by Kliph Nesteroff
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Kliph Nesteroff has produced an excellent look at the history of stand up comedy in America from its roots in Vaudeville through the modern era in The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy. Although his subtitle is technically true, it is also sensationalistic, focusing on the negatives about specific individuals rather than the overarching history of comedy.
One of the points Nesteroff makes as he works his way from long forgotten Vaudeville comics, to the early stand-ups like Frank Fay, to the sixties icons like Lenny Bruce and eventually to modern comedians like Louis CK, is that comedy changes. The jokes and rhythms that were funny to one generation won't work for another. Although Lenny Bruce may have inspired the next generation of comics, his own comedy does work as well forty years later. Nesteroff occasionally tries to demonstrate this by quoting old comedy routines, but without the delivery, nearly any comedy routine falls flat. To really understand how the sense of humor changes, the routines need to be heard, which isn't always possible, but enough old recordings exist that a companion CD to the book would be welcome. (Since there isn't one, try finding The American Comedy Box Set: But Seriously, which includes Barney Bernard's "Cohen at the Telephone" as an example of humor that doesn't hold up, and Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First" for one that does.)
Comedians not only had to tap into the proper Zeigeist for their own time, but had to live a difficult life on the road, hustling for low paying gigs, and occasionally making it big either on the circuit or, more likely, when they managed to turn their gigs into a standard appearance or eventually moved into films or television. Early on, joke theft was a real difficulty, but was an accepted part of the field until relatively recently. Nesteroff talks about many of the comedians who rose to heights, like Milton Berle, and then suddenly got left behind as people took their innovations and surpassed them while they were unable to adjust past a certain point. Nesteroff is also very open about comedians who he feels did not live up to their reputations. He defends other comedians. Slappy White has become the epitome of cornball humor to those who remember his name, but Nesteroff makes the case that he was an excellent comedians when he had free rein, but his best material was ephemeral and not recorded and could be much more political than the humor for which he is remembered.
One of the things that is clear is that comedians are influenced by the prior generation, even when the older comedians are forgotten by the general public. Nesteroff quotes numerous comedians talking about not just the big names who influenced them but comedians who never made it big. And often, comedians will help out the older generation once they've made it big, including them on their television shows, referring to them in their skits, or hiring them to work with them either writing jokes or on the road. There is a community of comedians which looks out for other members, although Nesteroff does indicate that their are limits if someone is seen as nasty, a joke thief, or, in the case of Frank Fay, who Nesteroff calls the first stand-up comedian, a Facist.
In addition to looking at comedians themselves, Nesteroff also looks at the people who ran the places that gave comedians a chance. In the Vaudeville days, the theatres were owned by circuits and the comedians and other entertainers would frequently sign exclusive contracts with a specific circuit. This allowed some of the owners to fully control portions of Vaudeville, which could make or break an act. Eventually as Vaudeville fell and comedians moved to night clubs, they rand into the same thing with clubs owned by mafioso. Even after the mafia was forced out of the business in the 1960s, club ownership still had a huge impact on comedians, which resulted in the strike against Mitzi Shore's The Comedy Store, which had some aspects of a gang war according to Nesteroff. Perhaps surprising is the number of comedians who opened their own clubs, like Morey Amsterdam or Rodney Dangerfield, not only to showcase their own talents, but those of other comedians.
The book does include a few questionable claims. After describing how mobster Louis Amberg tabbed Milton Berle in the face with a fork, Nesteroff notes that Amberg was found dead in cement, although most sources state that Amberg was found in the trunk of a burning car. Tangential to Nesteroff's narrative, but it does raise a question about what else Nesteroff is mis-reporting because of faulty sources (the Amberg statement was from a quote by Earl Wilson) which he didn't work to confirm.
Overall, The Comedians provides an excellent look at the growth of comedy in the (mostly) twentieth century. The familiar and unfamiliar and forgotten names rub shoulders together and give the reader the opportunity to try to track down long forgotten comics. Nesteroff is able to convey the change in mental outlook of the comedians, from the Vaudeville players who were going for a laugh and subsistance level of pay to more recent comedians who have figured out how to use comedy to try to affect social and political change. While Nesteroff's book isn't comedy, it has a light touch and uses it well to describe his topic.
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