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Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Comedy Books You Should Know About

Forty years before Tumblr was created, allowing wisenheimers to easily publish funny pictures, Bob Einstein created the book version. A book that almost nobody read. This Is My First Magic Book So I'm A Little Nervous arrived in 1970, a slim 96 pages of photographs with short captions. It goes for up to $133 online if you can find a copy. I bought mine new for $1.50.

The book is basically a standup routine told in pictures. The title is the premise and Einstein plays it straight, milking every absurdity out of the strange idea of "reading" a "live" performance, in this case a magic act. The extra-genius part is that Einstein is a terrible magician. The camera exposes all of his feeble efforts to fool you, while the "banter" in the captions portray an utterly undeserved confidence.

Here's a taste:

Einstein was 28 in 1970, already an Emmy-winner for his work on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the rising star in a comedy family. His father was radio comedian Harry "Parkyakarkus" Einstein, a fixture on The Eddie Cantor Show. Bob's younger brother Albert had yet to really make his mark. Yes, the writer/director/star of Lost In America, Defending Your Life, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, and much more comic brilliance, was born Albert Einstein. Good choice to take the stage name Brooks.

So, comedy is in Einstein's blood, though he's probably most known for his one-joke Evel Knievel parody character, Super Dave Osborne — which, amazingly, he's been belaboring since 1972, straight through to appearances on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. Einstein can also be seen as Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm. While not regaled as a comedy god like his younger brother, Einstein has some respectable credits. Still, we are left with two important questions: Why did he never produce another comedy picture book? And why hasn't anyone else?

Partial answer: While Einstein needed little more than three rolls of Kodak film to create the pictures, old-world publishing was/is expensive. If Magic Book had been as successful as some other 1970 works — say, Love Story or Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask, for example — publishers would surely have rushed out similar books by Rich Little, Norm Crosby, or Gary Mule Deer. (Look him up.)

There are a few similar precedents for funny foto books. In 1948, acclaimed photographer Philippe Halsman sat the renowned French actor Fernandel down, peppered him with leading questions and snapped the rubber-faced vaudevillian's responses. The book, The Frenchman, is tres amusement. (Sample question: "Does the average Frenchman still pinch pretty girls in a crowd?" Accompanying photo: a big smile.) (You saw that coming.)

In 1960, Great Britain's Fernandel, Peter Ustinov, enlisted photographer William Read Woodfield for Ustinov's Diplomats, in which the two-time Oscar-winning actor, director, and journalist poses as members of the United Nations, all nationalities being equally and broadly stereotyped. Kirk Douglas wrote the introduction. (The two had recently starred together in Spartacus.)

But those books aren't as high-concept nor straight-ahead standup as Einstein's, which still stands alone. Now, of course, a simple Tumblr account is all one needs to post funny pictures. While People of Wal-Mart, Failblog, and the like have their charms, none are strictly standup-based. The closest anyone has come lately to Magic Book's style is Judah Friedlander's How to Beat Up Anybody. While that inspirational tome has lots of pictures, it's really an instruction manual. (And a good one!)

So, I'm throwing down a 41-year-old gauntlet, challenging America's comic community: Produce something as clever as This Is My First Magic Book So I'm A Little Nervous. Kindle and iPad versions accepted.

Dave Nuttycombe maintains a dusty archive of ancient comedy texts and recorded discs. There is no valid reason for him to do so. He also tweets, again to no purpose.

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    Looooove this! I hadn't heard of Einstein's book and now I'm intrigued. I collect old comedy books and records myself and this sounds like it'd be a great addition.
    The pictures are actually kind of hilarious. When people play with form in clever ways like this, it usually cracks me up. The "how many pages are left" caption shows that he really understands (bad) stand up and carefully considered how to translate that to the page.
    Great post!

    EDIT: And that gauntlet challenge is going to be tough! Another book just like Einsetin's wouldn't feel fresh. And a video – even a slide show – defeats the purpose of the pictures. Maybe some kind of weird integrated marketing for a comedy album could pick up where Einstein left off. WHO KNOWS?