The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy
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Beginning with the nationwide vaudeville circuits that dominated at turn of the twentieth century, Nesteroff describes the rise of the first true stand-up comedian—a variety show emcee who abandoned physical shtick for straight jokes. The end of Prohibition ushered in a surprising golden age of comedy, as funnymen were made into radio stars and the combination of the "Borscht Belt," the "Chitlin Circuit," and Mafia-run supperclubs furnished more jobs and money than ever before. Those were the days of the Copacabana, tuxedos, and smoking cigars onstage, when insulting the boss could result in a hit man at your door and obscenity charges could land you in jail. In the 1950s, late-night television cemented the status of the comedy establishment while young comics rebelled, arriving on the beatnik coffeehouse scene with cerebral jokes and social angst. They soon found their own way to fame through comedy records that vied with top musicians for Billboard spots. Then came the comedy clubs of the coke-fueled 1970s and 80s, Saturday Night Live and cable TV, and with the internet, a whole new generation of YouTube stars, podcast personalities, and Twitterati. Through the decades, Nesteroff reveals the contradictions between comedians’ public and private personas and illuminates the often-seedy underbelly of an industry built on laughs.
Based on over two hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, The Comedians is a sharply written and highly entertaining look at one hundred years of comedy, and a valuable exploration of the way comedians have reflected, shaped, and changed American culture along the way.
very much influenced by Lenny Bruce in terms of language, subject matter and drug use. The Committee’s first scripted show was to be the life story of Bruce, and the man had sanctioned it himself, before paranoia took over. He decided the hippies were trying to exploit him and threatened to sue if they went forward with the show. It did nothing to diminish their admiration. “We in The Committee all looked up to him tremendously,” says Gottlieb. “He was influential in that he made it okay to riff
diners seemed to enjoy being browbeaten by one, especially if he spoke ungrammatically and with a rough New York accent.” Lindy’s had a famous waiter named Jaegger, a snide bastard who thought nothing of insulting the biggest stars in the business. “Milton Berle popularized him,” says Jack Carter. “He was a waiter who was snotty with Milton and treated him like garbage. ‘Vot do you vant, you low-class comic?’” One rung down from Lindy’s was the Stage Delicatessen, which was smaller in stature,
players to secondary contracts and insisted on a percentage of Dagmar’s personal appearance fees. When Dagmar failed to go along, Lester fired her and replaced her with another blonde—Barbara Nichols. And then NBC went and did the same thing, firing Lester on May 25, 1951. “Jerry Lester did a terrible thing,” says his friend Shecky Greene. “He tried to make demands on NBC and they just plucked him out. His show was one of the forerunners of all of that late night shit, but his ego got the best of
thievery, but they were fictional characteristics. What they sold to their audience was an illusion. Stand-up was impersonal because few comedians wrote what they said. With the references generic, a comedy writer could sell the same routine to multiple people. A handful of comics like Morey Amsterdam and Nipsey Russell devised their own material, but even that conformed to a generic point of view. Without a personal stamp it was easily pillaged. Stand-up comedians copped from the popular joke
Sanford, a small-time comedian, could afford to drive a Cadillac. Last week they got their answer. Sanford, better known as Redd Foxx, was growing marijuana in his Newark backyard. Federal agents found a quantity of reefers in his coat pocket and also in the Cadillac. Both he and his wife, Evelyn, are under five thousand dollars bail.” Foxx fled his criminal record and landed in Los Angeles, where he found a booster in Johnny Otis, an important rhythm and blues disc jockey and tastemaker. Otis