Veteran media critic Nachman (Raised on Radio, 1998, etc.) profiles a score of the most innovative comedians from the post-WWII era.
The author’s research is meticulous and impressive. Nachman listened to stacks of old LPs, watched countless hours of low-fidelity videos, read dusty celebrity biographies and memoirs, paged through old magazines, and presumably cranked miles of newspaper microfilm. He has also chased down many of his still-living subjects to see what they’re up to. Some were cooperative (Bob Newhart), some surly (Shelley Berman), some bitter (Vaughn Meader), some “unavailable” (David Frye, whose voice-mail message features his Al Gore impression). In a longish introduction, Nachman argues persuasively that the 1950s, far from being the Decade of Cultural Darkness, instead “helped light the way for many of the cultural eruptions that followed.” He begins with Mort Sahl, who declined requests for an interview, and ends with Joan Rivers, whose career, the author says, was fueled by “a fear-driven ferocity.” In between are portraits of comedians as disparate in style and substance as Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce, Nichols/May and Ernie Kovacs, Phyllis Diller and Godfrey Cambridge (who receives short shrift here). It’s notoriously difficult to write seriously about funny people, but Nachman can fashion an arresting phrase: Diller, he says, looks like Big Bird’s mother, and most of the Lenny Bruce wannabes “are still diddling in the bathroom and refuse to come out.” The organizational pattern of his essays, however, is numbingly monotonous: snapshot of career (with many quotations from critics and from the subject’s routines), childhood and youth, update, final assessment. He reports some goodies, though: Cosby once sucker-punched Tom Smothers, and comedians love to accuse one another of stealing lines and shticks.
Part reference, part anthology, part social history—a modestly successful experiment in genre splicing. (25 b&w photos)