The Comedians

Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy

[Amazon Link]

The Daily Signal said: "Here Are 21 Books You Should Read in 2017". This was one of 'em, and I said OK, I like comedy, and asked the University Near Here to obtain it via Interlibrary Loan.

It's written by a guy with the unlikely name of "Kliph Nesteroff", and he brings an amateur enthusiasm to his project, a "History of American Comedy". (But he doesn't go all the way back to 1776; for Kliph, history starts with vaudeville in the 1920's.)

Roughly chronological, the book moves on from vaudeville to increasingly modern venues: radio, nightclubs, early TV (primetime and late night), Vegas, comedy clubs, cable.

The book makes some efforts toward scholarliness: there's a "Notes" section at the end and an index. But overall, the tone and coverage is uneven. That's somewhat forgiveable, because there are a lot of interesting stories to tell, and Kliph tells a lot of them. People looking for insights or broad lessons will probably be disappointed. The history is, for better or worse, just a bunch of guys and gals struggling to make a living at making people laugh. As with other celebrities, there's a lot of sex, licit and illicit Substances, unprofessional behavior, and even criminality along the way.

Especially interesting was the tale of "Jack Roy", whose "persona was combative and unlikeable. It didn't matter how funny the material was—the audience despised him." So he quit comedy, went into the home improvement business, which involved criminal scams, which led to his racketeering arrest. So (after an implied plea bargain), he went back into show biz, using the name Rodney Dangerfield. Which, you may have heard, worked out better than his previous try.

Kliph's prose occasionally descends into blog-style commentary. For example, after relating Jack Paar's 1960 walkoff from The Tonight Show: "Talk about a drama queen." And all too often, we get sentence after sentence about how X was represented by Y, but moved on to Z, after being accused of stealing jokes from W, U, and T. Zzz.

Well, I pulled out one broad lesson, actually: The postwar nightclubs were mostly mob-controlled. Comics were basically OK with that—for one thing, it made their access to drugs easier. During the 50s and 60s anti-organized crime efforts shifted ownership to legitimate businessmen. But the comedians tended to prefer the mobsters—they were pretty genial and generous when they weren't engaged in their profession, while the businessfolk were less humorous, more oriented to the old bottom line.

I mentioned there's an index? Yeah, but it's kind of spotty. One of my first lookups: Jimmy Durante. Not there! Outrageous! But Durante does show up in the actual text.

Given the non-comprehensive index, it's difficult to say for sure that someone is not mentioned in the book. There's a lot of name-dropping, especially near the modern-day parts. But one comic apparently missing from the book is Steven Wright. Incomprehensible! And also outrageous!

Last Modified 2017-01-24 9:41 AM EDT