Book review: did you hear the one about the history of American comedy?

Showbiz historian Kliph Nesteroff’s eye for detail turns his chronicle of funny business into a rollicking read

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 November, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 November, 2015, 9:00pm

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy

by Kliph Nesteroff

Grove Press

The Comedians is the history of American funnymen that we didn’t know we needed.

Comic turned showbiz historian Kliph Nesteroff chronicles the challenges of the comedy business from the days of vaudeville, when theatre-chain owners ruled with an iron hand; to the hip clubs of the 1950s and ’60s, when the assembly-line system of comedy writers and joke-tellers was replaced by a more personal, and political, brand of humour; to the comedy-club boom of the 1980s and beyond.

Drawing from show-business staples such as Variety as well as more than 200 interviews of his own, Nesteroff – the author of a popular blog and host of a live interview series on show-business history – takes a chronological approach to the topic. Structurally, it could almost double as a syllabus for a history course on comedy.

What makes The Comedians indispensable, and such a quick read, is Nesteroff’s eye for detail, and big-picture sense of when the world began to change – and who fueled that change.

For example, he highlights the role of Frank Fay, an acerbic wit who in the 1920s turned the role of vaudeville emcee into the front line of stand-up; pays heed to Harry Einstein, who created one of radio’s most memorable characters (Parkyakarkus) and was father to several influential comedy creators, including actor-filmmaker Albert Einstein, who for obvious reasons changed his last name to Brooks; and points out that, for all the hype about Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, there were women stand-ups before them, such as Jean Carroll and Rusty Warren, who paved the way.

But where The Comedians earns its biggest ovations is in the material Nesteroff gleaned from comedy’s survivors. Jack Carter – who, Mel Brooks tells Nesteroff ,was the worst comedian ever to write for – shares frank details about the life of a comic in the 1940s and ’50s. (Carter died in June.)

Nesteroff also does a terrific job detailing the comic’s transition from joke machine to raconteur of personal material, one that has dominated the field since. “In the mid-1950s,” he writes, “no longer was it ‘a fella’ walking down the street. For the first time comedians told the audience: ‘I was walking down the street.’”

Comedians such as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce introduced a brand of idiosyncratic, observational comedy that inspired comedians like George Carlin and Robert Klein, who in turn led to another wave of comedy standard-bearers like Louis C.K. and Jerry Seinfeld.

Like all good popular history, The Comedians will send you scrambling to learn more – which, thanks to routines and bits stored on Spotify and YouTube, among other sources, has never been easier to do.

Tribune News Service