A fantastic reference for stories you never knew were true about the history of comedy in the United States.
Author: Kliph Nesteroff
Title: The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels And The History of American Comedy
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: 3 Nov. 2015
Reviewer: ‘Yomi ‘Segun Stephen
Review Rating: 5 (Amazing)
An expansive and endlessly entertaining history of stand-up comedy, spanning more than a century from vaudeville, through radio, television, the counterculture, the comedy boom, to the present
In The Comedians, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century of American comedy with real-life characters, forgotten stars, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts. Based on over two hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, Nesteroff’s groundbreaking work is a narrative exploration of the way comedians have reflected, shaped, and changed American culture over the past one hundred years.
Starting with the vaudeville circuit at the turn of the last century, Nesteroff introduces the first stand-up comedian—an emcee who abandoned physical shtick for straight jokes. After the repeal of Prohibition, Mafia-run supper clubs replaced speakeasies, and mobsters replaced vaudeville impresarios as the comedian’s primary employer. In the 1950s, the late-night talk show brought stand-up to a wide public, while Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters attacked conformity and staged a comedy rebellion in coffeehouses. From comedy’s part in the Civil Rights movement and the social upheaval of the late 1960s, to the first comedy clubs of the 1970s and the cocaine-fueled comedy boom of the 1980s, The Comedians culminates with a new era of media-driven celebrity in the twenty-first century.
Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians starts right at the beginning of the 20th Century, when the vaudeville was at its peak, and comedians worked in conditions “… unlike that of industrial age factories, with few benefits offered its working class.” It was said that there was poor ventilation and the “… rooms were unclean, unheated, unventilated and rat-infested. In some of the theatres, the manager used the dressing room as a storeroom, often filled with bags of unpopped corn, sometimes up to the ceiling. The bottom bags usually had holes where the rats were nibbling.”
It is from this low base that commercial comedy in the United States was born. And from this common birth, the author of The Comedians helps us identify four female rabblerousing comedians who dared to upset the apple cart in days when most were still coming to grasp with the idea of a stand-up comedian being a woman. These four comediennes are:
It was said that Pearl Williams was one of the dirtiest comediennes who ever lived. Dirty jokes were her forte and she perfected the art of roasting that alarmed even comedy veterans. It was said that, Williams would sometimes sit in front of a piano, delivering “… sex-related commentary and suggestive songs.” She was said to have been shut down in New Jersey for “… lewd, indecent and immoral entertainment. You would walk in and Pearl Williams would be by the door insulting everybody. If a fat guy came in she’d say, ‘How long has it been since you’ve seen your di**k?’”
“The head of the New Jersey Alcoholic Beverage Control wrote a seventeen-page report in which he chided her ‘obscene and vulgar references to sex and sexual behavior, geared to a pornographic level with dirt for dirt’s sake.’”
In the 1940s, when it was common for comedians to drape themselves in elaborate garbs and costumes, Jean Caroll “… didn’t wear a funny costume or a frumpy hat, but took to the stage in an elegant dress and evening gloves. She was the first of a new breed.”
As part of her style, “… she did not do sketches, characters or song parodies, nor did she work as part of a team. She stood onstage alone and rattled off punch lines every twelve to fifteen seconds. She was a joke machine.” Some of her lines went like this:
“… Oh, let me tell you how I met Jack.
I was standing on a corner—as usual. We went out and lemmee tell you something, he was a real sport. Money? Money meant nothing. Nothing! He didn’t have any.
I shouldn’t make fun of him. After all, he’s so sweet. Nothing bothers him. . . He drinks. Well, he doesn’t drink because he likes it. He drinks to steady his nerves. The other night his nerves got so steady he couldn’t move at all.”
Carroll became the first female stand-up to headline major nightclubs like the Latin Quarter and the Copacabana. CBS starred her in an early sitcom with Art Carney.
Joan Rivers was reputed to be a hard worker and a determined fighter, who fought to master her talents in an age where being a woman in comedy was a handicap. She fought harder than her male counterparts in her bid to be heard and respected. She was said to be smart and ambitious to a fault. However, there were hints that her ambition sometimes overrode ethics. There was an incident concerning Rivers that went thus:
“I was signed with [manager] Irvin Arthur,” says comic-turned-actor Dick Gautier. “Irvin said, ‘Come up to the rehearsal studio. I’m looking at a bunch of young comics and I want your input.’
I’m sitting in the back and Joan Rivers walks in. She goes on and she does my act. Really—my act, word for word.
She said, ‘Well? What do you think?’
Irvin said, ‘It’s funnier when Dick does it.’ He pointed to me in the back of the room and she went, ‘Ah, shit.”
Nevertheless, it was said that Irvin Arthur signed Rivers because he believed she could become brilliant, and “… she had this perseverance that went beyond the limit.”
Jackie “Moms” Mabley:
It goes without saying that times weren’t kind to African Americans in the 1900s, least of all black comedians. Jackie “Moms” Mabley was one of the biggest comedy stars in the early days of the new 125th Street Apollo theatre. Mabley “… was the first female comedian to play the venue and one of the only female stand-ups in the country. In the 1930s, while still a young woman, she adopted the persona of a wisecracking, sex-crazed senior citizen, a hip, all-knowing matron with an incredibly gruff voice.”
Mabley was said to have picked interesting targets to be the butt of her jokes. She was said to have
“… joked at the expense of bigots and ‘damned old men.’ With a benevolent voice she criticized the South and the empty promises of white liberals in Washington. From the 1930s through the 1950s Mabley was comedy’s primary voice of the Civil Rights Movement.”
The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff is a fantastic reference for stories you never knew was true about the history of comedy in the United States. If you are interested in any aspect of comedy, this is a book you need to get.
The Comedians (Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy) is written by Kliph Nesteroff and published by Grove Press (November 3, 2015).
Many thanks to Grove Press for review copy. All images are © to their respective owners.
The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy: Kliph Nesteroff: 9780802123985: Books