1. Groucho & Me, Groucho Marx (1959)
Comedy, it has been said time and time again, is a serious business. Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx echoes that sentiment in the opening sentence of his memoir about the meager beginnings of the Marx brothers, when he observes, “The trouble with writing a book about yourself is that you can’t fool around.” It should come as no surprise to Groucho fans that he goes on to spend at least as much time offering up one-liners as he does delving into the history of how he and his brothers—Leonard (Chico), Arthur (Harpo), Herbert (Zeppo), and, in the early years, Milton (Gummo)—slowly but surely worked their way through the vaudeville circuit, eventually becoming the toast of Broadway before transitioning to film and taking Hollywood by storm. In spite of Marx’s lack of interest in linear storytelling, and his desire to get laughs rather than give specific details, Groucho & Me nonetheless provides an invaluable first-hand look into the process of creating comedy for the stage and screen during the first half of the 20th century.
2. How To Talk Dirty And Influence People, Lenny Bruce (1965)
Given Lenny Bruce’s reputation as one of the most controversial yet significant stand-up comedians of all time, he could hardly have selected a more appropriate title for his book than one which parodies Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help tome, if only because—as Bruce clarifies repeatedly within his writings—his tendency to talk dirty won him far more enemies than friends. Originally published as a series of articles in Playboy, Bruce’s reminiscences of his childhood and his early pre-comedy careers (he worked as a farm hand and served a stint in the U.S. Navy) reveal that his nonconformist tendencies began well before he ever set foot on a nightclub stage, but the book also provides Bruce with the platform to describe the evolution of his act, plus his personal philosophies on sex, drugs, religion, and government. Inevitably, the topic of freedom of speech is explored in detail, with Bruce getting specific about his court battles over obscenity charges, but his occasionally satiric look into how much he suffered for his art helps clarify how he helped blaze the trail for today’s stand-ups to speak their minds onstage, making it a must-read for fans of filthy comedy.
3. Going Too Far, Tony Hendra (1987)
The British-born Tony Hendra got his start as half of a “moderately successful” comedy team with Nic Ullett, doing “bargain basement Beyond The Fringe” material. After he became one of the heavy hitters at the National Lampoon, this experience was enough to qualify him as the magazine’s de facto show-business guy; in this capacity, he helped spearhead the Off-Broadway revue Lemmings and played John Lennon on the standout track on the Lampoon’s first comedy album, Radio Dinner. He later achieved big-screen immortality as Ian Faith, manager of Spinal Tap. At the center of his book Going Too Far is a fascinating account of life at the Lampoon during its great days in the early ’70s, with detailed profiles of such cult legends as Michael O’Donoghue (with whom Hendra formed a tight friendship that went very bad), Doug Kenney, and Henry Beard. It’s wrapped inside a sharp critical history of how the smart-sophomoric humor favored by the ’60s generation infiltrated and took over the culture, through Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, groundbreaking stand-ups like Lenny Bruce, and Second City. Hendra celebrates these artists as cultural guerrillas, while also detailing the ways some of them, such as the San Francisco group The Committee, fell apart through pressures and complications brought on by chasing the largest possible chunk of the mass audience. Those same pressures eventually destroyed the Lampoon, and Hendra, who saw the magazine as providing “an alternative to television,” was not thrilled to see it displaced by a TV show, Saturday Night Live, that he accuses of sucking up to the very audience he thinks his heroes sought to challenge.
4. It Only Hurts When I Laugh, Stan Freberg (1989)
Stan Freberg grew up dreaming of joining the ranks of the great radio actors and comedians, only to arrive in Hollywood just as that kind of radio was dying at the hands of television and rock ’n’ roll, two cultural phenomena he never comfortably embraced. He got his start doing cartoon voices alongside such living legends as Mel Blanc, then moved on to writing and performing the Time For Beany puppet show on TV. (He says the show’s creator, Bob Clampett, was so cheap, he used to “borrow” other people’s parked cars to use as office space.) Freberg finally hit it big by creating his own genre of comedy records that parodied current trends in music and entertainment, but the radio show he got out of it was unable to revitalize a dying medium, and CBS’ offer to give him his own TV show did not survive the executives’ first look at his pilot script. Freberg may have had his biggest influence on the culture at large when, after satirizing advertising in such records as “Green Chri$tma$,” he started his own ad agency and redefined the art of seducing consumers by making them laugh; if he sees anything painfully ironic about this, he keeps it to himself. His autobiography overflows with good stories, but it adds up to something more: a portrait of the artist as a scrappy young man who doesn’t fit into any of the trending media patterns of the day, but who is funny, and who proves that sometimes, that’s enough.
5. Daddy’s Boy: A Son’s Shocking Account Of Life With A Famous Father, Chris Elliott (1989)
Former SNL cast member and David Letterman writer Chris Elliott is no stranger to bizarre multilayered comedy. Befitting his surreal work in Get A Life and Cabin Boy, his autobiography Daddy’s Boy is a faux-memoir in the style of Mommie Dearest, a tell-all by the bitter child of a famous parent revealing dirty secrets behind the jovial and likeable public face. Chris Elliott, the son of Bob Elliott from the comedy team Bob and Ray, writes exaggerated scenes of comedically abusive parenting: being forced to dress exactly like his father (bald wig and gold-toe socks included) and a birthday party centered around audience participation, Chris’ least favorite aspect of comedy. Bob also contributes chapters, which stand as rebuttals, but then devolve into describing his summer vacation in Maine, entirely ignoring his son’s outlandish claims. It’s both a show-business memoir and a wry satire of cashing in on unknown revelations.
6. Born Standing Up, Steve Martin (2007)
For a man synonymous with the words “wild” and “crazy,” Steve Martin is a famously shy, quiet, intensely personal figure. So part of the appeal of Born Standing Up, Martin’s essential 2007 memoir, lies in the novelty of one of comedy’s most brilliant and enigmatic figures opening up his life and career to public scrutiny. While Born Standing Up is an unmistakably personal book, it’s personal in a meticulous, controlled way. It is above all else an exploration of the birth, development, and eventual death of a stand-up act and persona that changed comedy. To outsiders, Martin’s ’70s-era shtick must have erupted out of nowhere in an avalanche of happy feet, wacky props, banjo vamping, and deliberately bad jokes, but Born Standing Up illustrates how all of the seemingly random elements of Martin’s act emerged meticulously over time through practice and an almost scientific approach to reading an audience’s emotions and instincts. What appeared from the outside to be a manic burst of inspiration was ultimately as controlled and choreographed as a Russian ballet. Beyond exploring the craft of postmodern comedy deeply and intelligently, Born Standing Up offers a fascinating, though limited, glimpse into Martin’s psyche. The book is haunted by Martin’s pervasive loneliness: at not being understood by his father, at being a boy dreamer practicing magic tricks in a sad bedroom, and, ultimately, at achieving massive but empty success. That sense of emptiness ultimately inspired Martin to leave the field, but first, he gained the experiences and the insight to write one of the definitive books on comedy.
7. Bossypants, Tina Fey (2011)
Tina Fey’s comedy writing doesn’t really lend itself to confessionals. On 30 Rock, her avatar, Liz Lemon, is specific enough to be well-drawn—and vaguely autobiographical. But the show put laughs above intimacy, to great effect. In her memoir Bossypants, Fey gets more personal, relating her life story in fits and starts with humor, insight, and a gratifying willingness to state her mind. The book follows Fey’s career from socially awkward, gay-friendly high-schooler to socially awkward, romantically struggling college student to YMCA receptionist, and then to the heights of Second City and beyond. As a career primer, Fey’s book offers practical advice in everything from dealing with a male-dominated writer’s room (they keep pee in jars) to handling photo shoots (enjoy them! and you don’t get to keep the clothes) and creating a critically lauded cult show while trying to make a wildly successful crossover hit. Fey also includes anecdotes about her childhood, her marriage, and an ill-fated sea voyage. Funny, thoughtful, and curiously heartwarming, Bossypants manages to work its lessons in on the sly, and Fey’s clear love for the world she’s invested her professional life in comes through clearly on every page. Her straightforward descriptions of what it takes to get sketches on the air when working for Saturday Night Live offer a glimpse into the show’s inner workings, and remind aspiring comedy writers that perseverance and patience matter as much as the rare flash of genius. In one of the book’s highlights, Fey walks readers through the history of one of her biggest contributions to pop culture, showing how a mild physical resemblance to a controversial vice presidential candidate led to one of the biggest satirical coups of SNL’s storied career. The main takeaway from all this is that Fey has worked to get where she is, making the most of opportunities that came her way, and refusing to let other people’s expectations hold her back. It’s good advice.
For five essential books about TV, five essential books about film, and five essential books about popular music, see our book Inventory.