Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy (Grove Press, $28) is a terrific book, but don’t let that grand subtitle fool you. Rather than attempt an all-encompassing history of American comedy, Nesteroff wisely focuses his gaze on the evolution of stand-up, from the early days of vaudeville right up through Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast. There are lengthy chapters on radio, television, and nightclub performers, along with the rise, fall and reemergence of comedy clubs. Of particular interest to local readers is a chapter on the importance of Las Vegas and how Senator Estes Kefauver’s investigation of organized crime in the early 1950s prompted mob bosses to move their operations to Nevada and start building hotels and casinos.
Nesteroff, a former stand-up comedian who performed under the name “Shecky Grey” (an obvious nod to veteran Vegas funnyman Shecky Greene) is a genuine authority on comedy and show business history. For years, he’s been interviewing comedy veterans such as Jack Carter, Will Jordan, and Woody Woodbury, and sharing classic stories on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog and his own Classic Television Showbiz website. Nesteroff interviewed more than 200 people for his book, which means every chapter is loaded with personal anecdotes and juicy, behind-the-scenes stories. Nesteroff also relied heavily on Variety, the entertainment trade journal, to fill in any holes in his research.
Readers will learn how Frank Fay created the role of emcee and turned it into an art, and how the growing popularity of radio effectively killed vaudeville. The chapter on nightclubs explains how the mob owned and operated clubs across the country and also coined the term, “stand-up comic.”
When it comes to television, Nesteroff shares stories about Milton Berle’s off-camera tirades (and several paragraphs on his legendary penis), the lasting appeal of Phil Silvers’ Ernie Bilko and Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, and how Ed Sullivan’s weekly variety show—along with the creation of late-night talk shows—gave much-needed exposure to rising comics.
Nesteroff does a fine job identifying the joke thieves from the true originals. He also heralds Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Jonathan Winters as the comedians who truly revolutionized stand-up, not only by pushing boundaries and influencing others but also by creating acts that were essentially “theft-proof.” Many of the biggest stars that followed (George Carlin, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, etc.) owe a debt to these men for laying the groundwork that eventually elevated the medium.
Nesteroff steers readers through the rapidly changing political climate in the 1960s, the impact of weed and cocaine on comics and comic audiences, and how University of Toronto graduate Lorne Michaels ended up creating Saturday Night Live. That he manages to cram everything in less than 400 pages seems nothing short of miraculous. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing this book lacks is the occasional rimshot. ★★★★✩