Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Decadent Comedy

After having been inside Steve Martin's mind, I've stepped back and just read a book about comedians of the 70s, Comedy At The Edge. In a way, it's an unofficial follow-up to (a book by a different author,) the far lengthier Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.

The 70s was an interesting era for stand-up. You had two leading comics, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, dropping their highly successful careers to become more personal and political, and becoming bigger than ever. On the other hand, you had people like Albert Brooks (who started on TV and then did clubs), followed by Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, dropping politics altogether, and hiding their personalities. It was also the beginning of a comedy boom that created a glut by the late 80s--so much so that I'm still a bit sick of stand-up.

Richard Zoglin does a good job in what amounts to a bunch of separate essays. He hits the biggest names, but also spends some chapters discussing the milieu. Best of all, he's not afraid to make judgments. For instance, he notes Lenny Bruce, though groundbreaking, wasn't all that funny. David Steinberg was controversial in his day, but never really hip enough (for instance, not hip enough to be invited to host Saturday Night Live). And Robert Klein is the most influential white comic of the past forty years.

The book does have an unfortunate subtitle: "How Stand-Up In The 1970's Changed America." Since Zoglin only makes a token effort to substantiate this silly claim, I'm guessing it was forced on him.


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