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.
were comedy records, by Franklyn Ajaye and George Carlin. Kay’s daughter said Wilson “loved to help people who he thought were outside the mainstream. That’s why he named the company Little David. It was always the little guys’ rights he wanted to fight for.” It also helped offset the conservative route of the television show. Little David released two of the most influential comedy records ever recorded, Class Clown and FM & AM, both featuring stark language by George Carlin. “It’s an
comedy festival said that both channels were “misled by the Comedy Boom and junk-bond euphoria of the late 1980s into actually thinking they could each make a go of it.” In order to salvage some of the investment, the two channels merged on December 19, 1990. They became known as CTV (Comedy Television) and a month later emerged as Comedy Central. The Boom was over. The years between 1991 and 1993 were a depressing time for those comedians who’d been convinced it would last forever. Gary Mule
technology, cultivating a loyal cult of listeners as hybrid comedian-broadcasters. Part comedy, part talk show, podcasts helped sell tickets when their stars traveled the country doing stand-up. The Onion’s website A.V. Club made a nice analogy, comparing the new podcast proliferation to the comedy record craze of the early 1960s. In March 2010 Scott Aukerman and a Wall Street investor founded Earwolf, the first “podcast network.” It provided the space and equipment and produced individual
jokes on a cruise ship. Jack Carter says, “Harvey died at sea, and at the time he and his wife were estranged. The cruise ship called and said, ‘Your husband, Harvey, died. We have the body on ice. Should we hold it or should we fly it back to New York?’ Harvey’s wife wasn’t too thrilled and said, ‘Oh, well, few people knew this, but Harvey always wanted to be buried at sea.’ She got rid of him that way! Here’s a Jew from Detroit who never saw a boat in his life. They dumped him in the ocean. And
client, Saks as a client.” Writers like Maurice Zolotow loved Lindy’s. “Lindy’s was where we went after midnight. There was a talented, a frantic, a hedonistic, a beautiful generation of show people. The clinking and clattering of silverware and dishes reverberated and the babble of conversation became amplified so much it was deafening. At Lindy’s the service would completely break down during such crises and it was then that the waiters became arrogant, nasty, insulting. Many out-of-town