Kliph Nesteroff’s ‘The Comedians’ Untangles the Roots of American Standup
Probably the hardest I’ve ever laughed was at an improv show at the Under St. Marks theater in New York in, I think, 2010. UCB improviser and director Will Hines came out between improv groups and read jokes out of an old Alan King joke book. That’s it. Now, I can’t explain why that was so funny. It wasn’t the jokes themselves, and we certainly weren’t laughing at them — I mean, Alan King is one of the best joke writers of all time. I think it was just the overwhelming realization that, even if you’re the hottest shit around, in 50 years your jokes are gonna stink.
Kliph Nesteroff’s new book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy dwells in this weird cultural space. A more precise title might be “the history of the role comedy has played in American society.” When a comedian’s bits “hold up” — is that really a good thing? How, if at all, can a comedian tell when being edgy is moral? And most importantly, who are these fucking people?
Nesteroff was introduced to the world, for all intents and purposes, on a WTF episode in 2012. As he tells Marc Maron (to whom this book is dedicated), he performed standup in Vancouver from roughly 1997-2005. He performed as a character Shecky Grey as a reference to Shecky Greene, which was the starting point for his subsequent blogging project and this book. “Shecky” is a name that everyone associates with being a “old-timey,” “Borsch Belt,” “bad comedian” trope — but why? Who was this guy?
The Comedians unpacks the Russian nesting dolls of our modern concept of standup, telescoping these influences backward until at the very beginning we see a some crazy drunk guy carrying his suitcase of props, trying to stay one town ahead of his creditors. Nesteroff wrote it like he got in a time machine in 1880 and traveled to the present, taking notes along the way, and if you know whose hipster joke that’s a reference to, you will enjoy it very much.
This book is the latest in the still fairly new field of comedy criticism, which historically kind of makes sense. Pop music took over American entertainment in the 1950s and then 20 years later rock criticism flourished with people like Lance Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Nick Tosches (whose Dean Martin biography is one of the few non-Variety works referenced in Comedians). Roughly the same period of time after the comedy boom of the 80s and sitcoms in the 90s, we’ve seen a flurry of comedy criticism in books, TV shows, podcasts, and blogs like this one.
As he says on his WTF episode, Nesteroff doesn’t like to get too polemic, preferring instead to just recount events as they happened. He gives these characters just enough historical rope to hang themselves with, which in some cases is quite a bit. B.S. Pully, famous in “the annals of raw filth,” once just walked up behind a female singer and grabbed her breasts until she started crying and ran off stage. Big laughs from the crowd. That’s just a thing that happened. Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson and Jack Benny were basically a comedy duo, but their radio show was The Jack Benny Show. They were decidedly not a team because Robinson was black. That’s just a thing that happened. “Swish” performer Ray Bourbon talked about how he liked men on stage in Miami, the authorities insisted he “cut something from his act,” so he responded by wearing a dress on stage and claiming (not clear if he actually did) to have gotten a sex change (“cutting something”). Cops arrested them for the crime of “impersonating a woman” but then couldn’t decide if they should put him (or her — again, not sure) in the men’s jail or the women’s jail, so they let the comic go. Just a thing that happened. A gay comic went on TV in California and addressed viewers’ questions about living as a gay man, and a studio technician followed him into the parking lot and thanked him, crying. Just a thing that happened.
None of that stuff is even on the press release of all the crazy highlights they tell you to sell the book.
The most interesting, most telling sections explore how major events of the 20th century affected the comedy world. For example, the effect of WWII on standup. Frankie Fay, who basically invented standup in the 1930s by being the first person to walk out on stage with no props and just talk, as it happens, was also “vocally anti-semitic” (I guess that would place him under the “scoundrels” category of the book’s subtitle). This was a huge thing for show business and the culture at large to reckon with at the time — a global conflict threatening, based around a hugely popular religion. Socialism looming. Frankie Fay was on the wrong side of history, but I guess that was all in the past, right?
Then there’s the JFK assassination, which not many people remember also ruined the life of JFK impersonator Vaughn Meade. He based his act around Kennedy and played him on the comedy album The First Family, which was hugely popular and then quickly brushed under the cultural rug after Kennedy was assassinated. But more sinisterly, comics like Mort Sahl and clubs like San Francisco’s hungry i (hippie lower-case spelling) were told by Joseph Kennedy that they would get a visit from the IRS if they didn’t stop making fun of the president. That’s just a wacky thing that happened in the black-and-white 60s, right?
Then, of course, there was Vietnam. A lot of people forget that Bob Hope was heckled by soldiers when he showed up with the old-timey good news message, “we got a plan to bring you boys home!” And probably the most interesting part is the passage on Dick Gregory, who is somehow still not included on the Sgt. Pepper-style cover of this book. Did you know Dick Gregory wrote his will in an Alabama prison? He basically did nothing but get death threats for a little while there, when he wasn’t jailed for doing provocative material and outright protesting. He, as much as Pryor, broke ground in terms of talking about black life in the starkest, most honest possible terms. Of course, he went insane later in life, but you probably would too if people were throwing bombs through the window during your shows.
This book claims to be a history of American comedy, but really it’s more a history of standup. There is no real discussion of comedy magazines, cartoons, movies (silent or regular), or TV sitcoms and sketches beyond as an extension of a comic’s act. The name “Lorne Michaels” first appears I think around page 300.
Vaudeville, the Borsch Belt, Greenwich Village coffee shops, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, the standup boom of the 80s, Twitter — these are the beams. Nesteroff’s creaky, slightly-warped prose is the stage for characters like Edward Albee, Henry Morgan, Jack Carter, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley, Jack E. Lewis (who got his throat slashed by the mob but somehow lived, earning their unending respect), Redd Foxx, and dozens of others. By the time Jack Roy changes his name to Rodney Dangerfield, you almost roll your eyes like “oh, now we’re getting to that hacky modern stuff.”
I was a little disappointed that Nesteroff’s idiosyncratic blog-writing style seem to have gotten ironed out for book, but maybe his blog seems a little more off-kilter because of the whole white-font-on-black-background next to Google ads thing. In any case, he’s not trying to be funny. Or, he’s trying to be just the right amount of funny, which is a light dusting of dry humor. Just enough to let you know what he thinks is funny: oddly, The Committee founding member Pete Bonerz gets his name mentioned a little more often than the other members of that improv group.
The “New Millennium” chapter seems a bit tacked on; an afterthought, if an enthusiastic one. And lot of the 90s material reads like an extended Wikipedia article, but I was very glad to see the words “BET’s ComicView” in a book about comedy for the first time probably ever. That show doesn’t get near enough recognition it deserves.
And then he ties everything together nicely with Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner. If there is going to be comedy happening at the White House, you want it to be, as New York wrote, “near-seditious.” But of course when kids watch that Colbert video on Mars in 2060, they’re going to laugh at how damn lame it is.
This is a great book that will definitely make the rounds in the comedy world the same way Mike Sacks’ …And Here’s the Kicker did a few years ago. My only real gripe is, to borrow an analogy from Chris Rock, to write a book about standup without mentioning Patrice O’Neal is like writing a book about the University of Maryland basketball program without mentioning Len Bias.