Title: The Comedians
Rating: 5 Stars
This is an outstanding book. The way that it’s structured, it almost reads as an oral history, so it was quite reminiscent to Please Kill Me, the oral history that I’ve just read about punk rock.
This picks it up at vaudeville and carries all of the way through to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Every comedian of note during that time is name dropped here, and enough of his/her back story is told to inform you where the comedian fits into the overarching framework of comedy.
The chapters move from vaudeville to radio to nightclubs to television to comedy clubs. Over time, the comedy evolved from people telling the same set of jokes to the current style, where comedy is a deeply personal expression.
Since it is in a lot of ways an oral history, there really isn’t a pure narrative. For each chapter (eg radio), there would be a set of personal stories describing how it emerged, who were the main stars, and ultimately, what brought it down (usually the subject of the next chapter).
Therefore, it’s hard for me to provide a distillation of events. Instead, here is a very small number of interesting things that I learned while reading it:
Vaudeville and burlesque were in direct competition with each other. Vaudeville (through an effective monopoly) enforced a strict set of performance standards (some of which were still carrying forward into the radio age) while burlesque was more bawdy. They had a strict list of topics that were off limits, including such bizarre topics such as Herbert Hoover and ‘Arabs’. In fact, even into the 1940’s, comedians were being arrested and imprisoned for doing a ‘blue’ act.
Drugs have a long history in comedy. It extends all of the way back to vaudeville and burlesque. Life was so tough on the road (hard travel between small towns to collect an uncertain paycheck) that comedians often resorted to alcohol and opium. They were considered in the same class as prostitutes and some comedians even back then supplemented their pay by becoming dealers.
The first real stand-up was the long forgotten Frank Fay. The first comedians were essentially prop comedians. Fay was the first person that essentially just stood at the mike and spoke.
The rise of radio brought with it the rise of mass advertising. With the rise of mass advertising, much of the creativity and innovation of comedian was stifled. Scripts were run past the advertisers to make sure that they would pass muster. Those comedians that tried to fight it, namely Fred Allen and Henry Morgan, quickly were relegated to the sidelines.
The mob had a huge influence in comedy. The mobs owned most of the nightclubs, so when comedians started working the nightclub circuit, they began to rub shoulders with mobsters. The term stand-up is itself a mafia originated term. A stand-up comedian was just like a mob stand-up guy, someone who is willing to stand up and give his shots and take some shots back (ie hecklers).
Some comedians crossed mobsters, much to their peril. Joe E Lewis, not knowing that it was a problem, worked two clubs in Chicago that were owned by two different gangs. One of the gangs sent him a message by beating him and slicing open his face. It took him a year or so to be able to talk again. He was left scarred and with a permanent speech impediment, but grimly went back to work as a comedian. The mob, impressed with his guts (and also impressed that he did not rat out his attackers) took care of him and got him comedy work for the rest of his career.
Jerry Lewis, while teamed with Dean Martin, was once going around the crowd doing his silly act of bumping into people, spilling their drinks, etc. He unknowingly twice harassed Albert Anastasis, head of Murder, Inc., who was rising out of his seat to attack Lewis when Lewis was whisked away.
I remember Buddy Hackett as kind of a lovable goofball. On the nightclub circuit, he was unbelievably profane. Also, he was a maniac offstage and would regularly engage in fights, destroy property, and was pretty much a general asshole.
Redd Foxx and Malcolm X were friends when they were young. In fact, they were drug dealers together.
Jay Leno got his start doing sets in mental hospitals.
The ill fated Dana Carvey show, which only lasted seven weeks, had the following people as writers or performers: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Louis CK, Charlie Kaufmann, and Robert Smigel.
Like I said, I could keep going on and on. There’s just a ton of interesting anecdotes that can be gleaned from this book.
It’s interesting to me that I’m old enough to have encountered a good chunk of the comedians myself, primarily through television. Comparing their television persona to their nightclub act and to their own personal life was fascinating. Triggering all of these childhood memories was probably one of the main reasons why I gave it such a high rating. If you’re too young to have no memory of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Red Foxx and so on, then these just might be a bunch of unknown references. However, if these names do ring a bell, I’m pretty sure that you’ll enjoy this book as much as I did.