- The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff
It is no secret that the world of professional comedy performance has attracted more than its fair share of extreme, and often self-destructive, personalities. More than any other book I have come across, Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians highlights the less-than-laudable habits and tendencies of American comics. The author draws on a personal archive of interviews conducted with professional comedians, both familiar and obscure, about their experiences and those of their contemporaries. Throughout the book, Nesteroff quotes and recounts at length comedians' own stories about their personal and professional lives, an approach that offers a unique peek into the interpersonal conflicts and alliances that shaped so many careers. Most of the stories in this book are about the trials and tribulations of making a living as a comedian at different historical moments. Who controlled the money, how much comedians were paid, what they did to get a gig, and thoughts about their compatriots are the foremost concerns here. The personal networks of individual comedians—whom they liked, whom they hated, whom they worked with, whom they avoided—are front and center as the book skips quickly, even frantically, from one comedian's experience to the next. Readers are left with a sense of the significance of interpersonal connection and good fortune to a comedian's success and an awareness of the corruption and exploitation rampant in the field of professional comedy.
Extensively researched and engagingly written, The Comedians is a chronological account of the development of stand-up comedy in America and the various trends and movements that have shaped it from the early 1900s through the first decade of the twenty-first century. The book's first six chapters chronicle the growth and decline of the various venues, techniques, and mediums in order to set the stage for the emergence of the stand-up form as it exists today. In his first chapter, "Vaudeville Comedians," the author locates the seeds of modern stand-up, as many [End Page 140] scholars have, in the burlesque and vaudeville theaters of the early 1900s, where comedy acts of various sorts were interspersed with song, dance, titillation, and occasional juggling. Chapter 2, "Radio," looks at comedy as it moved on to the airwaves where comedians could suddenly reach a much broader segment of the population but were increasingly subject to the will of national networks and the advertisers that fueled them. Comedians unsuited to or uninterested in working in radio often found employment in the various mob-run venues that proliferated alongside the rise of radio. "Nightclubs," the third chapter, is perhaps Nesteroff's most gripping and includes several accounts of the gruesome and violent business of being a comedian under the umbrella of organized crime. Chapters 4 and 5, "Television" and "Late Night," respectively, chronicle the role of the comedian in the rise of television and its growing cultural influence up through the early 1960s. Chapter 6, "The Rise of Las Vegas," turns briefly back to live comedy to show how the nightclub scene gave way to lounge acts, and Nesteroff details the growth of Las Vegas as a hub for comedians and comedy in America.
In chapter 7, Nesteroff changes his tack to focus more on the relationship between comics and the times in which they lived. He sees the mid-1950s as a moment of profound change in comedy, which resulted in the true birth of stand-up as we know it today. "Stand-up's Great Change" is the most analytical and reflective chapter in the book. It suggests that the defining characteristic of modern stand-up, and the quality that differentiates it from what came before, is the expectation that comedians produce their own, original material. This shift placed a premium on originality and yielded a new, personalized approach to making an audience laugh. As Nesteroff puts it, "In the mid-1950s no longer was it 'a fella' walking down the street. For the first...