Monday, April 04, 2016

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

I just read Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians, a history of comedy--especially stand-up comedy--in the past hundred years.  Perhaps the book's subtitle tells it best: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy.  Nesteroff gets down to the nitty-gritty.

The book has an obvious problem--it's bitten off more than it can chew.  Its 400+ pages couldn't even do justice to the subjects of each chapter--Vaudeville, radio, late night TV, Las Vegas, etc.  There are literally hundreds of comics mentioned on these pages, and each with an interesting story.   At least the breadth is exciting--Nesteroff gives a feeling for the sweep of comedy in America, and its ever-changing character.

Live comedy went from Vaudeville to presentation houses to night clubs to Vegas to coffee houses to albums to comedy clubs to podcasts and tweets.  Just as important, some time in the 50s and 60s there was a major change, from joke telling to more observational, political humor.  At any time, if you were on the cutting edge, chances are you didn't say there long.  For instance, there was a comedy boom in the 1980s, when countless clubs sprang up around the country, but it didn't do much good to most big names from the 50s and 60s, who were now considered outdated.

A lot of the fun in the book is finding out about the personalities of these performers. Plenty of the characters I already knew about--the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Steve Allen, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, to name a few.  But I wasn't aware that Frank Fay, who practically invented the concept of the emcee, was a horrible racist; or that Rodney Dangerfield took some time off from comedy to participate in a criminal home improvement scam; or that almost everyone in show biz hated Jackie Mason; or that in his later years, when trying to make a comeback, Danny Thomas would casually pull out a gun when people bothered him. There are a lot of such stories--and a whole lot about the mob, that virtually ran live show biz for a few decades--but don't worry, they're not all negative.

Anyway, highly recommended.  Nesteroff has done his homework, interviewing hundreds of comics.  There are a few lines that give pause--early on, Nesteroff says Prohibition started in 1918--but overall, I have no reason to doubt the reliability of this book.

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