For close to a decade, Kliph Nesteroff, a former stand-up comic from Vancouver, has been exploring the underbelly of showbiz, and especially comedy, history, mainly for WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, the New Jersey freeform radio station’s online home for longform ephemera. Though the writing was clearly unedited (and therefore at times logy, abrupt, and/or tonally askew), from “The Early David Letterman: 1967 to 1980” to a profile of Richard Nixon’s joke-writer to a look at Cary Grant’s liaison with LSD, his pieces are the deeply researched product of an obsessive and encyclopedically knowledgeable fan. Along with his own Old Showbiz blog’s penchant for lengthy Q&As with performers of pre-Lenny Bruce comedy and TV workers a la game-show and late-night composer-bandleader Milton DeLugg—plus the dryly captioned screenshots from Variety he posts to the Old Showbiz Tumblr—Nesteroff was clearly working toward something bigger.
His first book, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy (Grove), ambitiously attempts to sum up the shifting currents of stand-up and its offshoots in the U.S., from vaudeville to YouTube. In scope, it’s almost certainly the most important comedy book since Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Saturday Night Live oral history, 2003’s Live From New York, not least because, for all Nesteroff’s web-available offcuts, it’s a book first rather than a tie-in with a TV special, as a number of big recent comedy histories have been. It also helps that Nesteroff’s interest in the profession’s seamy side has led him away from the feel-good clichés of which TV specials, and their bound offshoots, are made.
The dirt is thick in The Comedians, and Nesteroff ladles it with glee. Sometimes too much glee—particularly early on, he lurches into violent scenes so suddenly it’s jarring, such as the gruesome tale of Joe E. Lewis getting his throat cut by the Mob in 1927. It took the comic three years to regain the ability to speak; ironically, he wound up a Mob favorite and one of the first headliners in their new stronghold of Las Vegas beginning in the late ’40s. “Forgive me for drinking onstage,” he’d tell the Vegas throng, “but it’s something I like to do while getting drunk.”
Organized crime’s involvement is one of the running themes of Nesteroff’s book through the late ’60s, when Howard Hughes began buying casinos away from Mafiosi and turned Las Vegas legit. The term “stand-up comic,” we learn, came from the Mob (it’s a variation of “stand-up guy”), which ran Miami Beach for a decade prior to shipping out to the Nevada desert. “During the winter of 1950, the [Miami] region had more than three hundred hotels in operation,” writes Nesteroff. “The number of hotels operating in Las Vegas at the time was four.” At that point, one impressionist tells Nesteroff, “There was Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Las Vegas, Nevada. At that time [c. 1948] most mail addressed to Vegas ended up in New Mexico.” Both places were essentially lawless. Shecky Greene—whom Nesteroff rescues from hack-named obscurity to his rightful place as a comedian’s comedian, someone so freeform his act’s impact would prove impossible to re-create—would drive his Cadillac into the fountains in front of Caesar’s Palace. “I never even got a ticket,” Greene says.
Nesteroff begins at the beginning, with early-20th-century vaudeville—in particular, the first comic to cultivate what became the modern stand-up style: “Frank Fay, Nut Monologist,” as he was billed when he debuted in 1917. Fay was a nut in more ways than one—an unapologetic anti-Semite in an overwhelmingly Jewish field, and a fascist in a country that would fight a world war to defeat fascism. But compared to what came before, he was a modernist to make Picasso blink twice: “A comedian standing alone onstage? Unheard of! Doesn’t this guy know anything about showbiz?” writes Nesteroff. He was certainly progressive compared to Ted Healy, the vaudevillian who created the Three Stooges, whose act the New York Times described in 1927: “When he stuffs two eggs in a bumpkin’s mouth, he does not temper the artistic effort with gentleness. Sex does not abash this democratic buffoon; he tackles women around the neck quite as roughly as men. It is a refreshing thing to see. He is dangerous.”
The vaudeville section, as well as the modern-day material, represents the book’s weakest parts, the transitions often clunky and forced. “In creating the Three Stooges and influencing Milton Berle, he had a lasting effect on comedy,” Nesteroff summarizes Ted Healy—that’s it? “The opiate of the vaudeville people was opium”—groan.
The ’90s section is better, and follows two major seams. The ’80s standup boom has ended, but not in black comedy, where Eddie Murphy is the fountainhead: “His concert films Raw and Delirious inspired untold numbers of African-American youth to try stand-up, and by the early 1990s they were seasoned professionals,” Nesteroff writes. Meanwhile, among a number of largely white comics, a new sensibility, dubbed “alternative comedy,” is taking shape, and will see televised fruit via Jon Stewart’s MTV show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and The Dana Carvey Show. But the final chapter, covering comedy in the new millennium, feels more like a checklist (9/11 > Stewart and Colbert > the web, especially Louis C.K. > late SNL > Twitter > WTF > Robin Williams dying, all in 13 pages, whew) than a tale, the danger of taking any book up to the “present.”
Nesteroff is clearly happiest when dwelling in the midcentury, where he can turn all those Variety clippings into a portrait of what showbiz used to be, day-to-day. His deepest affinities are for lifers who never broke big, and those are harder to sort out on the fly. Still, some of his assertions ring odd: Why mention that Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour writer Mason Williams was “adept at playing folk songs” but nothing about “Classical Gas,” a number two hit in 1968 he premiered on the Smothers’ show? We also learn that Dooto Records, a Los Angeles doo-wop label, was the first recording company to release comedy albums—namely, Redd Foxx’s. But to say Foxx’s “underground status kept the organization that governed gold records from acknowledging him” ignores that labels had to allow the RIAA to audit them before it issued them sales awards. Considering that Dooto paid the comedians on its roster a flat $100 per LP, it’s highly unlikely they did. (Neither did another notable R&B indie: Motown.)
Perhaps it’s unfair to question Nesteroff’s emphases, but a couple others stand out. We learn that Jackie Mason is widely hated, but never get a sense of him as a comic. And although late-night TV of the ‘50s and early ‘60s gets its own chapter—including the short-lived Tonight! America After Dark, which one comedy writer called “so bad viewers went next door to turn it off”—despite several mentions, we learn barely anything about Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show’s ‘70s and ‘80s comedy bookers are treated in greater depth. Even if Carson wasn’t a stand-up, per se, before becoming the Tonight host, it’s a puzzling decision.
But what’s here is so abundant, and entertaining, that it overrides those reservations. When Nesteroff is comfortable, his voice is comfortably dry. Describing the debut of CBS Radio’s Stan Freberg Show in 1957, he summarizes, “This was the same time slot during which listeners had previously heard Jack Benny. To hear a radio comedy end with the annihilation of mankind was pretty wild.” He loves comedy’s nuts and bolts, and his own passion for stand-up as a form leads to smart insights: “In the mid-1950s no longer was it ‘a fella’ walking down the street. For the first time comedians told the audience: ‘I was walking down the street.’” There’s a bravura step-by-step recreation of the death of Harry Einstein—the Greek-dialect radio comedian whose alias was “Parkyakarkas,” and whose children were Bob “Super Dave Osbourne” Epstein and Albert Brooks—after he finished his famous eight-minute roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at a Beverly Hilton Friars Club dinner. “The interesting thing to me was that he finished,” Brooks said. “He could have died in the middle, but he didn’t. He finished and he was as good as he’d ever been in his life.”
That drive to artistry, however debased, is what Nesteroff most clearly identifies in his subjects. When Joey Bishop complained that Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl “tried their hardest to make it our way … when they couldn’t—they switched,” Bruce retorted: “As opposed to Mr. Bishop, who has been doing the same thirty minutes of café comedy for the last ten years. I’ve done thirty minutes on The Steve Allen Show that I’ll never do again.” A few years later, after catching Joan Rivers playing to a hostile Greenwich Village crowd, Bruce sent a note backstage: “You’re right and they’re wrong.”
Moreover, Nesteroff knows that however dated the material may now be, nothing measures the 20th century’s changing mores better than comedy. As stand-up Woody Woodbury says of the late-’50s “party albums” by the bawdy likes of Redd Foxx, Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, Rusty Warren, and himself: “They were called risqué, but today you could play them in their entirety during high mass.” The Comedians goes one better: It’s a shrine.
Michaelangelo Matos is the author of the The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street), and contributes to Rolling Stone, NPR, Red Bull Music Academy Magazine, and more. He lives in Brooklyn.
The Concourse is Deadspin’s home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter.