The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy
By Kliph Nesteroff
Review by David Wineberg
The difference between Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians and the hundreds of other collections on comedians is that this is an order of magnitude above all the rest combined. While others collapse lives into three paragraphs, listing achievements quickly for a template, The Comedians is a narrative of eras. The chapters are on vaudeville, radio, nightclubs, television. The eras are populated and propelled by comedians making their way in the world, paying their dues, and sometimes risking their lives. The constraints of the medium, the politics and the time throw their careers into high relief. There is far more excitement, far more intrigue, far more curiosity in how they pulled it off than in any other such book. And I have about 200 of them right here beside me. This is by far the best.
The trek is all about change. How the eras changed the approach, how young comics fought the establishment, how differently the audience approaches comedy. It provides endless insight without dwelling too long on the accomplishments or famous lines of anyone. Most of the stories are (thankfully) not the standard, trademarked tales everyone’s heard, but other, more purposeful ones we likely have not encountered before. This too keeps the reader locked in. The transitions Nesterhoff employs – from radio to tv, late night to internet – are so integral they are elisions, seamless segués. The overall effect is pure pleasure for anyone interested in how the who’s who got that way, interacted, and how their era defined them. The evolution is markedly clear and relentless. The takeaways are endless.
We even learn about the use of cigars by a certain generation (Burns, Benny, King, Youngman, Berle, Levenson, Leonard…), to let jokes set in or to stall for time while they switched gears when one failed. We learn that untold numbers of comics changed their names to Jack/Jackie and Joey/Joe E. For some reason, this rated as enormously professional in the first half of the last century. The finest insight comes from Tommy Smothers, who didn’t hire writers so much as musicians, confounding, as he constantly did, the powers that employed him, if not the whole industry: “People in music are used to expressing themselves; they have more rhythm, better pacing,” he said, proving himself a far superior observer once again.
Of course, not every comic is profiled or even mentioned. Missing entirely is the man who started it all, Mark Twain. At a time when there was nothing like it, Twain would entertain alone on a bare stage (with cigar). People laughed so hard their sides ached all the next day and no one could remember a single thing he said. I know of only two others who could do the same, any time, with no preparation whatsoever and for endless hours without a break: Jonathan Winters and Peter Cook.
Wondering how Nesteroff could possibly wrap it all up, he concludes simply with poignant words from Robin Williams about how comedy owned him. It was actually said better by Cocoa Brown: “Comedy is a jealous boyfriend I like to call Ike 'cause it beats the hell out of you every day, but I love it just the same.”
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.