. Hrmph. And thus, I will trust your judgment and read Waldman & Chabon instead. 🙂

  4. Lit Omnivore – “Cheap” is a good word for the dated humor. It’s humor that is coasting, depending on what amounts to cultural inside jokes. Years later, people will just say “I don’t get it” because they will no longer be in that same cultural moment, if that makes sense. Compare this to some of the funny lines in Hunchback, which is over 150 years old.

    Jenners – I’m definitely looking forward to reading “Manhood for Amateurs!”

    Jenny – Yes! I’m glad someone else uses this analogy. Too bad it wasn’t heeded in your case.

  5. Pingback: Book Review: #85 – You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn « Let's eat, Grandpa! Let's eat Grandpa! (Punctuation saves lives.)

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