Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff

    • The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff
    • Published November 3, 2015
    • The author's first and only book thus far.

    • Specifically, this is an overview of the history of American stand-up comedy.
      • In an Amazon review someone criticized the fact that Lucille Ball is barely mentioned (in conjunction with the Red scare of the 1950s and her presence at a Friar's Club "roast") but as she was never a stand-up comedian she was lucky to merit a mention at all!
    • It covers the history from the Vaudeville era, which began in the 1880s, to today.

    • Chapters cover Vaudeville, radio, nightclubs, television, late night shows, Las Vegas and more.
    • Apparently the term "stand-up" was a Mob term. It referred to a fight where you'd want a "stand up guy", one who would literally stand up and fight by your side. Or a stand up fighter who would punch, punch, punch. A stand up comedian would punch jokes, one right after the other.
    • Some types of stand-up went away as new methods of presenting comedy came in.
      • Radio killed Vaudeville and then television killed radio.
    • General comedy is very much of its time: what was funny in the past is not generally funny now (with many exceptions of course).
    • When Vaudeville and its theaters faded away comedians began appearing at clubs that opened throughout the country. The end of Prohibition coincided with that end and thus the Mob controlled most of those clubs. They already ran a bunch of speakeasies during Prohibition and had the infrastructure already in place.
      • First Miami Beach was a comedy hub and once the government started coming after them --- specifically Senator Estes Kefauver who fought organized crime --- they moved to Las Vegas where the laws were more advantageous to them.
    • By the time I came along in the 1960s many of the early comedians were already old men whom I watched when they made appearances on various variety and talk shows. Some of the newer crowd --- middle-aged but old by my childhood lights! --- had their own TV shows.

    • I found this book to be extremely interesting but it is a subject that would probably take an encyclopedia to cover in full. As an overview it was fairly comprehensive but 100 years of stand-up comedy in about 350 pages there are bound to be some omissions.
    • Comedians apparently stole from each other quite often! And many of them were utter assholes, fun to read about but probably not fun to know them in real life.
    • There was a fascinating section on African-American comedians. They really had it tough: lower pay, segregation, having to whitewash --- figuratively speaking --- the content of their acts in order to perform for whites. This changed in the 1960s as civil rights created new opportunities for black comedians.
      • Redd Foxx was especially beloved by comedians and helped out many a man. I was also amazed to learn that his real last name was Sanford and that his dad's was Fred Sanford!
    • There is a story of a comedian who performed in women's clothing and was arrested for lewdness even though Milton Berle would become a huge TV star in a couple of years doing the same thing. (And we also get some anecdotes on the size of Mr. Berle's penis. It was HUGE. He was known to show it to people. There are some things I just don't need to know and this is one of them. I felt I must share this nugget. You're welcome, readers.)
    • One of the most constant comments in the book is the phrase "long forgotten". In almost all cases there are no recordings of stand-up acts so the jokes are all lost to time. I remembered a lot of the names --- thanks to all the TV watching I did in my youth!
      • I wish there could have been lots of examples of the comedians' work but space did not allow. This would make an awesome documentary series, Ken Burns!
    • Recommended! 

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