The Comedians (2015)

Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of books involving show business, with a special emphasis on the very bad and the very sleazy.

Not too long ago, a social media superstar professionally known as “Fat Jew” (real name: Joe Ostrovsky) briefly became the most hated man in comedy when accusations of blatant joke thievery threatened his big professional launch. Comedians weren’t just angry that Ostrovsky had become successful using other people’s jokes without credit; they were apoplectic. The comedy community resembled a pack of torch-wielding villagers angrily confronting a reviled comedy Frankenstein crudely stitched together with attitude, swagger, and the flesh of more talented comedians.

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From the outrage stemmed from Ostrovsky’s comic larceny, you’d imagine that joke stealing was a rare and unforgivable transgression. Yet The Comedians, Kliph Nesteroff’s page-turning exploration of a century of American comedy, makes it clear that he is far from an aberration in the world of American comedy.

As Nesteroff tells it, there have always been characters like Ostrovsky in comedy who are reviled both for their success and their shamelessness. In earlier eras these hated figures occupied vaudeville stages, early television, and nightclubs, rather than Instagram or Twitter. The author makes it equally apparent that there have always been purists and rebels who see comedy as a medium for truth-telling and social commentary, just as there will always be careerists and opportunists for whom comedy is primarily a means to an end.

So while the names and media and eras all change, much remains the same. Whether the “funnyman” in question is the once extraordinarily popular Eddie Cantor or Milton Berle, the guys at the very top are often the target of hatred and envy from everyone further down the food chain, particularly those at the bottom. And because a lot of funny people are raging assholes, that anger and resentment was often justified. The Comedians amply earns the subtitle “Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, And The History Of American Comedy.”

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The borrowing/stealing of not just specific jokes but whole personas (to put it in WTF terms, comedians purloining other comics’ “essence”) is another connective tissue stretching from vaudeville to today. Even Woody Allen arrived at his own original voice only after first channeling Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, and Elaine May in his earliest days as a stand-up comedian.

The idea that comedians could, and should write their own material based on their own lives and experiences didn’t really take hold until fairly deep into the development of stand-up. In the days before YouTube and Twitter, it was a whole lot easier to steal material and get away with it. This thievery stretched from vaudeville to radio to television, whose first king, the widely despised Milton Berle, doubled as the king of the joke thieves. It then moved on to comedy clubs, where the lightning-fast, coke-fueled brain of Robin Williams raced crazily from topic to topic, sometimes with the help of jokes he subconsciously (or consciously) picked up from other comedians.

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The Comedians reminded me of Mike Sacks’ essential And Here’s The Kicker and Poking A Dead Frog, which make for terrific companions to Nesteroff’s book. More than just a collection of revelatory interviews with some of the greatest and most original comic geniuses, these volumes aspire to do nothing less than document the curious and maddening entity known as the comic mind.

Like Sacks’ books, The Comedians suggests that the urge to make people laugh borders on a pathology for many comedians, and that the curious men and women who set out to make their living through laughter tend to be, on the whole, troubled and depressed, jealous and self-destructive, and quite possibly addicted, or cross-addicted, to one or more of the following: sex, gambling, alcohol, cocaine, and perhaps most disastrously, fame.

The book follows in the footsteps of Tony Hendra’s largely enraging history of baby boomer comedy, Going Too Far, which suffered from a distinct excess of authorial ego. Hendra seemed intent on correcting what he seemed to see as the unforgivable dearth of attention and praise paid to his own career. He also apparently wanted to prove to his generation of badass, anti-authoritarian rebels that television was the enemy (particularly Saturday Night Live and Lorne Michaels, who comes off as a cross between Satan and the ultimate sell-out) and anything worthwhile happened live, in front of audiences hip and informed and righteously stoned enough to have angrily hurled their television into dumpsters. Nesteroff isn’t deluded enough to pretend that television doesn’t matter. Instead, he’s savvy enough to acknowledge that for much of the last half-century, television mattered more than any other medium, in terms of influence and scope. Unlike Hendra, Nesteroff doesn’t bring an agenda to the task of chronicling 20th-century comedy, just a deep frame of reference and a preternatural level of knowledge about funny business.

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Of course, no book can definitively chronicle something as vast and complicated and ultimately unknowable as the history of American comedy over the past century. A big part of organizing a book this ambitious involves figuring out what to prioritize, and Nesteroff makes some choices that are as bold as they are surprising. So while a lot of the big names and seminal developments are chronicled, a lot of the book’s most compelling passages consist of weird detours, like the man who would become Rodney Dangerfield adopting that outlandish stage name to avoid repercussions after getting busted for a home-improvement scam.

The Comedians is never afraid to go obscure. It’s a history of American comedy where the now-obsolete Shecky Greene takes up considerably more space than Eddie Murphy, one of the most successful comedy stars of the last century. Nesteroff seems more concerned with collecting and compiling the best stories, and Shecky Greene’s story is a hell of a lot more interesting than Murphy’s, if less known. Albert Brooks, one of the legends of contemporary comedy, doesn’t get as much ink here as his father Harry Einstein, a Greek dialect comedian known as Parkyakarkus.

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That’s probably because while Albert Brooks’ life and career are more important than his father’s, good old Parkyakarkus scored maybe the single greatest death in all of comedy. The show-business lifer keeled over and died mere moments after killing at a Friar’s Club Roast. Those are the kinds of stories Nesteroff is attracted to, and his book is full of them. He finds in men like Greene and Parkyakarkus something approaching the bleeding but vital soul of American comedy. History is often written both by, and about, the winners, but Nesteroff is intent on giving the beautiful losers of comedy their due. The Comedians is not perfect, but it does represent an astonishingly assured and compulsively readable exploration of an impossibly vast topic.