A comprehensive history of American stand-up comedy, from vaudeville to Twitter.
At the beginning, Nesteroff, a former stand-up comedian and host of Classic Showbiz Talk Show, makes two important assertions. First, he sets out to dispel the myth of the tragically flawed funnyman who uses comedy as a way of hiding his insecurities. While there is some truth to the trope, not all comedians fit the stereotype of the tragic clown figure. Second, Nesteroff states that comedy does not age particularly well. It is an art form very much of its time, one that is not typically designed for posterity. It’s a worthwhile distinction, because while the author describes the acts of the comedians he profiles, clearly explaining their differences and similarities, he is careful not to excerpt too much of their actual acts. A good comedian is principally judged by his peers, and Nesteroff reclaims the legacy of many of the older, forgotten comedians. For instance, the name Shecky Greene has long been shorthand for out-of-touch and dated comedy, but Nesteroff restores some of Greene’s credibility by showing how his contemporaries considered him “one of comedy’s great nonconformists” and a “genuine comedian’s comedian.” Developing out of vaudeville, stand-up comedy was officially created by Frank Fay, who began emceeing in between acts to entertain the crowd. Nesteroff’s narrative follows the form through the mob-run nightclubs of Las Vegas and Miami Beach, radio and TV, and the emergence of comedy-specific clubs in the 1970s. The author skews toward midcentury comics with only a passing mention of the new millennium, but this is in part because that was when comedy was a business and culture unto itself. The high stakes of comedy at its peak is perhaps best evidenced by the purported assassination attempt on comedian Jackie Mason in 1966. Anecdotes, firsthand recollections, and gossip like this are what distinguish Nesteroff’s history as a definitive volume.
A lively, raucous, and immensely entertaining love letter to the funny business.